Nueva Nicaragua

With the opening of its first world-class – and entirely sustainable – hotel, Nicaragua’s reinvention as an eco-luxe destination is gaining pace. Paul Richardson kicks back in the land of lakes and volcanoes

The main hall at Guacalito de la Isla’s Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa resort
The main hall at Guacalito de la Isla’s Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa resort

En route to Guacalito de la Isla, we turned off the Panamerican Highway and picked our way towards the sea. There were no signposts, but eventually a grand stone entrance loomed out of the tropical vegetation. Security waved me through, and I had a powerful sense of arriving – not just at Nicaragua’s newest (and, to date, only, I would say) super-upscale hotel, but at the possibility of a brighter future for this challenged country.

Installed in my high-ceilinged villa, I hardly knew what to admire first: the perfectly pitched interior or the view of rugged headlands dense with greenery, massive waves thumping on a pristine beach. On the plasma TV, Carlos Pellas, creator of Guacalito de la Isla and Nicaragua’s most ubiquitous business mogul, spoke of his master plan here, which is nothing less than to kick‑start a high-end tourism revolution that will lift his country out of the mire of poverty.

The Mukul resort at Guacalito de la Isla was actually my final stop on a seven-day tour. As I unpacked, I thought back over the past week’s sharp learning curve: when I flew into Managua, it was all I could do to place Nicaragua on the map. (Between Costa Rica to the south and Honduras to the north, since you ask.) I had little sense of the geography involved: the enormity of Lake Nicaragua, the many volcanoes (estimates vary from 19 to 50, with around seven of them active), the huge biodiversity. And it was news to me that this was both the biggest and the poorest country in Central America  – as well as, statistically, one of the safest.

A bohio bedroom at Mukul
A bohio bedroom at Mukul

Nicaragua is a country the rest of the world has tended either to ignore or to misunderstand. For years after the Sandinista Revolution threw off the tyranny of the Somoza regime, it incarnated American fears of a communist menace in their own backyard. But the more extensively I travelled, the harder it was to see how this simple, smiling country could be a threat to anyone or anything, let alone to a global superpower.

Time passes quickly in these latitudes, however, and 23 years after the Revolution, Nicaragua has more important things on its mind than to dwell upon the past. Such as the thrilling possibility of an Inter-Oceanic Canal to rival and dwarf Panama’s century-old waterway, to be paid for by the Chinese to the tune of $40bn. That, and the interest Nicaragua is currently enjoying from in-the-know travellers who are ready for new and exciting Latin American experiences. Tourism is still in its infancy, especially compared to neighbouring Costa Rica, a successful “green” destination for the past two decades. But last year, government figures revealed an increase in the number of visitors by 11.3 per cent, compared with the previous year. There’s no doubt that Nicaragua, with its fabulous colonial towns, its jaw-dropping beaches, its jungles and lakes and volcanoes, is on a roll.

I planned a trip that would take in the highlights: the colonial cities of León and Granada, the magical islands of Lake Nicaragua and the unspoilt coastal landscapes around San Juan del Sur, hard by the Costa Rican border. The Caribbean side, drastically underdeveloped though dazzlingly beautiful, would not be on the agenda this time: infrastructure on the Mosquito Coast is so poor that the remote Corn Islands, increasingly hyped as the Caribbean’s last untarnished jewels, continue to remain off-limits to all but intrepid backpackers.

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As it happens, Nicaragua’s cultural and natural riches, as well as its newest and loveliest places to stay, are mostly on the Pacific side. The capital, Managua, is unremarkable – the devastating earthquake of 1972 saw to that – but the city’s Hotel Contempo, a tropical-modernist hangout in the upscale suburb of Las Praderas, makes an elegant base for adventures further afield.

I struck out northwards along Lake Managua – the smoking cone of the Momotombo volcano a brooding presence on the opposite shore – on a highway shared with ox-drawn carts and garish school buses. Placards along the road trumpeted the big ideals of founding father Augusto C Sandino and the (dubious) achievements of “perma-president” Daniel Ortega.

By mid-morning I was sitting in a café on the main square in León, looking out towards the off-white façade of a stupendous cathedral that, in terms of scale if not antiquity, is number one in Central America. An intellectual and liberal hub since the 17th century, León is proud to describe itself as the First Capital of the Revolution.

A private casita at Jícaro Island Ecolodge, Granada Isletas
A private casita at Jícaro Island Ecolodge, Granada Isletas

The heat and humidity had turned the air into a soup in which people seemed to move, swimming more than walking, in slow motion. A large cappuccino (the locally grown coffee is some of the best on earth) was the fuel I needed to climb the cathedral’s bell tower for a mesmerising view of the city’s clay-tiled roofscape and mountainous backdrop, quivering in the midday heat.

One beautifully preserved colonial town would be a boon for any South American country, but Nicaragua has two. Granada, the lakeside city founded in 1524, has a rich heritage embodied in its churches, convents and houses with pastel-painted façades and leafy courtyards. If the incipient growth of Nicaraguan tourism has not, for the moment, led to a nationwide rash of cool new hotels and hip new restaurants, in Granada, at least, there are encouraging signs. The Danish-run Hotel Los Patios, for example, is a brilliant exercise in Scandinavian modernism applied to a traditional granadino patio house, in which polished concrete sits fabulously with local floor tiles, rustic wood furniture with state-of-the-art lighting. Service at this five-room bolthole, on a quiet street within minutes of buzzy Calle La Calzada, is as warm and attentive as its interior is elegant and uncluttered. It joins the bar Espressonista and hispano-oriental fusion restaurant El Tercer Ojo as one of Granada’s few genuinely chic hangouts.

I spent the day thoroughly exploring the city, ticking off its major sights – such as the Mayan sculptures of anthropomorphic animals at the Convent of San Francisco – before heading for the lake, and the delights of Jícaro Island Ecolodge.

A balcony suite at Hotel Los Patios, Granada
A balcony suite at Hotel Los Patios, Granada | Image: © Los Patios

Lago Cocibolca, aka Lake Nicaragua, is a sea of superlatives. The immensity of this freshwater body, which Spanish discoverers called “La Mar Dulce” (The Sweet Sea), puts it just after Titicaca as the biggest in Latin America. Its island, Ometepe, is said to be the largest volcanic freshwater island in the world. The isletas, in contrast, are remarkable for their tiny size. For some time now they have been enjoying a real-estate boom, with single islands fetching up to $1m per hectare and leading Nicaraguan families competing to build ever-more exclusive and well-appointed hideaways on them. Karen Emanuel, English owner of Jícaro Island, got in there before the boom. Sitting in a Granada restaurant in 2007, she saw a sign saying “island for sale” and figured it was cheaper than a garage in London. Inspired by Morgan’s Rock, an existing Nicaraguan eco‑lodge with a leaning towards luxury, Karen set about creating a heavenly hideaway of her own.

The nature resort is a genre traditionally dominated by Costa Rica and new to Nicaragua, but Jícaro raises the bar to a considerable height. A rocky outcrop shrouded by a canopy of tropical forest, with views over the lake to the distant volcanoes of Mombacho and La Concepción, Jícaro is reached by a launch from a diminutive port. The hotel’s isolation gives a frisson of glamour to the experience, like arriving at the villain’s lair in a James Bond film.

There’s no doubting Jícaro Island Ecolodge’s commitment to greenness. Almost everything is organic, recycled and sustainably sourced, from the salt-water jungle pool to the solar-heated water. My gorgeous two‑storey casita was a symphony in (Rainforest Alliance-certified) tropical hardwoods. Big ceiling fans take the place of air-con.

Hotel Contempo, Managua
Hotel Contempo, Managua

There wasn’t much to do on the island save sleep, read, eat and gaze out at the comings and goings on the lake. Howler monkeys screeched in the forest on the mainland nearby. A rumbling storm rolled away and lightning lit up the distant shape of a volcano. Over the water, from a neighbouring isleta, came the gentle sounds of wood-chopping and children’s voices. The hot sun filtered through the forest canopy, and the island was full of the sibilant shrieks and whistles of exotic birds.

There is much talk about a new, high-end Nicaragua; I’m not sure that Jícaro, for all its very real pleasures, is quite it. There are rumours that a sleek new Grand Hyatt is underway in Managua, and a colonial palacio on the square in Granada, when it comes into play in a year or two, will knock ’em dead. But for now Mukul, the resort at the heart of Pellas’s Guacalito de la Isla development, is ground zero for Nicaragua’s – indeed, Central America’s – future five-star sector.

This epoch-making new hotel is the product of some pretty expansive thinking on the part of Pellas. The development he plans for Nicaragua’s Emerald Coast (his own marketing moniker for the whole region) comprises a grand-luxe hotel, a golf course designed by guru David McLay Kidd, a destination spa, and real-estate opportunities galore. The figures are as impressive as the landscape hereabouts: 653ha, 7km of virgin coastline and a total investment of $250m.

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I rose at dawn and walked the whole length of the beach. Iguanas prowled the sand; hummingbirds worked the wildflowers behind the dunes. Tucked into the northern end of the beach was the resort: a collection of 12 superb villas and 23 smaller bohios, their clay-tiled roofs and palm-leaf palapas beginning now to merge with the surrounding vegetation. My own villa, a discreet and seamless mixture of haute rustique and modern chic, would qualify as the real deal anywhere in the world. It had a private full-sized pool, a bathroom you could lose yourself in and a personal butler called Victor – charm personified.

Mukul (the name means “secret” in the indigenous Chorotega language) put me in mind of the grand private resorts of the Mexican Pacific: the pounding waves, the unspoiled surroundings, the sense of calm and scale. But the difference can be measured in decades: Mexico has had 40 years to hone its quality-tourism offering, where Nicaragua is still taking its first hesitant steps.

Guacalito de la Isla is a game-changer in several important ways. From the outset it forms part of a sustainable ethos, giving back to local communities in the form of health centres, baseball pitches, water-treatment plants, village-level recruitment and loans to micro-businesses. Even the design at Mukul – courtesy of Dallas-based Paul Duesing – avoids the usual Asiatic clichés of the first‑division international beach resort in favour of a specifically Nicaraguan look that is striking and unusual. Ceramics, embroidery, wood and bamboo work, pewter moulding, even basketry are all brought into play. The stunning light installation in the open‑sided central hall is an apotheosis of the local rattan-weaving skills.

As its creator foresaw, Guacalito de la Isla’s example is already taking effect. Rancho Santana, a residential community with its own clubhouse and restaurant, is picking up steam on a series of beaches a few miles north. Another international airport is planned, which, when it materialises, will bring the Emerald Coast within easy reach of New York, Miami and Houston. In five years’ time, maybe less, we will all have heard of Guacalito de la Isla; and some of us will remember what Nicaragua was like before the boom kicked in, when you felt like a pioneer and there wasn’t a soul on the beach. The traditional journalistic adage applies: remember where you read it first.

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