Imagine a capital city where you can finish up business in the late morning and by lunchtime relax on a Caribbean island, tour a colonial city established in 1524, explore the rim of a smoking volcano or eat lobster on a Pacific Ocean beach that stretches for a mile or more.
Managua is not some charming city people plan vacations around: It’s where you go to get deals done in quickly developing Nicaragua. Once the work meetings are over, however, you — and any family members you’ve brought along — will find a wealth of natural treasures a short drive or prop plane flight away.
My wife accompanied me on my trip, and we had a week to see everything without rushing. We started with a short flight to the Corn Islands — two prototypical laid-back tropical islands on the Atlantic side of Nicaragua, some 44 miles off the coast. On Big Corn Island, there are several resorts and an encircling road that you can cover on a bike in an hour. On Little Corn, you have to walk or take a boat to where you’re headed; there are no roads or vehicles. On both islands the beaches are beautiful, the rum is plentiful, and the lobster is cheap. You can get Internet access if you must, but this is the kind of island life you picture when you think about unplugging for a while.
You can dive, snorkel or fish, but we never managed to work up enough energy to pursue any of them. We stayed at Arenas Resort on one of the nicest stretches of sand on Big Corn, planting ourselves on beach chairs next to a long bar made out of a wooden boat.
Our main excursion was a boat trip over to Little Corn, where we originally planned to stay at the new Yemaya Island Hideaway, a healthy-living getaway spot with daily yoga classes, exotic smoothies and drool-worthy vistas from the bungalow terraces. It was fully booked, so we had lunch instead with some ingredients from its organic garden. From the deck we took in the views of shifting aquamarine water lapping the serene beach dotted with coconut palms.
When we flew back to Managua, we made a beeline to Granada, the crown jewel of Nicaragua’s fast-growing tourism industry. It’s a colonial city established in the early 1500s, but more of the buildings are from the 19th century. That’s because American madman William Walker — who tried to take over all of Central America with a private army and declare himself king — burned the city to the ground (with the help of Gen. Charles Henningsen) in 1856. Only the shells of a few churches and stone buildings survived. Since much of the city was rebuilt in a short period, Granada feels coherent and sensible, with a more consistent look than cities that boomed and busted over four or five centuries. It’s surprisingly clean, and there’s something beautiful or interesting to see in every direction — horse-drawn carriages clip-clopping past colorful homes with red tile roofs and the imposing volcano Mombacho looming over the city.
We took a city tour by carriage, seeing it at a leisurely pace. In front of Xalteva Church we saw a different kind of carriage: a black one hung with garlands, awaiting a coffin to go inside. The horses were hung with black nets, looking as though they were in mourning, too.
It seemed appropriate to visit the cemetery, out on the edge of town and filled with elaborate above-ground tombs. The grand grave markers on display here are a sign of wealth and status. Some reach high into the sky and are topped with an angel. One is a scale replica of a Spanish church with Moorish arches but made with finely carved marble. We visited La Merced Church, where you can climb the bell tower and get a panoramic view of the steeples and rooftops.
Granada has some of the best restaurants in the country, and one street — Calle la Calzada — is lined with outdoor cafés and restaurants stretching for blocks. When we asked one waiter when happy hour was for those two-for-one cocktails, he told us, “All day, every day.” It’s easy for inertia to set in here, especially when the weather heats up, but it’s also a terrific base for visiting some of the region’s most interesting sites.
We spent one day in the nearby area of Masaya, an active volcano you can drive right up to. The signs in the parking lot ask visitors to please park facing out, however. If the sulphurous steam turns to something more dangerous, everyone needs to make a speedy exit. The Masaya region is also Nicaragua’s craft center, so we popped into a workshop and saw the owner creating new pots on her foot-kicked wheel, a thousand pieces of wood stacked along the wall to fire up the kiln.
The Masaya craft market is a mix of quality and kitsch, the cheaply priced and just cheap displayed side by side. The woodwork, masks and embroidery seemed to be the best bets, so we picked up a few souvenirs and gifts with some mild bartering.
After a few days in Granada, the beach called our name again, so we headed south on ever-improving roads to the miles of deserted sand on the Pacific side. Rumor has it the month the civil war between the Contras and Sandinistas ended in 1988, surfers started hanging their hammocks between the coconut trees again and hitting the waves. The main center then and now is San Juan del Sur, one of those perfect, crescent-bay beaches that never seem to get crowded. Up and down the coast near here, surfers catch big waves in areas that still have little development.
We saw many of these beaches from the water after checking in at Pelican Eyes and going out for a few hours on its private sailboat. With a Nica Libre cigar in hand and the wind whipping the sails under a deep blue sky, we glided past coves with just a few homes, the occasional hotel and near-empty beaches.
Pelican Eyes is a collection of villas clinging to the side of a steep hill, a view from every balcony and swimming pool. At sunrise, the bay is lit from behind; at the end of the day every guest is out enjoying the sunset. After that show we explored the town, having our best lobster dinner of the trip at El Timón, looking out at the boats bobbing in the water.
We saved the best for last, though, and the next morning headed a half-hour up the coast to Mukul, a new luxury resort that spared no expense to leapfrog over nearly every other beach hotel in Central America. Owned by Carlos Pellas Chamorro, the head of Nicaragua’s wealthiest business clan, the Flor de Caña rum chairman used the best designers he could find, from the building architects to the golf course designer to the spa visionary.
While the golf course is indeed striking — the 18th hole lies right next to the beach — the spa is a thing of wonder even for a “take-it-or-leave-it” guy like me. This is not some experience where you change in a group locker area, get a massage in a small cubicle, then drink some cucumber water in a windowless relaxation room. The six experience areas are self-contained villas, each with its own changing area, showers and spacious treatment rooms. Our three-hour couple’s experience alternated between lava mud treatments, herbal rubs, a grapefruit water bath and deep tissue massages. The outdoor relaxation area had an extra-warm heated pool and a view of the Pacific Ocean.
At sundown, we experienced a different kind of relaxation in the rum room as bartender Daniel took us through the various versions of one of the world’s best rums, Flor de Caña. We started with the seven-year rum and then went up the ladder through the 12-, 18- and 25-year versions, comparing notes on the differences more aging produces. After a delicious seafood dinner at the beachfront restaurant, we settled into our heated plunge pool on our bungalow balcony, looking up at the stars.
These scenes of pampering and romantic luxury are probably not the images most people have in their head when they think of Nicaragua. Twenty-five years after the civil war ended, “Sandinista” probably still comes to mind before anything else, even though Nicaragua is now the safest country in Central America. How many come to Managua on a business trip, I wonder, and go back home not even realizing they can do any of this just two hours or less from the city?
After two nights at Mukul, we ate our last breakfast looking out at the ocean, a long stretch of wide beach empty except for a small crowd huddled around a hump on the shore. In a country that feels vibrant with growth and new life, our send-off seemed appropriate: a mother sea turtle laying eggs in the sand. A new beginning in a country clearly on the rise.
Nicaragua Info to Go:
Managua’s Augusto César Sandino International Airport handles nearly all international flights; visitors pay a $10 entry fee at immigration. A taxi to your hotel should cost $20 or less. Getting to Granada or San Juan del Sur avoids most traffic, as the airport is on the eastern edge of the city, seven miles from the center, so renting a car makes sense. A private taxi to Granada costs $40–60, to San Juan del Sur $80–100. Shared shuttles are less. Flights to Big Corn Island are on the Nicaraguan carrier La Costeña and cost $135 each way.
Where to Stay in Nicaragua
Hotel Dario With just 21 guestrooms, Hotel Dario is nevertheless the best full-service hotel in Granada, with a small pool, two restaurants and a central location. Calle la Calzada, Granada $$
Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa Opened in 2013, the luxurious, well-run resort features a championship golf course, an award-winning spa and a stunning beach. Km 10 Carretera Tola-Las Salinas, Guacalito de la Isla $$$$
Pelican Eyes Resort and Spa The hillside resort includes 61 individual bungalows and villas facing the bay and ocean. De la Parroquia, San Juan del Sur $$$
Restaurants in Nicaragua
Bistro Estrada This popular high-end restaurant offers indoor and courtyard dining, serving beautifully presented local specialties and international desserts. Calle el Arsenal, Granada $$
Restaurante El Timón A waterfront view combined with consistently great lobster and fish make this thatched-roof institution a must-visit spot on the beach. Central beachfront, San Juan del Sur $$
El Zaguán Restaurant Locals drive from Managua to get a juicy steak here, with a roaring parrilla-style grill piled with red meat, chicken and fish. Avenida Sirena, Granada $$
Read more about Nicaragua’s Lake Cocibolca.
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