Forget Costa Rica — here’s Central America’s new star
Published by New York Post
New Yorkers rarely stop to rest. Last year, I diagnosed myself with chronic over-scheduling: 12-hour work days and social events that led to burnout.
The cure: Nicaragua, essentially the wilder little sister of its popular neighbor to the south Costa Rica.
I plotted out 10 days exploring the Central American country’s jungly landscape, peaceful waterways and scenic shores along the Pacific and Atlantic. Its pace was slow, its landscapes jaw-dropping, its locals welcoming.
The nation of 6.5 million — slightly smaller than New York state — has cultural lures, like festivals tinged with native and Spanish traditions.
There’s plenty to do without a ton of must-sees, making it ideal for some R&R. Here’s how to recharge in settings from mountains to beaches.
Most visitors pick Granada as their home base. And for good reason: It’s less than an hour from the capital of Managua, where the major airport is located, as well as lakes and volcanoes of interest. Its cobblestone streets are lined with pastel-colored facades that hide lush interior courtyards and intricate tile work. Prime spots to ogle the latter include the trendy Tribal Hotel (from $145), owned by New Yorkers Yvan Cussigh and Jean-Marc Houmard. Its seven rooms book up fast, thanks to an inviting pool with a patterned bottom and photogenically funky decor sourced from Nicaragua and surrounding countries, as well as Turkey, Morocco and Thailand.
Half an hour from Granada by car sits the Laguna de Apoyo, a 650-foot-deep crater lake gently warmed by volcanic steam vents. Base yourself in one of Pacaya’s 26 rustic-yet-modern rooms — all balconied — to overlook this oasis from a cliffside perch (from $150). Take a free shuttle down to the water’s edge, then shell out $6 for a day pass to a laid-back beach club. Enjoy smoothies and tacos in deck chairs, and the club’s kayaks, boogie boards and floating docks. Then turn up the heat at nearby Masaya, Nicaragua’s most famous volcano, whose innards of bubbling red lava are best viewed in the evening.
Granada is also the jumping-off point for a chain of some 350 small islands in the northwest corner of massive Lake Nicaragua. Las Isletas, as they’re called, are home to relaxing hotel hideaways only accessible by boat. The most posh is Jicaro, an eco-lodge with nine treehouse-style casitas made out of wood salvaged from Hurricane Felix, which slammed Nicaragua in 2007 (from $440). Jicaro’s all-natural philosophy extends from its stellar menu to its seawater-filled pool, making for a truly idyllic retreat with a conscience. Stand-up paddleboarding around the isletas is a serene experience interrupted only by wildlife, like cheeky monkeys and elegant birds.
The Pacific Ocean’s whitecaps crash along Nicaragua’s western coast, where two impressive resorts for deep-pocketed beach bums sprawl. A 2013 debut, Mukul started as a collective of mansions for the country’s richest, envisioned by billionaire rum baron Carlos Pellas Chamorro. Now run by Auberge Resorts, the hotel spans 1,600 acres, with villas of varying sizes, a central clubhouse with a pool and restaurant, a golf course and a surf school whose instructors can coach beginners to stand for a few glorious seconds ($550). Half an hour north is Rancho Santana, a resort and residential community that spans five stunning beaches (from $285). Highlights include a colorful art gallery with local works on view and for purchase and a delightful taqueria, complete with cold beers and playful kittens vying for scraps.
Hop a puddle-jump flight (about $80 each way on local carrier La Costeña) over to Nicaragua’s Atlantic side, where, about 40 miles into the Caribbean Sea, you’ll find the Corn Islands. Big Corn has a tiny airport and more shops, as well as a small dock with regular speedboats to Little Corn. An endearingly sleepy backpacker enclave, Little Corn is positively enchanting. It’s remote yet friendly; everyone on the island ends up at the same bar, Cafe Tranquilo, each night. The poshest hotel on the island (but still modestly priced by New York standards) is Yemaya, tucked away on Little Corn’s north shore (from $180). Its 16 cabanas have porches with views of palm trees arching over crystalline water, the restaurant is top-tier and it’s a scenic 20-minute walk to the village’s main strip. A stylish couple from LA said they pay Yemaya and Little Corn a visit every year, and we can see why.