Original Article on TheStar.com by Carol Perehudoff
SAN JUAN DEL SUR, NICARAGUAÔÇöÔÇ£Is it safe?ÔÇØ people asked when I said I was going to Nicaragua.
ÔÇ£I hope so,ÔÇØ I replied. According to my guidebook itÔÇÖs the safest country in Central America. Yet now that IÔÇÖm standing here on a bumpy back road in a tropical forest, I admit my fear. Not of violence and civil strife ÔÇö the country has been peaceful for years now ÔÇö IÔÇÖm worried a howler monkey is going to poop on my head.
ÔÇ£ItÔÇÖs one of the weapons they use if they feel threatened,ÔÇØ says Julio, my guide.
A barking howl fills the air, a branch rustles overhead, and that close-up monkey photo no longer seems so important. I dash back to the van and weÔÇÖre on our way to MorganÔÇÖs Rock Hacienda & Ecolodge.
Located on the southwest coast, 18 kilometres from the upbeat surfer town of San Juan del Sur, MorganÔÇÖs Rock was the first luxury eco lodge in the country. New resorts are moving in, however, as Nicaragua becomes a prime destination for green travellers. Still unspoiled, with coastline on both the Pacific and the Caribbean, the country is a nature houndÔÇÖs dream ÔÇô a land of sulphur-spitting volcanoes, tangled rainforests and a scattering of lodges-with-a-conscience that blend jetsetter chic with sustainability. ItÔÇÖs still not a well-oiled tourist machine and at some point youÔÇÖll likely find yourself on a jarring dirt road, but youÔÇÖll also find a warm optimistic vibe and a country teetering between discovery and grit.
Award-winning MorganÔÇÖs Rock is made up of 15 deluxe bungalows constructed from exotic local woods. Throw in a quiet beach, a pool, a working farm and an 800-hectare nature reserve and itÔÇÖs clear why it remains a favourite.
IÔÇÖm curious about the competition, however, and Aqua Wellness Resort is not far away. Located near the fishing village of Gigante, Aqua is the only property on crescent-shaped Redonda Bay. Its 24 treetop villas are spread out over the hillside so be forewarned, youÔÇÖll do a lot of walking, but itÔÇÖs all part of the get fit process. Aqua is known for its yoga retreats and has a holistic-minded spa. With plunge pools, paths lined with lava rock and villas surrounded by wild ginger and banana trees, itÔÇÖs a jungle getaway worth the trek.
Down at the beach, the setting sun colours the sand gold and spills honey-tinted light onto the boulders at the edge of the shore. After splashing around in the sheltered bay, I make my way to the beachside restaurant to meet AquaÔÇÖs Canadian co-owner, Trevor Barran. His enthusiasm about the country is infectious, and he sums it up when he says, ÔÇ£Nicaragua is going through a massive growth spurt for tourism and weÔÇÖre lucky to be here in this moment.ÔÇØ
IÔÇÖd like to stay a few days, but thereÔÇÖs another property to check out. It lies further north near Granada, a colonial town on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. Centuries ago, when Mombacho Volcano erupted, enough rock flew through the air to create Las Isletas, 365 islands sprinkled over Central AmericaÔÇÖs largest lake. Some hold nothing more than a tree and a few cormorants. Others house the mansions of the elite. And one is owned by Karen Emanuel, a British woman who opened Jicaro Island Ecolodge in 2010.
Picture a porcupine but instead of quills, imagine ferns, ceiba trees and birds of paradise bursting out of the ground. Tuck in nine casitas (villas) constructed from reclaimed wood, a yoga deck, lookout tower, open-air restaurant, infinity pool and lakeside spa pavilion and you have Jicaro.
There is no beach, but you can swim in the lake. In the early morning I kayak through lily pads while egrets and herons flap overhead. It feels remote and tranquil ÔÇö and hard to believe weÔÇÖre just a 20-minute boat ride from lively Granada with its candy-coloured shops, spacious plazas and neoclassical cathedral.
Darkness hits swiftly on the island. After a twilight massage and a dinner of grilled fish, I pad down the path to my casita. Inside, something is wrong. Either this isnÔÇÖt my room or someone has snuck in and neatly packed my suitcase. Embarrassed, I backtrack and find the right casita. IÔÇÖm in my nightgown when the door slides open and an American woman walks in.
ÔÇ£Oh, sorry!ÔÇØ she exclaims. ÔÇ£I was looking for number 4.ÔÇØ
ÔÇ£ItÔÇÖs okay,ÔÇØ I say. ÔÇ£I was just there.ÔÇØ
We laugh and I think back to before I arrived, when I wondered if the country was safe. Now here I am, such a short time later, so comfortable I forgot to lock my door.
Just the facts:
ARRIVING: Delta flies from Toronto to the capital city of Managua via Atlanta ( www.delta.com). From Managua private transfers to the lodges can be arranged through the hotels.
SLEEPING (*Rates go up during high season, but check websites for specials)
MorganÔÇÖs Rock Hacienda and Ecolodge. Rates start at $161 pp in a double with breakfast and dinner. www.morgansrock.com Tel: (505) 2563 9005
Aqua Wellness Resort. Rates start at $175 for 2 per night including breakfast and wellness classes. www.aquanicaragua.com Tel: (505) 8849 6235
Jicaro Island Ecolodge. An inclusive package with meals starts at $380 for 2 per night. www.jicarolodge.com Tel: (505) 2558 7702
In San Juan del Sur, Pelican Eyes Resort has pools, gardens, curved white walls and was home base for the production crew during Survivor Nicaragua. A 5-night Nicaragua Bliss package starts at $1,290 for two. www.pelicaneyesresort.com Tel: (505) 2563 7000
Up and coming: a swanky $250 million resort complex, Guacalito de la Isla, on NicaraguaÔÇÖs Emerald Coast is set to open in late 2012. With an 18-hole golf course; MUKAL, a boutique hotel; and a world-class spa, it promises to bump up NicaraguaÔÇÖs tourist profile. www.guacalitodelaisla.com
Zip line over a coffee plantation on the slope of Mombacho Volcano. Drive right up to a simmering volcano at Masaya Volcano National Park. Oro Travel can arrange various tours and activities. www.orotravel.com.
DonÔÇÖt miss Granada, one of NicaraguaÔÇÖs top destinations. See the colonial architecture of Hotel Dario on Calle La Calzada ( www.hoteldario.com.), get a $24 massage at the organic Cocoberry Spa ( www.cocoberryspa.com) on Calle La Calzada and feast on grilled steak at El Zaguan restaurant on Calle El Arsenal.
WEBSURFING: For information, tours and travel specials visit the website for INTUR, the Nicaraguan Tourism Board http://nicaraguatourism.us
SAFETY: Nicaragua is a friendly country but use common sense. DonÔÇÖt walk alone at night. Keep an eye on your bags. Drink filtered water, use mosquito repellent and buy travel insurance.
CarolÔÇÖs trip was subsidized by INTUR, the Nicaraguan Tourist Board. Visit her blog at www.wanderingcarol.com