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Private Journeys

Self-drive Nicaragua: Adventures by road

11 days from £1,550pp



map marker Map

Day 1

Arrive in Managua, transfer to hotel in a smart residential district.

Managua is a vibrant modern city hugging the southern banks of Lake Nicaragua. There is little evidence of its colonial past – the result of a devastating earthquake which virtually flattened the capital in 1972. It is a confusing, sprawling metropolis but offers excellent shopping, good restaurants and a boisterous nightlife.

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Day 2

Pick up your car, drive to Matagalpa and Selva Negra.

You will set off on your road trip across Nicaragua from the capital, and over the next 10 days, if you travel direct, you’ll cover approximately 800km with the longest journey, (without stops) at around 4 hours. However, chances are you will be intrigued by a detour, or pause to enjoy a coffee or a picnic in a beauty spot.

You will be escorted to the car hire agency to pick up your vehicle, a Toyota Rush or similar.  It’s not that we expect you to go storming up difficult mountain tracks, but in a multi-terrain vehicle you will feel confident about exploring intriguing unpaved rural roads.

Set off north to Matagalpa. This busy city is set within a valley surrounded by hills shimmering with the polished green of the coffee plantations. Matagalpa is at the heart of Nicaragua’s coffee industry although eco-tourism has also become an important cog in its economy. It serves as a gateway to the country’s most picturesque mountains and the Selva Negra Cloud Forest Reserve with its many hiking possibilities

Just 15km beyond the city you reach the cool cloud forest air of Selva Negra and your lodge on a working coffee estate.


Day 3

At leisure in the Selva Negra Cloud Forest Reserve.

Staying at Selva Negra Lodge on the coffee estate itself, you are well positioned to explore a landscape of cool misty forests of pine and oaks strangled by bromeliads, which create a fairytale environment through which wind over a dozen marked trails. Birds flit between the 30 secretive creeks and around the coffee plantation itself. You may even spot the elusive but dazzling Resplendent quetzal.

The estate is a monument to sustainability and organic flowers and vegetables grown here are served in the lodge’s restaurant.


Day 4

Drive to León.

The journey total time is around 3.5 hours if you drive direct, a distance of 232km.

Roadside stalls sell orchids and bromeliads beyond which you’ll see coffee bushes and fields of carrot and beetroot which thrive in the temperate climate. Arrive at Estelí, where attractions include a waterfall and a working tobacco estate.  From here to León the volcanic scenery is magnificent with views of Momotombo across rice fields.

León was founded in 1524 and moved to its present site 35km away after being devastated by an earthquake in 1610. Formerly Nicaragua’s capital, it has retained much of its ecclesiastical and intellectual heritage. Many of the building walls are daubed with colourful Sandinista and anti-American murals and ridden with bullet holes – a poignant symbol of Nicaragua’s turbulent past


Day 5

Guided tour of León.

León is Nicaragua’s most ebullient city, with a lively university and a thriving intellectual and cultural life.

Your guided walking city tour will reveal the history of the modern day city, a colonial masterpiece rivalled only by Granada, with the trademark adobe colonial façades, narrow streets and pretty squares, dominated by a number of grandiose churches (many connected by tunnels). These include the imposing cathedral, the largest in the Americas, which took over 100 years to build. The city has a history of alliance to revolutionary causes and you’ll see what remains of some of the 1970s anti-Somoza murals.

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Day 6

Drive from León to Granada via Masaya.

Your journey time is about 3 hours (134km). Taking the Pan American Highway you’ll be following volcanoes all the way back to Managua – the chain is only broken by the vast Lake Managua.  You can visit the town of Masaya and the spectacular crater of Masaya Volcano en route or on your free day in the city. 

Finally, arrive at Granada, founded in 1524 and the oldest city in the New World. It lies at the foot of Mombacho Volcano. The city became very rich on the back of the gold trade but was regularly plundered by pirates and completely razed by American mercenary William Walker at the beginning of the 19th century.

However, Granada has since been wonderfully restored and its colourful colonial houses and cobbled streets that run down to the shores of Lake Nicaragua are a delight.


Day 7

Guided tour of Granada.

On a guided city tour visit Granada’s colonial churches, strolling down the narrow streets and passing graceful colonial houses. Many of the places of interest are within the vicinity of the main square. These include the beautiful baroque La Merced church, the Casa de Los Tres Mundos – now a cultural centre for local musicians and dancers; and the 16th-century San Francisco convent.

Later, embark on a small launch for a relaxing boat ride in the sheltered waters around the peaceful Isletas, hundreds of tiny, bright green and thickly forested islands created by eruptions from the bulky Mombacho Volcano which looms over the region. Small fishing communities thrive here and some islands host impressive weekend retreats owned by wealthy Nicaraguans.

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Day 8

At leisure in Granada.

You might spend your day at leisure with a guided day tour to Masaya traditional market and the active volcano of the same name, where you can peer down into the steaming caldera, maybe with glimpses of the glowing magma deep below.

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Day 9

Drive from Granada to San Juan del Sur.

It takes around 90 minutes to reach San Juan del Sur (100km) if you go directly. But you might incorporate a visit to the Pueblos Blancos (white villages). Some are on the way but others may involve a little bit of back tracking toward Masaya. Diriomo and Diria are known as the witch cities, famed for their tales of sorcery. 

Once you have finished exploring, head to the city of Rivas on the Pan American Highway and continue to San Juan del Sur on the Pacific coast where, outside the parched height of the dry season, the roadsides are festooned with mango and papaya trees and the shoreline is decorated with a necklet of tiny demerara-coloured sandy beaches.  


Day 10

At leisure on the Pacific coast.

San Juan del Sur is a tranquil Pacific coast fishing village at the head of a horseshoe-shaped bay peppered with small, private yachts and fishing boats. The laid-back, rustic village has clapboard Victorian houses, open air beach-side restaurants and brilliant sunset views from its tiny bays. Understandably, plenty of European and American ex-pats have put down roots here.

Other visitors are drawn to the area’s unspoilt beaches and it has also become an established spot for surfers. Fishing, snorkelling, scuba diving and mountain biking are other popular pursuits you might have a go at – there are local agencies which organise trips. Olive Ridley turtles hatch on the beaches just south of town between September and April – a spectacular sight.


Day 11

Drive back to Managua airport, drop off car, take international flight.

You are heading back to the car rental office at Managua airport. Hand over your car and proceed to the terminal building to check in for your international flight.

UK clients arrive home the following day.

Inspired by this trip

Our exciting range of articles on Latin America explore everything from iconic destinations and lesser-known cultural gems to delicious traditional recipes. You’ll also find exclusive travel tips, first-hand client reviews and the chance to get your personal questions answered by our travel experts.


Your edit for Latin American inspiration

Our exciting range of articles on Latin America explore everything from iconic destinations and lesser-known cultural gems to delicious traditional recipes. You’ll also find exclusive travel tips, first-hand client reviews and the chance to get your personal questions answered by our travel experts.

View Extraordinary Inspiration

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