Photos by Allen Kennedy
With its pristine beaches on both the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, rich cultural history, jungles and volcanoes, Nicaragua is the perfect place for close friends and travelers alike.
BY S. JASON MOORE
The deal was done late at night, standing on a beer-soaked floor in an old tavern on the Jersey Shore among the closest of friends: Someday, somehow, we would have glasses raised to a tropical sunset after a day of trading waves in perfect, warm water surf.
Where, and exactly how, this pact would materialize proved elusive for more than two decades, but a promise is a promise. Welcome to Nicaragua, amigos.
With its pristine beaches on both the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, rich cultural history, jungles and volcanoes, Nicaragua is the perfect place for close friends and travelers alike to settle into the calm, the peaceful, the “tranquilo.”
What keeps us coming back isn’t just the secluded, world-class surf or catching roosterfish from the beach. What gets in your blood is the fact that Nicaragua hasn’t been found by the masses; it’s freedom in its most raw form, bathed in equal parts adventure and relaxation. It’s no secret that seasoned travelers will go to dramatic ends to find truly authentic experiences, and Nicaragua oozes authenticity.
We found ourselves succumbing to the rhythm of the country without even trying, and were immediately hooked.
Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, bordered by Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south, is roughly the size of New York state and home to approximately 6 million people. Spanish is the official language and is spoken by more than 90 percent of the population, with pockets of English speakers, as well as surviving indigenous languages on the Caribbean coast.
The capital city Managua is home to about 1 million people, and has a defined resilience after enduring both a devastating earthquake and a civil war all within the last 50 years. Visitors are met with breathtaking monuments, museums, galleries, public promenades and nightlife. The international airport reveals its recent expansion and upgrades allowing for truly comfortable and efficient travel. Not to say it’s all easy going in Managua, as the traffic, construction, street vendors and brightly colored tree replicas lining the thoroughfares, all compete for your attention.
With the Sandinistas and Iran-Contra headlines long past, Nicaragua is enjoying a period of stable economic growth, as well as increasing foreign investments. In 2016, the country’s robust economic growth, coupled with one of the lowest homicide rates in Latin America—roughly 40 percent lower than that of neighbor Costa Rica—helped President Daniel Ortega win his third consecutive term.
Nicaragua’s geography consists of Pacific and Caribbean coastal plains that meet in the central highlands. Nearly 20 volcanoes dominate the western slope of the country with the 4,255-foot Momotombo, near the city of León, erupting as recently as 2016. Aside from the mountains, which reach nearly 7,000 feet in elevation, Nicaragua also boasts rainforests and the large freshwater lakes of Lago de Managua and Lago de Nicaragua (Lake Nicaragua).
“The growth in tourism isn’t surprising when you consider how much there is to experience here: coffee plantations in the hills outside of Matagalpa; the cigar factories of Estelí; tarpon fishing on the Rio San Juan outside of Boca de Sabalos…”
The dry season extends from January into June when lowland vegetation withers and your primary goal will be swimming in, or sipping on, something refreshing. With the start of the rainy season, rain can be a daily occurrence but the showers are mostly brief and welcomed. Daytime temperatures can reach the low 90s F in most lowland areas with the central mountains being up to 15 degrees cooler.
Nicaragua blends both a contemporary and a colonial flair, which is impressive considering that behind Haiti it’s the second poorest country in Latin America. Although the vast majority of Nicaraguans live on less than $3 per day, Nicaragua has maintained economic growth levels above that of both Latin America and the Caribbean, largely due to sound economic policies and increasing foreign investment.
Recent World Bank statistics show a sharp decline in the country’s poverty rate over the past decade, coupled with a steep increase in the country’s gross domestic product over the same period. Despite positive indicators, much of Nicaragua is still poorly developed with significant needs, especially for rural infrastructure.
The economy of Nicaragua is based primarily on agriculture followed by tourism, mining and manufacturing. The advent of ecotourism coupled with the international appeal of pristine beaches, impressive natural beauty, and colonial history all contributed to a more than 20 percent growth in tourism revenues from 2015 to 2016.
The growth in tourism isn’t surprising when you consider how much there is to experience here: coffee plantations in the hills outside of Matagalpa; the cigar factories of Estelí; tarpon fishing on the Rio San Juan outside of Boca de Sabalos; a swim in a freshwater caldera at Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve; the chance to stare into an active volcano at Masaya Volcano National Park; the classic colonial cities of Granada and León; and the not-to-be missed sunsets on the Pacific Coast are just the beginning.
“Nicaragua has what most of the world’s best places have already lost: unspoiled natural beauty, ideal surf, and that feeling every time you come that you’ve tapped into a secret.”
Located a dozen miles from the Pacific along the Río Chiquito, León is truly colonial at heart while being liberal in flavor. The city is home to impressive architecture, galleries, nightlife and multiple UNESCO World Heritage Sites including the Ruins of León Viejo and the Cathedral of León.
If exploring the cobblestone streets is more your speed, enjoy a wide array of restaurants, cafes and art galleries with a free and easy feel, thanks to the artists and students who call León home. Nearby, the Cordillera de Los Maribios mountain range looms and features Cerro Negro—one of the few places on the planet where you can “volcano board” down the flanks of an active volcano (think snowboarding, but on volcanic rock).
Located on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, the colonial architecture, archeological ruins and Mombacho volcano all vie for your attention while visiting this classic Nicaraguan city. You don’t need to be an architect or even particularly religious to be inspired by the Church of Guadalupe or the Granada Cathedral, as the colonial architecture is enough to take you back in time.
The petroglyphs on nearby Zapatera Island, as well as the island of Ometepe, hold archaeological remnants of the pre-Colombian past and are accessible by boat from Granada. On Ometepe, a hike up the dormant Maderas volcano or the more daunting—and active—Conceptíon volcano awaits those with good shoes and an even better sense of adventure. After a day of exploring the oldest city in Nicaragua, the Calzada awaits—this restaurant- and cafe-lined cobblestone street offers a wide array of local fares, fine dining possibilities and truly indulgent options for dessert.
Classically Caribbean in flavor and named after the Dutch pirate Blewfeldt, the quintessential port town of Bluefields lies on the southeast coast of Nicaragua. Besides being home to the endangered hawksbill turtle, the town serves as a scenic jump-off point for the local rainforests, the Corn Islands and Monkey Point. With the pervasive sound of reggae in the background, Bluefields knows how to throw a party. Each year, the May Pole festival, or El Palo de Mayo, not only celebrates fertility, but marks the beginning of the rainy season and is a celebration not to be missed.
When visiting Bluefields, get there early, as the “pangas” to shuttle you on the Escondido River fill up quickly. Still relatively secret, the Pearl Cays are a Nicaraguan gem. With their palm trees, great diving and turquoise water they’re as idyllic as they are threatened. Suffering the plight of many of the world’s most tranquil and tiny islands, rising sea levels are slowly drowning the keys. Just off the coast lie the better-known Corn Islands, where dense jungle, fresh lobster, and quintessential beachside cabanas await.
Nicaragua has what most of the world’s best places have already lost: unspoiled natural beauty, perfect surf, and that feeling every time you come that you’ve tapped into a secret. Standing salt-crusted after another day of trading barrels, pleasantly oblivious to the pace of the lives we’ve left behind, we celebrate the sunset, a pact made decades ago, and raise a Macuá.
Ah yes, the Macuá, the national cocktail named after a native bird remains, arguably, one of the finest rum drinks on the planet and may just be reason enough to visit Nicaragua.
TRADITION, EXCELLENCE … FLOR DE CAÑA
If a life is weighed by how great of a story it tells, then enjoying the venerable Flor de Caña rum is truly living the good life.
On a recent visit to Nicaragua, I was privileged to meet members of the Pellas family, hear their story and taste the tradition that is Flor de Caña.
You’d be hard pressed to find rum anywhere with this kind of pedigree. A winner of more than 180 international awards, including Flor de Caña 25 being named “No. 1 Rum on the Planet” by the Huffington Post in 2014, Flor de Caña represents 125 years of excellence while meeting the highest standards of quality.
The story of Flor de Caña began in the late 1800s in the shadow of the San Cristóbal volcano in northwest Nicaragua. The Pellas family would gather to celebrate the end of the sugarcane harvest, enjoying the fermented fruits of their labor. The rich volcanic soil and tropical environment provided fertile soils, successful growing seasons and arguably the world’s best rum.
Five generations later, Flor de Caña is still being made by the descendants of patriarch Francisco Alfredo Pellas, using only molasses from the family’s estate-grown sugarcane. Although commercially available for nearly 80 years, it was political unrest in the 1980s that serendipitously poised Flor de Caña for success as decreasing domestic demand forced the Pellas family to warehouse their rum in the hopes of better days.
Today, Flor de Caña has one of the largest stores of aged rum in the world. After it’s quintuple-distilled, the rum is slow aged in oak bourbon casks and sealed with plantain leaves, giving Flor de Caña a balanced, smooth finish and deep amber color. The Pellas family heritage includes rums up to 25 years old, including the special “Family Reserve,” signed by CEO Carlos Pellas himself, and available only in Nicaragua.
S. Jason Moore is a freelance writer and photographer based out of Red Cliff, Colorado. His work has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals, and when he’s not navigating the world of healthcare as a clinician or researching adventure sports injuries, he can be found exploring small towns like Ekalaka, Montana, or the remote beach breaks of Nicaragua.
MUKUL & GUACALITO DE LA ISLA
Nicaragua’s First Luxury Hotel, Community
BY ERIC LADD
The dazzling coastline of Guacalito de la Isla is home to hidden coves and the best beaches you’ve never heard of. The 4 miles of exotic Pacific shoreline with its turquoise waters give the Emerald Coast its name, and nearby resort Mukul epitomizes barefoot luxury at its best. Mukul Resort, Golf and Spa is consistently rated among the top resorts in the world and for those seeking an undiscovered paradise, this is it.
Adjacent to Mukul’s five-star resort is Guacalito de la Isla, a 1,670-acre, low-density private beach community. The well-appointed development is the vision of Nicaraguan entrepreneur and businessman Carlos Pellas, who is best known for his 140-year old company, Flor de Caña rum. Juan Carlos Munoz and his wife Vivian (of the Pellas family) direct the project, and are hands on with all aspects of the community.
“It has what many places would dream to have all in one place,” Munoz says. “You can have surf and golf, spa and hiking, wellness and adventure. You can have a family vacation or a romantic getaway. It truly feels like home away from home.”
A 10-minute drive from Costa Esmeralda Airport, Guacalito is home to Nicaragua’s first beachside 18-hole golf course, a spa specializing in private treatment experiences, three beaches, rich fishing waters, and a stunning left-hand point break.
The Pellas family’s desire to preserve the beauty of the property involved bold decisions, including moving hundreds of native trees rather than cut them down during construction. Locals from nearby communities were hired and trained to work in all areas of the development, part of the family’s commitment to improving Nicaragua’s economy.
Juan Carlos and Vivian are raising their family here and he reflected on some of his favorite memories of Guacalito: “Hermit-crab chasing on our private Manzanillo Beach under the moonlight, sunsets while enjoying local oysters and Flor de Caña [rum] on Guacalito Beach, star gazing, releasing thousands of Paslama turtles into the ocean, and watching the children learn how to surf on our world-class point break.”
WHAT MORE COULD YOU ASK FOR?
“It truly feels like a remote world.”
BY MARISA MEGAN
BOSAWAS BIOSPHERE RESERVE
Traveling to the second largest rainforest in the Western Hemisphere—only Brazil’s Amazon is larger—seems like a daunting task. A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Bosawas is a protected forest spanning approximately 2 million hectares of north central Nicaragua. Despite its size, the area is largely unexplored and tourism is spotty at best.
However, visiting this incredible Nicaraguan gem is easier than one might imagine. Bosawas is comprised of six unique nature reserves, one of which, Peñas Blancas, is fairly accessible.
The nearest tourist-friendly city is Matagalpa. From there it’s 64 kilometers down a rough road to Peñas Blancas. Take the road to El Cua, following signs for “CEN” (Centro de Entendimento de la Natureza) to Peñas Blancas. Quiet, untouched nature and rich traditional life await you—not to mention the 800-meter, jaw-dropping Rainbow Falls. The forest is also a sacred Mayan site, so tread lightly.
It takes a full day of travel to get to the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua—six hours on a bus and a few more down the River Escondido in a local “panga” boat—and it truly feels like a remote world.
The capital city is Bluefields, home to a historic mix of the descendants of indigenous people, Afro-Jamaican slaves, Dutch pirates and British colonists. Though rough around the edges, a certain charm exudes from the city’s colorful streets.
Catch a boat to Rama Cay to see the last indigenous cultures in Nicaragua. Then head north to the Pearl Lagoon, where friendly Creoles will ferry you out to the Pearl Cays. Floating in the crystal clear water, you’ll understand how the locals maintain this impossibly uncomplicated lifestyle in today’s modern world.
Finally, hitch a ride on one of the cargo boats leaving El Bluff to the Corn Islands, two of the last idyllic outposts in the Caribbean that tourism has hardly touched.
The dawn has barely broken in Jiquilillo, a tiny working fishing village in the northwest corner of Nicaragua, but it’s one of the busiest parts of the day. Fishermen push their boats onto the beach, dividing their catch among the locals waiting on the sun-soaked sand.
“Jiquilillo is a beautiful beach that hasn’t become exploited by tourism,” says Nate Yue, the owner of the area’s only eco-hostel, Rancho Esperanza. “You can really understand how people live and see them for who they are.”
Aside from a drop-dead gorgeous beach with enviable surfing, Jiquilillo is home to Central America’s largest wetlands. The outside world slips away as you paddle through the labyrinth-like mangroves.
Wake up early to hike to the turquoise crater lake of Cosigüina volcano—the unparalleled views of El Salvador and Honduras, which only a lucky few have experienced, are more than worth the trek.
Marisa Megan is a Brazilian-American freelance travel writer who has spent the last 10 years exploring the untouched corners of Central and South America. She writes for Moon Travel Guides, Nature Airlines Costa Rica, World Nomads and occasionally for The New York Times Magazine.