Between a national halt to hospitality in 2018 and now coronavirus, Nicaragua has faced a one-two punch to local tourism. But with miles of secluded coastline, intimate boutique hotels, and remote island retreats, this off-the-grid destination is the ideal future escape. With several hotel offering credits on future stays, it's a great option for dreaming now and traveling when it's safe.
NICARAGUA — "How can I be the only person here?" I thought to myself as I stepped foot on Nicaragua's Escondida Beach. This was in January, two months before I owned a single surgical mask and began using phrases like "social distancing" on a regular basis. But even then, I knew having a stretch of sand all to myself was something to cherish.
I scanned my brain for instructions on what to do when one finds herself blissfully alone in a tropical paradise. Cartwheels? Sand angels? Bury my passport and never leave? Instead, I perched on a rock, practically paralyzed by awe, and pulled a can of Toña beer from my backpack. I sipped and slowly scanned my surroundings, committing every inch of white sand, each glimmer of sunshine dancing off the blue sea and all the contours of the inlet's towering bluffs to memory. I had the strangest inkling that someday I would have to live off these recollections, so I wanted them to be complete.
I just didn't think "someday" would come quite so soon. Yet here we are in the midst of a pandemic, and Escondida Beach has become my go-to quarantine daydream.
I've also been marveling at how ideal a destination Nicaragua is for the Covid-conscious traveler. Of course, international travel is largely restricted at the moment, and most airlines have suspended flights between the U.S. and Nicaragua until at least September, but we can still start dreaming of future trips.
Rancho Santana on Escondida Beach
For starters, anyone craving space and avoiding crowds will be happy to hear that my solo day at the beach was no fluke. Escondida Beach lies on the grounds of Rancho Santana, a resort community on Nicaragua's Emerald Coast. "When you see three or four families at the beach, that's considered crowded," says Alberto Marín, the property's director of guest experiences. That's largely because this isn't the resort's only beach. Rancho Santana, which is spread across 2,700 acres, has five beaches, plus 17 miles of hiking trails, equestrian stables, and a spa with treehouse-style treatment rooms tucked in the woods. Here, a private yoga studio sits at the top of a hill, overlooking the property as well as the sea. "Private" and "secluded" are two words I heard constantly during my visit. They may also be the most valued words in post-pandemic tourism.
Unless you've been quarantining in a tropical paradise, Nicaragua, known as the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes, offers the antidote to ho-hum at-home experiences. Rather than firing up another loaf of bread in the oven, plot to visit one of the country's 24 fiery peaks, such as Masaya, to feast your eyes on a lava-spewing crater. Instead of watching the minute hand tick along at your kitchen island, go island hopping on Lake Nicaragua, which is dotted with roughly 360 islets. "Almost one for each day of the year," my guide told me. Swap riding the waves of quarantine ennui for surfing the swell off the Emerald Coast or sandboarding down beachside dunes.
In addition to quelling coronavirus melancholy, socially-conscious travelers will want to prioritize destinations that are most in need of tourism. And though you'd be pressed to find a destination that hasn't been negatively impacted by the pandemic, Nicaragua has been particularly hard hit in recent years.
In the spring of 2018 when an uprising against President Daniel Ortega brought tourism to a stand-still, an estimated 70,000 hospitality workers lost their jobs. Hotels and restaurants shuttered for months, and some, such as luxury bolthole Mukul, an Auberge Resort, and rustic surf escape Maderas Village, still haven't reopened. (Mukul had hoped to reopen in late 2020 but has shifted the date to late 2021, according to Auberge's website.)
But earlier this year, Nicaragua tourism seemed primed for a comeback. A steady stream of tourists from the U.S. and Europe returned. Outstanding in the Field, the roving dinner party, hosted its first event in Nicaragua with guests attending from across the United States and as far away as Spain and France. Rancho Santana completed ambitious expansion projects, including an onsite chapel for destination weddings and an overhaul of its spa.
And then coronavirus hit.
Once again, growing momentum came to an abrupt stop. "Generally, it's very quiet, and that's the right thing for now," says Rancho Santana's CEO Matt Turner. The ranch, which includes privately-owned residences in addition to a 17-room inn, is still operational, though the majority of visitors in recent months have been homeowners sheltering in place in their vacation homes. Currently, group activities, such as yoga classes and horseback riding, have been put on pause and social distancing is being enforced (a somewhat easy task across thousands of acres).
Still, Turner remains hopeful. "We're in a strange and complex chapter, but it won't be defining," he says. "I believe the space, quiet nature, and remoteness of the ranch will prove to be important and attractive qualities to more travelers." For the ultimate in seclusion, Rancho Santana has 24 standalone homes available for rent. And the entire community prides itself on its off-the-grid self-sufficiency. The property has its own source of solar power, an onsite farm, organic gardens, and a small grocery store that can deliver goods like cheese and pastries made on the ranch. To further sweeten the allure, Rancho Santana is offering property credit for future stays. Travelers who book before September 30, 2020, will receive a $100 resort credit for room reservations or a $200 resort credit for a residence reservation, plus a $50 spa credit.
Tribal in Granada
In the colonial town of Granada, the country's cultural capital, the post-pandemic intimacy travelers will be yearning for can be found at boutique hotel Tribal. The design-centric property has only seven rooms and no elevators (ideal for distancing). Breakfast is delivered straight to guest room private patios, even under ordinary circumstances. When I visited in January, I enjoyed fresh pineapple, fresh-squeezed juice, a pastry, and French-press coffee on my personal veranda with a view of the pool. Additionally, the hotel works closely with locally-owned Danny's Tour Operator to arrange private excursions to surrounding volcanoes as well as the beach in San Juan del Sur.
Tribal co-owners Jean-Marc Houmard and Yvan Cussigh have been able to hang onto three of ten employees who still clean the hotel twice a week and are helping refinish furniture. "The past two years have been really hard on the staff and the population in general," says Houmard. "In 2018, the hotel was closed for five months after the political unrest, and just as we saw tourists come back last winter and early spring — to not quite full capacity, but much better than the previous two years — the pandemic decimated all the gains in a few weeks."
Danny Diaz Miranda, owner of Danny's Tour Operator, echoes what Houmard says about setbacks in tourism. He's still open for business, but not working, as tourists aren't entering the country. Like Tribal, Danny also had to temporarily lay off his four employees. But he's eager to get back on track once visitors can safely return.
With the closures, Houmard and Cussigh have been pouring their time into building two new standalone villas a block from the hotel — which will prove to be ideal escapes for those seeking even more privacy in the coming years. The first — a four-bedroom home with soaring archways and its own courtyard pool, decked in handmade tiling and lush with tropical foliage — will be available for rent through Tribal this fall.
The duo has already garnered attention for their design work. A villa they previously collaborated on, Casa Violeta, landed in the pages of Architectural Digest Mexico & Latin America before the pair sold it last year. The home's new owner, Katalina Mayorga, the founder and CEO of El Camino Travel (a curator of small-group trips and cultural experiences, including regular journeys to Nicaragua), rents the three-bedroom oasis through Airbnb for $300 a night.
If you've spent quarantine dreaming of escaping to a tropical island, Isleta El Espino, located on a private islet in Lake Nicaragua just off the coast of Granada, might be your fantasy. The five-room escape with views of Volcan Mombacho is filled with handcrafted furniture and has a pool, yoga platform, and culinary program that takes advantage of produce grown right on the island. Additionally, the hotel works with local tour guides and artisan communities so that guests leave not only relaxed, but also with a greater appreciation for Nicaraguan culture. Co-owner Andrew Werner says the property likely won't reopen until November, depending on the status of safe travel, but, like Rancho Santana, Isleta El Espino is offering incentives for those willing to book now and visit later. Until September 30, guests can buy a package for up to 30 percent off and travel anytime through 2022.
For those who simply can't wait until fall to explore the country, El Camino Travel, which has a sold-out Nicaragua trip still scheduled for November as well as a slew of open trips in 2021, has launched an online travel community. The Clubhouse gives members access to travel experts who can answer questions about planning trips to Nicaragua, in addition to other destinations, plus virtual tours of boutique hotels, opportunities to connect with fellow solo travelers, and access to cultural conversations, including an upcoming talk with Nicaraguan-American ceramicist Joel Gaitan.
Of the pandemic, Mayorga points out that everyone from the mega-hotel chains and airlines to the mom-and-pop shops have been brought to their knees. In a sense, the pandemic is an equalizer. But now is the time to reevaluate how we travel and what we prioritize. "We have a chance to either be the architects of the new normal or simply bystanders," she says. "It's like a forest fire. The blaze has ripped through, but we now have the opportunity to plant new seeds."
Those new seeds just might inspire more considered travel in less-frequented destinations, where sustainability and space is the priority. And if that's the case, we may all be able to enjoy more of those serenely secluded beach days.