“We’re spending a month in Nicaragua!”
The look of uncertainty upon the faces of many of our friends was clear when our travel plans were outlined. Nicaragua? With kids? Isn’t Nicaragua dangerous?
Nicaragua is a country with a long history of brutal dictators, foreign interference, and revolution. There is also a wildly varied landscape, complete with Pacific beaches, volcanoes, massive lakes, and Caribbean jungle. There are three major cities; Managua, Granada, and León. Our flight landed in Managua, and it’s recommended to have preplanned transportation to either Granada or León.
León was our destination of choice and I highly recommend spending time there with a family. There’s a lively central park, a fantastic children’s playground, and it’s safe. Food and accommodations are inexpensive, especially when cooking for yourself. Our accommodation was a homestay in central León, and it was a worthwhile experience. We got to know a Nicaraguan family, and it helped to add a personal story to our stay in Nicaragua.
Things to do in León:
1) Take Spanish lessons
If you’re visiting for a week or more, taking half-day Spanish lessons at Leon Spanish School Nicaragua is a great way to learn about the city, the language, and the history! Excursions to areas around León can be planned through the organization as well. Our children took lessons here as well, and came away with enough Spanish that they could order their own ice cream cones (“helados”)!
2) Visit the Parque Infantil
Let your kids burn off steam at the playground just west of the Parque Central. It’s open after 2:30 from Tuesday-Sunday. Grab an ice cream, and consider leaving a few Cordobas in donation to the park too. The locals are known to travel an hour by bus to get here, as it’s one of the only playgrounds in León.
3) Climb the León Cathedral
The Cathedral borders Parque Central, and is undergoing exterior renovations to the façade after decades of decay. For $3 (free for kids!), you can climb a very narrow staircase to the roof to get a wonderful view of the city, including many surrounding volcanoes. Bring socks because they make you take off your shoes, and the roof can become quite warm.
4) Travel to Las Peñitas beach
Head to the western border of León and catch a local bus from the Sutiava Market to Las Peñitas. The bus is cheap (roughly $0.75USD), and if you have kids, someone will give up their seat for them. It’s usually a packed ride, but worth the experience to see how the locals travel everyday. The bus visits Poneloya beach first, but wait until it turns around and heads south to Las Penitas before getting off. The last bus returns to León at 6:00.
5) Visit the Museum of the Revolution
Get a first-hand account of the 1979 revolution from a war veteran in this one-of-a-kind museum. Our guide spoke very little English, so a good understanding of Spanish is certainly an asset here. Plenty of black & white photos document the revolution in a building that stands as it must have after the revolution.
6) Experience the San Jacinto Mud Pots
This is a geologic phenomenon that occurs due to lava occurring very close to the surface of the earth, connected to the volcano Telica. Follow the trails around the boiling mud pits and enjoy the other-worldly appearance of this unique landscape. Entrance fee is $5 for adults (free for kids!).
7) Climb Cerro Negro
Yes, kids can “volcano board” too! Hire a tour guide to take you to Cerro Negro, a nearby active volcano. The climb took about 90 minutes with our kids (age 5 & 6), but it’s easily done. There are a few great vantage points for group photos, and you can see many other nearby volcanoes. Bring long-sleeves and pants for your kids, as the typical coveralls that adults wear won’t fit. Do the afternoon trip: you’re climbing in the shade most of the time, and you will probably see the sunset as you leave the volcano!
La Isla de Ometepe
La Isla de Ometepe is another great place to visit with kids. The large island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua is formed by two volcanoes, Concepción and Madera. It’s a tourist destination for both foreign travellers, and Nicaraguans. Taking the ferry from San Jorge (near Rivas) is easy, but be prepared for rough water. We stayed in Moyogalpa, the main village on Ometepe. This provided easy access to a nice playground, and two adequately stocked “supermercados” (supermarkets). However, it meant that travel to other places on the island took longer than if we’d stayed elsewhere. I’d recommend staying in Moyogalpa or Altagracia (the second largest village) with kids.
Things to do with kids on La Isla de Ometepe
1) Visit Punta Jesus Maria beach
Take a local bus here if you’re in Moyogalpa. This beach is located near Moyogalpa, and features a long point of volcanic sand that stretches out into the lake. You can see both volcanoes from the tip, providing an interesting viewpoint. The beach has many small huts that you can use freely. There’s not a lot in the way of services here, apart from a small bar, so bring your own lunch and snacks.
2) Hire a driver to take you to see the ancient petroglyphs
La Isla de Ometepe was frequented by Mayans moving north to Mexico more than 1000 years ago. There are many known petroglyphs (carvings in stone) on the island, but they are spread out. Visit the ones at Hotel Finca Porvenir, and you’ll see a calendar carved into stone, among others.
3) Swim in El Ojos del Aguas
A fresh spring, located in the middle of a jungle on a volcanic island? Yes please! This natural spring has been harnessed into a large swimming pool, with a shallow area for kids to enjoy. Swing like Tarzan into the pool, drink from a coconut (with local rum for parents!), and swim in the clear, cool water. Watch for the street dogs, who won’t hesitate to hover closely if you’re eating. We came here after visiting the petroglyphs. The driver for the afternoon cost $40, which was a steal considering that tours were often priced at $80.
4) Sunset at the pier
The sunset at the pier in Moyogalpa is magnificent, as it would be anywhere on the western side of the island. This is also the time of the last ferry, so watching them load it to the brim is also worth watching.
5) Playground in Moyogalpa
If you’re travelling with kids, you know that they can only go so long without some independent play. This playground is at the end of the main street, near the church. There is an ice cream shop nearby as well.
6) Explore Charco Verde
The Charco Verde Nature Reserve is a great afternoon to spend hiking around a lagoon on the island. Visit the Butterfly Conservatory, and hike about 3 km around the lagoon. You’ll spot many geckos, birds, and maybe even howler monkeys! The local bus stops here, but it can be quite a wait (up to an hour!) to catch a return bus.
Nicaragua isn’t a typical family tourist destination, but that’s even more of a reason to visit it. We loved the friendly people, experienced diverse family adventure opportunities, gained functional Spanish language skills, and spent time in Central America on a budget.