Need ideas for winter break? Why not Nicaragua!

Nicaragua as a travel destination is not on everyone’s radar, but had been popping up in some internet articles recently. Every time I would come across  the Central America country’s name, my brain immediately went to “Contras and Sandinistas, ” and thought, “Is it safe?” I was curious to find out what it offers the traveler.

So, I decided to find out on a family vacation. Yep, I went ALL in and took the family, but admittedly after some research and preparation. I wouldn’t risk taking my children somewhere about which I don’t feel comfortable.

All my concerns about safety were put to rest. The Nicaragua revolution and Iran Contra Affair took place in the 70s and 80s, and has of late been called the safest country in Central America, with only Chile being safer in Central and South America.

The government and business leaders have been developing its tourism, and are priming it to be the “next Costa Rica.” And why not? It has the largest area of primary growth rain forest north of the Amazon, volcanoes to explore, and Spanish colonial cities with distinctive architecture. It’s world renown beaches have been sought after for decades by surfers chasing the perfect wave.

What I didn’t realize, is that this small country has an such an interesting history; It is the first Latin America country to have a woman president.

All sounded intriguing… I was just concerned that we would be going “off season” or “wet season” which is our summer. However, I discovered a secret: The advantages of going during wet season is that everything is so green..and it really only rains late in the afternoon for a short period. On top of that, there is a period called something like “verano pequeno” or small summer, because  two weeks at the end of July it doesn’t rain at all.

So I booked during that time frame two different hotels on the Pacific Coast, south of Managua, near Tola. (Most travelers do visit the Pacific Coast because its roads are more developed.)

One – Mukul Resort… swanky and upscale, and the other – Rancho Santana, a smaller more modest property . I wanted to get a taste of both places, because they are very different. And guess what? It only rained for maybe five minutes the entire trip!

Rancho Santana

We stayed at Rancho Santana first. I really didn’t know what to expect, even after reviewing the website many times… it is hard to capture 2700 acres of lush land, and two miles of shoreline on a few web pages.

Rancho Santana

But it is actually very simple in person. The Inn at Rancho Santana is the heart of the entire ranch area, and is situated right on the Pacific Ocean. The Inn was remodeled a few years ago, and fits the landscape perfectly, without giving up rustic elegance. More importantly, the  architecture feels authentic to the property.

There are 17 rooms at the inn, but we stayed in one of the condos that are part of the property, because they offered our family of five more room. We got a three bedroom, two bathroom place with a kitchen and living room for about $300 a night. It was right near the main hotel and pool area. The only downside is that each condo has a different owner, different style, and was not part of the recent remodel.

All of the rooms at the Inn revolve around a courtyard, and are right near all the action, like the
quick breakfast cafe that makes the most delicious Nicaraguan breakfasts.

They were my favorite meals the entire trip: eggs, with guacamole toast and cabbage over a homemade tortilla. We enjoyed our flavorful breakfast on a lovely patio overlooking the property with an ocean view.

A little further down a walkway is the main restaurant, with a bar and pool table – which led to many hours of late-night family fun. The restaurant is lovely – with seating over the dramatic waves at night.

There is also bocce! A family favorite. And remember, all of this is right in the center of the ranch.

Right nearby are all of the fun features – the pool, cabanas, outdoor bar, and the perfect perch to watch the most incredible sunsets.

I would consider myself a “sunset specialist”… and these from Rancho Santana were the most dramatic and beautiful of anywhere I have ever experienced in the world.

There were plenty of activities to keep all of us busy. The ranch has five different beaches from which to choose. All are pretty, and offer something different – whether it be sand surfing, or regular surfing, but our favorite beach was Los Perros because it had the open-air taqueria right on the sand, next to hammocks to nap off the quesadillas and garden-fresh salsas.

No other word describes it better than “chill.” Grab a cerveza and a taco in a corn tortilla that is made right there, and enjoy it on the beach? It was a nice touch.

Another thing to point out, is that the beaches here are almost empty… and rugged, which means there are no umbrellas and chairs set up for hotel guests to use. At Los Perros beach, you can request chairs for the sand. This is something to consider because you might not want your children in the sun all day, so pack an umbrella or ask where you can get one.

We broke up our time on the sand with surf lessons and hiking around the property’s trails. The one thing I think the ranch could improve is the gym. There is yoga in a nice environment, but the gym is across the street, and is nothing really nice – more of a high school gym.

On one of our most memorable days, we hired a guide from the hotel to take us into Granada.

Granada is Nicaragua’s oldest colonial city, situated right on Lake Nicaragua. It’s home to many Spanish-Colonial landmarks that have survived pirate invasions, and the town square is just eye candy with all the vibrant colors of the structures.

The trip into town was a fantastic way to break up all the beach time with some culture. I always love talking to the local guides and learning about life in their native town or country, and the two hour drive into Granada gave us time to do just that. The drive also allowed us to see the countryside..and sadly, the poverty. I can see why the guides do not like to make the trip home in the dark – there are many large animals that roam the roads freely.

On the way, to Granada we stopped to hike Volcano Mombacho, and also zip line across the rain forest.

There were very few tourists – which was so refreshing. We didn’t have to wait on any line for the canopy tours, and because it was quiet, we saw some baby monkeys on the hike.

Once in Granada, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant in the middle of all the colorful Spanish-Colonial churches and cafes. It really is a lovely town and something to see. I only wish we had had more time to wander around.

At the wharf of Granada, there are boatmen offering people rides on Lake Nicaragua. What is interesting about this boat ride, is that there are hundreds of islets in Lake Nicaragua, which provide habitats for birds and animals, and there are some that have one house on them for people to live on their own private islands.

The islets all range in size, and were formed when rocks flew from a volcano eruption thousands of years ago.

We took the boat ride, and had one of the most epic moments of the trip. There is one island that has a handful of monkeys living on it.

As we approached the monkey island, the boatman slowed down and eventually stopped right in front of it so the kids could see the monkeys.

The most astonishing thing then happened – one of the monkeys jumped on board… and walked directly over to the driver and gave him a long hug.

It was remarkable to witness the capacity for emotion these monkeys have. They clearly recognized the boatman, as he takes people out 1-2 times a day he says, and sometimes offers them food.

My children were stunned silent..but then of course wanted that important selfie with the monkey!

It was a nice outing, especially at sunset with the volcano in the background. We accomplished all of this sightseeing in one day between 8:30 AM and 7PM. It was worth it, and the price at Rancho to do this was substantially less than what it costs at Mukul to hire one of their guides.

When we moved to Mukul after a few days, let’s just say the sexy, open-air lobby grabbed me.

But there was also a hugely impressive array of glass bottles of alcohol set up right there – so right away I felt a different vibe than at Rancho Santana.

Our rooms (little bungalows in the trees called bohios) were beautiful, but small, and unfortunately, not conducive for families. We had to book two bohios because the most one bohio could sleep is 3 people.

The resort does have 12 2-bedroom beach villas, with their own pools, but they were approximately $1000 more a night than two bohios. The bohios were fine for privacy, but they aren’t so close to each other, and made organizing the family a little more complicated.

The nice touch is that coffee is delivered to your bohio every morning at a time you request. The coffee comes with a couple cookies, but I don’t understand why this is still the case – there are aggressive birds around the resort who are not afraid to come after those cookies and disrupt your peaceful morning coffee on your deck, so beware 🙂

This resort is also right on the beach, with the pool steps away.

Wander down the beach a bit and there is a cafe and a recreation area with volleyball courts and water sports. We took another surf lesson, for about double the price of Rancho Santana – but, as the instructor promised, it really was the best surf lesson I’ve ever had.

The nice thing about Mukul’s beach is that there are dozens of palapas with thatched rooves under which a handful of people can lay on the lounge chairs.

There is a beautiful spa and golf course, but the golf course was not in the best shape, which is surprising because we were there during the wet season, so you’d expect it to be green and lush. But at Mukul, we strangely felt like it was “off season” – not as many servers near the pool so you had to track someone down to order food or a drink, the cafe closed earlier than normal, our morning coffee wasn’t always delivered when we requested the night before, etc. It just seemed understaffed.  In all fairness, I had a friend visit Mukul during the winter, and had a better experience with the service.

If you are thinking about going to Nicaragua – here are some nuts and bolts:
Flying into Nicaragua is actually easier than one may think. The easiest way is to fly into Managua, and either book the hotel’s transportation service to pick you up and drive you for a couple hours to the resort, or take a 1/2 hour connecting flight to the small regional Costa Esmeralda airport, which is about 15-20 minutes from either resort.

Or you can fly into Costa Rica’s Liberia airport, where there are more flight options. From there I would recommend taking a flight into Costa Esmeralda – If you have the hotel pick you up at the airport and drive to either resort, it’s a long rough 4 hour drive with a stop at the border.

Flight times from the following cities to Managua: Dallas – 3 hours, New York – 6 1/2.
Flight times from the following cities to Liberia; Baltimore – 4.5 hours, Los Angeles 5.5 ***Southwest and Jet Blue fly from certain destinations to Liberia.

Happy Travels!

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