Granada, often hailed as Nicaragua’s gem, boasts a rich history dating back to its founding in 1524. Despite enduring a tumultuous past marked by pirate raids and colonial powers, its resilient population thrives. The city’s vibrant streets, crammed with brightly painted houses, weathered ruins, and bustling markets, make for a dynamic base to explore some of Nicaragua’s most iconic sights. The city offers convenient access to the Islets of Granada, breathtaking volcanoes, lush tropical rainforests, and a plethora of outdoor adventures for thrill-seekers. With so many attractions, costs can soon mount but with our DIY itinerary to Granada, Nicaragua you’ll discover savvy ways to stretch your budget.
For a hassle free DIY itinerary to Granada, Nicaragua, the best option is to rent a car. While it may not be the most budget-friendly option, at approximately $50 per day, a hire car gives you the independence to explore without relying on guided tours. Contrary to what you might expect, organised tours in Nicaragua are expensive and are little more than transport and site entry fees. If you hire a car and pay the relevant entry fees, you will save a fortune.
We learned this lesson firsthand. After we had booked several ‘tours’, we realised that it was more economical to invest in our own wheels. By reserving your rental in advance, you’re likely to secure a more favorable rate. Check out deal prices on Rental Cars here.
Now you have wheels, get ready for your DIY itinerary of Granada and its surroundings. This city and surroundings have so much to offer.
Your DIY itinerary to Granada, Nicaragua
With 19 volcanoes spread across the country including 7 active ones, Nicaragua smoulders with geothermal activity. It’s no surprise therefore that two of the unmissable attractions in the vicinity of Granada are volcanoes.
Mombacho Volcano, at 1,344 meters, reigns supreme as the patriarch of volcanoes in Granada. Far from a traditional, rock strewn volcano, it looks more like a forested hillside but do not be deceived. There’s some serious geothermal activity bubbling beneath the surface.
As you ascend the vertiginious, uneven path, the volcano occasionally plays peek-a-boo amidst the shifting cloud cover. Modest abodes find shelter beneath swaying palm trees, while chickens leisurely roam the moss coated paths.
The mountainside is a rich tapestry of dense forest, with trails crisscrossing its slopes and multiple craters hinting at its explosive past. As you explore, you may stumble across narrow rock canyons, cascading waterfalls, and geothermal sinkholes. For some of the trails, a guide is mandatory but hiring a guide will give you a much deeper appreciation for the flora and fauna of this fiery ecosystem. Enormous butterflies flutter amongst brightly hued flowers and hundreds of plant and wildlife species reveal the immense diversity of the region.
In stark contrast to the abundant life on one side of the mountain, we crest a hilltop to scenes of armageddon. Below us sprawls a vast expanse of lifeless forest, where tree trunks lie in desolate repose on the ground. Twisted branches, parched and frail, carpet the mountainside in a post-apocalyptic scene. It serves as a sobering reminder of nature’s immense power and destruction.
Costs to visit Mombacho volcano
We paid $60 a head to visit Mombacho which included the truck ride up the mountain, a guide, entry fee and round trip transportation. We booked our tour with a local operator which was better value than reserving through Get Your Guide. They charge £68.05 per person for the Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve tour.
On the other hand, if you hire a car and drive you will save a ton of money, it will cost a few $ for fuel plus;
- $20 per person entry fee which includes the shared truck ride up the mountain. You can opt to walk for just $5 but it will be a hard slog up 5km of almost vertical hillside.
- Or if you wish to drive to the highest car park, you will need a 4 x 4 and nerves of steel with gradients that make your head swim. You will pay just $20 for the car plus $5 per person.
- If you wish to hike the Puma trail, you will need to hire a guide which can cost up to $22. However, you can hike the El Crater trail without a guide
The other volcano not to miss on your DIY itinerary of Granada, is the bubbling cauldron of Masaya. Located just 30 minutes from Granada, Masaya is an active volcano and one of the few in Central America where you can witness actual lava flow. The optimal time to visit is at sunset, offering the most breathtaking views of the seething cauldron of molten lava. Keep in mind that this spectacle only becomes visible after dark, so be sure to stick around for the show.
There is a $10 USD entrance fee at the park entrance (unless your package includes entry) which includes access to the volcano and a small museum. Even for those who aren’t typically fans of museums (like us!), it’s still worth a visit to gain a deeper understanding of the region and volcano formation.
Once inside the park, a paved road climbs through fields of hardened lava, where massive chunks the size of cars dot the landscape. A sign reminds you that the last major eruption was in 1772 but the rocky hillside now provides little indication of the devastation it witnessed.
Unlike many other volcanoes in Central America, this road takes you up to the very edge of the crater. Park the car and explore the trails that lead to higher view points where you can truly appreciate the smouldering crater. Clouds and steam drift across the surface in a mesmerizing display, hypnotising those who come to admire the spectacle.
As dusk turns to night and you peer over the railings into the abyss, you’ll witness the furious, swirling lava as it boils and froths. It’s an absolutely captivating sight and an experience you should not miss on your do-it-yourself itinerary of Granada, Nicaragua.
Costs to visit Masaya Volcano
While GetYourGuide charges around £35 per person for this tour (excluding the entrance fee), if you happen to find Julio on the main square, you can book transportation for around $25 per person. This includes the $10 entrance fee although hire a car and you will pay only $20 plus fuel.
Islets de Granada
The Islets de Granada are an archipelago of volcanic islands just a few miles from Granada. The archipelago was formed when nearby Mombacho blew its top and spewed rocks and lava into Lake Nicaragua creating over 300 tiny islands. Little more than lumps of rock, these are now home to restaurants, a hotel and luxurious villas, the perfect escape for those seeking a refuge.
How to get to the Islets of Granada
There are several ways you can get to the Islets but you absolutely do not need to book an organised tour.
Walking to the Islets of Granada
Tours to the islands on Get Your Guide cost around £40 a head. If you talk to any of the touts in town you can do this trip for much less at around £40 per couple. However, this is one of the easiest places to visit on your DIY itinerary of Granada, Nicaragua. So easy in fact that we walked.
Simply follow Calle La Calzada from the main square to the Malecon of Granada (locals recommend you do not travel this road at night). Once you arrive at the lake front turn right and follow the lakefront. It’s a pretty rundown walk past derelict beach shacks but there’s plenty of shade to protect you from the sun. If you continue to the end of the road, you arrive at a cluster of restaurants where you can pay for a boat trip.
Note you can also access the Islets from Marina Cocibolca but this is a much longer walk and if you drive, there is a $10 charge for parking. Zoom in on the map below for the walking distance which is a pituresque through the forest!
If you do not wish to walk, chicken buses travel between Granada and the Islets from the bus station shown on the map below. You can flag a bus down in the street and ride for just $20 Cordoba (about 50p) so this is a fun way to travel to the islands.
Clearly if you hire a car, it will be a short drive to the Islets and it is free to park where we boarded the boat. The parking fee only applies at Marina Cocibolca.
Costs for a DIY boat trip of the Islets of Granada
You won’t struggle to find someone to take you out on the water. We probably had 30 offers by the time we arrived at the boat docks. The going rate seems to be $5 per person for an hour tour. Note, you will need to be selective if you do not speak Spanish as not all the boat owners speak English. Even without narration, this tour is a lovely way to admire bird life, lily pads and gorgeous homes on private islands.
Be sure to jump on a boat at point D on the map rather than nearby Marina Cocibolca. Not only is that port more remote with just two restaurants on the side of the marina but the boat trips increase dramatically in price. There they wanted $40 for an hour so 4 x the amount we paid on the other side of the peninsula.
The tour of the Islets of Granada
The tour involves a who’s who of who visits or owns each of the islands. Although some of the island mansions are impressive, the star attraction is the scenery and wildlife though. Despite being minutes from a grotty beach, it is a stunning wilderness of lily pads, fishermen hauling their catch, howler monkeys, tropical birds and other wildlife.
It is hard to believe that the serene channels that snake through the islands are so close to the city.
Kayaking around the Islets of Granada
You can also hire kayaks should you wish to paddle through the islets. Simply chat with one of the touts who will approach you on your walk. You should be able to hire a kayak for around $10 per person but if you prefer to go with a guide you can book a guided tour here for around £30 a head on Get Your Guide.
Enjoy a cold beer at Puerto El Rayo
Once you have enjoyed a tour of the islands, stretch your legs and walk around the peninsula to the area of the Marina Cocibolca (E on the map). The restaurant Puerto El Rayo is a cool place to enjoy a cold beer. It has a big open air top deck with great views over neighbouring islands where monkeys roam freely. It also has a swimming pool where you can chill and cool off should the need arise.
Don’t forget to pack a rain jacket (we snagged this two pack for just £7.99, so you can both rock matching ponchos!) however. While we soaked in the awe-inspiring vistas of Mombacho Volcano over a cold beer, a sudden gust of wind caught us off guard. Waves started to crashed to shore and ominous clouds enveloped the volcano. In no time, we found ourselves dodging mangoes hurled from neighbouring trees. Mischievous monkeys on the adjacent island seemed equally perturbed as they scurried in search of shelter. Time to return to town!
A day at the beach
From Granada, there are a variety of beach destinations to visit, most allegedly less than a two-hour drive according to Google Maps. While San Juan might be appealing for those seeking livelier action, we opted for the tranquility of Popoyo. By taxi, this journey costs around $80 each way but it is much easier and cheaper with a car rental. You should also be able to park for free at one of the beachfront establishments.
The route to Popoyo beach
From Granada, we head south towards Rivas. Immediately after Puente de Ochomogo, we veer onto a dirt track for the remaining 36km to the coast. While parts of Route 62 have a semi-paved surface, the journey alternates between gravel, dirt, and tarmac. Although work is underway to pave the route, progress is slow and arduous, with constant bumps, roadworks and other hazards.
The journey however offers a genuine glimpse into Nicaraguan life. The route takes us through lush green landscapes where motorbikes carry people, shotguns, machetes, spades, ladders, and various other ominous items. Enormous trucks, laden with produce, rumble past ramshackle corrugated shacks leaving dust clouds in their wake. Vibrant coloured buildings nestle in the shade of palm trees and we watch fascinated as locals spill out of church. Some churchgoers dress in sparkly attire as if ready for a night out. It’s a whole different world, where farmers still work the land on bikes or horse-drawn carts. Road workers have minimal protective gear, and cyclists wear wellies, their faces a mix of determination and weariness.
The beach itself is a long expanse of wilderness home to a smattering of dwellings that clinging to the cliffside. Surfers brave the swells, waiting to catch the next big wave whilst we wander the beach marvelling at how quiet it is. We park for free at Magnific Rock (do check that it is ok before you leave your car) and enjoy cold beers in the bar before we make the return journey.
If you do not have a 4 x 4 it is probably best not to leave your return until late if you travel in rainy season as this is not the best equipped road for a rainstorm. There are no streetlights and lots of hazards so you certainly do not want to be on this road in the dark.
Laguna De Apoyo
Deep in the heart of Nicaragua, Laguna de Apoyo is a hidden gem that attracts visitors with its stunning natural beauty. Just 30 kilometers from Granada, the lagoon is a freshwater crater lake nestled within the volcano’s caldera. A massive volcanic explosion over 23,000 years ago, created a deep, emerald pool that is now one of Nicaragua’s most treasured natural assets. It is surrounded by lush forests and is a magnet for nature lovers, adventure seekers, and those simply seeking a tranquil escape.
It will take you around 20 minutes to drive to the lagoon from Granada and you will need to pay for access to one of the beach clubs around the lake. We paid US$6 each plus tax for entry to Laguna Beach Club which includes access to the lake and swimming platforms, use of kayaks and sunbed hire. There is a restaurant on site and anything you wish to eat or drink is simply added to the tab that you settle at the end of day.
Other ways to get to Lagune De Apoyo
If you do not have a car, you can book a tour on Get Your Guide for around £45 but it includes Masaya Volcano and some of the Pueblos Blancos (see below).
If you want to spend a half or full day at the lagoon it pays to arrange transport (around $20 US) or self-drive. That way you can really sit back and relax on your own timetable.
Although Lonely Planet’s Central America book highlights the Pueblos Blancos as a place to visit, we found the villages deserted and ramshackle with little to captivate tourists. Maybe the deserted, tumbleweed atmosphere is a direct result of Covid but I would suggest you do not bother with the exception of Catarina and the Mirador at Diria.
The Mirador of Diria
En route from Granada, Mirador of Diria is your first stop. It is a intimate viewpoint positioned lower on the slopes of Laguna De Apoyo with beautiful views over the lagoon. There are a handful of deserted restaurants and bars during our visit on a Monday in rainy season. This does of course mean that you avoid having to pay the entry fee.
The Mirador of Catarina
You can also enjoy wonderful views over the Laguna De Apoyo from the Mirador of Catarina. It is considerably more commercial with a large, tiered terrace overlooking the lake. Several restaurants line the Mirador, behind which is a vibrant, cobbled square home to souvenir shops selling brightly coloured hammocks, blankets and other souvenirs.
It costs $20 Cordoba each to enter the Mirador de Catarina.
Where to stay in Granada, Nicaragua
Visitors to Granada are spoiled for choice with tons of charming colonial boutique hotels to choose from. Set around hidden courtyards and hiding behind ornate iron gates, these hotels are truly a delightful insight into a bygone era.
We booked Casa Bubu, just a short walk from Parque Central. The guesthouse is an unassuming whitewashed building with an ornate wrought iron gate that bars entry. As the hosts unlock the gate to welcome guests, you enter a spectacular garden oasis where the sounds of trickling water soothe the weary. The soft whirr of fans greets you and a bar that would not be out of place at Raffles invites you to sip on a decadent cocktail. Tropical flowers flourish in the sun dappled courtyard and rattan furniture in shades of deep red dot the patio. The piece de resistance is the generous pool overlooked by guest rooms. Just look at that pool!!
The French owners pride themselves on an exemplary guest experience and often linger to chat. Don’t leave in the morning without feasting on their magnificent breakfast of eggs, fruit and pancakes. Yummy!! We stayed 7 nights and still found it difficult to leave. I think I may even have shed a tear!
Rates for Casa Bubu start at £80 a night for a spacious suite with a seating area that overlooks the balcony or pool. There is ample wardrobe space and the bathrooms have huge oversized showers. We absolutely loved Casa Bubu and without a doubt, it was our favourite hotel of our travels through Central America.
Are you ready for your own DIY itinerary of Granada?
Ultimately, a visit to Granada, Nicaragua, promises an unforgettable experience. Its blend of historical treasures, natural beauty, vibrant culture, and warm hospitality creates a unique destination that caters to a wide range of interests. Whether you choose to explore the city’s colonial heritage, embark on an outdoor adventure, or simply immerse yourself in everyday local life, Granada offers something truly special for every traveler. Don’t miss the chance to discover this jewel of Nicaragua and create memories that will last a lifetime.