Nicaragua was a spontaneous trip. We had had a family trip to Costa Rica planned for months – one last one-week vacation to end the summer. We didn’t have a lot planned other than relaxation at Four Seasons Costa Rica and a few excursions. But at the last minute my wife and both daughters dropped out – simply too many things to get done before school started.
So it was down to my son and me. We easily could have kept our Costa Rica flights and hotel booking, but the two of us have had a lot of fun adventures in the past, and we decided to go somewhere new (we’ve been to Costa Rica twice before). His criteria: 1) a new country; and 2) not a lot of travel to get there. The South Pacific was an option, as well as Central and South America. We almost booked Roatan, Honduras, as United had amazing flights via Denver that would have been perfect. But when I went to book I found that the well-timed flights were only once a week, and if we wanted to stay less than a week the flight schedule back was terrible. So it was back to the map.
We quickly focused on Nicaragua. It was fairly easy to reach from LA, it was a new country for us, and I had heard good things. Plus I knew that there wasn’t a lot of tourism, which is always a plus. I don’t want to go where everyone else is going.
Booking Nicaragua Travel
We actually had Nicaragua travel booked for spring break 2020, but obviously had to cancel. We still have a credit at Jicaro Island Lodge, but when I gave my son the choice of places throughout Nicaragua, he chose Morgan’s Rock in San Juan del Sur instead. And I had wanted to see the colonial town of Granada, so I added in a couple days there.
We booked flights on Avianca from LA to San Salvador and then to Managua. The only problem is that we were set to arrive at 10:25pm (there aren’t many flight options) and Morgan’s Rock was 2.5 hours or so from the airport. I didn’t think spending that much time in a car immediately following two flights sounded fun, so we booked our first night at Hotel Globales Camino Real near the airport and then arranged for Morgan’s Rock to pick us up at 7:00 the next morning. From there we would spend three nights at Morgan’s Rock, two in Granada (I booked Hotel Los Patios based on TripAdvisor reviews) and then fly back to LA.
Nicaragua Entry Forms
I struggled to find out what we needed to do in advance of our travel. On one website I found a link to this Nicaragua entry form and a note that it was required prior to arrival. It’s only in Spanish, but I completed it to the best of my ability for my son and me (on the same form) and then couldn’t submit it at the end, since the captcha wasn’t working (on Safari). So I opened up my Chrome browser and completed everything again and it submitted correctly. I printed out the bar code to prove that I completed it and…was never asked for it. Not sure if it made our arrival in Nicaragua faster because I had completed it, or whether we would have been turned away without it? Avianca also sent me many emails telling me I had to complete their online forms prior to Nicaragua travel as well, which I did.
Traveling to Nicaragua
A man on one of my flights called Avianca the world’s worst airline. I don’t agree. There were some annoyances, like their connection to TSA Precheck not working, and constant emails trying to upsell us on luggage (included if you have Star Alliance Gold status) and get us to upgrade to business class. Avianca’s business class isn’t impressive, so I was never tempted to upgrade. And I’m still fighting with them to get the frequent flier miles from one of our flights credited. Otherwise all of our flights arrived early, and the connection in El Salvador was easy. Onboard service was minimal but fine.
We were asked for our Covid vaccinations cards three times – at check-in in LA, boarding the Managua flight in San Salvador, and then again upon arrival in Managua. We weren’t required to have Covid tests (as of August 2022).
Immigration/customs were very fast. We had to pay US$10 each to enter the country.
There was supposed to be a shuttle driver from Hotel Globales Camino Real waiting for us with the hotel’s name on a sign. He wasn’t there. I had even emailed the hotel to tell them our arrival flight. But a few minutes later the shuttle came through dropping off another guest and we hopped on.
Hotel Globales Camino Real
When we finally arrived at the hotel, they had no record of our reservation. It turned out that they gave our room to someone else with a similar name earlier in the day. So that was a fun way to start the trip. They eventually cleared up the confusion and gave us a different room.
There was a party at the hotel with loud music until probably midnight, and then there was a lot of noise in the hallway throughout the night. Still probably preferable to driving to Morgan’s Rock late at night, but we didn’t sleep well. We had breakfast at the hotel at 6:30am (included, and pretty good) and then met our Morgan’s Rock driver.
Morgan’s Rock Hacienda and Ecolodge
The 2.5-hour drive to San Juan del Sur and Morgan’s Rock was enjoyable. Nicaragua is a gorgeous country!
We arrived at the lodge at 9:30am and were able to check in immediately…since we were the only guests. It’s crazy. I received so many messages from people on Instagram saying they had loved the lodge, but that was years ago. Tourism has been mostly dead for four years now, first because of protests and government crackdowns and then because of Covid.
Morgan’s Rock is amazing. We had a bungalow across a long suspension bridge, right above the beach. There was a large bed for me, a daybed they made up for my son, and then a hanging swing on the deck where we spent a lot of time.
One highlight was a farm tour with Harvy. He took us all over the very large property, eventually ending up at an overlook. We saw sloths, monkeys, turtles, thousands of crabs, and a lot of different birds.
Otherwise our days were relaxed! We had three meals a day at the restaurant. We felt guilty that they were staffed just for us! We went kayaking two days – at high tide through the estuary. We also spent a lot of time at the beach in the late afternoon and did some short hikes up from the beach. Our favorite time of day there.
I got a massage one day, mainly because I knew there was a massage therapist otherwise without clients. We could have gone bike riding, but my son opted out. We regretted not bringing a Frisbee.
Overall, if you’re looking for a beach destination, Morgan’s Rock is a fun choice. It’s definitely not as touristy as most of nearby Costa Rica. The only thing I knocked them for a little on the end-of-stay survey was for food. The food was excellent, but main courses averaged $30, and in Granada we were ordering the same things for $8-10.
We booked two nights in Granada and honestly it was too much. It’s a cute town, and we ate at a lot of good restaurants, but there’s not much to do.
What we did: we walked around and we climbed the bell tower. We also spent a lot of time at Hotel Los Patios playing giant chess.
What we could have done: there are boat trips to nearby islands, and there are several hiking options on nearby Mombacho Volcano, but the weather forecast showed steady thunderstorms, and we were hesitant to be on a boat or high up on a volcano with lightning. In reality we got one or two good storms while there, but it was dry far more than was predicted. If we return without rain in the forecast, I definitely want to do a volcano hike.
Like I said, we booked two nights in Granada. But after dinner our second night we made the decision to head to Managua that night instead of at 3am the next day. It would let us get an extra hour or so of sleep, and eliminated the chance of missing our flight for any reason. So I booked the Best Western literally across the street from the Managua airport and checked out of Los Patios early (we still paid for that second night to be fair to them).
Hotel Los Patios
We loved Hotel Los Patios and I highly recommend a stay there. Our room was large and comfortable, breakfast was excellent, the hotel was amazing from a design perspective, and Xiomara was a perfect host. We were the only guests and I have no idea how long it had been since they had last had a booking. It was really sad seeing this tourist town with virtually no tourists.
Nicaragua Travel: Where to Dine in Granada
We had two lunches and two dinners in Granada, and breakfast at Los Patios. Our first lunch was at Nectar, which we stumbled upon. Our second lunch was at Ristorante El Garaje, number two on TripAdvisor and very close to our hotel. Both had excellent sandwiches. Don’t miss El Garaje.
Our first dinner was at The Garden Cafe and our second was at a combined restaurant/art gallery called Cafe de Arte. We liked our meals at The Garden Cafe a little better, but both are good choices.
Managua to Los Angeles
The Best Western Las Mercedes Airport was fine. Our room was smaller than at Hotel Globales Camino Real up the street, but the hotel was quieter, they didn’t screw up our reservation, and no shuttle was necessary. We walked over to the airport at 4am for our 5:35am flight. It took maybe half an hour to check in and get through passport control.
Our connection in San Salvador was easy, with plenty of time to get pastries and coffee. We arrived into LA roughly half an hour early, sailed through immigration (with Global Entry) and were on our parking shuttle roughly 15 minutes after walking off the plane. So nice only traveling with carry-ons!
Nicaragua Travel: Currency and Finance
Nicaragua has its own currency, the córdoba, but US Dollars are accepted everywhere. I got roughly $100 in local currency from an ATM in Granada and I shouldn’t have bothered. Every one of our restaurant bills in the city had the totals in both currencies.
Hotel Globales Camino Real was $151. Morgan’s Rock was $365/night. Meals there added another $60 per person per day. Hotel Los Patios was $150/night. The Best Western was $128. I booked everything possible through hotels.com since I get one free night with every 10 nights, so it effectively reduces those prices by 10% (it’s why I usually link to hotels.com). Lunches and dinners in Granada averaged $20-25 for two. Our transfers were $200 to Morgan’s Rock, $150 from Morgan’s Rock to Granada, and $40 from Granada to the airport.
I paid for three hotels online in advance. Hotel Los Patios doesn’t have credit card processing right now because of the lull in tourism, so I used cash.
When we cancelled our Nicaragua trip in 2020, Avianca subsequently cancelled our flights but wouldn’t give us a refund, so I filed a claim with our credit card. We finally got our money back. But we still have a large deposit at Jicaro Island Lodge since they wouldn’t give us a refund. We’re now smarter and have an annual travel policy through G1G. I liked knowing that if anything happened with this trip, we’d be covered.
Is Nicaragua Safe?
If you read online travel advisories, you’re warned about crime. Lots of crime. It’s enough to make you second guess a trip. But in reality we felt safe. Morgan’s Rock of course is isolated, but the roads seemed safe (our three longish drives were early in the morning, late in the morning and at night), and we felt comfortable walking around Granada, even at night. Nothing seemed even a little sketchy at any point. But again, just another reason it’s nice to have travel insurance.
Nicaragua Packing List
It was warm the entire time we were there. I took one pair of jeans for the plane. My son didn’t bring any long pants at all. We lived in shorts and short-sleeve shirts. We both got by with backpacks (carry-ons), two pairs of shorts, three t-shirts (merino wool t-shirts from Unbound Merino worked well), underwear and flip flops. We had better walking shoes and barely wore them. Insect repellent was necessary (lots of mosquitos), as were swimsuits and sunscreen. I didn’t take a camera.
Nicaragua Family Travel – Summary
We had a good trip. It’s very much a chicken and egg thing with Nicaragua travel and tourism. Right now there aren’t a lot of tourists, and as a result there’s not a lot for tourists to do outside of exploring its beaches, volcanos and islands, and the towns of Granada and Leon. So any trip is going to be more laid-back than to nearby Costa Rica or Panama. If you haven’t been to Costa Rica, or if you’re looking for zip-lining and large resorts, maybe go there first. But if you want to get away from a highly-developed tourism infrastructure and get back to nature, and if you want the really good feeling of helping people directly with your tourism dollars, Nicaragua is a great destination.