The Emerald Coast: Nicaragua's hidden jewel

Move over Costa Rica: Nicaragua is emerging as the new eco-travel darling of Central America.

Posted Updated

Travis Levius (CNN)
TOLA, RIVAS, NICARAGUA (CNN) — Move over Costa Rica: Nicaragua is emerging as the new eco-travel darling of Central America.

In the past two decades, Nicaragua has made concerted efforts to increase peace and international tourism; now, it's one of Central America's safer nations for travel, based on 2017's Global Peace Index.

The Emerald Coast, a 30-mile stretch of unspoiled Pacific coastline and dry tropical forest, is at the forefront of this "new" Nicaragua, breathing economic life into Central America's poorest country.

Travelers who have pushed past outdated perceptions have been rewarded with pristine beaches and forests, world-class surf breaks, local hospitality and sustainability conscious luxury resorts.

The Emerald Coast is one of the only destinations in the world with 300-plus days of offshore winds, due to its fortunate position between Lake Nicaragua -- Central America's largest lake -- and the Pacific shores.

It was an insider secret amongst diehard surfing enthusiasts, drawn to humble fishing villages like Gigante and Popoyo Beach's world-class waves.

"There used to be Canadians and Americans who came to surf, and now you get surfers from Spain, France and all over," says American expat and surf instructor Jared Rosa, hinting that the secret might finally be out.

Luxury's arrival

Thanks to Nicaragua's political, economic and tourism progress, the Emerald Coast is now attracting an even wider reach of tourists, particularly affluent travelers.

There was a dearth, many in the know would admit, of upscale hotels and accommodation on the Emerald Coast.

But there are now a handful of resorts that are both sumptuous and sustainable.

Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa in Guacalito de la Isla, for instance, was the country's game-changer in 2013. Nicaraguan billionaire entrepreneur Carlos Pellas envisioned a coastal resort that would rival the five-star retreats of other countries, finally putting Nicaragua on the map for luxury tourism.

A quarter of a billion dollars in private beach development later, his plan worked: Numerous celebrities, royalty and other affluent travelers frequent the lavishly landscaped estate.

Mukul features 37 modern, cliff-clutching bohios ("huts") -- each with a personal plunge pool -- and beachfront villas along the crescent-shaped Playa Manzanillo. Mukul's use of native pine and teak woods and recycled material like rum barrel staves and mussel shells creates a look that's as earthy as it is swish.

The resort features a beachfront 18-hole golf course designed by the renowned David McLay-Kidd, as well as an impressive hilltop spa with six private, themed suites each their own outdoor deck and pool.

And the food at Mukul isn't beach shack basic, either.

Dining options include La Terraza, the main beachfront dining area which serves a range of cuisine anchored by locally sourced produce (like organic Nicaraguan grass-fed beef); a beach club-inspired Tres Ceibas Sports Bar & Grill popular for its ceviche, sushi and gourmet pizzas; and La Mesa, a sophisticated tasting menu-only restaurant (with wine pairings on offer) to satisfy fine-dining lovers who visit the Emerald Coast.

Mukul also provides several activities for the eco-traveler.

There are seven miles of hiking and biking nature trails (with a guided tour option with Mukul's "Aventura Rangers") within the resort's 1,670-acre reserve, where one can encounter howler monkeys, iguanas and sloths living wild and free among the area's lush, forested hills.

Travelers who stay between September and May can take advantage of Mukul's sea turtle conservation program, where guests can aid in the release and repopulation of endangered Olive Ridley sea and leatherback sea turtles along Mukul's private beaches.

Stop in or stay for a while

Neighboring resort and residential enclave Rancho Santana has also helped put Emerald Coast on the map for upscale eco-tourism.

Set in a vast 2,700-acre coastal forest with 2 miles of shoreline, Rancho Santana evokes a "rustic luxury" look with Spanish colonial-style villas, casitas and The Inn at Rancho Santana, the resort's sole hotel. The resort buildings' intricate metal flourishes and wooden finishes were created on Rancho's on-site millworks and ironworks.

Many international visitors, mostly from the United States, now own property in the resort, and the new beachfront residences nearly sold out within months.

Rancho Santana's general manager Chris Currey explains why more foreigners are visiting and living on the premises and throughout Nicaragua:

"There's an authentic, unique Latin culture. Other Central American countries are overrun with expats. Here, it still has local culture and feels undeveloped," Currey says.

"Besides the beautiful landscapes, it's the people, who are friendly, happy and living in the moment."

For tourists not looking to plants roots in Nicaragua but still desiring a laid back, liveable experience, The Inn at Rancho Santana is the happy medium.

The Inn has 17 rooms, suites and pied-a-terres along an outstretched Playa Santana, a haven for local and visiting surfers. Guests of the inn have access to all of the larger residential Rancho Santana community's amenities, including the spa, four restaurants and cafes, clubhouses, water sports, horseback riding and its five handsome beaches.

Much of Rancho Santana's fruits, vegetables and meats come straight from its on-site organic garden and farm; seafood is locally sourced from a neighboring fisherman co-op.

The casual, beachside La Finca y El Mar ("The Farm and the Sea") is the resort's premier farm-to-table restaurant. From papaya to pork belly, the all-day restaurant champions sustainable fare made within the premises whenever possible. Even the cocktail ingredients in its bar, like bell pepper, rosemary and cucumber, are sourced just a few yards away.

Renewable energy is another priority for Rancho Santana. Its current first phase has the resort's amenity buildings running exclusively on solar power from a network of on-site microgrids, with residences and hotel accommodation to soon follow.

Community impact

But does the presence of these upscale developments help or hamper the local Emerald Coast community, which is still by and large impoverished?

"The local community's receiving it with open arms. It's bettering the economy for them, it's giving them a new reality," says Nicaragua native Alberto Marin, Rancho Santana's director of guest experiences.

"A product of [Nicaragua's] past turmoil was that a lot of people didn't get an education that they deserved. So they would have to go to distant cities like Managua to find a job ... a job that would pay minimum wage and would have people separated from families. Now you can have a two-income household and both can work here."

Rancho Santana also hosts FunLimón, a partner initiative with the Ford Family Foundation to better the surrounding community with literacy, English and computer classes, sports facilities and children's leagues, vocational programs and more. The resort encourages guests to visit, use the facilities and interact with the locals.

Mario Bonilla, a young native and Mukul's activities concierge, would also say the impact has been positive.

"Other resorts have people from other countries working there. But Mr. Carlos Pellas wants people from town working here," Bonilla says.

"[Mukul's] training people within the community, and they give scholarships to students so that when they finish university, they can come and work with us."

Mukul donates supplies and funds to the local school community and provides grants and microloans to deserving neighborhood businesses.

They also spearhead a tree reforestation program (successfully planting 10,000 trees and counting) and give small farmers financial incentives to implement and maintain sustainable practices for the environment.

"Twenty years ago, there was no power in these areas ... and now there's an international airport," Rancho Santana's Marin says about the Emerald Coast area, where local drivers still share the same dirt main road with ambling oxen, pigs and cows.

"Nicaragua has changed its stance dramatically, it's leaping forward, with economy, technology ... Nicaragua has opened its doors to the world."

Even with all of the new, world-class hospitality properties emerging in the region, the essence of Emerald Coast's welcoming people, simple living and national optimism remains -- and that's the true treasure.

Copyright 2023 by Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.