The final exhale — that’s when it all comes together. Lying in Shavasana pose, on a wooden platform shrouded by virgin forest on Little Corn, a tiny island in the Caribbean Sea, I can finally breathe again. “Feel any tension melt into the ground, listen to the breeze, birds singing, waves rolling, and follow your natural breath.” These drawn-out words resonate, as I take instruction from the wellness director at luxury eco-lodge Yemaya Island Hideaway & Spa.
In this tropical oasis of beach and jungle, the session is an awakening of body and mind, soothed by the bounty of nature. It is surreal to be suspended here on Little Corn, a droplet of sand lolling in the ocean, which most don’t even know exists. Situated 60km off the coast of mainland Nicaragua (and a further boat ride away), the culture is distinctively Caribbean.
Morning yoga class is swiftly followed by organic breakfast from Yemaya’s garden-grown ingredients and a fresh smoothie with goodies like raw cacao, lemongrass and seaweed. It’s all very casual, like most of Nicaragua; more barefoot than Burberry. The real luxury lies in the magnificence of nature.
After several days greeting the sun with salutations, on the forest platform nestled in the tropical interior or on a raised pavilion overlooking the Caribbean Sea, I feel stronger. The muscle memory shows some presence and I feel spring-cleansed.
With its neon aquamarine waters that cradle thriving coral reef — the best in Nicaragua for snorkeling — Little Corn is a sensual island, a place where young lovers escape the real world. It’s a heady paradise of carefree abandon, enhanced by wilderness and simplicity. While sauntering over rocks one evening to barren inlets at dusk, I watch local fishermen haul in lobster, while a young couple kiss inside a temporary pitch on the beach. The fishermen share with the couple their barbecue dinner, before leaving them to their remote love cocoon.
Secret of Central America
While Nicaragua has long been an insider’s secret in the surfer and backpacker circles, to the rest of the world it is relatively unknown. Yoga retreats are now tapping into the global wellness tourism trend and attracting newcomers to this Central American haven, which straddles Costa Rica and Honduras.
“Why not Costa Rica?” asked my friends, when we were deciding on our holiday locale. But then, Costa Rica is nothing new, having long been a tourism hub attracting serious crowds. Nicaragua is authentic Central America, with ancient colonial cities, the largest lake in the region, volcanoes, primeval forests, virgin beaches, wildlife and offshore islands. It pleases those craving an exclusive escape. Free of tourism en masse, it is a sanctuary of solitude. It is also one of the safest countries in the Americas, which surprises many, who still associate Nicaragua with the camouflaged guerrilla fighters and gunfire of more than 15 years ago.
Adventure activity is another draw. Visitors are indulged in pursuits borne of fantasy: Horseback-riding through lush pristine jungle, spotting wildlife such as sloth and monkey, galloping across fairytale ribbons of empty wild beaches whilst dipping in and out of crystalline warm waters, surfing for entire days on the Caribbean coast. Real sharks have even adapted from the sea to lay their eggs in the safety of Lake Nicaragua, where kayaking is permitted. The ultimate thrill, however, has to be hiking up active volcano Cerro Negro, only to race down its steep basalt slope on a little wooden board in a shocking orange jumpsuit, hitting speeds of up to 70km per hour. “Nica” is as exhilarating as it is tremendously peaceful. Engraved within the plethora of natural wonders, is the luxury of space and freedom from overcrowding. In fact, in some parts, you’ll be hard pressed to find another tourist for days.
Colonial Charm
The oldest colonial city in continental America, founded in 1524, Granada is a stunning riot of colour. Burnt orange rooftops, yellow church spires and red painted domes skim blue skies, with the pseudo-ocean Lake Nicaragua dramatically fringing the city.
Before sunrise, I leave the original grand dame, Hotel Plaza Colon, in the epicentre of the city in Parque Centrale, with my camera. I soon lose myself as the golden light of dawn bathes back streets, breathing to life rows of houses washed in electric blue, neon pink and emerald green.
Near the vegetable market, old men enjoy their first smoke of the day, sitting on wooden carts, soon to be their portable stalls. Families ride by on battered bicycles and cars begin to weave between a cluster of trucks offloading fruit and vegetable. I sheepishly sneak into the covered section, a labyrinth of dingy narrow arteries lined by plantain and potato stalls. Deeper in, stall-women swap change and early birds eagerly snap up fresh morning produce. Eventually, the stifling warren opens up to an insanely energetic outdoor market, with little room to manoeuvre between dogs, bikes and boxes.
Energising myself in the surrounds all morning, I consolidate the day with an afternoon at Casa Lucia, a boutique hotel in the heart of Granada, which offers yoga retreats and classes. Practice on the refreshing open-air yoga pavilion is followed by soothing massages.
Lakes and Volcanoes
From Granada, I join an exhilarating kayak tour of Lake Nicaragua’s Las Isletas — a group of 365 islands of volcanic origin — weaving past the private homes and lodges. Accessible only by boat, the islets are home to numerous birds and wildlife and a good spot to observe the daily island life of its local fishing communities. Located on one of the private islands is Jicaro Island Ecolodge, a honeymoon escape also known for its yoga retreats.
Less exerting but equally entertaining is a voyage to Ometepe Island. The pride of Lake Nicaragua, Ometepe consists of two perfectly conical volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas, jutting out of the lake and linked by an isthmus. Pulling in to shore aboard a passenger ferry, the active Concepcion looms. It can be hiked, but I instead admire its supremacy from Playa Santa Domingo, a sweeping wild volcanic beach fringing the lake. Windswept yet sun-drenched, horses roam free as lush jungle skirts the wide elongated coastline. Galloping across the beach on a beige beauty (borrowed from the stables), the foaming volcano is overshadowed, and the experience is unforgettable.
Smaller sister island, Maderas is lush with a truncated volcanic cone. The summit houses a crater lagoon, perfect for a post-hike swim, alongside howler and capuchin monkeys, birds, butterflies and orchids. For these reasons, much of Ometepe is a Unesco biosphere reserve.
Surf, Sand and Sea
San Juan del Sur, three-hours away, is the most renowned part of Nicaragua. Infamous as a party town, it’s also a surfer’s paradise. Like Rio de Janeiro, the town is guarded by a hilltop statue of Jesus Christ, Christ of the Mercy. Hike here to incredible views. Even at Nicaragua’s most touristic, the scene is laid-back and local.
I head to Morgan’s Rock ecolodge, where half of its 4,000 acre of jungle, estuary, mountains and beach, is private protected reserve. Getting there involves a 15-minute hike via purpose-built suspension bridge over the jungle canopy, through wildlife. By dusk, this walk becomes surround-sound (and, sometimes, touch). The 15 hilltop eco-bungalows are sympathetic to nature, using natural materials from an on-site wood plantation, and feature terraces with swinging daybeds. The crowning jewel is the glittering white-sand beach, luxuriously appointed with gigantic hammocks and swinging cocoons.
Yoga sessions here are a reconnection with nature. I find them holistic and empowering. Within days, my energy stores are amplified and my mind feels weightless.
I find little need to leave Morgan’s Rock. Between yoga, I take nature hikes, kayak the estuary and end with dusk massages. My highlight is horseback riding with the ranch equestrian, up a forest-clad mountaintop to astounding views, before trotting through the organic farm to feast on freshly-picked blood oranges. We finish by galloping on the sun-soaked empty beach.
Luxurious Beginnings
While Nicaragua isn’t yet well-known for its luxury resorts, my final destination sweeps the board with accolades. Mukul (meaning secret in Mayan) is a full-service hotel, golf and spa resort. Passing through the colourful and quaint Rivas town outside, I’m not prepared for the grandeur. The doors open to a large infinity pool overlooking expansive beach. Lounge music is the backdrop of this decidedly upscale property, with its own Nicaraguan cigar and rum tasting rooms. (The country’s cigars placed second in the 2014 Cigar Aficionado best in the world.) Mukul is the baby of Carlos Pellas, one of Nicaragua’s wealthiest businessmen, who is also responsible for the country’s finest rum, Flor de Cana.
The interior is a celebration of all things Nicaraguan: Art, rum, cigars, coffee and local foods. Mukul has no peers, having trained local people in high-end hospitality by setting up a dedicated school. Telling me that they import only the best from around the globe, I laugh at Italian manager Federico Spada’s story of being stopped at customs, having to explain the function of Vichy multi-spray showers.
Early morning challenging yoga sessions leave me free to relish the award-winning spa. Six self-contained “temples” feature different sensory themes, from Moroccan hammam to crystal therapy. I opt for a signature therapy in a hilltop sanctuary overlooking the entire crescent bay.
What this visit has taught me is that Nicaragua is at the forefront of the wellness trend that’s set to spiral worldwide.
World-class yoga retreats showcase the myriad whimsical settings of the country, where isolation from the crowds that plague many Central American neighbours is the ultimate luxury here. It is a paradise waiting to be discovered.