I recently had the opportunity to explore Central America for the first time when Namu Travel invited me down to Costa Rica and Nicaragua for a week of adventuring. In college, I majored in History and Political Science of Latin America and Africa. Nicaragua was one of the countries I focused on, so the minute I received the invite, I was knew I would make this trip a priority.
One of the great things about using a travel advisor, like myself, with ties to a local travel agency, like Namu, to book a trip like this is you can arrange for a seamless VIP experience that begins the moment you clear customs in your first country and doesn’t end until you depart. In between we can take care of all the logistics — transfers, pre-booking activities, where you’ll eat if you’d like (there are no rules, so as little or as much structure as you desire in a holiday).
For this trip, I wanted to focus on upmarket eco-friendly options that would work well for adult travelers looking for an active adventure with a side of beach trip. I was thinking about a honeymoon or couples focused market when I picked hotels. And Namu did an excellent job matching me. Not only did they come up with four unique properties, but the locations were also consistently different from each other and I loved the order in which I stayed.
To do this holiday you can fly into and out of Liberia, Costa Rica or into Liberia and out of Managua in Nicaragua. Liberia is a super easy to access international airport that is much less chaotic than San Jose, the capital city, and is especially great for first time travelers to this region. There are multiple non-stop flights daily from major American hub cities — I flew via Atlanta on two different airlines. The other international gateway city would be Managua, Nicaragua. There are also options for interior flights — I did one between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, which took a few hours off the transport time, and which was pre-arranged with transfers by Namu.
Below are the four hotels I stayed at, but I recommend choosing one or the other for Costa Rica. I stayed at two because I wanted to get a feel for an adult-only property (Villa Buena Onda) as well as a child-friendly property (Andaz Papagayo) in Guanacaste.
Nights 1, 2 & 3: Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Lodging: Villa Buena Onda or Andaz Papagayo
For couples I love Villa Buena Onda (VBO), which is just 20 minutes from the airport in Liberia, atop on a hill with ocean views (but not on the water itself). It’s a romantic property with only 8 stylish and spacious rooms. All feature stunning views from floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors covering an entire wall and furnished terraces looking across the lush jungle to the ocean beyond. They also boast staff than guests, which means you can be assured you’ll be treated like a VIP for your entire stay.
And while the property isn’t directly on the beach, they organize twice daily shuttles to all three area beaches, one of which, Playas del Coco, is about a 30 minute, safe walk from the hotel. VBO began as a private luxury home rental, but converted itself into a boutique hotel in late 2012. The concept is to provide a personalized guest experience usually only found at a small B&B, but with a level of luxury normally reserved for larger resort properties. And they’ve done a great job. Beyond the rooms, I loved the two-tiered swimming pool and gardens area, inclusive of a swim-up bar. The nightly happy hour is another perk, when cocktail prices are slashed in half — a creamy coco loco will only set you back $3.50
But what really stands out about VBO is the quality of the food. Rates include three meals a day and despite the all-inclusive model, the menu was super varied — after three nights I still hadn’t tried everything on it. I really loved the calamari starter, and devoured all the fresh fish and seafood dishes nightly. For breakfast, anything with gallo pinto is delicious and also ask for a side of hash-browns (they’re happy to let you swap around ingredients also, another meticulous service perk that wins us over).
There’s plenty to around this part of Costa Rica as well. This includes day excursions ranging from canopy zip line tours to horseback riding, hiking and a recommended Hidden Beaches Tour, which takes you around the area by boat with stops for snorkeling (I swam with a sea turtle) and a BBQ on a secluded beach (where I chilled with some Coatimundi). Oh and at the end of it all, the on site spa offers very relaxing massages and other treatments.
For families, or anyone looking for a larger luxury experience, the design forward Andaz Papagayo is a great pick, located about an hour from the Liberia airport.
A part of the exclusive Peninsula Papagayo resort development project that also includes the Four Seasons, the Andaz wins stunning rooms, unique food and craft cocktails.
There are multiple pools, a private beach with free SUP boards and kayaks plus cool amenities like complimentary hats to take home. It’s even dog friendly — Bobbi was quite upset I didn’t bring her on this trip.
I loved the architecture and decor, which was at once modern and rustic, blending beautifully into the surround environs. The hotel is the creation of a Costa Rican architect who was inspired by animal shapes and the rooms and public buildings are airy and textural.
My favorite part of my room was how it blurred the indoor outdoor spaces line with floor to ceiling glass windows covering an entire wall that included doors from the shower onto the private terrace.
There are multiple restaurants on site. At night, I recommend Chao Pescao, which serves tapas style dishes including excellent fresh tiraditos as well as delightful seasonal cocktails and live Latin music. Also check out the spa, which has some innovative local treatments.
Night 4 & 5: Islets de Grenada, Lake Nicaragua
Lodging: Jicaro Island Lodge
I caught a flight from Liberia to Costa del Sol in Nicaragua. I’m a terrified flyer, so I wasn’t looking forward to a small plane experience, but the flight was uneventful and very scenic. It also only lasted for 20 minutes. After clearing customs at the tiny airport, my driver was waiting to take me to my next destination: an award winning eco-lodge on a private island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua.
From the airport it was a two hour drive to the launch point just outside the colonial town of Grenada and then another 20 minutes by motor boat to reach Jicaro Island Lodge , was well worth the effort. The place impresses before you even set foot on dry land. Named a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World recently, an event that plucked it from relative obscurity to instant popularity, gorgeous Jicaro lives up to its now sustainable famous image.
Jicaro is an intimate boutique spot most well suited for couples in search of romance in the wilderness (although children over 12 are welcome). There are only 9 rooms set in rustic chic tree house style villas spaced over two floors. They are spacious, done up completely in wood and screen, so you fall asleep and wake up listening to the sounds of the jungle around you — note there is no air-con, so it can get hot, although the ceiling fans try their best. The mosquito netting is a real plus, keeping the bugs at bay. I also loved the thoughtful extras like the coffee face scrub with coconut oil set up by the sink and the decanters of local rum and beer as a welcome amenity.
Rates include three meals a day, which are absolutely delicious, and of the locally sourced variety (you order dinner at lunch). There are a lot of Nicaraguan choices, but also some Western mainstays like a grilled cheese sandwich at lunch.
There are a number of activities offered. We tried the horseback ride to the caldera of the volcano that then takes you on a hike to the natural swimming pool at the bottom (an amazing experience), and there are also options for day tours of colonial Grenada and other experiences farther afield.
Night 5, 6 & 7: San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
Lodging: Morgan’s Rock Hacienda & Ecolodge
After two nights at Jicaro, it is time to move on to the beach. Following a quick city tour of Grenada (it’s best seen this way if you only have two nights at Jicaro) we drove about two hours towards the surf town of San Juan del Sur and the private nature reserve where Morgan’s Rock Hacienda & Ecolodge is located. This property stole my heart. It was unlike any other property I had ever stayed, and while I loved all four of these hotels, as each was unique, I was glad I stayed at Morgan’s Rock last, because it just manages to wow that way.
Home to just 15 casitas, which are massive and enclosed entirely with screens only, so you fall asleep listening to the roar of the waves and the noise of the jungle, it’s a unique sleeping experience The vibe is somewhere between African safari and American National Park lodge, and completely relaxing.
I loved the extra touches like the canopy over the bed ( that is actually a whisper soft air-con system delivering a cool breeze at night should you desire one. There is WiFi, but rooms don’t have TVs, as the concept here is on sustainability and digital detox.
The onsite organic farm is where much of the food for the hyper local restaurant that serves three meals a day (only breakfast is included here, although there are options for room and board).
It is easy to just spend your entire day relaxing, alternating between the casita’s porch and the hacienda’s private white sand beach with great waves for surfing or body boarding, there is plenty more to experience should you desire. Morgan’s Rock is set in the middle of a 4,000 acre property, of which half the land is preserved as a nature reserve of tropical forest that serves as seasonal sanctuary for many types of animals. This is not only good for the environment, but also for guests interested in exploring by foot. You’ll have the chance to see howler, spider and capuchin monkeys, sloths and many bird species. Beyond walking Morgan’s Rock offers opportunities to have “Breakfast at the Farm” where guests will pay a visit to the restaurant’s onsite farm to milk cows, gather eggs, visit with the animals and make fresh corn tortillas before preparing a hearty traditional breakfast.
Our favorite activity is the sunset horseback ride that climbed to a fabulous viewpoint before returning to the beach for a canter as the sun sunk into the sea. The horses were well cared for and you didn’t feel bad about participating. Surf lessons and sport fishing trips can also be arranged.
To get home you can either fly out of Managua, which is a three hour drive away, or you can drive back to Costa Esmerelda and catch a flight back to Liberia where international flights depart from. If the international flight cost is not different, it is likely quicker to fly out via Managua, although there may be less direct connections this way.
To book this trip or any other holiday, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I work with Elite Travel International, powered by Cadence Travel, which is a boutique luxury travel Virtuoso Agency with preferred partnerships at many of the world’s best brands.