Adventure Exotic holiday Travel

Ecotourism Nicaragua: Welcome to the Jungle

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.

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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.

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Where to Stay

1. Morgan’s Rock Eco Lodge, San Juan del Sur

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.

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2. Yemaya Island Hideaway, Little Corn Island

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.

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3. Jicaro Island Eco-Lodge, Las Isletas

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.

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Jicaro Island
    May 26, 2015 at 6:54 pm

    Thanks for the great write-up! It was a pleasure having you at our hotel and we hope to see you again soon.

    The staff at Jicaro.

  • Reply
    Shelly Cohen
    Jun 1, 2015 at 8:09 pm

    I’ve been looking at Nicaragua for a while. Looking at thi I’ll definitely book it, looks amazing.

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