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Affordable, Low-Key Nicaragua

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Photo: Trujillo/Paumier

Many of the islands are single-family vacation compounds for members of Nicaragua’s upper class. The loveliest—impeccably landscaped, with low stone walls, potted flowers, stone steps leading to the water—turned out to be owned by the Pellas, whose century-old conglomerate (rum, cars, energy, banking) has made them one of the richest families in the country. Their Italian ancestors immigrated from the United States in the 19th century; one in six Nicaraguans today is of mainly European descent. An island over from the Pellas’, standing in the shallows, three shirtless, dark-skinned men were flinging nets, catching baitfish.

But the most exceptional ecotourism near Granada involves volcanoes, a couple dead and one very much alive. Mombacho last erupted about 450 years ago, not long after the Spanish arrived. The ascent to the top is on the back of an open-air flatbed Mercedes truck (a former Sandinista troop-transport vehicle, donated by fellow-traveling West Germans during the 80’s), and the ride up, occasionally at an angle of 45 degrees, past monkeys and a handsome coffee plantation, is positively theme park–like.

The top third of Mombacho, almost a mile high, is all uninhabited rainforest canopy, a cloud forest preserve. Wandering for a couple of hours around these 2,500 acres of nature was just right, an experience more like walking through a vast garden than a tropical wilderness. The hiking trails run between cool shade and bright sun, cozy glens and panoramic lookouts. Pink begonias were in bloom, as was every conceivable color of orchid. The date settings on my mental Wayback Machine spun backward: the 40-foot-tall ferns and lava steam holes look entirely prehistoric. As I knelt to examine the most extraordinary butterfly I’d ever seen—a Greta oto, with transparent wings, which looked as if it had been created by a graphic designer—I turned when I heard my wife and daughter gasp: a white vulture with a six-foot wingspan zoomed past us 20 feet away, then soared out over a sunny field of yellow orchids.

Nicaragua also has active volcanoes, including Masaya, halfway between Granada and Managua, which is the centerpiece of a national park. Masaya’s last big eruption was in 2001, when two-foot rocks flew a quarter-mile. You can drive right to the rim. And for me, standing on the volcano’s lip was as much like an experience of art as of nature—like gazing at an earthwork that Robert Smithson or James Turrell might have made given enough years and millions of dollars and bulldozers. It’s a sublime spectacle, moving, mesmerizing, at once heavenly and hellish. Sunset provides one aesthetic experience—the thousand-foot-wide maw, the flitting parakeets who live in the crater, the clouds of sulfurous steam rising against the brilliant pink and indigo sky—and nighttime quite another, as one looks several hundred feet down through the pitch-black darkness at the glowing red-hot lava bed.

As it turned out, we had saved the best for last. The drive from Managua to San Juan del Sur, just shy of Costa Rica, is on three roads of diminishing quality, each an artifact of a distinct historical period: two hours on the Pan-American Highway past mango groves, banana plantations, and (in spring) chartreuse rice fields; a half-hour on a badly potholed highway featuring prankish anti-Sandinista stickers—avenida d. ortega—affixed to the official signs; and 20 minutes on a dirt road blazed during the California Gold Rush.

San Juan del Sur has become a happening spot, in its ecotouristic, bourgeois-bohemian fashion, the one Nicaraguan beach town whose name seems familiar to significant numbers of Americans. If Big Corn Island resembles one of the lesser Bahamas during the Kennedy administration, San Juan del Sur could be the 21st-century equivalent of Puerto Vallarta in the early 1950’s. And Morgan’s Rock Hacienda & Ecolodge, now five years old, is unquestionably its epicenter of chic.

However, the moment you step inside, it’s clear that the respect for nature and authenticity is wedded to a deeply comforting design. The public areas are understated and cool, each indoor-outdoor space morphing gently into the next, lobby to lounge to restaurant to pool. The floors are polished dark stone, the walls rusticated volcanic rock, the roofs red tile and thatch, the hanging lamps just stylish enough. And the view, unmediated by windows, is killer, a mile-wide Pacific cove with a perfect white crescent beach, the broad embracing arms of land to the left and right nearly devoid of buildings.

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