I usually don't post travel reports but since I used this forum quite heavily before our trip to Nica I thought I owe this to future readers. That, and the fact that I found it quite hard to find info on traveling with young kids in Nicaragua. Some background: we are fairly well traveled, our 4 year old daughter as well (first trip overseas at 6 months old) usually do a warm vacation in the winter to escape the Chicago cold and one in the summer to visit with family in Europe, never go to all-inclusives and one of my favorite activities when going to other countries is to go spend time in the local market and watch people passing by.
OK, so we spent the last 8 days in Nicaragua. First thing, to drive or not to drive. I grew up in Romania, I am OK driving 2 lanes roads and share them with horses, goats and the likes and drove in other places in central america. After reading around, decided to hire a driver for the first leg of the trip from Managua to SJDS. Two minutes in, realized that I could have driven just fine. Roads in Nicaragua are in great shape, obviously they are not north american standards but they are much better than in most places I have been to. I don't know how it is in wet season, but in dry season and going to the usual destinations, there is absolutely zero need for a 4x4 and an economy would do just fine. That being said, unless you do some heavy driving there is not advantage in renting a car. Our transportation total was 90(MGA-SJDS)+30(visit beaches around SJDS) + 100(SJDS to Laguna de apoyo, plus Masaya volcano and some of the pueblos blancos) + 10(Apoyo to Granada) + 50 (Granada to Catarina and Masatepe) + 40 return to MGA = $320. Minimum I found to rent a car for seven days was $270 with all taxes and such for economy. Add gas to that and is all a wash. From what I can tell, any driver arrangement you do online or through the hotel comes about at the same price and reliability factor. I used golocalnicaragua initially (very good service) and after I just arranged drives through either hotel reception or just waved down cabs.
First three days we spent in San Juan del Sur at Pelican Eye. The grounds are beautiful and the views unbeatable. The rooms are also very nice (there are some reviews out there with people complaining about ants, you are at the tropics you know...) and the pools are handy when a kid is around. I am glad I chose this place for a first time there, but in all fairness if I would return, I would go somewhere cheaper. There are plenty of options in SJDS at half the price and they would be more than good for us. SJDS is certainly touristy but I would not go as far as to call it a party town. The beach is nice, the row of restaurants on the beach is great, in particular for people like us who just love stopping for a drink just about every other half hour. The food is nothing to write home about, but then again, you are on the beach and once fresh fish is in, is hard to screw up the menu. We ate fish pretty much all the time. The beach restaurants are certainly not a foodie destination and they are relatively speaking expensive, but you are obviously paying for being there, and the sunsets with a Toña are quite a treat. We ate at a bunch of places on the beach and personally did not find much difference between them. People rank El Timon higher than the rest of the pack, I could not tell the difference. Best meal we had was at a hole in a wall type thing, about two blocks up from the beach and one street north from the one that goes to Pelican Eye, called La Loncha. Seafood there was amazing but gets packed for dinner so either go early or late. As far as the beach is concerned, obviously you are not in the caribbean, the water is certainly not warm and there are decent waves. The kid loved playing on the huge beach while we were having Toñas on some beach chair, but going in the water, not so much. Here, the hotel pools came handy. One day we went to Marsella beach, it is quiet and deserted with two establishments that sell seafood and beers. Did not try the seafood there, we went for a swim but not much else. Quite honestly, it was in fact too quiet for us. One thing that struck me and this is something I felt all over Nicaragua: not many people with young kids there, usually when we go on vacation, we always find another couple at the hotel with a kid that our daughter ends up befriending, but not here. Seems like you have your twenties and your fifties but not much in between. That is not a complaint, is simply an observation.
From San Juan del Sur we went to Laguna de Apoyo for a night. Initially the plan was to have the taxista drive us to Granada where I made a car reservation in advance. On the way I asked the guy how much would it be to drive us around the whole day and at the end drop us at the laguna. He said 100, instead of the initial 60, and that was all good by me and forgot about the car rental. We went to the Masaya volcano, to the Masaya mercado and some other places around. At the end of the day, we had dinner at Mi viejo ranchito, which came highly recommended by all local drivers I had. Gotta say that was a disappointment. I should say though that the food is definitely not Nicaragua's strong point. At Apoyo we stayed at San Simian which is a beautiful spot, though not much to do there and swimming in the lake, as much as I wanted to convince myself that is something to swim in a volcano crater, is sure not much different than swimming in Lake Michigan in the summer. The initial plan was to stay at Apoyo two nights, but I am glad San Simian only had one available so we were forced to go to Granada the next day.
Last three days we spent in Granada. It is indeed a beautiful colonial town. We stayed at PlazaColon which, no doubt, is a excellent place. Again, the pool came in handy with the kid. Just as in SJDS case, I am glad I stayed there for a first time, but next time I am in Granada, I will definitely go for a cheaper option. All hotels are within 5 minutes walk from each other and from outside, they all looked very well. A good alternative I think would be Hotel Colonial for instance, which is essentially across the street. We spent a lot of time walking in Granada, took the carriage ride (twice, again highlight for the kid) and I recommend doing that. One day we went to the isletas with Favio tours, the kid got to fed the monkey and I got to marvel at the corruption of the government selling islands in what should be a protected natural reserve. Another day we took a cab ride to Catarina to do horse back riding (not for me, at my weight, it would be unhealthy for the horse, but the kid sure enjoyed it and I got the benefit of the exercise of running alongside the horse to make sure she doesn't fall off). 3 Toñas later ( to counteract the half hour of running) we were off to Masatepe. I should say I am a foodie, so Mondongo was on the to do list. We went to Doña Nestor which is presumably the best Mondongo out there. It is an interesting approach to tripe and cartilages and I sure loved it, particularly washed down with some white flor de cana. I tried lots of tripe soups in my life from all corners of the world and I will not rank this too high. Interesting, sure, I am glad I tried it, but people that say this is better than menudo are high (and menudo in no way is the best tripe concoction out there).
This is a good time now to segway into my favorite activity while in foreign countries: food. I think Nicaragua has potential, given the interesting ingredients available, but the food scene is just not there. Mondongo is impossible to find except in villages and even there is essentially someone's house. Interesting items, like huevos del torro and pinol de iguana I could not find no matter how hard I tried. Nacatamal is interesting but is too close to tamales to stand on its own without some local twist. Indio viejo, though easier to find, is still not part of a regular restaurant menu (went for it at the comidas tipicas y max which unfortunately is on the calzada so I can't help thinking one should be able to do better than the touristy spot). Morongo is an interesting twist on boudin noir, but too blandly served and again, I was able to find a single restaurant in Granada that served it.
I wished there was a restaurant that would venture to showcase some local flavors. Definitely a lot of those could be find in local mercados and rest assured, that's essentially where I tried them, but a trained chef with some sense of adventure would take them a long, long way. But that does not exist yet. Instead, one of the highly ranked on TA restaurants in Granada is The Garden Cafe. I mean, beautiful garden, great sandwiches, but c'mon, in the end of the day, sandwiches nothing more. El Zaguan, another highlight on TA is certainly upscale for the local standards, but filet mignon is not exactly food destination. Hell, do you know how many internationally acclaimed places in Chicago serve filet mignon?
This was a long post, so I am going to wrap it up. I hope this did not come through as negative, because I loved Nicaragua. I have an analytical mind though, so is in my blood to make cold observations on facts. Nicaragua is a beautiful country and I am sure I will go back. It may be a backpacker paradise or retirement heaven, but I am passed my backpacking days and I am decades away from retirement. The truth is, it could be a lot better given the potential it has. I read a lot of concern about safety in this forum, for what is worth I felt the safest there of all my trips (then again, my standard is south chicago, so likely, short of Baghdad 5 years ago I doubt I would feel really unsafe anywhere). It is a good place to go with kids since they will love all the horses, monkeys, volcanos etc. Big thanks to all people who posted here and for future travelers enjoy Nica!