Put Nicaragua on your travel to-do list for 2015. Sometimes unfairly known as the “poor man’s Costa Rica”, the country has a lot to offer every type of tourist, with the added benefit that it’s less expensive and less crowded than much of Costa Rica. The beaches are stunning, the surf is outstanding, and the infrastructure is better than you’re expecting.
Managua, the capital and main international gateway, is an easy 3.5 hour flight from Houston, or just under three hours from Miami. The beaches of Mexico might be a little closer, but you’ll get an entirely different flavor by flying just another hour south. In need of some beach relaxation time, I spent the better part of a week catching rays on the pristine Pacific beaches of San Juan del Sur recently.
San Juan del Sur – The Surfer’s Town
San Juan del Sur is the backpacker hub of southern Nicaragua, replete with hostels, beach bars and all the other traveler infrastructure you’d expect anywhere from Phuket to Zanzibar. While the region’s best beaches are a short drive away from the town, San Juan has a decent beach and gorgeous location, set at the center of a small bay.
While San Juan’s beach is great for lying out or a game of volleyball, the best surf spots are about a 30 minute drive away.
Things to do
First on the list: relax. This is not a place to come and keep a frenetic schedule. Beyond beach time, there are a large number of restaurants and bars to sample, all of which carry Nicaragua’s native Flor de Cana rum (try the 18 year). There are also a number of day hiking trips, and it’s possible to take an ATV tour.
If you have a rental car, use San Juan del Sur as a base to explore the country’s Southwest. Well worth the few hours’ drive is Granada, set on the shore of the giant Lake Nicaragua. Granada is one of the most charming spots in the country, with colorful colonial architecture evoking images of a once-forbidden Havana.
Places to stay
One of the best parts about traveling in Nicaragua is that luxury accommodations are within reach of most budgets. I spent a week at the boutique Hotel Alcazar, which is directly across from the beach. The hotel is simple and elegant, with amenities including wifi and an in-house bar and lounge. Spend a little extra to get a corner room with a balcony – a perfect place to relax, read or have a drink as the sun goes down.
Don’t wait too long to head south and experience this gem of Central America. With a rival to the Panama Canal under construction, the country will change dramatically in the next five to ten years. Go enjoy it’s sleepy, untouristed vibe while you still can. With business class fares currently under $1,000 from some U.S. cities, it’s affordable luxury all around.