Still unspoiled by tourism, Nicaragua is on the verge of becoming a global hot spot. Get there before everyone else does .
For first-timers to Central America’s largest country, a no-fail itinerary combines the best of city and beach. Visit the colonial town of Granada and San Juan del Sur’s verdant coastline to experience natural beauty and history complete with adventure opportunities, cool openings and the country’s first five-star resort.
With new direct seasonal flights from the states, Nicaragua is well worth the six-and-a-half-hour journey from the West Coast of the U.S. Forty-five minutes from the Managua airport lies the candy-colored colonial town of Granada, an enclave surrounded by centuries-old volcanoes and one of the world’s largest lakes (Lake Nicaragua).
In contrast to the horse-drawn carriages and cobblestone streets that typify this nearly 500-year-old city, there are numerous stylish and youthful hotels and restaurants popping up. Fresh from his NYC days (where he ran Bar d’O and the rooftop bar at 60 Thompson), Yvan Cussigh’s seven-room boutique Tribal Hotel (tribal-hotel.com) is a boho oasis with banana trees, daybeds and an inviting blue-tiled pool. The hipster coffee bar and restaurant, Espressionista, feels as if it could be found in Brooklyn or Silverlake. And Ciudad Lounge (ciudadlounge.com), under the direction of owner and Executive Chef William Lopez Guevara, is a beautiful culinary school and fine-dining restaurant with extensive cigar and rum tasting menus. (Insider’s tip: At most area restaurants it’s hard to go wrong with the local dish, churrasco, a Nicaraguan-style grilled skirt steak with chimichurri sauce.)
Alongside these new-wave comforts, there’s ample local charm to discover. Indulge in a visit to Doña Elba, a small family-owned cigar factory (because, when in Central America…), or scout for a more lasting souvenir at Ladrilleria Favilli, a local tile company crafting incredible cement pieces with far-flung traditional motifs. Look down the eye of the Masaya Volcano, then visit the open-air Mercado de Artesanias for a refreshing horchata and to peruse handmade ceramics. On nearby Mombacho Volcano, tour the Café Las Flores coffee plantation (cafelasflores.com) and zipline through its trees. By boat, explore Lake Nicaragua and its more than 400 islands (home to freshwater adaptive bull sharks) before cargo ships overtake it. In December, construction began on the $50 billion Nicaragua Grand Canal, set to connect the Caribbean and Pacific by widening the San Juan River and cutting straight through the lake. Allowing for larger vessels than can fit through the Panama Canal, it will forever change the Nicaraguan landscape.
Traveling west to the Pacific coast, San Juan del Sur is already seeing a lot of development. Don Carlos Pellas, Flor de Caña rum proprietor, owns the land to the north of the proposed canal outlet. Guacalito de la Isla is his new $250-million, 1,670-acre low-density private beach community, which includes a flourishing residential compound, a David McLay Kidd-designed golf course and Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa (mukulresort.com), the country’s first five-star resort. The Mayan word for “secret,” Mukul features 37 beach bohios and cliffside villas, each with an ocean view, pool and private staff. With unparalleled spa offerings, a beach club, infinity pool and intimate dining highlighting Mesoamerican ingredients at La Mesa, the resort is as equally suited to honeymooners as to those looking to go fishing, diving and surfing.
Thanks to consistent swells and offshore wind, the area, also known as the Emerald Coast, has become a popular surf destination (but still has much smaller crowds compared to Costa Rica, El Salvador and Mexico). Just north of Mukul, Playa La Redonda’s Aqua Wellness Resort (aquanicaragua.com) is set to cater to wave chasers; staff will call a guide with a panga (a modest outboard boat) to take you to the best local breaks. The rustic luxury setting, with its treetop villas and plunge pools scattered throughout the hillside, caters to wellness with yoga, kayaking, hiking and snorkeling—made all the more magical thanks to the attendance of local residents including howler monkeys and baby sea turtles.
Written and edited by Jenny Murray.