How to make the most of three weeks in Costa Rica + Nicaragua
Travelling to Nicaragua + Costa Rica makes for an incredible holiday for all. We reveal the best places to visit in Costa Rica + Nicaragua to best to spend three weeks in these diverse Central American countries.
Costa Rica and Nicaragua are very much standalone destinations. However, where possible, we always encourage our clients to spend longer in a place and travel more slowly to reduce their footprint and get more out of their trip, so if you have time on your hands, the two countries make a great combination and complement each other well. Costa Rica, one of the smallest but most diverse countries in Central America, is perfect for nature lovers, home to numerous national parks, volcanoes and prolific wildlife. Underrated Nicaragua has many protected areas and reserves, dazzling lakes and charming colonial towns due to its rich culture and history. Both have beautiful Pacific and Caribbean coastlines.
Whether you would like to choose one or travel to both, we can create an extraordinary adventure for you. All our itineraries are entirely tailor-made, but below you can discover the best places to visit in Costa Rica and Nicaragua on a three-week holiday with cazenove+loyd:
San José, Costa Rica
On arrival at Juan Santamaría International Airport, you will be met and driven to Xandari, a lovely place to recover from the flight. The property has 24 villas set in a verdant, 40-acre coffee plantation. Sustainability is at its core, and as part of its conservation programme the team plants indigenous plants to attract birds and butterflies. Guests can get involved with this by planting a native tree during their stay.
Pacuare River, Costa Rica
After one night at Xandari, your driver will take you to a meeting point on the Pacuare River, where you will raft to Pacuare Lodge. This is an exhilarating way to get there, but if you would prefer to travel by land, this is also possible. At Pacuare, each suite has its own plunge pool, a tranquil place to close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the rainforest. We suggest spending three nights here so you have time to try some of the many adventures on offer here, such as canyoning, waterfall hikes, ziplining or wildlife-watching.
Arenal Volcano National Park, Costa Rica
Next, you will travel to Arenal National Park, a scenic three- to four-hour drive north-west. The park is well known as an adventure hub, but with the recent arrival of Nayara Tented Camp, it is now also a wonderful place to relax in style en route to the Nicaraguan border. This top-notch tented camp has 18 fabulous tents – some set up high on the hill overlooking the Arenal Volcano and with plunge pools fed by natural springs, as well as outdoor showers, four-poster beds and a huge bathtub. We recommend staying here for three nights to make the most of this exquisite new camp and its magical surroundings.
Tenorio Volcano National Park, Costa Rica
Your next stop is ORIGINS, a hideaway two hours further north in the Tenorio Volcano National Park. This area of scenic beauty, made up of cloud forest, waterfalls and thermal hot springs, is home to flora and fauna, such as monkeys, sloths and colourful birds, including the rare umbrella bird. The lodge itself is made up of seven private suites constructed with natural materials, which boast terraces with a fire-heated bath and sweeping vistas of the volcanoes and Lake Nicaragua. One of our favourite things about this exceptional place is the food, conjured up by a Michelin-starred chef who uses ingredients from the lodge’s gardens as well as nearby farms.
Three nights here is ideal, giving you time to unwind and enjoy the lodge as well as go on one or two adventures, including an enjoyable hike with a naturalist guide through unspoilt rainforest, past bubbling mud pools heated by the thermal waters of the Miravalles and Tenorio volcanoes to Río Celeste’s pretty waterfall and azure lagoon. This is quite a tough walk but, in our opinion, it is well worth it for the experience of exploring this far-flung corner of Costa Rica on foot.
Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, Nicaragua
You will continue your journey in Nicaragua. The border lies two hours’ drive north, where you will be helped through immigration and dropped at your boat transfer to Guacimo Lodge, a two-hour ride that is an exciting introduction to the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. Your jungle bolthole for three nights sits within 40 hectares of primary forest beside the San Juan River. It may be simple but it is comfortable and makes you feel truly immersed in nature. The ecolodge has been cleverly designed to bring the outside in, while respecting nature and sticking to its sustainable ethos. This is a haven for adventurous clients who are looking to get off the beaten track.
Three nights in Indio Maíz is perfect as there are several fantastic experiences to enjoy here. On your first evening here, we will arrange an idyllic outing on a private boat to sip sundowners and observe wildlife. The following morning, you can go on a trek beneath a 60m hardwood canopy, spotting anything from parrots to monkeys. This large reserve, in Nicaragua’s south-eastern corner, harbours bountiful wildlife, including deer, pumas, pacas, sloths, jaguars, wild boars, snakes, crocodiles, manatees and hundreds of bird species.
On your second day, you can putter further upriver to a ruined steamship in order to learn about the people that crossed this remote waterway in the 19th century. We also suggest visiting El Castillo, a tiny village on the southern bank of the Río San Juan, home to about 1,500 people. There is an old fortress here that was once used to prevent pirates from entering Granada via the lake. It is now home to a library and a museum that harbours remnants from the old transit route between New York, Boston and San Francisco during the mid-19th-century gold rush. We always try to arrange for our clients to meet local people who don’t usually guide on their trips, and a real highlight of your stay here will be meeting one of the best navigators of the San Juan River. Now retired, he was able to guide a large ferry through the dangerous rapids in front of the town. He will also share some of his experiences of living in the forest during the Sandinista-Contra war.
Next you will travel by boat back along the San Juan River to San Carlos and then enter the great Lake Nicaragua. In its south-eastern part, you will pass Isla de las Aves, one of the Solentiname Islands, which is only inhabited by birds, and then continue on to Colón, from where your adventure will continue by car. A three-hour drive will take you along the east side of the lake, with outstanding views of the majestic Concepción Volcano and the Ometepe Island, until you reach the beguiling colonial town of Granada. Here, you will spend the next three nights at Tribal. Stylish, chic and beautifully designed, this is one of our favourite hotels in Central America. It is a lovely place to put your feet up in a shady spot and relax on one of the double sunbeds by the pool, surrounded by lush gardens. We always book the gorgeous suites here as they are twice the size of the rooms.
Just five minutes from the main square, Tribal is the ideal base to get under the skin this pretty town, which is full of boutiques, shops and vibrant buildings. We can arrange for you to go by horse-drawn carriage around the historic centre, a fun and informative way to experience Granada, after which your guide will accompany you on foot to the dilapidated train station, the derelict hospital and other interesting spots. Founded by the Spanish in 1524, this is one of the oldest colonial cities in the Western hemisphere and your guide will open your eyes to Nicaragua’s past and present.
There is also plenty to explore in the surrounding area. We can organise a boat trip on Lake Nicaragua or a trek around Laguna de Apoyo or up a nearby volcano, such as Masaya or Mombacho. There is an incredible ziplining experience at the latter, which we would certainly suggest to thrill-seeking clients. Your guide can also take you to some of the nearby villages, such as San Juan de Oriente to learn about – and try your hand at – some traditional ceramic techniques. We particularly recommend strolling around Catalina, which has striking views over Laguna de Apoyo and Masaya, as well as a good local market.
The Nicaraguan coast
There can be no better way to top off your adventure than five days on the beach. Like Costa Rica, Nicaragua has two very different but equally dramatic coasts: the Pacific shore in the west and the Caribbean in the east. We know the best seaside retreat for you, depending on what you’re looking for.
Morgan’s Rock Hacienda & Ecolodge, on a working farm further south, is great for families – although clients of all ages will love this place for its breathtaking beach, excellent food and service, and the nine beautiful casitas – our favourites being the ocean-view bungalows. Days here are spent surfing, sport fishing, horse riding on the beach, kayaking, shrimp catching, walking or enjoying some yoga.
However, if you’re looking for a heavenly private island, nothing beats Calala. Located off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, it is reached by flying from Managua to Bluefields, an hour-and-half flight in a 12-seater plane, from where its a 90-minute motorboat to the island. The journey is well worth it for Calala’s chalk-white beaches, aquamarine waters and barefoot luxury. Best suited to couples, particularly honeymooners, there are just four glorious beachfront suites and 25 members of staff for eight guests. The delicious food is prepared by a Michelin-trained chef, the service is seamless and there is an infinity pool with a swim-up bar. You’ll easily fill your days kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, snorkelling and fishing, or embarking on an interesting expedition to a small Caribbean community on the mainland. In the past, we have set up a surprise picnic on Little Calala, a deserted islet nearby.
We always advise our clients to spend at least four nights on Calala, but if you have ample time, a week would be better still. There’s no doubt this paradise isle makes for a truly memorable grand finale to three amazing weeks in Costa Rica + Nicaragua.