"Do you know why Nicaragua is like Justin Timberlake?" my driver asks as he changes the radio from JT’s "SexyBack" to baseball. I rack my brain (boy bands? Britney Spears? The Social Network?), then give up with a shrug. "We are a country that is able to reinvent itself over and over again," he says.
Nicaragua has reinvented itself even more often than Timberlake has. The Somoza dictatorship that began in the 1930s led to almost five decades of revolutions and counterrevolutions, interrupted by a devastating earthquake in 1972. The ’80s brought violent conflict between the leftist Sandinista government and American-backed Contra rebels. All of which explains why my friends were baffled when I told them I would be going, by myself, to Nicaragua for a vacation. Wasn’t it dangerous? Where would I stay? And more importantly, what would I eat? Why not just visit Costa Rica?
What my friends didn’t know is that Nicaragua has reinvented itself as the next great eco-destination. Not only has it become the second-safest country in Central America, after Costa Rica (according to a recent Global Peace Index study), but it’s a bargain. As a friend put it, "You can live like a king for less than $100 a day." If Nicaragua had Justin Timberlake’s PR team, it would be touting these reasons to visit.
There Are Wonderful New Eco-Hotels
Nicaragua has yet to attract the big luxury hotel chains. Instead, I stay at small, stylish, sustainable hotels like the new Jicaro Island Ecolodge. A 15-minute boat ride from the colonial city of Granada, Jicaro is hidden among 300-some isletas that formed when the Mombacho volcano erupted thousands of years ago, scattering debris into Lake Nicaragua. Run by the team from Costa Rica’s much-lauded eco-properties Lapa Rios and Latitude 10, Jicaro is very sustainable. Recycled wastewater irrigates the jicaro trees for which it is named; the wood for the nine Japanese-style casitas came from trees that were downed by Hurricane Felix in 2007.
To say Jicaro is a tiny island is an understatement. Most of the eco-lodge’s staff live on the neighboring isletas. I find them to be terrifically knowledgeable and friendly. One afternoon while I am lounging by the infinity pool, a staffer drops off a plate of still-warm honey cookies. It’s hard to top poolside cookie service.
You Can Get Close to Nature
"General Somoza is watching you." These aren’t the words I am expecting to hear from my Jicaro wildlife guide, Fabian, as we maneuvered our kayak around Lake Nicaragua. Fabian arrived at my door at 5:45 a.m. to take me on a bird-watching expedition. The wildlife is "most alive" at these early hours, he tells me as we watch the sun rise over the Mombacho volcano.
But Anastasio Somoza Garcia, the general who orchestrated the assassination of revolutionary leader Augusto Cesár Sandino in 1934 and whose presidency began a 43-year family dictatorship, has not come back from the dead. The General Somoza to whom Fabian is referring is a great blue heron that he routinely spots, which is now inches from my face. "I name all my birds," he says. So early in the morning, the water has a haunting quality as we pass an island graveyard dotted with big white crosses—a reminder of Nicaragua’s troubled past.
You’ll Have a Cultural Experience
When I’m planning a vacation, I always debate between city/culture and nature/relaxation. Nicaragua delivers both. One Sunday I take an excursion from Jicaro back to Granada, a beautifully preserved Spanish colonial city. The action is centered around Parque Central, the town square, where horse-drawn carriages line up for passengers while men sell hooch in clear plastic bags. I wander through the Sunday market, where hawkers offer everything from underwear to double-fried pork. An old, toothless woman gives me a taste of stewed plantains when she sees me snapping photos.
One night, I take the boat from Jicaro to Granada to see a free concert by Perrozompopo, the Latin Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter, who is performing in front of Iglesia San Francisco. "It’s going to be wild," my yoga instructor at Jicaro has promised me.
You Can Get to Yoga Heaven
Many of the new hotels in Nicaragua are promoting themselves as yoga and wellness spots, hosting retreats led by world-renowned gurus and offering all kinds of classes. One such property, Aqua Wellness Resort, is on the Pacific Coast, an hour-and-a-half’s drive or so west of Granada at the end of a long and gnarly dirt road—the type of road that always seems to lead me to an exceptionally rewarding destination.
Aqua is built into the hillside and consists of a series of 18 fabulous, sustainable wooden treehouse villas that are connected to each other by suspended bridges, with 150 steps that lead down to sheltered Redonda Bay. I am able to do yoga overlooking the water, on an enormous beachfront platform, or have a private session on the deck of my treehouse. The resort also gives wellness classes on topics like dealing with food allergies and healthful cooking.
My visit to Aqua happens to coincide with a month-long teacher-training workshop by an esteemed yoga institute. One morning I immediately attract the intense interest of the 50-odd yogis-in-training when they spot me holding my cup of coffee. "Is that real coffee?" one asks me wistfully. I nod and try not to smile as I take a long sip. These yogis are vegans who abstain from caffeine and alcohol. Luckily for me, Aqua shares my philosophy of moderation in all things.
The Surfing is Fabulous
Finding a great surf break is like discovering oil: Once word gets out, the crowds come. And there are certainly crowded surf towns in Nicaragua. But while I am staying at Aqua, I am able to have some of Nicaragua’s mythical surf almost entirely to myself.
Intel from roaming surfer friends has pointed me to the fishing village of Playa Gigante, on the other side of the "giant’s foot," the headland clifftop that shelters Aqua and Redonda Bay. Someone from Aqua volunteers to take me surfing. A short but bumpy drive leads us through Gigante, a ramshackle little surf town, to Playa Amarillo. There we share jungle views and head-high waves with three Nica kids...and nobody else.
A Locavore Ethos is Emerging
I didn’t expect to find trend-conscious cooking in Nicaragua. But at Jicaro, chef Jose Lopez uses as many local ingredients as he can in his refined spins on the country’s traditional dishes. For his version of the Nicaraguan fast-food dish vigorón—traditionally a mix of boiled yucca and pork rinds served with cabbage slaw—he substitutes pork belly, baked then lightly fried. He serves it in a banana leaf with mashed manioc and a slaw of mimbro (a supersour fruit) and hot peppers. The result is a Nica take on a pork bun.
Aqua’s chef, Ben Slow, lives on Ometepe, an island in Lake Nicaragua that is home to an off-the-grid commune of expats-turned-organic-farmers. Slow runs an agriturismo where he processes his own meats, bakes breads in a clay oven and grows things like galangal. That’s where he gets many of the ingredients for dishes like rondón, a stew of chunky white fish, thin strips of beef, peppers, onions and plantains in coconut milk.
When my driver drops me at the airport on my way home, he asks if I think Nicaragua could be the next Costa Rica. He looks disappointed when I reply yes. "You don’t get a sense of culture in Costa Rica," he says. "You get zipline. We want you to take home memories of our food, our music—and I guess maybe a zipline tour, too."
Eco-Travel Guide: Nicaragua Black Book
From Spanish colonial cities like Granada and León (left) to fishing villages-turned-surfing spots, Jen Murphy traveled all over. Highlights from her trip:
Augusto C. Sandino International Airport in Managua is the main hub. American Airlines (aa.com) has a two-and-a-half-hour direct flight from Miami, and Continental Airlines (continental.com) has an eight-hour flight from Newark, New Jersey, that connects through Houston. It’s about a one-hour drive from Managua to Granada.
When to Go
Nicaragua has two seasons: Winter (May through October) is the rainy season; summer (November through April) is the dry season.
Where to Stay
Jicaro Island Ecolodge A 15-minute boat ride from Granada, this sustainable new resort is on a tiny island in Lake Nicaragua. Its nine casitas have decks with hammocks. For a view of Mombacho volcano, request casita nine.
Aqua Wellness Resort This almost year-old retreat is an hour-and-a-half from Granada, near the fishing village of Gigante. Many of the treehouse villas have private plunge pools; activities include yoga, surfing and cooking classes.
Where To Eat
El Zaguán A Granada restaurant that turns out fantastic grilled meats, particularly local beef. There’s live marimba on the patio.
El Garaje A no-frills lunch spot in Granada where the daily changing menu might include tandoori-chicken sandwiches or black bean soup.
Fritangas Vendors set up around Calle La Calzada and Parque Central in Granada to sell dishes like carne asada and all things fried, from plantains to cheese.
Casa Campestre and Café Campestre Aqua chef Ben Slow runs this agriturismo on the island of Ometepe, about an hour’s ferry ride from San Jorge. There are basic guest accommodations and a restaurant featuring ingredients grown and raised on the farm.