by Michelle Tchea
A country perhaps best known to North Americans as the extraordinary backdrop to reality TV show Survivor, Nicaragua is not commonly thought of as a dream destination. But things have changed in this Central American travel spot.
Touted as one of the world’s top 10 happiest places to live, Nicaragua has reinvented itself as a tourist destination – and five-star health retreats, eco-lodges nestled on private islands and boutique wellness hotels are just some of its calling cards.
Beautiful beaches entice surfers to catch waves before breakfast; hikers are invited to trek around dramatic and still-active volcanos; and the 300-plus islands that make up Nicaragua’s archipelago are overflowing with activities that will keep adventurers of all types occupied.
Despite its sometimes rocky history, Nicaragua is now affordable, friendly and safe. In fact, not only has it become the second-safest country in Central America according to a recently-conducted Global Peace Index study, but it’s a bargain for wellness-inspired travelers.
A short boat ride will get you to Jicaro Island Ecolodge, where sustainable living is taken to a whole new level. Literally. During Hurricane Felix in 2007, over one million hectares of rainforest were destroyed. Builders and designers worked with indigenous communities to help make the best of all the destruction, producing the Jicaro Island Eco lodge. All nine of the tiny houses (known as casitas) are suspended in trees, with natural volcano sediments forming the foundation of the resort.
For sustainable spa, head to Aqua Wellness Resort on Nicaragua’s Emerald Coast. Built into a hillside, a series of 18 sustainable wooden tree-house villas are connected by suspended bridges, each leading to your own private paradise on Redonda Bay. It’s not possible to leave Aqua without feeling renewed, thanks to the yoga, spa and meditation classes, as well as food consultations designed to help you tackle mindless eating habits.
For foodies looking for more adventure, head straight out into the water. Not only is fishing a skilled sport in Nicaragua, but small-scale commercial fishing includes mussel and lobster safaris, as well as hand-spearing your lunch the old fashion way.
The country may be better known for its strong link to coffee, but you can’t leave Nicaragua without tasting the national beverage – rum. The Pellas family, owners of one of the biggest rum distilleries in the region, have a vision to put Nicaragua on the map, opening the country’s first luxury resort, Mukul Beach, Golf and Spa Resort, which features spacious accommodations, each with its own ocean view, pool and private staff, not to mention an 18-hole golf course and private spa-house.
Despite all the luxury surrounding the villas and fancy tree-top casitas, the Pellas family built the resort with the idea of connecting the land, people and culture of Nicaragua for international growth and development. “We are creating a catalyst that will put our country on the world tourism map,” said owner Carlos Pellas. “We are doing everything at Mukul to the highest standards so that we can attract the most sophisticated travelers in the world. I want them to feel like guests in my family’s home as they discover the Nicaragua that I love.”
Tribal Hotel, the vision of NYC restaurateurs and Jean-Marc Houmard and Yvan Cussigh, has been touted as one of the best boutique-design destinations for honeymooners.
Located in the colonial UNESCO-protected city of Granada, this curated beauty has captured both designers and luxury travelers with their unassuming façade and modern concepts in each of the five deluxe rooms. And the Nicaraguan artisanal touches make it home-away-from-home.
Though plentiful in wildlife and vegetation, Nicaraguan cuisine is actually quite humble. Influenced by Spanish and Creole cuisines, the flavors are wonderfully unique and traditional dishes differ by coast – the Pacific’s main staple is heavy on local fruits and corn, while the Caribbean side favors seafood and coconut.
Jessica Schugel, owner of Buen Viaje Tours, strongly believes that despite the country’s economic struggles, it remains rich in a culture that is centered on family and food. “Nicaraguans find something worth celebrating nearly every day of the year,” says the longtime Nicaraguan-resident. “Our well-crafted food tours explore the distinctive flavors and recipes infused with history and tradition. Nicaragua is bountiful when it comes to food and good times.”
…Without Leaving your Hotel
Cheap and cheerful street eats are a great way to experience the true culture of Nicaragua and meet its vibrant people, but hotels also offer healthy and local farm-to-table dishes.
Jicaro Food and Beverage Manager, Diamanda Jiménez, loves El pollo tapado, especially the one prepared by the head chef at his resort. “Our guests are interested in trying local flavors and our kitchen philosophy is to serve healthy dishes for our guests to enjoy,” says the foodie. “At Jicaro Island Ecolodge, we are inspired by our commitment to sustainability and the opportunity to connect guests with this approach through our culinary offerings. Our location provides us with daily inspiration – the lake is never the same from one day to the next!”
At Aqua, the famed food classes may be great for diet fans, but with a food philosophy that everything, including caffeine and sugar, is ‘good’ in moderation, Chef Ben Slow works with a commune of organic farmers. Meats are processed in-house, breads are baked on the hearth and tropical vegetables and fruits are found just outside your villa.
Mukul Chef Cupertina Ortiz works his magic bringing what he calls ‘Cocina Nikul’ – Nicaraguan meets Mukul with global flavors and local influences. Think cheese dumplings with soft polenta and fresh jumbo prawn salad with just-picked avocado to grace your table.
What to look out for in your travels
Considered a national symbol, Gallo pinto is eaten daily by locals. A combination of fried rice, beans, onions and garlic, it’s a delicious breakfast to wake up to.
One of my favorites. Almost a dough/fritter topped with pork or chicken, rice, potatoes and fresh vegetables.
Originally from Granada, local ingredients like yucca, chicharrón and a salad made out of cabbage and tomato is wrapped in a plantain leaf.
The perfect end to a hot Nicaraguan beach day, this dessert is almost like a flan but silkier and creamier.
Sopa de Mondongo
There are variations of this soup, but traditional dishes almost always have tripe and local vegetables like chayote, quequisque and corn.
Michelle Tchea is the Managing Director of PopIntel Group, a branding intelligence and strategy firm measuring customer experience for luxury hotels and fine-dining restaurants, as well as the author of three best-selling books on food and travel. She loves discovering new hotel amenities and is watching the luxury market with intrigue.