One of the highlights of our year has been our quarterly (and sometimes more frequent) trips north to Nicaragua. As we planned our year in Costa Rica, one problem presented itself almost immediately: everyone we spoke to recommended that we pass the year on successive 90-day tourist visas, and each new visa would require leaving the country. Though daunting at first, this challenge quickly became a great excuse to make frequent trips to Nicaragua. In the process, we’ve driven around a volcanic island on mopeds; watched giant tortoises lay their eggs on the beach at night; and explored the beautiful colonial city of Granada, all the while enjoying the kind people of Nicaragua and their lovely lilting Spanish.

Whether you’re looking to make a trip out of a Costa-Rica-visa run, or you simply hope to visit Southern Nicaragua, we highly recommend these three regions for a trip of five days or more.

Ometepe

The dual-volcanic island of Ometepe tops our list of favorite places to visit in Nicaragua. After a short taxi ride from the border, we took the hour-long ferry to the island’s quaint port town of Moyogalpa. With reasonably-priced moped rentals on the island, Ometepe turned into a playland for exploration: we swam in the beautiful spring-fed pools of  Ojo de Agua, heroically (or so the kids would say) hiked to top of the impressive San Ramon waterfall in a rainstorm, kayaked through Rio Istiam and enjoyed several nights at one of our favorite farm-stay/guest houses in all of Central America, Finca Mystica. Though each of these destinations and activities perfectly completed our days, the highlight of Ometepe for the grown-ups was humming down the patterned, concrete-paver roads, surrounded by rainy-season green, with stunning volcanoes in the background and a humming child on the back of each of our bikes.

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Liam and Reid (and their parents) loved exploring Ometepe on motor scooters.

Granada

This past January the colonial city of Granada proved to be another great base for our family’s exploration of Nicaragua. Most of our days were spent wandering the streets past houses with brightly-painted facades and formidable carved wooden doors, snacking from carts in the busy Parque Central and gazing at old church facades or passing horse carts. We took day trips to play in the the geothermally warmed waters of Laguna Apoyo, to ride on chicken buses, to explore the vast and bustling markets of Masaya, to peer down at glowing lava in Masaya volcano at night and to take a horse -drawn carriage tour of the city. Granada is hot, and we felt fortunate to be based in Hotel La Polvora, a beautiful, restored, colonial home-cum-hotel with a salt water pool and very friendly staff.

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Granada’s streets are a rainbow of brightly painted facades.

The Southern Pacific Beaches

The Southern Pacific Beaches of Nicaragua are well-known by surfers but also turned out to be a nice destination for our family. In October, we briefly visited the fishing village of El Ostional and neighboring La Flor Reserve, where we took a night tour and were fortunate to see several olive ridley sea turtles lay their eggs. On our way back to Costa Rica, we enjoyed a hostel stay in the bustling surfer town of San Juan del Sur. More recently, we splurged and rented a car to explore several beaches near there, including expansive Playa Grande. Our favorite stretch of sand was the beach right near where we were staying: Playa Maderas, with its cool water, formidable waves, constant cast of entertaining amateur surfers and impressive tide pools.

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Reid and his friend Isabelle redirect water during low tide at Playa Maderas.

Before You Make a Visa Run to Nicaragua

If you can afford it, plan to make a full trip out of your visa run to Nicaragua and keep these tips in mind:

  • Crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua involves several individual fees ($8, then $1, then $12, while going from Costa Rica to Nicaragua; and $1, then $2 on the return). Some agents–particularly those encountered when leaving Nicaragua–don’t offer change, so come with lots of single dollar bills.
  • To enter Costa Rica, you must have a printed ticket proving you will be leaving the country within 90 days.
  • Both countries stamp visas into your passport upon arrival. Typically visas are for 90 days, but that’s up to the agent to choose the length of your stay.
  • Though all municipal water in Costa Rica is potable, that is not the case in Nicaragua. We travel with a compact U.V. treatment system, and have occasionally resorted to chlorine drops to treat all our drinking water and to avoid purchasing (and then throwing away) lots of plastic bottles. We’ve never been sick in Nicaragua.
  • In Costa Rica, we prefer to use public buses–they are safe, comfortable and provide a window into local culture. In Nicaragua, we also enjoy buses but take advantage of the fact that taxi rides are much more affordable (for example, a taxi from the border at Peñas Blancas to San Jorge, where you catch the ferry for Ometepe, is around $20).
  • In both countries, U.S. dollars are accepted (and sometimes preferred) in most cases. Come with enough cash in hand to last you until you can get local currency at an ATM.
  • The cost of pretty much everything in Nicaragua is lower than in Costa Rica.

Enjoy Nicaragua. We find it to be a beautiful country with an interesting political history, very friendly people and a great variety of destinations to visit.