For the past few years, Nicaragua has been steadily gaining traction as a luxury travel destination, while managing to escape the kitschy reputation many tropical regions take on once they’ve been “discovered.”
Nicaragua has long been overshadowed by its neighbor, Costa Rica, but its Emerald Coast is transforming from an under-the-radar spot in Central America into a must-visit locale for luxury travelers. While many still have preconceived notions that a trip to Nicaragua means something along the lines of a backpacking adventure, two incredible hotels on the Emerald Coast, Rancho Santana and Mukul, an Auberge Resort, reveal that it’s time for Nicaragua to be added to your over-the-top travel bucket list.
“The best way to describe Rancho Santana would be rustic luxury,” Alberto Marin, the Director of Guest Experiences, told Observer during an afternoon tour of the 2,700-acre resort. We stayed at the dream-worthy destination for three nights on a trip to Nicaragua, before heading to Mukul for the final two nights.
One of the most desirable features of Rancho Santana is that it feels as though you have the entire resort to yourself. With five beaches (Playa Santana, Rosada, Escondida, Duna and Los Perros), and endless options like surfing, hiking, spa treatments, swimming and horseback riding, to name a few, it’s easy to go a full day without running into another guest.
“Unlike other places, we cherish the ruggedness and never try to tame it,” Matt Turner, the CEO of Rancho Santana, told Observer. “We don’t pave roads—we keep them dirt, and grow gardens for our food and beverage program. We don’t override nature, rather, we work with it.”
Surfers were the first ones to start heading over to Nicaragua. “The surf here is constant, you could surf 300 days out of the year here. The waves are world class, and that’s what created the boom of tourism in this area,” Marin explained. “Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, surfers were escaping Costa Rica; by word of mouth, they’d come here.”
Playa Los Perros is also where guests will find La Taqueria, a beach shack-esque eatery offering homemade tacos, quesadillas and ceviches, plus an array of freshly made beverages.
Horseback riding is another big draw for guests, and the hour-long sunset ride to the beach, led by the equestrian director Beverly Bean, is a must. A recent storm made the pathway to the beach a bit more of a trek, as we had to wade through water, on horseback, that went above the horse’s legs, but the cotton candy skies made the trek entirely worth it.
The meditation-like private yoga class was held on a shaded platform overlooking Playa Escondida and it was magical, right down to the sound of the waves softly crashing in the background.
Rancho Santana has something for everyone. We stayed in one of the 17 oceanfront hotel rooms at The Inn at Rancho Santana, which opened in 2015. The room suites have private, spacious terraces with views of Playa Santana, and all the lavish amenities (including soft Frette sheets) one expects of a luxury resort. For travelers who prefer villas or perhaps a more secluded trip, there are 30 homes on the property that Rancho Santana manages as vacation rentals, and every single one has an ocean view.
One of the benefits of staying at The Inn is that it’s where you’ll find the courtyard, lounge, concierge, main restaurant and the café. The restaurant, La Finca y el Mar, offers indoor and outdoor seating, and the al fresco option is highly recommended—it has incredible (and highly Instagrammable) views of the sun setting over Playa Santana.
Not only is the resort visually stunning, but the service is flawless. The people in Nicaragua truly do take it to the next level; everyone was incredibly friendly, welcoming and helpful. After such a perfect experience at Rancho Santana, the bar was set rather high for the next leg of the trip at Mukul Resort, which is just a 20-minute drive away.
If Rancho Santana embodies rustic elegance, Mukul is a modern, lavish resort experience—it exceeded all my expectations and then some. Mukul, which is Mayan for “secret,” opened in 2013, and is comprised of just 37 rooms on its 1,670 acres, including beach villas and bohios.
We stayed in one of the 23 bohios, which feel like lavish tree houses perched above Playa Manzanillo. The bohios are sleek yet still cozy, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls that open to a private terrace, complete with a personal plunge pool; golf carts transport guests to and from these lodgings.
The Beach Club at Mukul, also reached by golf cart, offers full pool and beach service, complete with idyllic hammocks and a restaurant, Tres Ceibas. It’s easy to spend a whole day lounging there, opting for a dip in the pool, a swim in the ocean or a surfing or paddle boarding lesson. And of course, each day ends with the most beautiful sunsets—the place is replete with social media bait.
The additional restaurant, La Terraza, overlooks Playa Mazanillo, and there’s often live music playing. Before eating, many opt for a special tasting of the famed Flor de Caña rum, which we were able to experience in the tasting room, complete with information about the history of the rum—it goes back five generations of the Pellas family, who own Mukul. Other dining possibilities include a customized tasting menu or a formal experience in the dining room.
Mukul, which opened in 2013, features a David McLay Kidd golf course, tennis courts and hiking trails, as well as surfing, fishing, snorkeling and paddle boarding. I was most intrigued by the resort’s world-renowned, award-winning Spa Mukul. It’s composed of six separate spa suites: the Ancient Sanctuary, Crystal Temple, Hammam, Healing Hut, Rainforest and Secret Garden. Each one has a different theme and an exclusive ritual, and some of the more elaborate treatments can be booked for a full day.
Even the simpler treatments, like the massages, include aspects of the more elaborate rituals. For example, the massage started with a “foot ritual,” which is essentially a foot massage that takes place in wonderfully scented water. Afterwards, it’s recommended that guests go into the private steam room for a few minutes. Then, the 60-minute massage is followed by a dip in the two outdoor pools on the terrace of the treatment room; one warm, one cooler, all while sipping a special tea and taking in the scenery.
As upscale and luxurious as both Rancho Santana and Mukul are, the two resorts make sure not to overshadow the local beauty. “We still want people to feel like they’re in Nicaragua,” Marin explained. “In some other places, the culture is kind of lost. You don’t know if you’re in Southern California or Costa Rica! Here, we want you to say, ‘Wow, I’m in Nicaragua.’”
If Rancho Santana and Mukul are two hidden jewels on the Emerald Coast, they won’t be for long. “We aren’t just nice for Nicaragua anymore—we’re nice worldwide, with service that really competes,” Marin pointed out. “We get luxury travelers here, who expect nothing but the best.” Indeed, that mixture of resort luxury, natural surroundings and unparalleled hospitality makes the Emerald Coast a top travel destination.