“It was obvious that it would grow when word got out.”
It was three days before I saw another person on my daily rambles along Playa Escondida. The man was kneeling by a scrub splashing sea water onto the olive-colored shell of a paslama sea turtle, which was sending up little puffs of sand with her paddles as she prepared to lay.
It wasn’t the sort of sight you’d expect in a place that bills itself as a resort. But surprise is a growth industry on the southwest coast of Nicaragua. After years of political instability, the country began appealing to luxury travelers with the opening in 2013 of Mukul on wide, wave-battered Playa Manzanilla, in the middle of a stretch of Pacific shoreline that’s been dubbed the Emerald Coast. On my visit last year, I found in Rancho Santana a similar combination of refinement and rugged grandeur.
The resort, spread across 2,700 acres of tropical forest along five dramatic beaches, opened in 1997 as a residential community. Condo, villa, and casita rentals still comprise the majority of the accommodations. But last month, Rancho Santana added an inn with 17 rooms lovingly furnished with Nicaraguan art, pottery, and woodwork for less than half the price of Mukul’s cheapest bohios. When I visited not long before the inn’s opening, dinner on the terrace of the elegant La Finca y el Mar restaurant was a convivial affair. At the wraparound bar, well-heeled Nicaraguan families mingled with Texan oilmen and Californian surfers lured by the nearby beach at Popoyo, home to one of the most famous offshore breaks in the world.
“It was obvious that it would grow when word got out,” said Chris Currey, Rancho’s Baltimore-born general manager, as we stood on a promontory the next day overlooking the rugged arc of Playa Duna, the second most southerly beach. We’d spent the morning touring the grounds in Currey’s dusty Chevy, bouncing past horse stables, an organic farm, and the ranch’s own tienda. Outside the property, Rancho Santana’s investment in the local villages was evident: a clinic, a library, state-of-the-art sports facilities. From the cliffs above Playa Duna, we could see the bronze pastures inland that have been earmarked for an airport. “I’d say we’re in the third inning,” Currey said, acknowledging how much Rancho still plans to grow.
Yet in every other direction, the view betrayed little man-made incursion. What was most striking was the ranch’s sheer size. This asset, it occurred to me, would stand Rancho in good stead to absorb any expansion without forfeiting the space and privacy that both residents and guests alike come here for. Currey explained that by confining new construction to the ridgelines, the valleys, which cradle fragile ecosystems, would be left untouched.
One sizzling triple-digit morning, I joined Fredder Ortega, Rancho’s garrulous wildlife guide, to explore those valleys. We followed some of the 16 miles of foot-trails, designed by consultants from Montana’s Glacier National Park, that meander through the ranch’s forests. Even in the dry season, life abounded. Howler monkeys lay in the branches of tall capoc trees. A blue morpho butterfly fluttered across our path one way, then a fork-tailed emerald hummingbird. A hapless iguana, a porcupine needle projecting from its face, eyed us from a copper-colored tree trunk.
“They want to show off this nature,” Ortega reassured me. “The owners know that if they build too much, they will have destroyed the very thing that makes it special.” And they’re right: Rare is the resort where you can walk five miles through rioting nature without seeing a soul, before returning to sip tequila cocktails by the poolside. Seclusion and sophistication: Rancho does both with aplomb.