Nicaragua has had to endure a very sad history, and the smiles on the faces of every Nicaraguan we had the pleasure to meet suggested that there is a much brighter future ahead for this beautiful land.
Many of the locals we met had returned to the country because they wanted to help rebuild it after decades of adversity. You name it, and the Nica’s have seen it. Wars, military dictatorships, meddling Americans, natural disasters, contras and bent governments.
Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere yet it’s people talked in absolutely perfect English affectionately and emotionally about their country with real enthusiasm of a better future. It was a very sobering experience.
Despite all of the tales of destruction and strife what no one could ever destroy was Nicaragua’s natural beauty. Part of a biologocal corridor that for a million years has allowed plant and animal species from two continents to mingle, and thus it boasts extraordinary geographical beauty and wildlife.
The country is roughly triangular in shape bordered in the north by Honduras and to the south by Costa Rica, and is dominated by two large lakes, Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua (below) which is the largest freshwater lake in Central America and is home apparently to rare freshwater sharks.
Volcanoes, pretty at least whilst sleeping peacefully make an impressive chain through the middle of Nicaragua, which is home to the bulk of what is called the Central America Volcanic Arc. There are about 40 in total, all mostly active with the angriest being Telico, incidentially one of the world’s newest volcanoes, it protruded through a farmers field in around 1850 and has grown steadily and voilently since.
The largest San Cristóbal Volcano (5,725ft) blew it’s top last Christmas Day and smouldered well into the new year causing the evacuation of many local villages. What with the nearby oceanic tectonic plate and a history of hurricanes on the Caribbean coast there is no shortage of excitement!
So why did we choose Nicaragua for our holiday? We were in Costa Rica the same time last year and loved it, so wanted to repeat our experience, but without going back to the same place. Geographically Nicaragua has the same DNA as Costa Rica and in fact where we stayed was only a couple of hundred miles further north up the Pacific Coast from where we were last year.
It was rainy season and in hindsight we were lucky with the weather in Costa Rica, but not so in Nicaragua although we mostly avoided the rain, days were generally overcast during our stay in early August.
We flew from Miami to the countries capital Managua. It’s unlikely that you would ever plan your trip around a holiday in Managua and it didn’t have immediate appeal. I read Managua described as looking like a battered 1960’s American school bus with a $2,000 dollar stereo in it. Certainly the city can make some noise.
We were driven from the capital across country to the region of Rivas. The drive took two and half hours and the views out of the window were mind boggling.
First of all I am glad we had someone to drive us because navigating Managua would have been nigh on impossible as it is famously known for having no street names and houses don’t have addresses. It also has huge chunks of it that are unsafe and walking is not recommended.
For the first hour of the journey I couldn’t pull myself away from looking out of the window. The sadness of the obvious poverty, intermingled with literally hundreds and hundreds of school children in each town or village that we passed with wide smiles, bags thrown over shoulders riding old bikes or more often walking along the side of the road with a malnourished animal such as a cow, horse or pig for company.
We drove through the wonderfully named Tipitapa and then onto Masaya, known for it’s arts and crafts and nestled close to the active volcano of the same name. We then skirted around the outside of Nicaragua’s most picturesque town Granada.
A colonial town with an important history Granada is popular with visitors and I would have loved to explored it’s architecture, parks, squares and waterfront, but it was a 2-hour drive from where we were staying and our daughter is not yet impressed by churches built in the 1500’s.
Her memories of that car journey though are of the masses of slow moving buses that we had to navigate past. Each one, sent to Nicaragua from the United States, once they had declared them unroadworthy, and then painted, no decorated, like cup cakes. Each one was overflowing with people, sat on top, hanging out of open doors or windows or just clinging on for dear life.
Then the journey took us west out towards the coast. We weathered a horrendous storm and our driver had to negotiate some flash flooding as we drove through the lush volcanic lands of Nandaime, Rivas and Tola, which was the nearest town to where were staying and the last we saw of a road as the final 30 minutes of our journey was on dirt track.
Our hotel was situated on what is known locally as the Emerald Coast (photo, top left), a 30-mile stretch of Pacific shoreline sandwiched between dense dark green jungle. South is the surf town of San Juan del Sur, and north is Guasacate.
Visitors previously had come to hotels in the area mostly for yoga and meditation breaks but in February of this year the Mukul Resort opened on Playa Manzanilla with 12 villas and 23 treehouse-like bohios and the most incredible spa perched on the mountain’s edge inspired by ancient healing traditions from around the globe.
The Mukul was magnificent. Built by the countries richest man Don Carlos Pellas, head of Grupo Pellas, a multi-national conglomerate with interests in land development, vehicle dealerships, citrus, sugar mills, ethanol, banking and the highly regarded Flora de caña rum distillery.
A decade ago whilst fishing of the rocky coastline Pellas caught sight of the gorgeous 1,670-acre Guacalito de La Isla, and was so captivated by its beauty that he bought it. He started to develop the Mukul Resort and took it upon himself to lead Nicaragua’s move away from war and poverty and into tourism, establishing an academy called ‘Escuelita Mukul,’ to train workers the intricacies of hospitality and encouraging visitors to visit this amazingly beautiful country.
No expense had been spared in it’s construction or design. Perhaps most remarkable of all, is that it was built with careful attention to sustainability. Before a single shovel-tip hit the ground Pellas and his team spent six years doing environmental studies to determine how to minimize the resort’s impact on the local surroundings.
A 18-hole golf course designed by David McLay Kidd, who designed the St Andrews Links course in Scotland was also carefully built with as little disruption to the existing landscape as possible, which included moving and replanting 1,500 trees.
The hotel was pretty quiet, but it was out of season. Pamela Anderson was a fellow guest, accompanied by her new beau, who just happened to be one of her exes. I Googled her from the room and saw that the tabloids were quite excited about their resurrected relationship. One day they walked right by me, Pamela in a tiny bikini. A paparazzi would have paid a lot of money for a photograph, but it was the last thing on my mind as I struggled to put my jaw back to where it belonged.
The Mukul’s service is a little work in progress but what the staff lacked in aptitude they more than made up for in charm. All local, the staff were superb, and I don’t think I have ever met a manager so attentive and absorbed by his guests.
I can’t say enough good things about the hotel. It was a stunning property and a real oasis to discover after an eventful journey to reach it. Pellas really believes he can sell Nicaragua, and particularly this part of the country, to foreign visitors and I really hope that it thrives.
We didn’t see as much wildlife as we saw in Costa Rica, but there were plenty of screeching howler monkeys occupying the property, particularly the golf course and the staff took our daughter and us out a few times on a golf cart to see them live in this paradise.
The surrounding areas have also benefited by Pellas’ benevolence. Playa Gigante, a pretty local village has seen local businesses donated and lent funds to allow them to prosper as new visitors find this previously quiet outpost. This area of the country would also benefit if the unlikely vision of a Chinaman comes to fruition and Nicaragua gets itself their very own Panama Canal.
Food-wise Nicaragua is probably not going to be the next best thing in the gastronomy world. It’s a little bland but there is a Mexican and Caribbean influence. Plenty of rice, beans and plantains. I did get a little bored of guacamole, gallo pinto and cheese with everything, but there was plenty of fresh fish and the tamales or nacatamals were varied and tasty.
The beer was good too. The Pellas family produces almost ever single adult beverage in Nicaragua including the two national beers Victoria and Tona, both light tasting with Toña being my favourite. One evening we sampled some very good Flor de Cana rums, the undisputed best rum in all of Central America. There were half a dozen different varieties if I remember!
Boxing is the countries national sport and Nicaraguan’s have held numerous world titles. Baseball is popular and cheap to play with a fair few heroes to cheer making good money in Major League Baseball. Football is growing in popularity with an improving national team, although the blossoming Panamanians knocked them out in the 2nd Round of World Cup 2014 qualifying.
I worked out that Xilotepelt was the nearest professional club to where we were staying on the Pacific Coast. ‘Xilo’ play in the 2nd Division although nearby rivals Diriangén FC are one of the countries most successful clubs.
Nicaragua is a beautiful country of proud and courteous people. Almost 20% of the countries landmass is protected and there are 76 designated National Parks and Reserves. The largest country in Central America has a lot to explore such as the colonial city of León, an important center of arts, culture and religion in the country, or the Corn Islands, located off the coast of Nicaragua in the Caribbean Sea, and Ometepe Island, out in Lake Nicaragua and only reached by boat from the towns of Granada or Rivas. It is said to be one of the most unique destinations in all of the country and offers a glimpse into local life as it might have appeared many years ago.
I was trying to imagine how Costa Rica looked 20 years ago, and I bet it looked like Nicaragua. Patience will be required though and the country still involves compromises, although some may call it adventure. There is a lot to discover.