October 22, 2023
Heading to Nicaragua?
Get ready for a stunning, raw landscape rich with culture and energy. The political hardships the nation has endured on and off over the years mean that for travellers, you get to experience this country in a very authentic way – and don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe. There are almost no tourist traps and if you venture off the tourist trail, you’ll get to immerse yourself in the beauty of Nicaragua.
The most common route you’ll see tourists take is to fly into Managua, hop right onto a shuttle heading south into Granada, and then a few days later migrate down into the town of San Juan Del Sur. The journey takes about 3-5 hours, depending on traffic and road conditions.
Granada is known for having gorgeous, well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture and is located near Lake Nicaragua – Nicaragua’s largest freshwater lake. It has been the main stop on the tourist trail for many years and you will find plenty of English speakers and a price point to match its popularity. San Juan Del Sur is located further south, near the Costa Rican border. It was once a fishing village that now boasts a vibrant nightlife and epic surfing at the 10+ beaches nearby. A digital nomad favourite is the nearby Playa Maderas. Prices are the highest in this beach town than anywhere else in the country and again, you’ll enjoy both the pros and cons of being in a tourist hotspot.
These are the two most famous travel stops, but Nicaragua is big and there’s so much more to see. When my partner and I arrived in Managua a few weeks ago, we were determined to veer off of the typical route. So, we went north. Here’s how it went:
Sitting less than a 2-hour drive north of the Managua airport is a colonial city with a rich culture and vibrant energy: León. This city runs for its people, not tourists, and you can feel it as soon as you step foot on the samosa-stoned streets. The city is home to over 21 universities – yes 21! – so you’ll see young people laughing and walking about, set against gorgeous Spanish colonial architecture, with tiendas and excellent food on every corner. The indoor mercado is the most impressive market I’ve seen in the country!
I definitely recommend checking out the León Cathedral; for $2 you can take a tour up to the roof where you can take stunning photographs and get a 260-degree view of the city.
As for accommodation, we stayed at Bigfoot Hostel. There are many different hotels to choose from in various price ranges, but we decided to save some money and stay in the dorms there. For only $12 a night, we could spend our savings on Toñas -the local beer!
I recommend two days to tour around the city, visit the Sandanista museum (León was the birthplace of the revolution!), and get your fill of the delicious local food. There are also some great bars in the area – like Gecko’s Bar. After that, we had our fix of the city life and were very ready to hit the beach.
Luckily, Bigfoot offers tons of shuttles for a reasonable cost. We chose one to Playa Tesoro since it was the closest beach and only $5 each way! As of now, it heads out twice a day around 10am and 5pm. We met the driver, Erlon, at the front of the hostel with our bags and hopped right into an air-conditioned van for a 45-minute drive to the beach. It was located near a beach town called Salinas Grandes (named “Big Salt” after the salt farms surrounding it).
Erlon spoke English and taught us all sorts of facts about the area as we drove. The road out was a bit bumpy, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary for Nicaragua. And when we arrived at Playa Tesoro? I couldn’t pick my jaw back up off the floor. You emerge from the trees and dusty road onto a green oasis of palm trees, flowers, ocean breeze, and the sound of waves.
Playa Tesoro has an eco-resort by the same name, which is where Erlon dropped us off! It’s made up of about 10 casitas and cabañas sitting about 25 steps from the beach, two pools out front, and a beachside restaurant. Guests can use all of the facilities for free, and day trippers can use the Casita Roja pool, the restaurant patio (with a pool table!), showers, bathrooms, and the lookout tower for $10 a day.
We heard about this place from a friend, so we pre-booked Casita Amarilla for two nights! We probably could have gotten by with a one-bedroom Cabaña for $25 since it was just two of us, but we decided to spoil ourselves with the private pool and air conditioning. It was well worth the $120 a night and we can’t recommend it enough. The high-speed wifi and fully loaded kitchen were a major bonus. I do imagine the cabañas must be cool enough inside with the ocean breeze coming through.
After dropping off our bags, we headed straight to the beach with a Toña in hand.
The beach is what really takes the cake. It has to be the only beach this side of the country that appears completely untouched. We later discovered that besides a handful of vacation homes and fishermen riding by on motorcycles, you can walk for miles on the black sand beach without seeing a soul (except maybe a cow or two). It’s a slice of heaven.
You can also rent towels, yoga mats, boogie boards, and surfboards! I’m no surfer, but from what I heard the surf break up-island is incredible for advanced surfers and for me, the waters out front were perfect for boogie boarding and swimming. My partner’s highlight was that the staff kindly allowed him to grab a coconut from one of the palm trees and they even helped him cut it open! Fresh coconut water with a bit of ice – can’t beat that on a beach day.
There were so many great things about this hidden gem, not to mention the tasty (and affordable!!!) tipica food and drinks served in the restaurant. Erlon hinted that there may be a pizza oven in the works, too.
In fact, we had such a great time we ended up extending our stay to 5 nights.
One thing that was clear by the end of our stay was that this place is too beautiful to stay unknown forever; we fully expect to come back in a couple of years to find it filled with surfers and families alike. In fact, we’ve already decided to come back for a full week next time so we can report back to you!
Playa Tesoro is genuinely a must-see on your trip through Nicaragua – especially if you’re looking for a truly relaxing vacation through untouched Nica beauty.