By the time my wife and I got to Nicaragua on our overland trip south from the United States with our 13-year old daughter and 10-year old son, the kids had eaten enough tacos in Mexico, climbed enough Mayan temples in Guatemala, heard enough about life in El Salvador, and seen enough banana plantations in Honduras. They were ready for a new kind of adventure – one fueled by adrenaline.
Here are some activities your family can enjoy together in Nicaragua.
Things to do with kids in Nicaragua:
Learn to Surf
Nicaragua has almost 200 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline (approximately 300 kilometers) with waves for all level of surfer. We took our first lessons in Pochomil, about halfway down the coast, and surfed our way south (at least, I tried to surf!) to the most popular beach town, San Juan del Sur, where there are plenty of surf shops to rent you a board, arrange a lesson, and shuttle you to the bays north and south of town.
Our favorite beach was Playa Popoyo. It is a huge stretch of gorgeous and mostly empty shoreline that had gentle swells that allowed us to stand up and carve the waves in no time.
Masaya and the Pueblos Blancos
The craft market in Masaya is the country’s finest display of the creativity and artisanship of its people. Even if you don’t buy anything, do not miss wandering through the market. It is a fabulous cultural experience. You’ll find handicrafts in brass, leather, carved wood, and colorful textiles, including Nicaragua’s most popular souvenir, hand-woven hammocks.
The surrounding villages, called the Pueblos Blancos (White Villages), are where you can visit the individual workshops to watch families work together generationally to produce what you see in the markets. Each village is known for something in particular, and many families will invite you into their home to watch them ply their craft.
Laguna de Apoyo
Ever swim in a lake formed in the crater of a volcano? That is exactly what you can do at Laguna de Apoyo, a pristine swimming hole formed when shifting channels of magma sealed off the crater of the now long extinct Volcano Apoyo. A swim in the clean waters is just what our kids needed to beat the afternoon heat.
Various establishments along the water’s edge charge daily rates to enjoy the floating docks, kayaks and stand up paddleboards, hammocks, and other facilities. Or you can choose to spend the night in a shared dorm or private cabana. After swimming in a volcano crater the next step is to spend the night in one!
Located less than an hour drive from the capital city of Managua, Granada, founded in 1524, is said to be the oldest city in North America. Its importance to Nicaragua through the centuries as a political and economic center and its location on the northwestern shore of the vast Lake Nicaragua made it a popular target for pirates sailing up the San Juan River from the Caribbean Sea. Despite numerous sacking and burnings, including several times at the hands of the notorious English buccaneer Sir Henry Morgan, much of Granada’s colonial architecture remains intact.
Granada is a great city to explore on foot or by horse-drawn carriage. Our highlight was the Iglesia La Merced, a church built in 1534, burned to the ground by pirates in 1670 and then rebuilt. Be sure to climb to the top of the bell tower for a spectacular view of the city. The Fortaleza de la Polvora, a squat and powerful looking old fort and powder storage facility now doing time as a museum with rotating exhibitions, was also impressive.
Parque Colon, the city’s central plaza, is a great place to end your tour and relax under the trees with a fresco de cacao (a traditional sweet drink prepared with milk, toasted cacao beans, rice, and cinnamon) and watch the pace of life in North America’s first city.
Granada is also a great place to base camp for day-trips. You can head to Las Isletas, a 365-island archipelago. There you can kayak secluded waterways or arrange to have a traditional lunch with one of the island families. Or you can choose Volcan Masaya. There you can literally drive up to the crater rim and peer down into the mouth of one of the most active volcanoes in the country.
Go Volcano Boarding
One of the most unique experiences on offer in Nicaragua is careening down the volcanic ash slopes of Cerro Negro on a makeshift toboggan.
There are numerous operators in the nearby colonial city of Leon (possibly the hottest place on earth) where you can arrange half-day trips to the active volcano with experienced guides. Most tour operators will provide overalls, googles, gloves, pads, and of course, your board.
The 60-minute hike up the mountain is made more dramatic by the numerous crevices emitting sulphurous gas and smoke. But the one minute spent speeding down the volcano’s slopes is more likely what your kids will tell their friends about.
Grand Canyon of Somoto
To beat the heat of the lowlands wind your way up into the hills of northern Nicaragua and to the town of Somoto. From here, you can arrange to spend a day floating, splashing and jumping in the deep pools of the Grand Canyon of Somoto.
This swimming hole, which is made up of a series of interconnected pools sandwiched between lush forest and steep canyon walls, was only “discovered” in 2006. So the town still has only a dozen or so hotels and is not a heavily touristed spot. All the better to enjoy your rosquilla, a crunchy circle of salted corn dough baked with cheese, in the town plaza after a fun day of river exploration while sharing your pictures of cliff bats and rare birds.
La Isla de Ometepe
Legend has it that a Niquirano indian maiden and a warrior from the enemy Nagrandan tribe fell deeply in love. They fled when their love was discovered and decided that the only way they could be together was in death. As they fulfilled their suicide pact an intense rain began to fall, flooding the valley and forming Lake Nicaragua (also known as Lake Cocibola.) The maiden lay back in her lovers arms and her breasts formed the twin peaks of Ometepe Island.
Science has a different theory of how the island was formed, and the twin peaks are actually two volcanoes – the active Volcan Concepcion and the inactive Volcan Maderas. In either case, do not miss Ometepe Island. It offers history, flora, fauna, volcano hiking, waterfalls, swimming holes, horseback riding, kite-surfing, and more, all in a relaxed and unforgettable setting.
Plan to spend several days putting your toes in the black sand of Playa Santo Domingo, cooling off in the spring fed waters of El Ojo de Agua, hiking either of the volcanoes, or just listening to the roars of the howler monkeys as you spend time volunteering with a local family on their farm.
Even getting to the island is an adventure – by ferry from the mainland town of San Jorge across the often choppy waters of the lake. But every swell you break draws you closer to the looming Volcan Concepcion and to an unforgettable visit to one of Central America’s overlooked gems.
About the author: Paul Carlino and his wife Rebecca drove a 1985 VW camper van 15,000 miles from Virginia to Panama with their two children in 2015-2016, before deciding to settle in the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, located in the central highlands of Mexico. Check out Paul’s blog for his thoughts on raising kids outside the United States, what it’s like to be underemployed, and dogs.
What do you think? I love to hear from my readers:).