1. Don’t go volcano boarding…
You might think, “That sounds awesome — where else could I go volcano boarding?” The truth is, it’s not nearly as fun as it sounds. You hike up a bare volcano slope in the burning sun for 45 minutes to only ride down in a minute or two. By the time you figure out how to steer the board you will already be at the bottom. And if you still decide to go, do not forget to pull up the scarf onto your mouth or you’ll end up with gravel in your teeth and an ash moustache.
… but do hike the active Masaya Volcano at night.
The last tour of the day at Volcano Masaya National Park leaves at about 4 pm. The hike up the paved road to the top of the volcano crater takes about an hour-and-a-half and leads you through the midst of a volcanic landscape with fields of black porous rocks formed in previous eruptions, and small trees scattered in between. Once at the top you get to look into the smoky crater that opens right below you. If you’re lucky and there isn’t too much smoke, you can actually see lava glowing red in the crater after it gets dark. Hitch a ride with the guides back down to the entrance.
2. Don’t go to San Juan del Sur…
Even though this is the most famous on the Nicaraguan Pacific coast, the beach in San Juan is far from being spectacular. The town is stuffed with tourists and tourism-oriented business, and nothing is “authentic.” Every night, electronic music blasts from the beach bars, prostitutes line the streets and drug dealers whisper their offers in your ear. With the morning comes the entire town’s hangover: zombie-like figures drag their feet in search of breakfast or their hostel, their faces half-asleep half-drunk, digested alcohol smell and sweat filling the air.
… but instead surf in Tola.
El Astillero, Las Salinas and Popoyo are little towns that haven’t yet experienced the tourism boom. There are a few hostel or eco-resorts in each town, a couple of locally run restaurants serving fresh seafood, no crowds on the beach and great waves for surfing. El Viento Papagayo, a constant stream of wind from the great lake of Nicaragua blows towards the ocean almost all year long, mixing the waters and ensuring waves no matter the time of the day and year.
3. Don’t hand money to children…
You might feel guilty for not handing a coin to a child who weaves a perfect grasshopper figurine out of a palm tree leaf and hands it to you as a “gift.” But these children stay out of school because their cuteness helps them collect money and many are addicted to glue sniffing at the age of 10 or 12. The only person you’ll be making feel better by handing money to children is yourself.
… but do buy tortillas or bananas from adults.
You can help families improve their situation by buying food from adults who sell them on the streets, near markets and bus stops. A huge percentage of Nicaraguan’s economy is made up of informal sales and they’re the sole source of income for many families. By buying homegrown and homemade articles from adults you are helping parents put food on the table and keep their children in school.
4. Don’t go to Managua…
You will most likely arrive in Managua by plane or bus and you might feel tempted to stay and explore the city. But there isn’t much to be explored. Unfortunately, almost 90% of the original city buildings were destroyed in the 1972’s earthquake and the reconstruction has been hectic. As a result, Managua doesn’t have a “center” which could be visited easily, and the few attractions that are left are scattered around the city. The heat and fumes make getting around unbearable.
…but go to Estelí, Matagalpa or Masaya instead.
Each of the towns is within an hour to two hours’ distance from the capital. The three are much smaller towns and all still preserve a Nicaraguan feel with adobe houses painted bright turquoise, pink, yellow and all other colors of the rainbow. Each has a beautiful Central Park, where people hang out with families and kids in front of a beautifully preserved cathedral, snacking on platanitos and drinking frescos. Only a short bus ride from Estelí is La Garnacha — an ecological community from where you can hike to mirador San Nicolas overlooking green hills. You can easily get to Cascada Blanca waterfall near Matagalpa and bathe in the natural pool below it. From Masaya you can escape to the cleanest Nicaraguan crater lake, Laguna Apoyo. Listen and look out for howler monkeys which like to sit in the mango trees.
5. Don’t only eat in Western-looking restaurants…
If you’re in Nicaragua for your vacation, you might feel like you want to treat yourself to lunches and dinners in nice restaurants. Many of the restaurants will indeed have a selection of international foods served on spotless white ceramic plates. But you can eat those back at home, can’t you?
…try street food!
Instead, venture out of the main touristic streets and walk into the first restaurant with plastic chairs you find and order the gallo pinto with queso and maduro. Try pupusas, thick tortillas filled with cheese and grilled on a hot surface on almost any street corner. If you dare, get some vigoron, steam-boiled yucca with meat and vegetables or baho, red meat boiled with yucca and plantains, from a street vendor; both will be served on plantain leaves for a plate.