By Anisha Shah
‘Why not Costa Rica?’ ask my friends. It’s an understandable question, given Costa Rica’s huge lead on tourism in the Central American isthmus. Having heard on the grapevine whisperings about Nicaragua over recent years, I ventured north of the Costa Rican border, into the exclusive yet modest and blissfully uncrowded nation to see what all the fuss is about.
Nicaragua combines the best of authenticity, adventure and beauty in a crowd-free setting. Emerging as a stand-alone eco-tourism destination, lodges and hotels here are serious about preserving the pristine surrounds, keeping designs and architecture sympathetic to nature. The real luxury is the dramatic outdoors, and accommodations go to great lengths to showcase this highlight.
The Luxury of Seclusion
The oldest colonial city in continental America, the largest lake in Central America, an archipelago of islets, active volcanoes, primeval forest, virgin beaches and Caribbean islands comprise a nation of great diversity. For those craving an exclusive escape, this is a sanctuary of unhurried bliss at mind- boggling affordability. Nicaragua is also considered the safest country in Central America, a pleasant surprise for those who still associate it with its history of civil war, dictatorship and revolution, which ended 15 years ago.
Those in the know–namely surfers, backpackers and yogis–have long reaped the benefits of the diverse topography here and all the adventures it offers, delighting in the seclusion. The absence of queues, crowds and, often, people, gives Nicaragua a private playground feeling. Unique pursuits are borne of fantasy: think horseback-riding through primeval forest teeming with wildlife, galloping across ribbons of empty wild beaches, surfing the big swells of the Pacific coast or mountain biking and hiking active volcanoes and plunging into crater lakes. If these sound too sedate, how about kayaking on Lake Nicaragua, home to the world’s only freshwater sharks, or zip-lining over the mouth of a smoking volcano? And for the ultimate thrill, board down an active volcano, hitting speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. It’s an electrifying experience.
Where to Stay
Set on 4,000-acres of jungle, estuary, beach and mountains, Morgans’ Rock eco-lodge is the most exclusive accommodation in Nicaragua. Just 15 individual villas are hidden on hills in the heart of the rainforest and facing an expansive glittering powdery white-sand beach, giving it that private island feeling, at a fraction of the cost. Accessible only via a long and winding dirt track or by boat, seclusion and privacy are guaranteed. At the same time, it’s a 20-minute drive or boat ride to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua’s most popular and laid-back surf, yoga and party town.
The property design is outstanding with unique features borne of sustainability. The bathrooms showcase the rawness of surrounding nature with gnarled, exposed copper piping and interiors designed from an on-site wood plantation.
Morgan’s Rock turns up the luxury of the hammock a notch with swinging double daybeds on the terrace, lacing nature with luxury. A/C is not needed as the villas are perfectly designed to catch the breeze. But what is truly magnificent here isthe magnitude and audacity of the outdoors. Morgan’s Rock is all that is heavenly about Nicaragua: rainforest, estuary, beach and wildlife. The gigantic bleached blonde private beach leaves little wanting, with individually built thatched shelters nestling oversized hammocks and swinging cocoons. In the whole time I’m here I barely see another person.
The hike to my villa involves around 50 steps carved into a mountain, crossing through the forest. The highlight is the purpose-built suspension bridge over jungle canopy, past sloth and howler monkeys. By night, the reverberations of the jungle become surround-sound (and touch!)
Every dawn, I indulge in daily guided horseback riding from the in-house stables. ‘El Pirata’ is a gentle beauty. My knowledgeable guide, Carlos Reyes, leads us to astounding hilltop views before trotting through the on-site organic farm to feast on freshly picked blood oranges and grapefruit. We finish morning sessions by galloping on the sun-soaked empty beach. Morgan’s Rock turns my fantasy into reality.
I find little need to leave Morgan’s Rock. Between mouth-watering meals by the infinity pool, breakfasts on the on-site farm and organic garden, nature hikes, soothing massages, kayaking and fishing on the estuary, there’s little left wanting. Morgan’s Rock is as luxurious as Nicaragua gets, in a property sympathetic to its surroundings. The beautiful surrounds are a great way to reconnect with nature. I find my time here holistic and empowering.
Getting here involves a domestic flight from the capital, Managua, to Big Corn Island and an hour’s speedboat transfer, which can be traumatic when the sea is choppy. But it is oh-so-worth-it. Once the lore of Caribbean pirates, Little Corn Island is a 1 square mile island; a safe haven of barefoot bliss, lolling in the Caribbean Sea. The beaches and coral reefs are the best in Nicaragua. Some days, I walk through lush tropical interior, forgetting my shoes, meeting friendly locals on the way.
Yemaya Island Hideaway is a fully-fledged luxury eco-lodge of 16 cabanas, nesting on a serene and scenic headland on the quiet side of Little Corn Island. Bordered by a sumptuous bosom of isolated beaches and remote hidden coves, the sparkling waters cradle thriving coral reef; the best in Nicaragua and in which I find myself snorkelling entirely in own company. A unique highlight is sailing on Yemaya’s re-conditioned Miskito boat at sunset, with its original fishing crew, re-trained and re-employed by the lodge.
Little Corn is a sensual island, a place where young lovers escape the real world. It’s evocative and heady, a sweet paradise where fantasy surpasses reality, enhanced by wilderness, natural beauty, affordability and simplicity at its core.
Whilst sauntering over rocks one evening to barren inlets at dusk, I watch local fishermen haul in lobster, whilst a young couple kiss inside a temporary pitch on the beach. Later, the fishermen share with the couple their barbecued seafood dinner, before leaving them to their remote love cocoon. Hammocks are hidden amidst coves, suspended on the island that’s suspended in the sea.
Top of Yemaya’s game-plan, as acting manager Erin Miller enthuses, is to empower the local community. Employing mostly locals, and 10% of the island, Yemaya is a powerhouse of the local economy. It starts from scratch, training mostly Creole-speaking locals in English, hospitality and paying for their constant schooling. These skills are transferable, as I see when I walk to the other side of the island, where some of the waiters and bar staff own their family restaurants and cafes beyond.
Here, beauty also has a conscience, reflecting Nicaragua’s emergence as a tourism destination. The eco-lodge is serious about preserving nature and the environment. All the charming furniture in-villas is made on the island, directly from a lady on Corn Island.
Yemaya is amongst a growing number of Nicaraguan properties hosting expert yoga retreats. The country is on the cusp of wellness innovation. And it’s now starting to gain the attention it deserves. Morning meditation and yoga are a godsend. The final exhale. That’s when it all comes together. Lying in ‘Shavasana’ pose, on my back on a wooden platform shrouded by virgin forest on this little island, I can finally breathe again.
The grand finale of morning yoga comes as the instructor’s fingers press firmly on my forehead, massaging my temples with soothing lavender oil. ‘Feel any tension melt into the ground, listen to the sounds of nature: the breeze, birds singing, waves rolling in, and follow your natural breath.’ Rebecca Gonzales’ long drawn-out words resonate, as I take instruction from the wellness director at Yemaya, learning to reconnect with myself. In this tropical oasis of beach and jungle, it’s an awakening of the body and mind, being soothed by the bounty of nature. It’s surreal to be suspended on this Caribbean sandbar, which most have no idea even exists, where lifestyle and culture reflects the Caribbean, yet positioned in Hispanic Central America.
Yoga is swiftly followed by organic breakfast, imbibing from a 30-strong fresh smoothies menu of ingredients like raw cacao, lemongrass and seaweed, and virtually inhaling divine breakfasts of ingredients, grown in Yemaya’s on-site garden. It’s a very casual affair, as in most of Nicaragua; more barefoot than Burberry. The luxury lies in the magnificence of nature rather than a fussy experience.
Yemaya is a special place, full of Nicaraguan authenticity and heart.
Positioned amidst the largest lake in Central America, known to house the world’s only freshwater sharks, Jicaro Island Eco-Lodge is indeed unique. Voted one of the top 25 ecolodges in the world, by National Geographic Traveller, Jicaro is a haven.
Thousands of years ago, an eruption of volcano Mombacho, one of 19 volcanoes piercing Nicaragua’s skyline like a pulse reading, threw up 365 rocks. They sedimented inside Lake Nicaragua and are now a glittering archipelago of islets, known as ‘Las Isletas.’ From the shores of Granada, Nicaragua’s most colourful and authentic Spanish colonial city, I board a private boat to Jicaro.
Accessible only by boat, seclusion, privacy and peace are a given. Many neighbouring islets are private homes of the wealthy, yoga retreats and there is one known as ‘Monkey Island,’ which is actually home to a displaced troop of cheeky monkeys!
Jicaro Lodge is one of Nicaragua’s best private island retreats. It features nine luxurious casitas in the most serene spot inside the lake, perfect for yoga retreaters wanting total calm and isolation. The tranquil hideaway is a full-on sensory experience, cocooned within nature. The hum of the shallow surf of Lake Nicaragua, exotic birds chirping in the tall foliage, monkeys screeching in the distance and facing majestic Volcano Mombacho, this tropical oasis is enough to calm the most hyper of minds.
The essence of meals here is ‘locally sourced, globally inspired.’ The entire islet places great emphasis on healthful reconnection. Built entirely from timber reclaimed from trees blown down by hurricane Felix, the buildings and furniture are made of tropical hardwoods, which provide a solid and beautiful environment in harmony with the natural setting. Great care was taken whilst building the ecolodge to maintain the existing character of the island and the lush vegetation. When building, the owners did not remove any of the large trees or boulders, and so the land dictated the form of the resort. Jicaro is a feat of architecture sympathetic to its exquisite surroundings.