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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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