With memories of summer past faded, those looking forward to a winter getaway are undoubtedly already searching for their next holiday destination. If, like me, you approach holiday planning more like a research assignment with some lovely eco-hotels thrown in, then allow me to suggest Nicaragua.
Often overlooked in favour of neighbouring Costa Rica, this tropical playground boasts Lake Nicaragua – the largest freshwater lake in Central America – as well as colonial towns such as the Unesco World Heritage Site Granada and a lush volcanic island with Unesco Biosphere Reserve status called Ometepe. Oh, and some of the best surf breaks in the world. However, the country still remains relatively undiscovered – in part due to its varying levels of political unrest over the years, which has by no means diminished the warm and generous spirit of the Nicaraguans but has affected the blossoming eco-tourism industry.
With things back on track, the best time to start planning a trip is right now. Dry season is between December and April, and the Christmas break is the ideal time to zigzag between its Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Getting around is relatively stress-free – but you will need to hire a driver or a car and allow time to get stuck behind a religious procession or local farmers herding their cattle (or sometimes both).
Granada-based Brit Dominic Allan, founder of travel company Real Latin America, offers specialist, tailored advice about the so-called land of lakes and volcanoes. A Bafta-winning documentary maker turned travel expert, I couldn’t recommend him more as a unique, personal advice service for independent travellers – or for those who want a first-class concierge-like guide throughout their trip. Allan offers nothing short of a sensory overload.
Kick-start your introduction to Nicaragua in Granada, a colonial town bursting with charm…
The easiest point of entry into Nicaragua is the capital, Managua. From there, take a 45-minute taxi straight from the airport to Granada, which calls to mind Colombia’s Cartagena with its continuous rows of rainbow-painted streets and welcoming palm-lined market squares – just without the crowds. (Also more than worth a visit if you have time? Leon in the north.) Granada’s relatively small size means the majority of the town can be conquered on foot, so spend 36 hours here for a calming introductory glimpse of Nicaraguan culture on the bustling banks of its most famous lake.
Make the Tribal Hotel your base. The relaxed hacienda-style hotel has seven charming rooms surrounding an elegant courtyard pool that’s even prettier by candlelight. Its zingy interiors are filled with local crafts and curated antiques by owners Yvan Cussigh and Jean-Marc Houmard (of New York’s Acme and Indochine). It’s the most stylish hotel in Granada – and quite possibly the whole of Nicaragua. Take note: the two recently completed private villas are ideal to book for a New Year’s Eve stay with friends.
If you can bear to pull yourself away from the hotel, don’t miss breakfast at the Garden Cafe, set in an airy colonial portico with an inner garden patio, before climbing to the top of Granada’s most famous church, Iglesia La Merced, for breathtaking views of the lake and volcanoes. I also found the best souvenirs of the entire trip at the community-led cooperative Cafe de las Sonrisas. Not only does it staff its cafe with waiters affected by hearing difficulties, workers with disabilities – who are often unfairly overlooked by other businesses – are given schooling on-site and taught hand-weaving skills, producing exquisitely made hammocks from organic cotton.
Hold the keys to your own private island with 360-degree views of Lake Nicaragua…
The best way to experience the 100-mile-long Lake Nicaragua is by boating between the hundreds of tiny islands along the shores of Granada. Their inhabitants vary from friendly Nicaraguans to howler monkeys. From slightly further afield? Nicky and her husband from distant Cornwall, who came to the region searching for tranquillity and fell in love with the island of El Coyol on holiday in 2012. Today, the pair rent out their beautifully curated villa, which feels like an exclusive home-away-from-home, to those looking to experience the lake from their own private oasis.
Just a 10-minute water taxi from Granada, it takes up the entirety of a sleepy island (“isletas” to locals); sleeps up to eight people; and includes an infinity pool, yoga platform, and a dedicated river cruiser and kayaks. As for the food, a private chef is on hand to cater local dishes or personal requests – when guests take a break from indulging in home-grown mangoes from the trees that line the island, that is. This is island living at its best.
Swim in the mineral-rich Laguna Apoyo…
Just a 30-minute taxi ride from Granada lies the unspoilt Laguna Apoyo, a crystal blue freshwater lake occupying the caldera of an extinct volcano. Thanks to its status as a protected nature reserve, there’s little development except a small scattering of lodges hidden along its banks, which allow clear views across the lake. Pack a picnic and set aside a day to soak up the wild orchids, tropical palms, and abundant wildlife. To enjoy one of the best lookout points in all of Nicaragua, climb to Catarina, where you can enjoy vistas of the lagoon and the Mombacho volcano, then check into the colourful Casa Marimba, a bed and breakfast with friendly bar staff ready to whip you up a fresh fruit shake. All that’s left to do? Spend a chilled afternoon swimming in the thermally heated waters and relish the feeling of the volcanic minerals as they work their magic on your skin.
Visit a surf lodge designed for interiors fanatics…
It’s no surprise that there are an increasing number of surf-focused guesthouses popping up along the Pacific coast of Nicaragua. After all, the waves on the Costa Esmeralda are some of the best in the world – similar to those in neighbouring Costa Rica but minus the crowds. Set within lush gardens, the 12-suite beachfront hotel Malibu Poyoyo has to be the most refined surf offering in the country right now – offering access to more than 10 untapped, world-class surf breaks within a complimentary 30-minute drive as well as spa treatments, meditation and yoga classes.
La Quinta, the estate’s sustainable farm, produces fresh organic fruit for guests and the surrounding community; make sure to ask its locally trained chefs to whip up some cantina fish tacos and ceviche that spotlight the day’s home catch too. Try and book the master suite, decorated with local crafts and artisanal tiles. Its outdoor bathroom with a Moroccan-style lounge area and walk-in rain shower will have your Instagram popping.
Check into an eco-friendly tree-top hotel…
Morgan’s Rock, the sprawling 4,000-acre eco-estate, could quite likely be one of the most impressive natural habitat hotels you will ever stay in, starting with entering via a foot bridge suspended 50 feet above the forest floor. Each one of its 15 bungalows is exquisite, but it’s worth requesting one of the villas with views of the estate’s mile-long sandy beach. The commitment to sustainability at Morgan’s Rock is just as impressive as the surroundings: solar-heated water is the norm; 60 per cent of the food comes from the on-site farm; and half of the property is a protected nature reserve.
Take advantage of their varied tours, where you can learn about reforestation; take a cooking class with farm produce; or catch a glimpse of the nesting sea turtles that frequent the beach every year. If you can bear to drag yourself away from your double-bed hammock, the lively surf town of San Juan del Sur is just a 25-minute drive away, with a host of restaurants and bars set along its golden sand beach.
Sail over to Ometepe, a jewel of an island in the southwest of Lake Nicaragua…
Bookended by two active volcanoes – Concepción in the north and Maderas in the south – Ometepe is a luscious natural playground ripe for hiking, zip-lining, horseback riding, paddle-boarding, or swimming in the crystal clear waterfall of Cascada San Ramon. The easiest (and most enjoyable) way to get around is by quad bike, available to rent from one of the many garages near the port. We made the mistake of only having 48 hours on the island; you could easily be there for double that. Reserve a room at Totoco Eco-lodge early as it’s the best guesthouse on Ometepe and gets booked up fast. Its hillside pool and tiki-style restaurant have uninterrupted views of Concepción, and you won’t want to miss watching the unreal sunsets from your porch deckchair with a fresh coconut and Flor de Cana rum cocktail for company.
It’s also worth getting acquainted with the animal charts that greet you in reception; white-faced capuchins, eagles, blue morpho butterflies, whiptail lizards and yellow-naped parrots are among the neighbours you will be greeting daily on this wild island. After an afternoon spent rope swinging into the Ojo de Agua – a natural spring pool whose water is supplied by an underground river from Maderas – quad bike over for dinner at Cafe Campestre, a farm-to-table restaurant ideally situated below Totoco. Also just down the road? El Pital, a bar and organic chocolate factory, which has swings over the water as well as the best raw chocolate imaginable.
Feel cast away on the Caribbean coast…
At this point, you will probably feel like you have already had 10 holidays in one. A final added bonus? Being able to experience the radically different Caribbean landscape on the east coast of the country. Just an hour’s plane ride from Managua is the island of Big Corn, where an exhilarating boat journey awaits to deliver you to the tiny, two-mile-long island of Little Corn. There’s no roads or cars here. Instead, zigzagging paths take you through tropical forests from one end of the island to the other – passing candy-coloured huts and the handful of makeshift beachside rum bars along the way.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so wonderfully remote. Located on Little Corn’s best white-sand beach with aquamarine water and a pristine reef, Yemaya Hotel’s 16 ocean-view rooms, each with its own garden plunge pool, are the only luxurious lodgings to be found on the island. When not paddle-boarding or snorkelling, ask to be taken out by some of the local sailors on their 40-foot handcrafted sailboat, the most tranquil way to glide around the island as you sit on deck eating fresh mangoes. A final note: don’t leave the hotel without coaxing the therapists from the jungle spa for an in-suite massag