Not a lot of great stuff came out of Nicaragua’s bloody civil war. The Reagan administration got busted for funneling arms to the contras. The Clash sold a few more copies of Sandinista! And though our erstwhile foe Presidente Daniel Ortega was pushed out of office in 1990, he was reelected in 2006 and is still going strong.
But there is one silver lining. While parts of neighboring Costa Rica morphed into an expensive and overdeveloped tourist mecca—now crawling with American and European retirees—a lingering association with war and scandal scared off visitors for years, leaving Nicaragua’s beaches unspoiled, its accommodations eco-friendly, and its vibe decidedly chill. And the surfing is insane.
“After the civil war ended in 1990, the place basically froze in time for 20 years,” says Jean-Marc Houmard, co-owner of New York hot spots Indochine and Acme, who also co-owns Tribal Hotel, a year-old addition to the country’s most charming colonial-era town, Granada. “The landscape is like northern Costa Rica,” he adds, “but the infrastructure is decades behind, which is part of its charm.” (Aside from an occasional power outage, the country is well run, safe, and increasingly prosperous.) “It still hasn’t been completely commercialized by large-scale development,” adds Matt Dickinson, cofounder of the hipstery boutique hotel Maderas Village, near San Juan Del Sur, which he describes as “a bohemian paradise for doers, makers, and dreamers.” Also surfers: “It has some of the most consistent breaks in the world,” he points out.
After a few days in Granada—a starting point for day trips to the country’s numerous volcanos, both dormant and otherwise—most visitors make their way to the beaches of the Pacific coast, centered around San Juan del Sur. Aside from MaderasVillage, popular options include the mission-style
Rancho Santana resort and the high-end Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa.
More ambitious travelers may find themselves hopping on a puddle jumper from Managua to Big Corn Island, then boarding a panga, a small motorized boat, to the jewellike Little Corn Island,
a square-mile patch of narcotic tropical perfection about 43 miles from the Mosquito Coast, where an array of beachside cabanas are available for as little as $30 a night. But after all that traveling, many visitors will be inclined to spring for the considerably more upscale Yemaya Island Hideaway & Spa. Either way, figure on swaying hammocks, coconut palms, and excellent diving—and blissfully spotty wi-fi.