Last August, my husband and I sealed the deal, getting married in Phoenicia before heading to Nicaragua for nine days. We picked our honeymoon based on a single Instagram photo we’d seen: a woman floating in a black rubber tube, in a pool that overlooked a lush, green mountain. The photo encompassed the things we wanted in a honeymoon: mountains and a tropical island. Adventure and relaxation. (It really didn’t hurt that the woman was holding a cocktail, either.)
We found the hotel online, which to our surprise, was really affordable. As we began the booking and planning process, we spoke with the owner Andrew, whom was beyond helpful; in fact, he encouraged us to explore other hotels in Granada instead of spending all our 9 days on the island. This turned out to be the perfect plan–by splitting up our time, we stayed in three very different hotels, each with some unique experience: a bungalow on a private island, a B&B nestled at the base of a volcano, and a boutique hotel in the historic downtown area of Granada. As usual, our “out there” posts are a little more involved than our weekender getaways, so we broke this itinerary into parts by our three different hotel locations–though none of them are more than 30 minutes from each other. Any of these hotels can arrange for you to be picked up from the Managua airport, about an hour drive away, and can also arrange for taxis to take you in, out, and around town. If you’re feeling adventurous, the same drivers can be used for day-long excursions to the area’s many beautiful destinations like an active volcano, a crater lake, an artisanal market or horseback riding. One last piece of advice: the locals are exceptionally warm people, but brush up on your Spanish for communication’s sake. Most people don’t speak English, so learning simple phrases and numbers is highly recommended.
Isleta el Espino: A Private Island Retreat
Isleta el Espino is a 3-unit hotel on a tiny, private island in the Isletas de Granada. Accessible only by boat, the island was created thousands of years ago after a violent eruption of the volcano Mombacho, throwing hundreds giant rocks into Lake Nicaragua. Over time, these rocks turned into lush tropical islands. Isleta el Espino is lush indeed, with 6 types of mango trees growing on this tiny island. Which when ripened, the sun-kissed mangos can be shaken loose by a light breeze–also, sometimes they just fall for no reason. In any case, they’re free for the taking and they’re delicious.
Upon arrival at Isleta El Espino, we were handed cocktails and shown to our room. The small, ever-present staff waited on us hand and foot, bringing us Toñas (Nicaraguan beer) and meals whenever we were ready. Speaking of meals, they’re prepared three times a day on the island; breakfast is free, while lunch and dinner are tacked onto your hotel bill. As vegetarians, we were wary of traveling to another country whose diet, we feared, would be meat heavy–but every single meal prepared on the island was fantastic. Beers were around $2, cocktails $3-4, and meals around $15; everything is paid for upon departure.
As far as rooms go, you have two options: bungalow or treehouse. They’re both airy, modern, and filled with art, furniture, and textiles from local artisans. The bungalow, which costs a little more, has a bit more space, with a private covered porch overlooking the back of the island where we enjoyed our mornings. The treehouse rooms, which are slightly smaller, back up to one another and share a balcony, overlooking the pool and the volcano. During high season, nightly prices start at $95; during low, $80.
While visiting the Isletas, be sure to take advantage of all the excursions and activities the hotel offers. Stand-up paddleboarding was our favorite activity, which we’d never done before, and picked up quickly. Armed with our GoPro, the SUP excursion explores all the tiny islands around the massive Lake Nicaragua, passing wildlife, fishermen, schools, shanties and mansions. Toward the end of our tour, our guide Scott (an American expat) took us to an island where we hand-fed a hungry spider monkey with mangos. The monkey was thrilled to see us, greeting us as we approached the island and taking the mangos right out of our hands; after, she would squeal with delight. Other activities include a nature tour, a fishing excursion, and a cultural tour of the isletas.
Though leisuring around the hotel was lovely, we also took the water taxi into town a few times to explore Granada. The hotel can arrange a taxi from the marina into town, which is about a two dollar, ten minute ride. More on what to do there below.
El Respiro: A Farm B&B at the Base of Mombacho Volcano
El Respiro is a functioning farm and B&B at the base of the Mombacho volcano. Our room, the Mombacho Suite, had doors that opened up to a terrace that overlooked the huge, green mountain. It’s owned a French-Hungarian couple, Emi and Romain, who found a happier, sunnier life in Nicaragua after leaving Europe. The pair were avid cooks; both lunch and dinner are available to guests and highly recommended. Our room was simply furnished with everything we needed; a waterfall-like shower was outside, connected to our room, on its own little terrace. On another terrace, a hammock was the WiFi threshold, where Denny and I took turns hanging out and catching up on the world wide web. (That same terrace with the WiFi has an incredible view over the city of Granada, by the way.) Rooms begin at $90 a night for the standards and $100 for the suite, with panoramic views of Mombacho.
During our time at El Respiro, our hosts helped us arranged activities because the home itself is pretty secluded. On our first day, we went horseback riding with Janice Gallagher, an American expat who left her career in fashion to begin a new life in Nicaragua. She picked us up from the hotel, cheerfully telling us some local history during the scenic drive to her ranch. Though there were multiple options for rides, and we opted for the route through the Nicaraguan countryside–we figured this was our only chance to see it. Our ride lasted two hours, passing through the little town of Diriomo–known as the witchcraft capital of Nicaragua–then down dirt roads passing cows, chickens, pigs and other farm animals. The last part of our tour took us past a small cemetery, scenic in its own way, with rows upon rows of both colorful and white stone markers. The whole exclusion took the better part of the day; the other half of was spent at the poolside at El Respiro, then dining and chatting with the other guests there. (Note: we just found out that Janice sold her operation, but it has been taken over by an American couple. The tour is now called the “Painted Pony.”)
On our second day at El Respiro, we hired a guy named Ramiro from a company called Adventure Tours to drive us around for the day. (There’s no website, but you can email them directly here–or simply ask El Respiro to call them for you.) Ramiro was a Nicaraguan student, and driver, speaking perfect English–and he was great. The whole day, he cracked jokes, translated for us, negotiated prices and even took some of our photos below. To book Ramiro for the day, or any other driver at Adventure Tours, it only costs $50; and though he’ll have a recommended list of activities for you, feel free to skip any or also add your own. We began our day visiting a Nica candy store and fruit stand atop a mountain, then over to Masaya for the Mercado Artesanías, where local artisans sell woven hammocks, embroidered blouses, sandals, wood carvings, weavings and more. After touring the market, Ramiro took us to one of his favorite places to visit: a ceramic maker high in the mountains where we spent a couple hours… and a lot of money. Before we even entered the shop though, we were given a demonstration of how the studio worked, and how each piece was made, start to finish–and our trusty Ramiro translated!
To round out the day, we spent a hazy, somewhat chilly afternoon jumping off a two-story dock into a lake formed inside a collapsed volcano. This magical place, the Laguna de Apoyo, easily became the most memorable part of our whole trip. Our driver Ramiro knew a great place called La Abuela where we could both dine, drink some Toñas (Nica beer, in case you missed that earlier) and safely jump into the lake from its multiple docks. Since it was both off-season and hazy, we had the lake almost completely to ourselves.
Though we spent both our days on this leg of the trip out and about exploring, we were happy to return each evening for the dinners and the company at El Respiro. Other travelers gathered around a large table, sharing dinner and conversation. Aside from the incredible view out our window, perhaps most memorable was waking with the sunrise each morning–to the sound of howler monkeys. For around twenty minutes at daybreak, the monkeys could be heard for miles, hooting and howling in sweeps across the forest. We watched with awe as the world seemed to wake up around our little terrace: first the monkeys, then flocks of parrots flying past us, then finally the sunrise over the city.
Tribal Hotel: A Luxurious Oasis in Downtown Granada
If you feel like you’ve seen this pool before, it’s because you probably have: in Vogue, Conde Nast, Details, or even on designlovefest. It’s also a favorite of hipster group travel agency El Camino, who was the inspiration for our trip to Nicaragua. Anyway, this famous pool belongs to the Tribal Hotel is in the heart of downtown Granada, a colorful and colonial city built in the 1500’s. Though the hotel is centrally located in the downtown Granada, you can’t help but feel a world away when you’re poolside here.
The rooms and common areas were designed by owner Jean-Marc Houmard, who decorated the space with objects he’d picked up from his own travels; he filled in the remaining gaps with local artisanal goods. The result is stunning–it’s easily one the most Instagrammable (read: jealousy inducing) places in all of Nicaragua. Rooms begin at $125 a night and include breakfast, WiFi, air-conditioning, daily room cleaning and a 24/7 reception and security. Additional amenities include spa service, laundry, and poolside drinks and snacks; they were also able to arrange our ride back to the airport in Managua.
After indulging in the pool, exploring downtown Granada is a must. Though at night the streets can be a bit dodgy, wandering around aimlessly during the day is totally fine and a great way to spend an afternoon. The first stop should be Granada Cathederal, which is easy to spot thanks to its yellow and red exterior and location right on Parque Colón (Granada’s Central Park.) First, tour the sprawling ground level, then climb up the tower for incredible overlook of Granada. Another a must-see is Granada’s cemetery, which is the oldest in Central America. Though it’s a little on the outskirts of town, we caught a cab easily both on the way there and way back. If you visit, best to check it out in the morning–it can get really, really hot in the cemetery with so little shade.
Downtown Granada is central to all of these hotels and therefore where you’ll have the most options for dining. For a trendy see-and-be-seen vibe, don’t miss Espressonista, a specialty coffee shop that transforms into a trendy restuarant by night. (We didn’t make it for dinner, but stopped in for coffee daily.) One afternoon, we joined some other guests from El Espino at at Hotel San Fransisco, whose happy hour including half-price appetizers and 2-for-1 drinks. Our favorite meal, though, was at The Garden Cafe, whose huge menu was very vegetarian friendly and served beer in koozies. (Because sometimes it’s awesome to act like an American.) Last, if you’re planning a trip to Nicaragua, keep the travel dream alive and check out other places nearby–San Juan del Sur and the Corn Islands are other popular destinations just a few hours away from Granada. Also, check out Discover Nicaragua’s instagram or Nica.Travel for more ideas in this beautiful country.