5 ways to live like a local in Nicaragua

Through their vibrant festivals, flavoursome food and cheery half-glass-full disposition, Nicaraguans know how to live life to the fullest…

Team Wanderlust
22 June 2023
Promoted by
Discover Nicaragua

Warm and welcoming, resourceful and resilient, Nicaraguans – or Nicas – are fiercely proud of their culture and traditions and are as diverse as the fiestas and music, cuisine and crafts that make up a large part of their country’s colourful culture. Here are five ways to immerse yourself in Nica life…

1. Understand its patchwork of cultures

Locals celebrating Garifuna Settlement Day (Nicaraguan Tourist Board)

Nicaragua has a long and fascinating history. Before the first Europeans landed, the west was inhabited by several indigenous groups that hailed from Aztec Mexico, including the Chorotega and Nicarao.

Following Spanish rule that lasted around 300 years, Nicaragua became a fully independent republic in 1838 and now most Nicas are mestizo, a mix of Spanish and indigenous people. But Nicaragua’s Caribbean region was colonised by the British and a English-speaking Creole culture colourfully populates this area today.

Today, it has two autonomous regions: the North Caribbean Coast and the South Caribbean Coast, home to many ethnic groups that maintain their language and traditions, including indigenous Miskitus, Mayangnas, Ulwas and Ramas, as well as Creoles and Garifunas, who are of African descent.

2. Soak up its colonial cities

Central Park in Granada (Nicaraguan Tourist Board)

Perched on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, Granada was founded in 1524 and is one of Central America’s oldest and loveliest cities – all postcard-pretty plazas, ornate churches and cobbled streets lined with pastel-coloured colonial architecture. It’s the place to take a cooking or Spanish class, feast on the finest local produce, try world-class rum and salsa the tropical night away.

And it makes the ideal base for exploring. Discover its string of volcanic isletas by kayak, marvel at the still-bubbling Masaya Volcano and discover the skilled artisans of the Pueblos Blancos, hike through – or zipline above – Mombacho’s cloud forest and cool off in the crystalline waters of Laguna de Apoyo.

León is Nicaragua’s former capital, a university city with a lively nightlife. It’s home to the largest cathedral in Central America, many magnificent churches and a host of fascinating museums, such as the Historical Museum of the Revolution and the Rubén Darío Museum, which honours Nicaragua’s most famous poet. Vibrant patriotic murals adorn the city’s walls, while the Ortíz Gurdián Foundation Art Center houses an outstanding contemporary Latin American art collection.

Less than an hour from León, adrenaline-seekers can sandboard down the black slopes of the still-active Cerro Negro volcano. And when the temperature rises, head to the beaches of Las Peñitas, where the gentle waves are perfect for novice surfers, or the Juan Venado Island Nature Reserve, a haven for birds, caiman and turtles.

3. Get handy with its traditional crafts

(Nicaraguan Tourist Board)

Nicaragua has a rich artisanal tradition and Masaya is its crafts capital – its handicraft market is a great place to pick up souvenirs, perhaps a handwoven cotton hammock, decorative ceramic or wood carving.

Many traditional handicrafts are made by artisans from the surrounding villages, known as the Pueblos Blancos, or white towns. San Juan de Oriente is known as the town of potters, Masatepe is home to handcrafted wicker furniture, and Catarina is famed for its flowers – and don’t miss its panoramic views over Laguna de Apoyo, Lake Nicaragua and Mombacho Volcano.

In Jinotega, they’ve been producing one-of-a-kind cerámica negra – black pottery – since pre-Columbian times and the process, passed down through the generations, has barely changed.Tucked into the southeast corner of Lake Nicaragua, the Solentiname archipelago has 36 tropical islands, home to farmers, fishermen and a community of primitivist artists and woodcarvers who take their inspiration from the lush landscape and its flora and fauna.

The gourd of the jicaro tree has long been used for functional utensils, such as cups, spoons and bowls, as well as musical instruments and toys but artisans in Rivas carve ornate designs onto their surface, turning them into covetable works of art. And, bringing together an age-old craft and a contemporary problem, women in the fishing village of El Astillero in Rivas collect discarded plastic bags, weaving them into beautiful, hard-wearing bags.

4. Party like the locals

The El Güegüense traditional dance (Nicaraguan Tourist Board)

Nicaragua’s calendar is full of festivities celebrating its culture, religions and roots.

One of the most unique is El Güegüense – recognised by Unesco as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ – a satirical drama thought to date back to the 17th century. Combining theatre, dance and music from drums, guitars and violins, the plot revolves around opposition to Spanish colonial rule, with elaborate costumes, wooden masks and hats distinguishing the various characters. Catch it in January in Diriamba during the feast of San Sebastian.

The one-of-a-kind, month-long Maypole Festival in Bluefields in May is one of Central America’s most vibrant carnivals. It’s thought to have its beginnings in pagan German celebrations of spring, but is now firmly rooted in Afro-Caribbean tradition, with much music and dancing, colourful costumes, block parties and parades of extravagantly decorated floats.

La Purísima and La Gritería are age-old Catholic traditions. The former celebrates the conception of the Virgin Mary with nine days of prayer. Then at 6pm on 7 December, a cry (grito) is heard from cathedrals and churches around the country: “Who causes so much happiness?” and the response, “Mary’s conception!” followed by a barrage of exploding fireworks and singing in the streets.

And there are dozens of celebrations throughout the year in Masaya, but the biggest is the opening of the Fiestas Patronales in September. It heralds a series of fiestas honouring Saint Jerome that continue for two months.

5. Taste its diverse cuisine

Güirilas (Nicaraguan Tourist Board)

The country’s melting pot of cultures has created a diverse cuisine, and you can sample it everywhere, from gourmet restaurants to street food stalls.

Corn is a key ingredient in Nicaragua’s dishes. Nacatamales are delicious parcels of corn dough stuffed with meat and vegetables, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed, indio viejo is a hearty stew made with beef and corn, while güirilas are fried corn tortillas topped with crumbly white cheese. And pinolillo – a spiced corn and cacao drink – is so popular, Nicas are often dubbed pinoleros. Here are a couple of other dishes that are favourites with Nicas…

Small, round corn biscuits – are perfectly paired with a cup of organic Nicaraguan coffee. Thanks to the country’s rich volcanic soil, top-notch coffee has been grown around the country – particularly Jinotega and Matagalpa – for almost 200 years.

Gallo pinto (rice and beans)
A countrywide staple, gallo pinto is served with everything from eggs for breakfast to steak for dinner – on the Caribbean coast it’s cooked in coconut milk. Rundown is another iconic Caribbean dish, which mixes up the seafood of the day, plantains and cassava in a thick and tasty coconut milk broth.

Elsewhere, Granada’s favourite street food is vigorón, a medley of boiled cassava and chicharrones (fried pork rinds), topped with a tangy cabbage salad and wrapped in a banana leaf.

Nicaragua’s profusion of tropical fruits, including papaya and maracuyá (passion fruit), are blended with water or milk in refreshing batidas. And don’t miss a tasting of award-winning Flor de Caña rum – the older, the better.

Vigorón is a staple street food in Nicaragua (Nicaraguan Tourist Board)

Feeling inspired?

For more information visit the official Nicaraguan Tourist Board website.

Explore More

More Articles