And here we go.
Disclaimer: This is written with the assumption that you are renting a car and have full access to your own vehicle with 4 Wheel Drive. Click here to see what we have to say about transportation, vehicle safety, and where to rent a car from in Nicaragua.
1. Stroll the Streets of Granada
Granada gets the bulk of the attention for travellers in Nicaragua, and it's obvious why. A tourist-friendly town (although not quite a full fledged tourist-trap quite yet), Granada presents itself as a great starting point for new travellers to Central America as there are a fair amount of English speakers available and a good deal of somewhat kitschy / somewhat Nica-authentic traveler-friendly things to do.
|The Garden Cafe|
For food, The Garden Cafe is a great place to start. Although you can expect American prices ($$), you can also expect American standards of service and food quality, which is hard to come by in Nicaragua. The coffee is consistently great, baked goods are made fresh on site (and come warm) - there are even blueberry muffins, which is a straight up luxury in Nicaragua - and there are a variety of menu options, breakfast to dinner, smoothies to sangrias (all are great). The decor is simple and fresh, the honour-system library is fair (mostly Harlequins, but you can find a few quality books in there), and of course there's an actual garden on site. But our family's favourite part about The Garden Cafe is the kid-friendly atmosphere: there is a kid's table with a chalkboard wall, some books, and a good variety of toys for little ones to play without feeling like they're "in the way". We love it, they love it, we all ate and drank well.
Word on the street is that Kathy's Waffle House is also pretty fantastic, with amazing waffles (go figure) and curly fries. Check it out.
We did the Mombacho Cigar tour (free), and our 2 year old enjoyed dancing around the Colonial style house ("castle"), and was welcome to wander with me (mama) while Daddy asked our tour guide Danny questions about the cigars and purchased some of his own.
|Mombacho Cigar Tour|
The famous yellow Cathedral of Granada is more to look at from the outside than the inside, but check it out anyways. The beach is yucky as are most (but not all!) in Nicaragua, and the town square is fun to wander - keep your kids in baby carriers or hold them close - although remember, not at all safe at night. Our kids loved the horse and buggy tour, which cost us $8 USD for the whole family after a little back and forth.
|Calle Calzada at Night | A cause for prayer|
Calle de Calzada at night is an ugly beast full of children begging and women prostituting and old white men slithering around with young locals. It's heartbreaking so be aware of that before eating there at night - or avoid it entirely - but don't let it ruin your trip. Be sure to join World Vision in their quest to end the sexual exploitation of children in Granada and point out any child prostitution that you see going on at or near your hotel.
Granada is bright and colourful, smelly and loud, and we recommend it for families with caution, street sense, safety, and a little money to spend.
2. Explore Leon Like a Backpacker
Leon is cool.
|Leon Cathedral (not "THE" Cathedral, but a cool one)|
If all you're doing is the city, plan your trip to arrive around 10 or 11 AM. Leon only takes a few hours and it's a bit of a trek depending on where you're coming from, but you can do breakfast at home, catch Leon for lunch, and make it back for dinner.
Park your car at the marketplace for C$30 paid to the gentlemen yelling at you as you pull in (you can trust him, he wants your money in exchange for watching your car). Stroll over to the Leon Cathedral, and if you did as I mentioned and arrived in the morning, you'll be able to make your way through the Cathedral and admire the architecture and the fact that there are birds flying around the ornate ceiling. It's something else and both of our girls loved running around it uninterrupted - just watch out for the entrance to the tombs downstairs as it's an immediate vertical drop with no warning but a small rope. It's at the back of the Cathedral.
When you leave the large doors of the Cathedral, you'll enter into the central plaza, which is a beauty and its own character in your Nicaragua story. You can't help but stand and stare at the swarm of birds flying in unison around trees and cathedrals, stopping only to be fed by local women and children who presumably spend their day in that way. Picture Mary Poppins' "feed the birds" set on the backdrop of an old worn down Cathedral from 1747 and you've got the scene nailed.
Take a seat on a bench or mosy over to El Sesteo, an American/Nica cafe (American prices) set right in the centre square, and enjoy a fairly priced drink with some gallo pinto while you plan your day. Locally there are dozens of hostels to choose from, most notably Bigfoot Hostel, famous for pioneering Volcano Boarding down Cerro Negro - something you definitely shouldn't do with young kids, but would be a great adventure for teenagers. We didn't stay at Bigfoot but have heard great things.
We spent a good long time perusing the Museo de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Guardian ($1USD per person, kids 2 and under are free) which is a great small art museum and kid-friendly as far as art museums in Central America go: there are central gardens for kids to explore and even a pond with three turtles you can spend time at while the grownups take turns actually looking at art. We were also given a set of pencil crayons (then traded down for crayons), a pad of paper and a clipboard which we used to imitate the shapes and colours we could see in the art on the walls. There were also windows to climb and tables to crawl under but it was just a matter of time before we got scolded by security for that kind of behaviour.
|Hayley at El Museo|
The collection featured a Picasso display, all of which were prints but high quality and good to see anyways, as well as an excellent variety of high quality Central American original art, and renaissance-style paintings from the 1700s which were being preserved in apparently a pretty brutish way, our artist-friends decided (no climate controlled cases, no glass, and no seismographs?! Oh my!).
Twice a day there is an air raid alarm that sounds off (7 AM and 12 noon) and will scare the snot out of you. Don't worry, it's just a test. Twice a day. Every day.
3. Visit an Active Volcano (Volcan Masaya)
Masaya Volcano is a great quick trip for those days when you need to fit in something touristy but don't want to spend too much time destroying your children's sleep schedule. The cost is $4 USD per person, kids under 2 are free, show up anytime before 4 PM, and you can drive up on your own. You need to sign a disclaimer that waives everyone but you of responsibility for a crater rock hitting / destroying your car... kind of the risk you take for parking beside an active volcano.
The time limit for looking over Masaya is 5 minutes because the gases are strong and it feels like you're smoking about 12 cigarettes at once (I would imagine), but you can pay to take a guided hike with or without a horseback ride, depending on the age of your kids. This hike is around the other craters and not directly by the mouth of the volcano.
Masaya also has a guided night tour ($14) which my husband and his friend did and recommend strongly, but not with kids. Many local tour companies offer to take you to the Masaya tour for the insane price of $50USD and up, but if you have your own vehicle, pay only $14 at the gate and don't be a sucker. You need to call Masaya directly. The phone number is 505-2528-1444.
|Masaya at night - panoramic by John|
4. Hike Mombacho Volcano (Volcan Mombacho)
Mombacho Volcano (non-active) is a stunning rainforest and offers a few options for an awesome hike. I wrote a pretty thorough review on Trip Advisor for how to get up the volcano in the best way for your travel group (in short, if you're a young family, rent a vehicle with 4 wheel drive and drive up it).
|Lilian loved the army bus up to Volcan Mombacho! But we still recommend taking your own SUV.|
Our family benefitted most from the El Crater trail, but 2 other more difficult trails are available (read about them here). It took about an hour and was an easy to moderate hike with the kids in baby carriers (we used the Ergo for our 2 year old and Baby Bjorn for our less than 1 year old). We strongly recommend warm clothing for all, especially babies and kids.
|Cool foliage that I have no proper way to appreciate.|
The views from the top are pretty amazing, and the foliage up there is pretty cool, too. The kids will also appreciate the sulfur hot spots where the volcanic smoke comes out of (just holes in the ground along the route at the top). On one of our hikes, we heard monkeys up here, and one of our friends saw a sloth! He said it looked like a ball in a tree, but still, he saw a sloth.
|Look, we did it with a whole pile of kids!|
5. Take A Canopy Tour at Mombacho Volcano (Volcan Mombacho)
There are a whole handful of canopy tours available in Nicaragua, which makes sense considering half of it is a rainforest for a large chunk of the year. Tour companies offer tours from your hotel, but if you have the transportation, just take yourself there.
|Cafe Las Flores canopy tour|
There are 2 at Mombacho itself:
Our friend Xander took the canopy tour found at the bottom of Mombacho which was the perfect way to pass the time while we waited the hour it took for the army truck to arrive. For this the cost was about $28 and it seemed like a great tour for people who are new to adventure tours.
We took the Cafe Las Flores canopy tour which was halfway up the volcano (if you're taking the army bus, it's the first stop where you get off - if you're driving, it's where the Cafe Las Flores cafe is). The cost here was also $28 and it was pretty awesome - the tour didn't go super high up in the air (we weren't flying over rainforest) but rather through the rainforest and offered a few adventure games - swinging a tarzan rope 30 feet in the air, walking a tightrope and zipping straight down a line - so we'd really recommend it. We didn't go here with our kids (our friends watched them), but we were told that children are welcome to ride as long as they don't mind being strapped to a guide (which ours would definitely not enjoy).
6. Visit Maderas Beach (Playa Maderas)
Again, you'll need a vehicle with 4 wheel drive for this (Trust us... after doing it with 4 wheel drive twice, we tried it for the third time but without 4 wheel drive. No dice.) Maderas beach is a super-gorgeous fairly untapped-by-tourists beach found in San Juan del Sur, about 15 minutes away from the downtown. If you're a crazy hippie camper you could probably camp there with the other crazy hippies, but we had some friends who tried and an equally crazy hippie camper... who was drunk... ruined their time there. Womp womp. Instead they stayed at the beach hostel, which for $30 boasted no running water and practically-cardboard walls, as well as a dying pig squealing and hanging from a tree outside their window.
Food is available there - two restaurants on-site - and it's pretty good quality although priced for Americans.
If you can make it in the evening, you probably should.
7. Stroll The Market: Huembes Market (Mercado Huembes)
There are a few markets we checked out in Managua (Mercado Orientale, Mercado Israel and Mercado Huembes) but the market we would most strongly recommend for families is Mercado Huembes. Map here. Taxi drivers will know where to go. We think it's a good idea to keep kids in baby carriers here for a couple of reasons, the biggest being that kid's hands are busy and stuff in these markets is fragile and easy to knock over (or accidentally steal - not great for the local economy). Mercado Huembes is a travel destination for sure, filled to the brim with cheap souvenirs, but the prices are actually comparable to souvenir prices anywhere else in Nicaragua and I'd still say there were more locals than tourists. It's here that we found our beloved hammock from a Montreal Canadian (that got kicked out of Canada) - it was really, really nice to meet a Nicaraguan speaking English to us! - and our friend Xander found his Nica-branded machete here, too.
It's busy, and a good idea to keep your money hidden safely, but it's not dangerous like Mercado Orientale and it's not as spread out as Mercado Israel. Compare prices, avoid buying from vendors that sell meat and produce together, and enjoy spending a little cash. Don't haggle too much, it's disrespectful and if you can afford something, you might as well pay out. More on that to come later.
Also, if you know much about Nicaragua, you might be proud to know / scared to know that our family braved Mercado Orientale on day 2 of our trip. And came out alive. Bam. (Not recommended.)
8. Visit The Fruit Market on Top of the Mountain That We Can't Really Explain Unless You Have A Car
This place is just cool: drive up Carraterra Sur to the top of the mountain and you'll find a few stalls beside each other selling produce. The produce is pretty decent quality (except for the bananas, which were weirdly squishy) but what I like about it is that it's run by a group of women and it seems to be operating on a cooperative basis, although I didn't get a clear read on it.
9. Ride a Mototaxi
A mototaxi is a dirt bike with a box on the back that you can ride. It's cheaper than a taxi and more fun than walking. This is a good way to get around short distances and the kids love it. No seat belts of course, so use discretion and hold onto your little people tightly.
|This guy jacked up his with a sound system.|
10. Double Up: Visit Apoyo Lagoon (Laguna de Apoyo) & San Juan de Orient
Laguna de Apoyo (Apoyo Lagoon) is an old volcano crater that got filled in with rain water, apparently, (anyone able to back that up? Internet?) and offers a few really cool B&Bs, hostels and day-trippin' stops for you to enjoy the lagoon. Swimming is hit and miss: on one trip it was great, another it was windy, another it was rocky... I'm not sure why the drastic change came and went.
|Breakfast at Casa Aromansse|
We stayed at Casa Aromansse (decent price / nice accommodations / poor hospitality from owner / amazing food) and did two day trips at Monkey Hut (cheap / arrive early to get a good spot / BYOHammock / good food).
Monkey Hut offers kayaking included in the price. Make sure you wear your life jacket, it gets real choppy out there.
|Em & Jer Kayaking at Laguna de Apoyo|
On your way out and back to civilization, stop at San Juan de Orient. San Juan de Orient is a pottery village located outside Masaya, and you can actually go into potter's homes and buy their pottery directly from them. Classes are offered to learn how to do pottery, but we didn't take any because we didn't feel they would be age-appropriate - but we found the learning experience pretty amazing just by wandering around and asking questions.
Pottery prices range but don't bother comparison shopping; if you see something you like, buy it. We bought a pile of unglazed items for $1 USD each, and a few pretty painted and glazed vases for $4 - $6 each. And they came wrapped in local newspaper which made the gift giving experience pretty cool when we got home.
|Lilian's pottery find in San Juan de Orient|
Purchases directly support the local economy and most of the potters we met are women or young men. Our friend Jeremy even joined in a pick up soccer game and Lilian (our 2 year old) wandered her way into a potter's house who let her play with her clay while she made vases. It was a really memorable trip and we think you'd feel the same way if you let yourself wander around.
I Wish I Could Say We Did 11. Conquer Estili
If you can do this, please tell us how, because although we drove the 6+ hours from Managua and wandered the downtown, we got lost.
But isn't getting lost the coolest? We found a sweet restaurant + made our way into an organic coffee production plant which was basically an irreplaceable experience that changed the way we look at coffee forever.