Published by The Telegraph
The Central American nation of Nicaragua is in the spotlight this week after Jack Brooksbank proposed to his long-term girlfriend Princess Eugenie during a holiday there.
Sandwiched between Costa Rica and Honduras, and with both Caribbean and Pacific coasts, Nicaragua is enjoying something of a tourism boom - overnight visits to the country rose by around 25 per cent last year, to almost two million, according to early estimates.
In fact, it was recently named one of Telegraph Travel’s top 20 destinations to visit in 2018. So what’s the big draw?
1. There are private islands
The couple were reportedly staying at Calala Island, an exclusive five-star retreat. It’s a contender for the most expensive resort in the entire country with rates starting from around £1,000 a night.
“Be a willing castaway on this idyllic private island, the first five-star resort in the unspoilt ‘NiCaribbean’,” says our reviewer, Sarah Gilbert. “Perfect for couples, there’s just four rustic-luxe beachfront suites shaded by towering palms. Blissfully remote it may be, but there’s fine dining and first-rate cocktails.”
It’s an hour’s flight from Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, to Bluefields, then around two hours by boat – a spectacular journey past fishing villages, through mangroves and out into open sea.
2. And luxury mountain retreats
Nicaragua’s luxury hotel revolution extends beyond the beach. Nekupe, the country’s first luxury mountain resort, sits in a lush landscape overlooking the evergreen slopes of the Mombacho volcano.
Sarah Gilbert writes: “Boutique, contemporary and stylish, Nekupe was designed to bring the outdoors in, and a feng shui-inspired architect helped create the highest energy flow with the lightest environmental impact.”
3. It’s an enthralling, evocative place
Chris Moss, our Latin America expert, explains: “Nicaragua has a unique cultural dimension, expressed through extraordinary religious fiestas, authentic folk music, thriving agricultural communities and the poems of ‘father of modernismo’ Rubén Darío (as influential as T S Eliot or Borges, yet not known half as well). Arguably the most enthralling ‘sell’, though, is pride and dignity borne of resistance. All over art-loving university town León, walls are spattered with graffiti honouring national heroes. In the capital Managua, dedicated parks and striking monuments keep the memory alive. And, unlike in Cuba, you never feel you’ll choke on clichés.”
4. There’s the coffee
“The cool highlands of northern Nicaragua produce some of the finest shade-grown Arabica in the world,” says Matt Bannerman, writing for Telegraph Travel. “Many producers are now concentrating on quality, introducing organic methods and working with fair-trade organisations. Some are also diversifying into tourism. January is harvest season, when migrant labourers descend on the estates to pick the ripe ‘cherries’ by hand. In May the floración covers the hillsides in white coffee flowers.”
The rum and cigars are pretty good, too.
5. The rainforest
Visitors will find lush rainforests aflutter with butterflies, birds and monkeys. Nicaragua has an impressive 675 species of bird, 1071 types of fish, 203 mammals, 198 reptiles and 71 amphibians. It’s paradise for animal lovers, basically.
6. Surf spots
If neighbouring Costa Rica is a surfing paradise, then Nicaragua is a surfing secret: surf bunnies have been coming here as an alternative for years in search of Pacific waves along the coast's secret coves. Among the best bases is the Mukul Resort, owned by the family behind the country's Flor de Caña rum. Their four-day Ultimate Surf Package includes surfboard rental, surf excursions by boats to different breaks, including Veracruz and Rancho Santa Ana, and airport transfers.
7. And volcanoes
Brooksbank proposed in front of a Nicaraguan volcano, and he had a few to choose from. Matt Bannerman explains: “Volcán Masaya, where the horrified Spaniards planted a cross at the ‘mouth of hell’, is the most dramatic. It's the centrepiece of a National Park of the same name. A road leads to the edge of the crater, where a helpful sign suggests you take cover under your car in case of eruption. Mombacho is calmer, covered in lush cloud forest. Ecological trails take you past spectacular bromeliads, dwarf bamboo and jewel-like orchids. Most adventurous of all is Cerro Negro, the Black Hill, where a rough track leads to the lip of a cinder cone formed in a 1998 eruption.”
8. It has one of the world’s most idyllic islands
We’re talking about Little Corn, off Nicaragua’s east coast.
“Though it belongs to Nicaragua it has much more in common with Caribbean culture: Miskito and English are spoken here, and the virgin white beaches are postcard-perfect,” says Telegraph Travel’s Jade Conroy. “Though it's still largely untouched by mass tourism – the island only has electricity from 2pm to 5am every day – there are a smattering of eco-friendly guesthouses along the breezy, unspoiled east coast, plus the island's first upmarket eco-resort, the Yemaya Island hotel opened recently in the north. Make sure to book a snorkelling trip out to The White Hole for hammerhead shark spotting.”
9. There are gorgeous cities
Chris Moss recommends León, with its “volcano views, huge cathedral, thick-walled buildings and many churches and museums”, as well as Granada, on Lake Nicaragua, “built as a showpiece city in 1524 and still lovely to explore by horse and carriage”.
10. And an answer to Andalusia’s white towns
Nicaragua’s Pueblos Blancos are a chain of neat little white towns on the plateau between Granada and Masaya. Look out for cool, shady plazas and beautifully kept churches, often dressed with velvet and lace for the fiesta of a patron saint.
BONUS: It’s safer than the UK
That’s according to the World Economic Forum (WEF). Nicaragua rated higher than Britain for safety and security in the foundation's biennial Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report, with a score of 5.44, compared to our 5.34.
So take me there…
A six-night private tour to Nicaragua, visiting León, Granada and Managua, with Cox & Kings (0203 642 0861; coxandkings.co.uk) starts at £1,695 per person including flights via Houston with United Airlines, private transfers, excursions and B&B accommodation. A three-night Corn Island extension costs from £575 per person.