It’s crazy to think that we almost skipped Nicaragua during our Latin American travels. A dark horse candidate for a vacation, Nicaragua–unlike Mexico, Brazil, or Argentina–hadn’t really registered on my must-visit list. What is even in Nicaragua? I asked myself. It was a mystery.
But last summer, I went to a party thrown by a Brooklyn couple who had just come back from four months living there and gushed about it. Then, another couple I knew moved down for a couple months. Huh, what is it about poor little Nicaragua, which only emerged from civil war in the 1990s? Well, in the past five years it has reached a magical state of being safe enough for all but the most paranoid/dumb tourists, yet still incredibly cheap.
What made us book our tickets to Nicaragua in the end was an invitation from a good friend for a weeklong birthday celebration. We love her, and the timing was right, so we decided to give Nica a shot. We gave ourselves three days in Granada, two days in Ometepe, four days in Playa Maderas (near San Juan del Sur) and four days in Matagalpa.
And I’m so glad the universe conspired to get us to Nicaragua, because our expectations were exceeded and then some. We saw a huge chunk of the Pacific side and Northern area of Nicaragua. And in the process, had some truly magical stay at the loveliest and most authentic of resorts, hotels, and eco-lodges. Nicaragua is a gem, and you should go there now while it still feels undiscovered. When you do, make sure to stay at one of these places:
If you are craving the most quiet, tranquil setting possible, then arrange for a few days at Isleta el Espino, a private resort occupying its own isleta near Granada. Isletas, if you don’t yet know, are a cluster of tiny islands on the Granada side of Nicaragua’s large freshwater lake. Many tourists just arrange for a tour boat or a kayaking trip to see the area, but this is a much more immersive and luxurious option.
Isleta el Espino took great care to ensure that our stay was as worry-free as possible. They arranged for a car from the Managua airport to a small dock past Granada, where El Epino’s boat picked us up and took us across the placid lake water to the isleta that would be our home for the next few days. We were greeted with a tray of lemongrass tea made with lemongrass growing right by the pier, and had a seat at the outdoor bar/restaurant while our room was finished being prepared.
The isletas, unfortunately, have a reputation for being poor stewards of the lake, often dumping their wastewater untreated into its waters. But Isleta de Espino, which is a member of the Regenerative Resort family, takes great care to be a responsible citizen. Blackwater enters a biodigester, which separates out methane to power the caretaker’s kitchen on the far side of the island. Then, it’s mixed with the greywater, is filtered again by aquatic plants, then used to irrigate the property. Isleta el Espino has a solar panel system which provides all the power it needs (please, no hairdryers!). Most of the materials for construction of the resort are local, including the Granada tiles, and even the boat, which was handmade in Granada. If we were ever feeling peckish outside of meal time, the huge mango trees constantly dropped ripe mangoes all over the property. And the kitchen can also use the limes, coconuts, dragonfruit, passion fruit, pumpkin, plantains, and herbs which grow on the island.
We had a large menu of activities to choose from. We could arrange for a yoga class, a horseback riding tour, a walking tour of Granada, stand-up paddleboard, mountain biking, a live volcano tour, or just take the kayaks out ourselves and toodle around the isletas. We decided to take a net fishing class, in which a local (tried to) teach us how to catch our own fish. He really did all the catching just during his demonstration, but we dropped our haul off at el Espino’s kitchen and had fried tilapia and ceviche that night for dinner. The rest of the time, we just relaxed, reading, swimming in the lake, doing yoga stretches, or watching the wildlife from our private balcony. Other guests were around our age–early thirties to mid-forties–and one other couple was even from New York, like us!
The grand dame of resorts in Nicaragua, this coffee farm/restaurant/ecolodge near Matagalpa is famous around the world. But we found it through our tour from Better Places Travel.
Founded as La Hammonia farm at the end of the 19th century by Germans (Selva Negra means “Black Forest” in Spanish), it was bought by a German/Nicaraguan couple in the 1970s, who added the Selva Negra restaurant and eco-lodge. It now has 24 German-style cozy cabins (with living roofs!) and 28 additional rooms, plus a worker village of more than 100 people, a medical clinic, a school (which turns into daycare when school is out during coffee-picking season), its own hydroelectric system, a mechanic, an organic lab for experimenting with plant-based pesticides and fungicides, a dairy house where they make their own cheese, and a carpentry shop where they make their own furniture from fallen wood on the property. The farm provides ingredients for the restaurant, including strawberries and peaches just for marmalade, banana vinegar for cooking, and cacao for the German chocolate cake from the bakery. It’s a veritable eco village!
Several large biodigesters handle the waste water from the coffee processing, plus ruminant from the cattle and human waste, directing the methane to the worker village kitchens. All the resort cabins have solar-heated water, and one is completely solar powered. Ninety-five percent of staff is from local community, and the owners give scholarships for university to the best students.
Backed right up to a nature reserve, La Hammonia coffee farm is shade-grown, and certified in several different ways, including Smithsonian Bird Friendly, USDA Organic, and Rainforest Alliance Certified. (You can find the coffee in Whole Foods, in fact.) They raise cage-free quail for eggs (they tried to let them be free-range, but local boa constrictors had other ideas), free-range pigs, antibiotic-free cattle (which are rotated among the pastures for a low-emission system), and cage-free chickens. Everyone on the farm uses coffee husks instead of wood for the traditional stoves, and the farm produces a shocking 45 million pounds of compost each year. The Selva Negra Community Foundation teaches permaculture, alternative energy technology, and organic farm practices to the local community. You might notice from all the signs around the property, is that the one big rule for living here as a worker is to take care of your trash.
We learned all this during a farm tour, one of many activities you can book, including a bird-watching tour, horseback riding, and more. Our guide Jose was born in the farm’s own village, went to school and then university, and after working in various roles around the farm, now is a tour guide. That’s not out of the ordinary–there are several families with three generations who have worked at La Hammonia, which is a testament to how fairly it is run!
Because Selva Negra is the most comfortable and large ecolodge in the Matagalpa region, it’s popular with the older crowd and can be booked out well in advance. While we were there, there were three large groups in their fifties and sixties from Germany, the U.S., and Canada, plus a few Nicaraguan families. Our spacious cabin, tucked away down a moss-covered footpath, felt like it was in its own piece of magical forest, rather than a large resort.
The most luxurious hotel in Granada, the beautiful Hotel Plaza Colón is situated right on the main square facing the park. Inside, the courtyard houses a pool, where you can have a healthy continental breakfast each morning, with table service by the attentive staff. We asked to have our breakfast brought up one morning, and we were so pleased when it arrived on a tray with zero disposable films or mini condiment packets (unlike most hotels).
Hotel Plaza Colón is certified by the Rainforest Alliance, and is committed to employing local tradesmen, planting trees, using locally-sourced goods, conserving water and energy resources, and using biodegradable products. The hotel is also part of the ECO-School program, which provides environmental education to teachers and students.
Our room was large and comfortable, with optional air conditioning and doors opening onto another small, quiet courtyard. The main square can be incredibly loud, but we didn’t hear much from where we were except some bells chiming. We slept incredibly well underneath a fluffy comforter. Because of Hotel Plaza Colón’s old-world luxury in a town that is overrun by backpackers, the other guests were mostly in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, but the friendly, relaxed type. (It is Nicaragua, after all!)
Another resort we found through Better Places Travel, Montebrisa lets you live like a rich Nicaraguan family, in a recently-renovated, art deco-style hotel in the Matagalpa region, about two hours from Managua. Built by a wealthy Nicaraguan farming family, it was seized by the government in the 1979 revolution and turned into a preschool. Like many pieces of property, it was eventually restored to the family, who turned it into a boutique hotel just two years ago.
Now you enter the the tranquil property through an enormous gate with a guard, before being greeted by a member of the Nicaraguan staff, who will show you to your luxuriously minimalist room. If you need to clear your head, just step outside and find one of the paths that wind through the lush organic garden with precious hardwood trees (including mahogany), fruit trees, tropical flowers, and 300 coffee trees, which provide the endless supply of coffee to guests.
All of the best restaurants in Matagalpa are a short stroll from the front gate, but the hotel’s location serves as a comfortable launchpad from which to explore Matagalpa’s cloud forest and coffee farms. The only other couple we saw during our 20 hours there were in their early 30’s, like us.
Zopango Private Island is another eco-friendly resort getaway in Las Isletas, which is totally energy- and water-independent, with its solar panels and its drinkable water provided by a professional system. There’s a lot you can do right on the island, such as hiking, kayaking, and relaxing on the beach. Plus, they have a super cute island monkey mascot named Cashew who you can hang out with.
Centro de Entendimiento con la Naturaleza (CEN)*
This is definitely the most rustic option in this list, but also has by far the most positive impact. CEN mainly functions as a nonprofit focused on protecting and restoring water sources in Peñas Blancas in the Matagalpa region. Your fee not only pays for your lodging, but goes toward this important work.
The rich cloud forest surrounding the CEN lodge used to be completely gone, cut down for farming and cattle ranching. But now you can see the work CEN has done in the past 15 years to grow the forest back. With the local population increasing, CEN’s projects are all geared toward teaching locals how to survive without damaging the forest and its water system. Projects include shade grown coffee, diversifying crops, planting bamboo (which purifies the water) and developing the bamboo market in Nicaragua, honey production with native stingless bees, medicinal plants, responsible tourism, and organic farming.
The lodge itself features stilt cabins with private bathrooms that (most of the time) have hot water, and beds with mosquito nets, as well as covered areas for pitching a tent. They have a biodigester for toilets, and a kitchen which serves typical Nicaraguan food and hot chocolate. Right across the road is the famed Rainbow Falls hike, a three-hour amble up into primary rainforest.
While we were there, we shared CEN with two other adventurous couples our age, plus a group of Nicaraguan school kids. The kids were a lot to deal with, so I might check to make sure they don’t have any school groups while you’re there. CEN has an email on their FB page, but I suggest you book through Better Places Travel, which will hook you up with local Nica guides who can provide translation, plus transportation, and more programming during your time in Peñas Blancas and Matagalpa.
The restaurateur couple who owns El Respiro grows their own organic produce on their 50 acres of land, and has a reforestation project which has planted over 8,000 trees so far. Their water comes from the rain, the electricity comes from the solar panels, and the waste gets turned to compost. They have yoga, horseback riding, massages and more.
*These hotels provided me with a free stay so that I could better review them. As always, I only work with hotels I’ve researched and verified ahead of time, and only write about hotels I truly enjoy.