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Self-drive Nicaragua: Adventures by road

11 days from £1,746pp

Dates & Prices Get in touch

Self-drive Nicaragua: Adventures by road:
Trip Dossier

In your pre-booked hire car you will drive at your own leisurely pace, with the freedom to stop off at interesting little market towns or a panoramic viewpoint and still be at your next pre-booked hotel in plenty of time for a sun-downer on your hotel terrace.

Nicaragua is one of Latin America’s remaining true adventure destinations. For decades preoccupied with internal struggle, now reconciled, this friendly country remains little developed for tourism, especially compared to its neighbour Costa Rica. The amiable republic soldiers on at its own slow pace, following the rhythms of age-old traditions and an unpressured economy.

But that is where its appeal lies: gorgeous rural scenery, crossed by virtually empty roads where you are more likely to come across cattle being herded by cowboys or rickety overloaded buses than queues of cars. Whether driving west or east over the continental divide you are never far from a spectacular volcanic view. The landscape is peppered with colonial cities, tropical forest reserves and defined by a rugged stretch of golden Pacific coast. 

Short itinerary

Holiday itinerary

Day 1

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

Day 2

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

Day 3

At leisure in the Selva Negra Cloud Forest Reserve.

Day 4

Drive to León.

Day 5

Guided tour of León.

Day 6

Drive from León to Granada via Masaya.

Day 7

Guided tour of Granada.

Day 8

At leisure in Granada.

Day 9

Drive from Granada to San Juan del Sur.

Day 10

At leisure on the Pacific coast.

Day 11

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

Detailed itinerary

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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Managua

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 Suzuki Vitara 4WD 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.

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Road to Matagalpa

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.

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Selva Negra

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

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Leon Cathedral

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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Leon Church

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.

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Masaya Volcano

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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Boats on Isletas

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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Central Granada

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.  

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San Juan del Sur

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.

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San Juan del Sur , Nicaragua

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.

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Self drive

Essential information

Transport

 10 days car hire in an 4WD for maximum 3 passengers.

Accommodation

You will be staying in small, mid-range properties (two are in characterful restored colonial buildings); and an ecolodge on a coffee estate.

Meals

Breakfast daily.

Guides

We carefully select our local partners, some of whom we have worked with for over 25 years. Their English-speaking guides understand the expectations of our clients very well, and are consistently singled out for praise by the latter on their return.

Included Excursions

• León: Guided city tour
• Granada: Guided city tour and boat trip..

Summary of nights

11 days, 10 nights: Managua 1; Selva Negra 2; León 2; Granada 3; San Juan del Sur 2.

Included in the journey price

• Services of our team of experts in our London office.
• Services of Journey Latin America local representatives and guides.
• Car hire for 10 days with basic insurance.
• Accommodation as specified.
• Meals as specified.
• Excursions as specified, including entrance fees.

Not included in the journey price

• Tips and gratuities.
• Total damage waiver excess insurance for the car.
• Meals other than specified.
• Airport taxes, when not included in the ticket.
• Optional excursions.

Currency

The unit of currency in Nicaragua is the córdoba.

Daily spend

Daily spend It is very difficult to give a guideline for essential expenses but a budget of around US$35 per day should cover the cost of meals not included in the holiday price, drinks and the odd souvenir. Eat at the best restaurants and you will pay considerably more.

How to take it

Cash machines are available in Managua airport, and in Granada and León: taking a debit or credit card with a PIN number is the most convenient way of withdrawing money while on your trip and in the more upmarket shops and restaurants you can also pay by card. However, since cards can get lost, damaged, withheld or blocked, or the phone line to the bank may be down, you should not rely exclusively on a card to access funds. You might authorise your bank first, and withdrawals may be limited.

We recommend that you take a reasonable quantity of dollar notes (no more than is covered by your insurance). Dollar bills should be in good condition, soiled or torn bills may be refused.

Tipping

Tips are welcomed and local guides often rely on their tip as a significant proportion of their income.

Most service industry workers will expect a tip of some kind and so it is useful to have spare change for hotel porters, taxi drivers and the like. It is common to leave 10 - 12% in restaurants.

Tipping guidelines can be found in our Briefing Dossier.

Insurance

Travel insurance is essential. Details of our recommended policy can be found on our Travel Insurance page.

Car insurance:

Your trip is based on a Suzuki 4WD vehicle appropriate for 3 passengers and luggage. Limited collision damage waiver and vehicle theft protection (CDW/TP) cover is included. There may be an excess payable but additional CDW/TP cover with zero excess can usually be purchased at additional cost. Please check the level of your coverage with us when making your booking. We strongly recommend you consider buying your own car hire excess waiver insurance policy before you travel: these are widely available from insurance companies in the UK.  All incidents involving collision, robbery and theft must be reported to the police and a report obtained. 

An international driving licence is recommended. Since 8 June 2015 no paper counterpart of UK driving licences is required but you need to apply to the DVLA for a code. This may be required by the rental company when you collect your car. Please check https://www.gov.uk/government/news/driving-licence-changes for further details.

You will need to return the car to the specified office at the end of the rental period.

Airport taxes

If you have purchased your flights through Journey Latin America, the international departure tax is usually included in the ticket.

Journey grade

Generally this holiday is suitable for confident drivers and able, reasonably fit travellers i who accept the sometimes uncertain and rudimentary nature of travel to remote places.

There is minimum of around 800km of driving over the holiday, spread over 10 days, more if you make detours. There are several days at leisure dotted throughout so you won't have long days of driving on consecutive days. Main roads are paved, other rural roads are dirt and traffic is generally light though coast roads can be busy in the summer. 

If you have a disability which we should be aware of, please contact us.

Climate

This itinerary takes you to tropical climes where the sun is strong and temperatures high – often over 30°C. It's cooler  - springlike - in the cloud forest region around Selva Negra. Those travelling between May and October should encounter higher temperatures (around 35°C) and high humidity. The ‘official’ rainy season is May to October.

Clothing and special equipment

Bring plenty of light clothing and good, comfortable walking shoes. A waterproof jacket is also advisable. We suggest that you plan to ‘layer’ your clothing; it is easier and more efficient to put on a couple of light layers than one thick jumper, and sensible to have long sleeves for areas where mosquitos may be lurking. Sandals are a good informal option for evenings. Protection against the sun (sunblock, sun hat) and mosquito repellent are essential and you should bring swimwear. A daypack is useful for carrying sunblock, guidebook, water and any extra layers.

Please get in touch with the office before departure if you have any doubts. Good equipment is very important and hard to come by in Central America.

Vaccinations

Preventative vaccinations are recommended against the following; typhoid; polio; tetanus; hepatitis A. For specific requirements you must consult your GP.

You can also find helpful information on the Masta Travel Health website.

Visas

Holders of a full British passport do not require a visa, although passports must be valid for at least 6 months after the trip begins.   Clients with a different nationality should refer to our Briefing Dossier and check with the Costa Rican and Nicaraguan consulates.

APIS and ESTA - important flight information:

ESTA - if flying to, or via, the USA you will need to fill in your application to ESTA online.
This costs $14 per person, and must be applied for by you personally.
Passports must also be digital e-passports with an embedded chip. Avoid locking suitcases if transiting the USA, as their customs authorities retain the right to break into them.

APIS - Many countries now oblige airlines to provide additional information about passengers prior to the flight departure. This Advance Passenger Information (APIS) must be supplied to us promptly in order to issue tickets and avoid fare increases. We will provide the airlines with the relevant details if we are booking your international flights. If the information is not provided you may be denied boarding.

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