Nicaragua’s time has come. Savvy travelers always have an eye out for new and exciting vacation horizons, and yes, nowadays, they are finding endless reasons to fall in love with this beautiful country, the largest in Central America.
Why now? Nicaragua has been at peace for two decades, and not only are travelers finding it is safe to visit, but they are discovering a whole new world full of colonial charm, cultural creativity, natural beauty, sun-swept beaches fringing two seas, and active adventures galore. Consider also that it may be the expanding core of charming boutique hotels in the towns, stylish eco-lodges in the wilderness, and luxury resorts by the sea that is moving Nicaragua center-stage in the leisure travel marketplace.
This year, Nicaragua is on the National Geographic Traveler’s “50 Trips of a Lifetime” list, with the pick being International Expeditions’ Nicaragua itinerary, a 9-day tour offering travelers visits to five wildlife reserves, including the bird-friendly coffee estate Selva Negra. According to Bill Robison, the director of program development for International Expeditions (IE), “Nicaragua is a really pristine version of Costa Rica before the crowds and five-star resorts moved in. We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the program because our travelers want to explore this former ‘backpacker-only’ destination before it becomes mainstream.”
Nicaragua is indeed making headlines. The New York Times, for one, named Nicaragua one of the top 43 tourist destinations for 2013, and those who have been there and done that can’t seem to resist comparing Nicaragua to the Costa Rica of 30 years ago. So it seemed time to go back and see what the new buzz was all about.
on the road
We recently visited Nicaragua and the first leg of our itinerary revolved around Cocibolca. Well, actually, that’s the indigenous name for Lake Nicaragua, not only Central America’s largest lake covering 3,089 sq. miles, but the only freshwater lake in the world harboring sharks. Here, the lakeside focus is all about (but not overrun by) tourism, and from this visitor’s viewpoint, Cocibolca is on the cusp of discovery because its visitor attractions are many. On larger islands served by ferries, there are volcanoes to climb, archaeological sites to explore, and artist colonies to admire, while smaller islands and islets teem with birds close to shore. Onshore, one finds a cultural mix of colonial towns and picturesque villages; national parks hosting red-eyed frogs, howler monkeys and dozens of bird species; jungle paths to trek; and canopy tours that glide above it all.
Less than an hour from the Managua airport, lakeside Granada is the center of Cocibolca action, as well as the country’s colonial showcase. The town’s charm starts at its palm tree-lined main square, framed by Moorish arcades and the cathedral, cooled by splashing fountains. The plaza is the hub for decorative horse-drawn carriages waiting to take visitors touring past 17th century churches and elegant colonial homes painted in a full palette of tropical colors. A must is a stop at El Convento de San Francisco, Granada’s first church, and its museum featuring religious art and pre-Columbian artifacts, and at the prettiest church in town, La Merced.
Granada has a good choice of small hotels, most in converted colonial houses. We stayed in the elegant and intimate La Gran Francia, just off the main square, whose 21 rooms overlook an atrium surrounding a small pool; the restaurant is just across the street in its own colonial quarters. It’s a short walk to the new main pedestrian street, La Calzada, the place to go for a wide range of culinary delights, from Italian to Indian to Mediterranean; a top local pick for grilled steaks and lake fish is El Zaguan, and Hotel Dario’s El Chocolate cafe serves a mango smoothie visitors won’t soon forget. Rates at La Gran Francia are $120 dbl with breakfast.
Kayaking about Las Isletas—an archipelago of some 300 islands, some large and lush, others no more than a pile of volcanic rocks serving as perches for egrets and ospreys—is a popular activity in Granada. Alternately, travelers can board a motorboat and hang their sombrero offshore at the Jicaro Island Ecolodge, tucked into the rocky landscape of its own little private island. While its guiding concepts are sustainable simplicity, harmony with nature, and community involvement, Jicaro delivers rustically elegant facilities, dining on delicious, original and homemade dishes, and totally attentive guest services.
All buildings and furniture were constructed from trees felled by 2007’s Hurricane Felix, and among nine 2-story, lake-view casitas, ours had a comfy king-size bed on the top floor with a nice big ceiling fan and a wall of windows opening to the sea, while the first floor featured a spacious living area connecting to an outside deck with a hammock and chairs. Guests also face the lake when dipping in the resort’s saltwater pool, when meditating on the yoga deck or relaxing with a massage in the spa, when sipping chilled mojitos served up with brilliant sunsets, and when dining in the open-air restaurant serving up unfailingly delicious meals crafted with fresh everything: local produce, regional delicacies, and Nicaraguan specialties.
Going off island, visitors can hike to the rim of Mombacho Volcano, go horseback riding or kayaking, visit a coffee plantation or a school, and more. Mind you, while we love the place, Jicaro Island Ecolodge is not for everyone, certainly not for those who need TV or air conditioning, and perhaps it’s not a spot for families with young kids. On the other hand, this is a primetime pick for special-experience seekers and for romance; couples can dine out by candlelight on a floating dock anchored just offshore. Rates at Jicaro are $390 dbl with all meals, non-alcoholic beverages and roundtrip transfers from Granada.
Granada is also the jumping-off point for Lake Nicaragua’s largest island and a UNESCO Biosphere Preserve, Ometepe, accessed by a ferry boat ride from the port of San Jorge. Travelers will want to sit top-deck to catch the first glimpse of the island’s twin volcanoes: Maderas, which rewards climbers with a crater lake for swimming at the top, and Concepcion, the steeper of the two and suited for very fit climbers. Once they’ve touched foot on this rather magical island, visitors hike, mountain bike, paraglide, fish, kayak or volunteer at various community projects. Certainly clients should visit the excellent collection of pre-Columbian artifacts in the El Ceibo Museum in Altagracia, and then make an appointment with local guide Carlos Diaz Cajina to guide them at the sites of Nahuatl Indian petroglyphs and stone idols scattered around hospitable Finca Magdalena outside the town of Balgue.
Accommodations are fittingly rustic on the island, and probably the best tourist hotel is Villa Paraiso above Santo Domingo Beach. But our host, Gray Line Tours, picked one that we think had a far better Ometepe vibe. We drove in steep-ascent gear up a narrow road above Balgue to stay at Totoco Eco-Lodge, an ecologically sensitive masterpiece with uninterrupted views of Concepcion Volcano and Lake Nicaragua beyond from the main lodge, the pool and the cabins. The solar-powered lodge sits on a working 15-acre organic farm and has six spacious, quirky cabins with private porches and quality mattresses on four-poster beds. Guests are on the go nonstop: climbing volcanoes, kayaking the wetlands, and hiking out to bathe in the San Ramon waterfall. But everyone’s back for drinks at the bar before tasty 3-course dinners. Rates from $75 to $98 dbl.
Returning to the mainland and leaving Cocibolca in the rearview mirror, we set out for San Juan del Sur on the southwest Pacific coast, a town populated by surfers, sunseekers, backpackers and retirees whose languorous days are interrupted every so often in the winter months by brief invasions of cruise ship tourism. While the premier resort here is the luxury Pelican Eyes, we stayed 11 miles up the coast at Morgan’s Rock Ecolodge, which is not only a beautiful place to be, but one that deserves credit for being the founding pioneer of sophisticated upscale eco-lodges in Nicaragua. Set on a beautiful crescent of private beach (11 miles from San Juan del Sur) and surrounded by 4,000 acres of protected forest, Morgan’s Rock accommodates guests in 15 bungalows, tucked into a hill above the beach and all facing west so guests can swing in the double hammocks and watch the fiery sunsets. These big tree house-like cabins are rustically elegant, fitted with king-size beds, a comfy sofa bed, and outdoor garden showers. They are also a bit of a walk from the suspension foot bridge that links the bungalows to the main lodge where in the alfresco poolside restaurant, guests enjoy meals that reflect both local flair and the French heritage of its ownership, and come with fresh breezes and unobstructed views of the sea.
Morgan’s Rock is a hacienda with heart and head for some impressive conservation work. Since opening in 2001, it has planted more than 1.5 million native hardwood and fruit trees, protected a 1,900-acre section of primary forest, and reintroduced endangered species to the private reserve that is home to howler and spider monkeys, sloths and white tipped deer, plus most of the subtropical birds native to the region. It’s an unbeatable getaway for nature lovers, adventurers and families who head out to explore on and off the property afoot, on horseback, by kayak and 4WD, or go surfing or fishing aboard the 48-ft. Argonauta. Back at the lodge, guests cool off in the hilltop infinity pool or down at Ocotal Beach, where in season, sea turtles waddle up on the beach. Rates pp dbl with breakfast and dinner from $167; from $190 with all meals.
The big “splash” along what is called the Emerald Coast is the Mukul Resort & Spa, spread out along the almost-deserted white sands of Playa Manzanillo. It’s the $250 million passion-project of rum-and-sugar baron Don Carlos Pellas, who has turned 1,670 acres of family land, Guacalito de la Isla, into Nicaragua’s first ultra-luxurious resort. Clients have a choice of 23 stylish, spacious (621 sq. ft.) treehouse-style bohios, elevated 300 ft. above the beach and fitted out with sliding glass doors opening onto wraparound verandahs and private plunge pools. Or they can opt for one of 12 one- and two-bedroom beach villas with alfresco monsoon showers and pools within stone-walled gardens. We loved the privacy, the quiet and the sunset views from hilltop bohios, but didn’t like being dependent on carts—and there was no wait, we must point out—to go down to the main building and beach. It seemed as though a shortcut path with steps and railing down to the beach would be the right solution here.
However, let me rush to say that Mukul is gorgeous. The supervising decorators have created stunning yet informal public areas that stretch from the indoor/outdoor restaurant and to the pools overlooking the beach, to the Kul Kids club and the special room for Flor de Caña rum tastings. The activities menu is huge: take a surfing lesson from experienced instructors; snorkel the calm waters around Anciana Island; get up early for a birdwatching walk; ride a mountain bike; go whale watching (in season); take a yoga class or a catered beach picnic; and tee off on the 18-hole David McKay Kidd-designed golf course that meanders over flowering and forested hills to the sea. Beyond activities there are Mukul “Experiences,” such as booking a helicopter to go ash boarding down the slopes of Cerro Negro Volcano. Double bohio rates from $500.
what not to miss while discovering nicaragua
- Cooking at El Filete: Careli Tours in Managua has introduced a cooking class at El Filete restaurant under the direction of owner/chef Patricia Riguero. We learned to prepare the typical dish called quesillo, consisting of beef (this country is known for its beef), rice, beans, fried green plantains, cheese, and pico de gallo salsa. This particular stainless steel kitchen is state-of-the-art, can handle up to 30 people, and is a featured offering on cruise ship itineraries.
- Mi Museo in Granada: Recommend the absolutely fabulous Mi Museo, displaying the private collection of Danish-born Peder Kolind. He has restored a 19th century building to house some 5,000 artifacts—mostly marvelous ceramics—dating from 2000 B.C. to A.D. 1550. Admission is free.
- Breakfast at the Farm: This special dividend at Morgan’s Rock Ecolodge is for kids of all ages; the quintessential example of farm-to-table dining. Don’t miss collecting eggs from the chicken coop, milking a cow, pounding corn to learn to make homemade tortillas—all tasks that go into a family-style Nicaraguan breakfast prepared and served down at the farmhouse.
- Pottery Village at San Juan de Oriente: Totally committed to the art of ceramics, there are treasures to be found here and at ridiculously low prices. Head for the workshops for demonstrations of pottery making, and consider arranging a class or two for interested clients.
- Ah, the Spa Mukul: From a hilltop site, the spa offers a choice of six experiences housed in six spa casitas, each individually designed and featuring a unique set of treatments based around a central theme such as a Moroccan hammam or the enchanting Crystal Temple. Ours was the Secret Garden, a huge suite with its own private pool fed by water flowing through bamboo and around marble columns; a hand-embroidered hammock under a thatch palapa; a shower with a bevy of jets; a bit of music and a soft-spoken therapist. Unlike anything we’ve experienced in U.S., European, Thai or Balinese spas.
latin american escapes does nicaragua
Long before all the buzz began, California-based Latin American Escapes was already aboard the “visit Nicaragua” bandwagon. “We’ve been there for 15 years, with clients soaking up the culture of two colonial cities, exploring the mystical island of Ometepe, hiking through cloud forests and up volcanoes, shopping local markets, and kayaking about the islets of Lake Nicaragua,” says company president Peggy Newfield. “And every year the destination gets better and better, from good roads and delightful accommodations to a solid and working commitment to sustainable tourism, thanks in large part to the expertise of the Rainforest Alliance.”
Newfield finds the country offers all kinds of special interest travel potential, pointing out that “we are starting to introduce touring with a specialty viewpoint such as Nicaragua’s Cuisine & Culture, an 8-day tour including cooking workshops and local market visits; next year’s new offering will be a multi-sport tour, exploring on foot, by mountain bike, and in a kayak.” A well-priced, top-seller right now is the 8-day Nicaragua Explorer, starting in Managua, and traveling to the cloud forests of the Selva Negra Reserve, a local coffee farm in Matagalpa, the colonial towns of Leon and Granada, and including excursions such exploring an artisan market, as well as Masaya Volcano and Mombacho Volcano national parks. Priced from $1,635 pp dbl.
(800) 510-5999; latinamericanescapes.com
tour operator intel
International Expeditions’ (IE) 9-day tour is full of natural and cultural delights, and introduces guests to the art, architecture and history of the charming colonial cities of Leon and Granada, as well as Nicaragua’s finest nature areas, including Juan Venado Island Reserve, Selva Negra Private Reserve, Masaya Volcano National Park and the islets of Lake Nicaragua. “Our award-winning tour made its debut in 2012,” says company spokeswoman Emily Harley, “and the highlight for our guests was their stay in the northern highlands at Selva Negra Ecolodge.” The birdlife is extraordinary in these protected places, and IE is known for its seasoned naturalist guides. Departures are scheduled for January, February, March and December 2014; price is $3,398 pp dbl.
(800) 633-4734; ietravel.com/travel-agents
According to Beth Karlicek, senior v.p., General Tours, “Nicaragua is now rightly a stand-alone destination for our Small Group Discoveries series.” In fact, the company introduced its 8-day Treasures of Nicaragua tour two years ago; previously, Nicaragua was combined with other Central American countries. “What’s really nice about Nicaragua is the attractions are pristine and rewarding, the hotel infrastructure of small properties is unobtrusive and appropriate to the local scene, the atmosphere is welcoming and the people friendly. In Nicaragua, you feel like you’re among the first to be visiting this newfound destination—think early Costa Rica or Panama, if you will.” General Tours’ itinerary includes stops on Ometepe Island, Granada, Leon, and other highlights. Tour price is $2,199 pp dbl; $2,599 for a private tour.
(800) 221-2216; generaltours.com/Rewards/Login.aspx
New to the Nicaragua travel marketplace, Travel Impressions (TI) has launched a vacation program in cooperation with the Nicaragua Tourism Board. “We are excited to be partnering with a major North American tour company,” says minister of tourism Mayra Salinas, “for [I believe] that together with Nicaragua’s talented and experienced network of suppliers in our country, we are ready to welcome a major new stream of visitors from the U.S. and Canada.” The Travel Impressions product features an impressive collection of hotels in Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua (Real InterContinental Metrocentro and Seminole Plaza) and the colonial city of Granada (Hotel Dario, Hotel Colonial and Hotel Plaza Colon). For beachside relaxation, TI offers three resorts in the San Juan del Sur beach area (Aqua Wellness Resort & Spa, Mukul Resort & Spa, and Pelican Eyes Resort & Spa) and one all-inclusive property on Montelimar Beach (Barcelo Montelimar Beach).
Travel agents can increase their commissions by enhancing clients’ Nicaragua experience with pre-booked excursions: a city tour of Managua, visits to Masaya Volcano and the nearby artisan market, a folkloric evening, or a safari through Montibelli Tropical Forest are just a few of the examples.
(800) 284-0044; travelimpressions.com