Pick a Side

Nicaragua has been enjoying the limelight as a travel destination of choice. It turns out choice is really a big part of it – the east and west coasts offer very different experiences.

Little Corn Island: Place of Peace
Opened on Little Corn Island in late 2013, Yemaya Island Hideaway & Spa is proving that the evolution of a tourism trade does not require compromising a location’s native elements. In the case of Little Corn Island, this includes arrival itself. There’s only one way to get to this car-free tropical paradise: In a wave-riding, sea-spraying open-air skiff . The get-wet boat ride that delivers guests to this Caribbean outpost is a tourist-class filter (as in, whiners are deterred by word of mouth). Once on dry land, 43 miles east of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, Yemaya is really the only option that suits honeymooners and those who prefer a few amenities.

Visitors toting rolling luggage are new to this getaway that was once claimed solely by backpackers. And Yemaya has introduced a bit more luxury in the form of 16 individual cabanas, each with a spacious ocean-view patio. Framed by tall, swaying palm trees, each has handmade mahogany, cedar and Brazilian-cherry furniture, as well as in-bathroom sand gardens that keep guests feeling grounded.

A laid-back staff including 35 locals accommodates a youngish crowd, mixed with yogis and vacationing couples in a casual resort-meets-retreat atmosphere. The restaurant, which doubles as the reception and lounge area, is beneath an open-sided palapa (a thatched, palm-leaf dome) overlooking the Caribbean Sea, and underlining the sleepy vibe.

The food surprises. There is one chef from Thailand and another from Canada, the two collaborating on international specialties like massaman curry tweaked with local garden seasonings and a dash of traditional Nicaraguan salsa (aka Lizano). I also dove into their native fried chicken recipe served with coconut-oil crisped plantains, and—sipping a roasted pineapple margarita—the vegan kofta blend of chickpeas, pecans, garlic and spices complemented by coconut rice. Beyond guilt-free languor and splashing around at sunset, activities launched from your roost on Yemaya include hiking 30 minutes through pure jungle into the “town,” which is really a small portside village. The rainforest trail breaks into a few meadows. One of these is an isolated field where horses serve as lawn mowers and prep a diamond for a homegrown baseball game. The trails eventually give way to sidewalks and then a village of homes, a school and eventually the seaport “strip,” which features a hangout called Tranquilo Cafe—a backpacker-style restaurant and local beer pit stop. As the island’s circumference is barely two miles, it’s hard to get lost. Everything (including you) must pass through neighboring Big Corn Island, which is also pretty tranquil, except for the cars you’d forgotten about.

Yemaya is surprisingly upmarket for this island without motorized vehicles—local laws prohibit anything rolling to have an engine. And this emerging Caribbean destination is determined to not outgrow its charm. I’m sure that once people see Yemaya’s success there will be further development of Little Corn Island. But when I saw a group of construction workers using a single rolling supply cart to accomplish their work, I got the satisfying feeling that development is going to take a long time.

West Coast Swing
In a flash (well, two boat rides, an airplane hop and a three-hour drive) I was on Nicaragua’s other coast. And in another world. Everything is different on the western side of this triangular country where the Spanish-descended Latino flair remains in full swing. Switch out the Creole twang, switch in the classic salsa and tango melodies. Even the wind smells different over here. The imposing west coast’s mountains create a private Pacific Ocean beach cove, which provides an idyllic and secluded spot for Nicaragua’s first five-star resort. Mukul (pronounced ‘moo-cool’ and meaning “secret” in Mayan) is a totally unexpected, understated presence in the developing country. The posh resort in Guacalito was recently opened by the Pellas family, who, among other things, produce the country’s famed Flor de Caña rum. The new property hosts weddings, upscale surfers and Nicaragua’s elite, none of whom are doing belly shots.

The 1,670-acre development overlooking Manzanillo Beach could host a thousand holidaymakers, but its true edge is that Mukul, consisting of only 12 beach villas and 23 hillside bohios, is designed for just 90 guests. There is plenty of room to roam. A maze of cobblestone pathways used by golf carts links the lush estate’s different architectural moods.

I recall sleeping in many mid-80s backpacker huts on Southeast Asian beaches that had matchless ocean views for five bucks a night. But, I don’t suffer much of what comes with backpacking anymore (mainly a lack of privacy). The view from our bed at Mukul—dancing trees, scenic mountains and roaring Pacific—was worth every penny. Fortunately, you don’t need to splurge on the mini bar because everything is included, even the homegrown rum. Here an invasion of privacy is only upon invitation. And an equally impressive vista can be had from the dual monsoon showers, which overlook not only the ocean but also a deluxe golf course.

Actually, golf legend Jack Nicklaus was considered to design the course, but his original vision, which involved cutting the native trees, wasn’t accepted. Founder Don Carlos Pellas’s idea involved reforestation and preserving the property’s indigenous ceiba trees, which resemble billowing, green beach umbrellas. Instead, he hired Scottish golf course architect David McLay Kidd, who fit the course into the existing landscape by using seasonally dry creeks as sand traps and moving, rather than cutting down, those lovely trees. The 18-hole course purposely ends a few feet from the waves crashing on the white-sand beach. It’s also telling that upon arriving at the resort’s front entrance, guests are greeted by an impressive, relocated ceiba tree that would otherwise have met its fate in the teeth of a chainsaw.

Mukul has two decadent restaurants. La Mesa, the indoor option, has a superb menu and colonial setting that transports you back to Central America during its version of the roaring 1940s. La Terraza, a beachside terrace, features Executive Chef Cupertino Ortiz’s Nicaraguan fusion cuisine, which he calls Cocina Nikul, the owner’s mom’s recipes blended with Mediterranean flavors.

Meanwhile, swarms of discreet waiters tend to your every need— many of the resort’s employees are local rookies on a mission to take center stage and compete with neighboring Costa Rica’s tourism savvy. The country’s international culinary debut is being fanned by the realization that there’s no need to import anything, including grass-fed beef.

Just when guests have had their fill, another indulgence awaits. Mukul’s spacious spa complex is an odyssey offering six completely different experiences, each casita with its own décor, ambiance and signature ritual. The ancient healing traditions include the Secret Garden’s watsu (think underwater shiatsu), a hammam theme and the “Secret Spa,” a sequence of ancient Nicaraguan healing practices with medicinal plants, herbs, spices and flowers grown on the property.

High-end but low-key has been achieved here with seemingly flawless execution. The resort is a triumph. Not bad for a rookie. And unlike other Pacific Ocean beaches I’ve visited lately—some of which are becoming overbuilt—Mukul still feels like a bit of a secret.

Eastern Encounter
ON NICARAGUA’S WEST COAST Spanish descendants dominate the language spectrum. On Little Corn Island a dark-skinned, Creole-accented woman walked past me talking to a friend. “He a haggis,” she said. I stopped her to ask what a haggis was and she explained she was talking about another friend with a tendency to overeat (as in, “hog ass”). Poor but proud Nicaragua, I gathered, has at least two faces. The two women disappeared into the lush greenery of the jungle.

bruce northam

Bruce Northam is the award-winning journalist and author of The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons, Globetrotter Dogma, In Search of Adventure, and The Frugal Globetrotter. He also created “American Detour,” a show revealing the travel writer’s journey. His keynote speech, Directions to Your Destination, reveals the many shades of the travel industry and how to entice travelers. Northam’s other live presentation, Street Anthropology, is an ode to freestyle wandering. Visit AmericanDetour.com.