Just Back From... Mukul
I capped off an incredible year of travel with a visit to a place that many still imagine is a war zone: Nicaragua. The war ended twenty years ago but the Contra conspiracies are so ingrained that a seasoned Washington insider sent me an email before I left, saying, “Have fun in Nicaragua. That sounds like an oxymoron.” I did have fun. It is a gorgeous country with jungle, volcanoes, lovely colonial towns, pristine coastline and warm, welcoming people. But even more than fun I felt a sense of discovery and—even rarer—of inspiration, because the country is on the cusp of making smart, sustainable tourism a reality.
One man, Carlos Pellas, who is fifth generation Nicaraguan has used his wealth (from sugar, rum, banking and more) and his savvy (he received his BA and MBA from Stanford) to plant the seeds for the best kind of tourism boom possible: one that will be low-impact on the environment and long-term for the community benefits. He has started with a gorgeous small resort on the Pacific Coast called Mukul, surrounding it will be high-end residential development called Guacalito De La Isla. While Mukul is now finished with thirty-seven exquisite rooms spread along a gorgeous white-sand beach and up the hillside, the villas of Guacalito are still in the works. Amenities such as a stunning 18-hole, David MacLay Kidd golf course (he is the genius behind Bandon Dunes and Charles Schwab’s cult golf course on Hawaii’s Big Island) and a spa with individual suites for a whole day of pampering are already finished, but a tennis center and beach club will not be ready until the fall.
I stayed in one of the beachfront villas. There are only a few, and they will book up fast thanks to plunge pools and sliding doors that lead directly out to the beach and Pacific Sea view. Imagine the sophistication of a resort like Las Ventanas but with a swimmable beach just steps from your room. The décor through the resort merges modern hotel amenities, like deep tubs with views, with touches of a thoughtful host. Pellas wanted the property to feel more like a private home than a hotel so he rebuffed offers from famous hotel chains to manage the property and found his own team. (Yes he plucked some from the Four Seasons.) He also made sure to incorporate Nicaraguan regional elements, ranging from a tasting room for rum and cigars to headboards made from the old wooden barrels once used for aging Flor de Caña rum. The result: the resort is tropical sexy but distinctly Nicaraguan (not Mexican or West Indies).
While you can spend your days playing golf on what is sure to be a championship course or enjoying a deserted Pacific beach to yourself, it would be a shame if you didn’t explore more of the country and the Mukul team makes it easy. There are spectacular surfing beaches up and down the coast, as well as great snorkeling or fishing just off shore. Pellas’ own fishing boat can be chartered or taken out for sunset cruises. The colonial gem of town, Granada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which reminded me of Cartagena and Havana, is a few hours drive. When you go you can explore on foot or by horse-drawn carriage and the hotel guests can stop in the Pellas Mansion, the grandest building on the main square, where the family’s staff will prepare lunch. Exploring Lake Nicaragua, hiking volcanoes or visiting the family rum plantation are also options.
The impact of Pellas’ vision can already be seen in the neighboring communities, which supply almost all of the employees. I spent a day with the man who Pellas hired to work with the local communities, assisting with medical, educational and cultural projects and was so impressed by his team and his commitment that I plan to return with our first family voluntourism trip this July. Getting to the region still requires one or two flights from the U.S. and a two hour plus drive from Managua. (Pellas is working on an airport that will be only miles from the hotel to open 2014.) There is construction going on around Mukul with the development of Guacalito and many of the staff do not speak perfect English, so for the time being this is a trip for the adventurous and those who like to be at the front of the pack in discovering a place. My advice: go soon, because once the project is finished and all the kinks are worked out, Mukul will be a hot spot for many.
For additional details or information on family voluntourism opportunities through Mukul, please contact Brooke Pearson at email@example.com or call 212-988-2611.
For help planning a trip to Mukul and Nicaragua, contact our Bookings Team.
Just Back From... Nicaragua
“Very beautiful and very wild,” is how one American living in Nicaragua describes his adopted home. After my first visit there last month, I am in complete agreement and would add a few more descriptions: untouched, serene and the next big thing.
Having spent some time in Costa Rica and southern Mexico, I had a sense of what to expect geographically, but I was surprised by the many seemingly contradictory juxtapositions that define the country. Asking hotel managers and tourism experts about Nicaragua’s biggest challenge prompted the same resounding reply: “Foreigners’ misconception that the country is dangerous.” I didn’t tell them that until I arrived, I had been one of these anxious foreigners. Informed about Nicaragua’s political issues over the past decades, I definitely had safety concerns before my trip, but I was stunned when I ended up feeling more secure there than walking in Manhattan. One local explained that Nicaragua has the lowest crime rate in Central America by: because the culture is so used to being at war (bullet holes from the 1970s revolution are still visible on many building façades), communities band together, enforcing a very strong commitment to local security. Additionally, Nicaragua does not suffer, as many other Central American countries do, from over-population, which helps explain the distinct absence of gangs and gang-related crimes.
I also wasn’t prepared for the scars the country’s political issues have left. Nicaragua is emerging from an era that witnessed a corrupt dictatorship, a government coup, a civil war and a period of anti-American socialism. All of this, understandably, discouraged tourism—until now. Today, capitalist ambitions exist alongside socialist attitudes. I was fascinated by the state-run co-operative bus system that uses donated Russian school buses from the 1970s, but where the drivers call stations ahead from their cell phones, competing for fares.
Another fascinating contrast is the country’s relationship with ecofriendliness and the green movement. I had always considered recycling a developed-world dilemma, but Nicaragua is extremely concerned with its carbon footprint. It is the second-poorest country in the Western hemisphere (after Haiti), but despite, or perhaps because of this, the government and businesspeople are very focused on sustainability, green building and maintenance. (Read about the eco-resorts, Aqua Wellness Retreat and Jicaro Eco-lodge.) Another noticeable aspect is the importance that hotels place on helping their local communities with donations, support of school and after-school programs and hiring staff from the surrounding areas. (Read about Morgan’s Rock and the school children they support.)
Since my return, I have often revisited my favorite mental image from the trip. Driving along a dirt road heading to a spectacular and deserted beach, we passed four men on a rickety donkey cart. Barefoot and balancing surfboards under their arms, they grinned and waved to us, the only car on the road for miles. I couldn’t help but think this was the perfect metaphor for the country: They were moving along—slowly—using extremely outdated technology, all the while having a great time and enjoying the experience. There must be deeper meaning to the fact that while my behemoth of a van got stuck in a pothole, their wooden cart passed us, the men still smiling and waving.
Just Back From...Mukul
When we announced that one of our annual Indagare spa trips was going to be in Nicaragua, one of the regular attendees called and asked me, “Is it safe?” In fact, it is the country in Central America with the lowest crime rate but unfortunately people, and Americans, in particular, still remember when the fighting between the Sandanistas and the Contras filled nightly news reports. The civil war in Nicaragua has been over for more than twenty years. But word of the country’s beauty and culture is finally spreading, in large part, thanks to one visionary local, Carlos Pellas, who has developed the gorgeous resort of Mukul on the Pacific Coast.
When he and his father used to fish along the coast, the Stanford-educated tycoon spotted the pristine stretch of beach where his resort now sits. When he was finally able to buy it, he decided to develop a place where he and his family and friends would want to come. He had spent time in many great resorts but wanted to create something distinctly Nicaraguan. Wicker rocking chairs just like the ones that grace every porch in Granada are placed throughout Mukul. The colorful painted tiles like those on the floors of the Pellas’ mansion in Granada now decorate the walls of the bathrooms. Headboards in the guestrooms are made of the wood from old casks used for aging Flor di Cana rum, the world famous liquor that is a Pellas family business.
So, yes there are the amenities you’d expect to find at a lot of five-star resorts—a stunning sweep of mile-plus-long beach, an 18-hole golf course and a gorgeous spa—but there is also a sense of discovery. The nearby towns are simple and, in some places, the roads are unpaved. The staff at the hotel comes from local villages and their English varies a lot so communication can be difficult. But each time I visit, (the spa trip was my third visit), I see more of the country and more improvement at Mukul.
For this visit, we began every morning with yoga. Our instructor was a lovely woman from California who lives in a neighboring town with her boyfriend who runs a non-profit that brings surfers to work with local communities. The area draws champion surfers in the summer with some of the best waves in the world, but lessons are offered year round. For beginners, which our group was, the waves in summer would have been too intimidating. (When I brought a family voluntourism group in July last year, the 13-year-old boys who were experienced surfers were in heaven. One of their teachers was a teenage national champion.) Our spa group did some hiking (once to the top of an enormous bluff with spectacular views and another accompanied by howler monkeys in the trees above). We tested our courage with a zip-lining course at Masaya volcano that included Tarzan-style rope swings and free falls. We visited the UNESCO World Heritage site of Granada, where we explored the colonial mansion of the Pellas family.
These were some of our adventures but really the highlights of the week were centered around being with friends—old and new. Some of us had met on our first spa trip in 2011; others were traveling with friends of twenty-plus years, even sisters, but we had all been at Mii Amo on our spa trip last year so no one was a stranger. No one was on a mission for traditional results either; we were not focused on detox, diet or building muscle. Rather we craved time in a warm, nurturing place where we could be lazy—either lounging by the pool or in a hammock—and share laughter, lots of it. We traded stories and advice and the spa’s healer dazzled with his wisdom. Next year, we will head somewhere new but the ingredients will be the same: a sense of discovery and a desire for healing and growth with like-minded souls who are quick to laugh and open to adventure.
Sign up for the Indagare Mii Amo Spa Trip next January at a special early bird rate here.
Search By Keyword
A memorable sidestep to lesser-known cities: Gwailor and Orchha (near...
Few places on earth are as dramatic in appearance as...
New on Indagare
Give the Gift of Indagare The perfect present for travelers: a membership to Indagare. Buy now
Indagare Insider Trips: Cuba, Myanmar and India: We’re planning trips throughout the year. Contact Indagare (212-988-2611) to be added to the wait list.
- Community: Share advice with fellow members asking about your favorite travel discoveries.
- Indagare Insiders: Three-day itineraries for families in London and art lovers in Vienna. Plus, fashion insider Chiara Ferragamo’s picks on what not to miss in Florence, Bonnie Gokson, owner of Hong Kong’s lofty Sevva on Hong Kong, Culinary Insider: Budapest.
- Rant & Rave: Indagare members can share their advice with the community by logging in first, then clicking here: Rants & Raves.
- Give the Gift: Indagare: Give the gift of travel intelligence with a membership to Indagare. For details or to order, call us at 212-988-2611 or click here: Gift Membership.
- Indagare Plus: Remember that hotels marked by an Indagare Plus symbol offer preferential rates and benefits to members.
- Indagare Share Feature: Share articles, postcards and reviews with family and friends on such networking sites as Twitter, Facebook and Delicious. Simply click on the three small dots that symbolize our connect icon, at the end of every article, and follow the link to the networking site of your preference.
- Sample Indagare: With free bi-weekly email blasts on new hot spots and insider tips when you sign up for our mailing list.
- Profile feature: Members share your profiles, comments, favorite articles and IQs. Just click on the Profile tab on the upper right of your screen and look for the Edit My Profile blue tab.
- Indagare means to discover, explore, seek, scout in Latin.