Love Mexico? Visit Nicaragua for its beaches and adventure without crowds. (2024)

  • Nicaragua is an alternative for travelers who love Mexico's charm and authenticity.
  • The country welcomed just over 1.2 million tourists in 2023, up nearly 29% from the 932,700 visitors in 2022.
  • While you could spend the entire day at the beach, the area is filled with other adventures.

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The ATV loudly whirred as I drove, dust swirling up behind me from the dirt road. No other vehicles were in sight, although I had to stop for a bull making a leisurely crossing. I navigated through the forest until I reached a manned gate, where I paid a small fee to continue down the windy road, teasing peeks of the blue sea below. In the trees, I spotted spider monkeys sitting comfortably underneath the shady leaves.

Finally, I arrived at Playa Escameca. The tide was too low to surf, but the exposed sand showed how vast the beach was at half-a-mile-long. Just a handful of fellow beachgoers sat in chairs and hammocks, eating food from the small outdoor restaurant run by locals.

I went on to have a few more experiences like this in Nicaragua, where the raw beauty and ruggedness of the Central American country were on full display thanks to the lack of crowds and development. Yes, my mode of transportation was typically ATV.

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Love Mexico? Visit Nicaragua for its beaches and adventure without crowds. (1)

Providing the same sun, sand, and surf without the overwhelming tourist atmosphere, Nicaragua is an alternative for travelers who love Mexico's charming and authenticity. While adventure is aplenty in Nicaragua, so are the chances for relaxation.

While in Nicaragua, I stayed at La Santa María Resort and Residences, perched atop a hill in the endearing beach town of San Juan Del Sur. Located right above the border straddling Nicaragua and Costa Rica, San Juan Del Sur is a 100-year-old fishing village beloved by expats and surfers, who mingle with locals who have lived there for generations.

“It’s an undiscovered paradise,” Julio H. Arguello, Nicaragua native and developer of La Santa María Resort and Residences, told USA TODAY. “If San Juan Del Sur was in Costa Rica (or Mexico), it would be Santa Theresa or Tulum (respectively.)"

In 2023, Nicaragua welcomed just over 1.2 million tourists, up nearly 29% from the 932,700 visitors in 2022. The same year, 33 million tourists traveled to Quintana Roo, the state where Tulum is, and almost 2.5 million tourists to Costa Rica.

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How do I get to Nicaragua?

Like Cancun, it’s a short flight from the U.S. to San Juan Del Sur, but it requires a long drive to reach the peninsula where the town is located.

Take a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Miami to Managua and then an uneventful three-hour drive from the airport to the beach town.

Alternatively, you can fly into Liberia, Costa Rica – a five-and-a-half hour flight from Los Angeles or a four-hour flight from Dallas – and cross the border north into Nicaragua on a two-hour drive.

To enter Nicaragua, Americans must pay for a Tourist Card, which costs $10 at immigration. Bring cash, though, as checks and credit cards are not accepted.

Where to stay in Nicaragua

Love Mexico? Visit Nicaragua for its beaches and adventure without crowds. (2)

Although I felt the San Juan Del Sur area was rugged, staying at La Santa María Resort and Residences was far from roughing it.

Opened in 2018, the gated resort is small yet intimate, with the modern fixings of any four-star resort in Cancun, like a gym, clubhouse, snack bar and infinity pool overlooking the beach – and offering a stunning view of the vibrant red sunset. There’s an outdoor and indoor workspace, making it an ideal home base for digital nomads.

As its name implies, La Santa María is not just a resort for travelers but also comprises condos for expats or snowbirds, which can be used as vacation rentals. So far, 95% of La Santa María’s inventory has sold.

“There’s this sense of experience where you get all these resort-like amenities but live in a community,” Arguello said.

La Santa María is the only resort in the area, but there are affordable vacation rentals, hostels and smaller boutique hotels.

The town of San Juan Del Sur

La Santa María Resort is a short five-minute walk into town, with abundant surf shops and food options, from a tiny dumpling shop to a tucked-away marketplace of locally owned food stands. I didn’t even have to do a currency exchange during my trip as every business I went to accepted the Nicaraguan córdoba and U.S. dollar.

The town was easy to get around by walking. It only took about 15 minutes to cross the entire town. It reminded me of a less crowded Sayulita, another charming beach town that’s become popular on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. I also never felt unsafe walking around, even at night.

Unlike Cancun’s downtown, I didn’t encounter hordes of tourists or vendors coming up to me trying to sell souvenirs in San Juan Del Sur, although there were a few.

Love Mexico? Visit Nicaragua for its beaches and adventure without crowds. (3)

The main beach of San Juan Del Sur is lined with restaurants serving up fresh seafood like ceviche. My favorite restaurant which I may or may not have frequented about four times during my four-day trip, was Dale Pues – “let’s do it” – that served casual eats like shrimp tacos and breakfast bagels in a bohemian atmosphere. There’s also Ding Repair Cafe, a coffee shop with an outdoor bowl for skateboarders and dishes like a Nicaraguan breakfast with eggs, beans and plantains.

Beaches galore

Love Mexico? Visit Nicaragua for its beaches and adventure without crowds. (4)

The main draw for San Juan Del Sur is the sea. The little town is surrounded by beaches to the north and south, and I was able to reach a few of them with the resort’s ATV – and the help of street signs and Google Maps.

Like Playa Escameca, many beaches felt intimate, and since they’re so expansive, they're also basically empty. Others, like Playa Maderias – a popular surfing locale – were more crowded with beachgoers and surfers, both beginners taking lessons and the more experienced. Here, it cost $20 to rent a surfboard for the entire day, which you could switch out at any point.

Some beaches require a nominal entrance fee of around $3 to $5, but different beaches like Playa Maderias and Playa Remanso are free.

Every beach I went to had restrooms and at least one restaurant where I could take some respite from the sun and eat some food to fuel up.

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What to do in Nicaragua

Love Mexico? Visit Nicaragua for its beaches and adventure without crowds. (5)

While you could spend the entire day at the beach, I discovered the area to be filled with other adventures.

Ziplining: On a sunny morning, I ventured to Parque de Aventura Las Nubes, an 80-acre private nature reserve located at one of the highest elevations in San Juan Del Sur and, thus, offering sweeping vistas of the ocean and volcanoes. The reserve is home to over 80 sloths – and howling monkeys, porcupines and iguanas, too – so you’re bound to spot some wildlife on the ATV ride up the mountain. But, as the name suggests, I’m at Parque de Aventura Las Nubes for adventure: ziplining. There are 12 ziplines of different lengths and inclines, plus rope stairs and platforms, crossing the canopies of the park to showcase southern Nicaragua’s nature.

Horseback riding: When the sun's heat wore away, I had the chance to go horseback riding at sunset with Big Sky Stables, owned by a Canadian expat. I was outfitted with the ranch’s stock of jeans and boots and hopped on my horse. With three guides, we rode through the ranch and a forest until we reached an empty beach just as the sun set over the horizon. Then, I had the chance to gallop with my horse across the sand, which felt like a scene from a movie.

Love Mexico? Visit Nicaragua for its beaches and adventure without crowds. (6)

Hiking: Looking out over San Juan Del Sur from a cliff is an 82-foot-tall Christ of the Mercy statue, which visitors can hike to. The hour-long trail can be reached at the north end of the beach, or hikers can park at the foot of the hill and go up the around 100 steps. After traversing the stairs, you’ll be met with a panoramic view of the town and coastline. The entrance fee for the viewing platform is $2 for foreigners.

Visiting the volcano: The Masaya Volcano National Park is just two hours from town and overlooks Lake Nicaragua, offering hiking trails and wildlife like coyotes and iguanas. The indigenous people of Masaya believed the volcano to be god, and Spanish colonizers referred to it as “The Mouth of Hell.” The country’s first and largest national park, Masaya Volcano National Park, allows visitors to get up close and personal with the crater, a lava lake and bat-filled caves. Unfortunately, the volcano has been closed since April due to a landslide, so I couldn’t visit.

Kathleen Wong is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Hawaii. You can reach her at

The Key Points at the top of this article were created with the assistance of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and reviewed by a journalist before publication. No other parts of the article were generated using AI. Learn more.

Love Mexico? Visit Nicaragua for its beaches and adventure without crowds. (2024)
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