Travel to NicaraguaNicaragua – The New Promised Land
Go ahead, admit it. You’ve always been ahead of the cultural curve. You had a standing reservation at the Beatrice Inn during friends and family. You booked the private room at Bootsy Bellows on opening weekend. No wonder everyone comes to you for recommendations; you’re a tastemaker in its truest form. And when it comes to vacation destinations, they’d expect nothing less. So naturally, it’s time you planned a trip to Nicaragua.
Good For: Groups of friends looking to explore the new frontier, and who appreciate culture, sun, surf, beach, and yoga. Those expecting the Four Seasons should wait another half dozen years or so because Nicaragua is the next Costa Rica.
- Exploring colonial Granada, which is one of the prettiest and certainly safest cities in Latin America.
- Boating around the isletas outside of Granada towards Ometepe.
- For beginners, learning to surf in San Juan del Sur – or mixing it up with the professionals in surf town Popoyo.
- Experiencing a yoga retreat at the Aqua Wellness Resort, where sun salutations take on new meaning.
What to Know: Plan your trip outside of the rainy season. Anything from late May to early October will literally be a washout. Nicaragua is a country to be explored by car, but hire a driver, since the infrastructure is limited and storms can flood the roads. There are practically no street signs on the dirt roads, so you’re relying on the pineapple man as a landmark. Check your expectations for a luxury vacation at the door; to visit Nica now is to say you came here before it was developed, and you experienced the true culture and people.
Suggested Stay: About five to six days, if you’re going to explore Granada, San Juan del Sur/Popoyo, and a yoga retreat.
Currently serving his third term, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega is a former Sandinista guerrilla who was born in a rural mining and ranching town. Though Ortega studied law, he was arrested and jailed for seven years after he robbed a bank in 1967 in order to buy weapons (he was later released in a hostage exchange). This violence notwithstanding, Ortega’s election campaign song was a Spanish-language version of John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance.
Nica on the Edge
With tourism in its infancy and high-rollers just beginning to invest, Nica (that’s what the cool kids call it) is the new promised land. They came. They surfed. They got in on the ground floor. Canadians, Europeans, and Americans – from the younger set looking to build a life for themselves to those aiming to make their retirement dollars stretch longer – have packed up their wagons and headed to Nica. In the evenings, in towns like Granada and San Juan del Sur, there is a convivial atmosphere in the restaurants and bars, where you’ll often hear similar stories of those who were down on their luck and found work and friends in Nica. Many have built businesses, including teaching yoga or surfing or opening up restaurants and juice bars.
Find Your Inner Zen
Of course, like most Central American countries on the cusp of greatness, the Nica scene is a little rough around the edges. Five-star it is not, so check your thread-count expectations at the airport. But really, that’s part of the charm. Aqua Wellness Resort has the highest-end yoga accommodations in the country, but your tree-top room, which is hundreds of steps high up in the hills, may not have a telephone or room service should the munchies hit you late at night. Service can be spotty as well, but in context, it’s better than other options in the area. But, their spa is top-notch. After a blissed-out beachside yoga session overlooking the Pacific Ocean, you’ll hit another plane of reality with one of their massages. For those looking for a manicure/pedicure, the Nica way is au naturel. Bring your own polish if you’re looking for a traditional treatment.
Surf is a major draw of Nica. Professional surfers have been coming to Nica for ages, and even boarders in Hawaii head to Nica to chase mavericks. Beginners can hook up with ChicaBrava in San Juan del Sur, where one of their “brave chicks” will teach you the fundamentals and have you up on your board in no time. Advanced surfers should pass “Go” and head directly to Popoyo, which is known for the best surf in Nica. But remember that these are serious waves. Even the pros have hit some close calls here.
The place to stay if you’re hanging with the serious surfers in Popoyo is the Popoyo Surf Lodge. Set on 14 acres of gardens, this is as chilled-out yet comfortable as it gets. Popoyo lacks the diversions of its neighbor, San Juan del Sur, where hotels run from $5/night for a bed in a bare-bones hostel, to around $300 at the upscale Pelican Eyes. An aggressive real estate project, Pelican Eyes overlooks San Juan del Sur. They’ve struggled with upkeep of the hotel since it went into bankruptcy, but with new management, they seem to be on the mend. Service at the time was good from the young and attractive staff, who will give you the real lowdown on things to do. Highlights of the hotel are the three swimming pools, which go hand-in-hand with cocktails, and the gourmet breakfasts. For a gentler priced option, Hotel Azul is right in town with simple but perfectly clean rooms, and the bonus of one of the best gift shops in town.
While most hardcore surfers are in bed early after a good meal and a few beers, the rest of us head out in search of nightlife. There’s a bit of fun to be had in the discotheques (yep, we said it) of San Juan del Sur at Iguana Beach Bar and Bambu where, like Rihanna, you can find love in a hopeless place, dancing up a storm overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It’s a young man’s game, though; be prepared to mingle with an eclectic crowd that you typically wouldn’t see at Le Baron.
Colonial Granada, the prettiest town in Nica, should firmly be on the itinerary. The town can be easily and safely explored on foot within a half day, including a Spanish lesson for those looking for an extra dose of culture. Teachers are more than happy to move from the classroom to the La Grand Francia café, where you can spend an hour working through your Spanish conversational skills over coffee and sweets. The market in Granada is a direct look into Nica life, where locals buy their fruit, meats, and home and clothing essentials. You likely wouldn’t purchase anything here, but there are small shops near the best hotel in town, Hotel Plaza Colón, where you can pick up handmade lace table covers and gifts.
The highlight of Granada is taking a boat to the isletas, which are mini islands within a calm lake. A full-day excursion includes the Ometepe Volcano, and stopping by the Jicaro Lodge on the way back to devour shrimp tacos.
Nightlife in Granada is raucous, and on Fridays and Saturdays, you’ll see the wealthy from the capital city of Managua arriving in force. Encuentros is a popular nightspot, but do yourself a favor and skip the food and just stay for the drink.
To visit Nica now is to experience what Costa Rica was 15 years ago. The terrain is rapidly changing, with the influx of tourists and those seeking a better life. And there’s certainly something appealing about nabbing that five-acre coastal property before it’s rock bottom no more. On the cusp, indeed.