Getting to Know Nicaragua - Part 1: León & Playa Popoyo

To be honest, I booked a flight to Managua, Nicaragua for these reasons: to surf, to escape Chicago’s aggressive winter, and to focus on building my businesses at a cheap yet awesome-looking coworking/coliving space called NomadLife.

Aaaaand of course, I was more than pleasantly surprised, but blown away by the country!

I spent the first two days working from La Biciecleta Hostel in Managua (def recommend) and practicing a very limited/embarrassing set of Spanish phrases with the locals.  Then Chris met me in Managua and we set off on an epic, action-packed 9 days to get acquainted with this crazy country.

The Spanglish craft cocktail bar is the first and only cocktail bar in Central America listed in World’s Best Bars; they’ve even been invited to  The Broken Shaker in Miami to serve their cocktails.  Most Nicaraguan cocktails are on the sweeter side or rum-based which isn’t really my thing, but this place was cool and the cocktails were well-executed.  Also made buddies with two hilarious  70-year-old Nicaraguan men and had a pretty fun evening with them (I WAS SAFE).

A must-visit in Managua: Chureca Chic Boutique & Cafe. It’s a collective supporting female entrepreneurs and artists in Nicaragua, offering yoga and handmade pieces for purchase.  They also have coffee, and leche soya (soy milk) for nice lattes 😛

Exploring León & Surrounding Volcanoes

Leon is the political and educational capital of Nicaragua. It’s a totally walkable city and despite a decent backpacker presence, Leon hasn’t catered to the tourist/‘gringo’ lifestyle too much. So everything felt very authentic… raw Nicaraguan life.

We enjoyed just walking around Leon, and of course climbing to the roof of the Catedral de León.

The volcanoes near Leon are a major attraction for the city.  We visited the Cerro Negro volcano and did a 45 minute hike up the volcano, and then volcano-boarded down.  Super unique way to see the volcanoes and learn about the region.  We went through Barbaro Tours — cool because it was just $30 each for Chris and I and we were the only two on the tour (rather than other groups that were 10-15 people each).  We got a really personalized experience and were able to ask more questions about the area.

Volcano boarding is really funny, literally sledding on volcanic rocks.  It’s a nice time, but once you do it once, you don’t really feel the need to run up the hill and repeat, if you know what I mean hah.  The ride out to the volcanoes is interesting itself; you’ll get a glimpse of the vibrant, rural Nicaraguan life.

What I would’ve liked to do in Leon:

I would’ve really liked to see a baseball game here but there weren’t any when we visited.  Also, if we had more time we could’ve gone out to the beach town Las Penitas.  They have surf lessons and such . But we had beaches in our future so we just chilled in Leon.

Where we stayed:

Nica hostels are super cheap, with decent ones for around US$8 per night.  But when you’re two full-time working Americans, and want to ball it up together, why not ball it up.  There’s super unique, luxe hotel options for not that much more $$!

We stayed at La Posada Del Doctor, around $60/night.  This boutique hotel is super cool with a great courtyard to hang out in and drink wine.  Breakfast was  included (gallo pinto) and it was well-executed.  The hotel wasn’t that good with helping out on recommendations or hooking up rides/tours (it was a little bizarre, most places like this are dying to hook you up with their partner tour groups/drivers).  That was the only downside really.  I’d stay here again though.

Where we ate:

Lunch: Katu – awesome vibes, good drinks (and Toñas when in doubt).  Has live music sometimes.

Dinner: El Bodegon – Great mojitos in a lovely backyard, the food is delicious and actually comes out quick (dude. Nicaraguan restaurant service is SO SLOW)

Dessert: Kiss Kiss Ice Cream! Really cool art in the shop and the ice cream was actually amazing.

We also went to the Nicaraguan supermarket El Union for some wine and snacks one night, and it was crazy busy with both locals and tourists and the line was SO LONG.  It’s a funny experience though.

La Bodega

Yum frozen cocktail at La Bodega 😛

Katu for Lunch

Then we took a really long miz shuttle to Popoyo

I planned this whole trip for Chris and I, and given my day-to-day life generally involves logistical challenges, a trip planned by yours truly cannot go without at least one logistical error. I booked an amazing place in Popoyo, a remote beach destination. Which was an excellent decision. But somehow I missed the whole “leon-is-4-hours-away-from-popoyo” and instead of taking a taxi for $120-140 USD from Leon to Popoyo, Chris and I decided to go to budget route, saving a net $30 bucks to take a shuttle instead.

I mean, we did get from A to B, but we spent half a day (almost 7 hours) getting passed around Nicaragua from shuttle to shuttle, and eventually the shuttle company just put in a taxi to Popoyo. If we were true backpackers with as much time as we wanted in the country, we’d just take the cheap chicken busses to Managua, then to San Juan Del Sur, and then up to Popoyo. But since Chris had a limited time, it wasn’t ideal to spend most of a day during a 9-day trip in a hot shuttle/on the sides of roads waiting for the next shuttle in the never ending string of shuttles.

But anyways, we made it. And Popoyo was heaven.


We had the most lush few days in Popoyo and fell in love with the chilled-out vibes. There’s really nothing here but a few restaurants and surf lodges. It’s remote. You can take a ride into town if you stay longer, but really everyone is just there to get away, surf, do yoga, read, and C H I L L. So of course we didn’t leave our beach paradise the whole time.

I booked us a couple nights at SUYO, a simple boutique hotel comprised of 6 beach cabanas with a yoga deck and communal kitchen. Only $60/night which we felt was worth it. The rooms don’t have much but a comfy queen-size bed, a sink and mirror and some storage (and a beautiful handmade roof). We literally stayed next to the waves—sometimes a big wave crash would wake us up at night but we didn’t mind because it was so cool.

And in the morning we’d slide open a door and watch the ocean. Can’t beat it.

Since we were only there a couple days we didn’t bring anything to cook, and after experimenting with a couple other food options, we settled on having pretty much every meal at the neighbouring 99 Surf Lodge. The rooms look like Abercrombie storefronts and they serve healthy meals and delicious pizza (pizza approved by Chris).

It’s only a $10 minimum restaurant spend and you can enjoy their infinity pool all day! We of course enjoyed a few poolside mojitos and tonas.

We also went down to Magnific Rock which overlooks the beginner surf break on Popoyo Beach. The food and cocktails here are not good (also heard meh reviews from other travellers we met here). But the views are awesome! Definitely enjoy some tonas here, can’t hurt.

We loved Popoyo because it’s not very developed yet (but on the south end of the beach there’s this American resort that looks straight out of Southern California. Meh).  Popoyo will eventually turn into an American-ized beach destination (Nica also has a 3-year plan to build a marina there…), so we really appreciated getting this raw Nica beach experience before it’s taken over.

By the way, you can stroll down the beach and stop in lil shacks to buy beers (and you can even take them with you down the beach)…

In the Part 2 Nicaragua post I’ll detail our adventures on the island of Ometepe and our last few days in Granada. You won’t believe what a range of experiences we jammed into just over a week.

Bottom Line:

Nicaragua is apparently what “Costa Rica used to be”, some say as far back as Costa Rica in the 70’s and 80’s.  Property value is going up here every year though, and likely a tourist rise with Granada celebrating its 500th year as a city in 2020 (it’s apparently the oldest city in the Americas) so try to visit before everyone in the world catches on 😛