It’s 5:45am when the howling starts. Well, it’s not howling exactly, I realize as I gradually awake. I’m hearing what sounds more like a gentle rhythmic yelping: “Owr, owr, owr.”
At Aqua Wellness Resort on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua, where my husband Alan and I recently spent a few days, you feel like a guest of nature. With stylish wood cottages built into the trees above a white sand beach, you don’t sacrifice comfort for these natural surroundings.
You may find, though, that your morning wake-up call comes, not from the front desk or your smartphone, but from the howler monkeys calling and hooting outside in the trees.
Here’s the scoop:
The Aqua resort is located on Nicaragua’s Redonda Bay, about a three-hour drive south of the Managua International Airport and two hours from the popular colonial city of Granada. Its 24 rooms and suites are terraced into the hillside above the bay, surrounded by trees and overlooking the striking rock formation known as Pie de Gigante — the Giant’s Foot.
Opened in 2008, Aqua is part of a recent wave of Nicaragua lodgings catering to more upscale visitors. The majority of the resort’s guests are couples from the U.S. or Canada, with a smaller number coming from Europe.
Facilities and Activities
Aqua emphasizes “wellness,” with daily yoga classes on a lovely thatch-roofed open-air platform overlooking the ocean and activities like kayaking, snorkeling, and stand-up paddleboarding ($20/hour). There are sunset salsa lessons and Latin rhythm fitness classes ($5) at least a couple of times a week, too. The room rates include all these activities except those noted.
Aqua offers additional activities both on and off the property. During our stay, options ranged from a guided hike up the Pie de Gigante that towers over the bay ($10-15/person) to a two-hour “Nicaraguan fishing experience” ($150/person) or sunset cruise along the coast ($100/person).
Aqua is a get-away-from-it-all kind of place, and lots of guests seem to spend most of their time, as we did, hanging out at the beach.
You can walk to the nearby village of Gigante, part fishing town and part backpacker hangout, in about 20 minutes, if you want to grab a beer in a local bar, lunch on fish and fried plantains, or pick up a bottle of booze or a bag of chips at the little pulperia (market) one street in from the beach.
Otherwise, if you want to go exploring beyond the resort grounds, you’ll need to have a rental car, hire a taxi, or take one of the resort’s excursions, which include day trips to San Juan del Sur (by boat, $130/person), the city of Granada and the Masaya volcano ($109/person), or the Mombocho volcano ($160/person).
Wooden walkways, including a short suspension bridge, connect many of the cottages and villas, and unless you choose a beachfront unit, you’ll spend lots of time on the stairs that wind up and down the hill. Just consider the trekking up and down part of your wellness program, since that’s what most guests seem to do.
Many guests also hike up to the resort’s two-room spa, set in a villa high on the hill, which offers several types of massage (starting at $60 for 60 minutes), facials, and body treatments.
There’s no swimming pool, although the bay is usually calm enough for most swimmers. A pool is in the plans for the resort’s next expansion phase, which is slated to start construction in 2015.
Guest Rooms and Amenities
The all-wood design of the guest cottages, constructed locally with native woods, blends into the surrounding forest. The wood theme continues inside, where all rooms have wood floors, beds with slatted wood headboards and platforms, wooden shelves to store your belongings, and wooden desks.
Other standard amenities include safes, coffeemakers supplied with Nicaraguan coffee, ceiling fans, and air conditioning. Staff provide pitchers or jugs of filtered water in each unit and advise that the tap water isn’t potable.
Some units have private plunge pools out on the decks.
All rooms have Wi-Fi but no TVs or phones. When you check in, staff members give you a cell phone pre-programmed to call reception and an emergency number, in case you need anything.
Wi-Fi is also available in the bar and restaurant. In case you have work you can’t escape, or you want to Instagram your holiday from your lounge chair, the signal reaches partway along the beach.
In the guest units, the bathroom facilities include countertops crafted from local stone and beautifully made teak (or teak and stone) showers.
Windows are well-screened, so we kept ours open to the breezes and to the gentle sound of the surf out on the bay. You’re in the jungle, though, so Aqua isn’t the place to go if you’ll freak out about the occasional spider in your room or little lizards darting along the walls. The resort attempts to strike a balance between people and critters without using chemical pesticides.
Of the guest units, the least expensive are the “tree houses,” which are snug, 340-square-foot, one-room cottages with an outdoor deck.
All units face toward the ocean, although you’ll pay a little less for a “forest view” room, where trees high enough to prevent you from seeing the water surround your cottage. With plenty of birds and the more-than-occasional howler monkey, the forest views are quite lovely. The forest view units start at $185/night; ocean view units begin at $260/night.
Pricing also depends on size and proximity to the beach. A beachfront tree house unit runs $310/night.
The next level up from the tree houses are the luxury suites, which run 550 square feet, and have fully-equipped kitchens (starting at $325-460/double).
In some suites, the kitchen and living room area are on the main level with a bedroom upstairs. In others, like the Pelicano unit where we stayed, the kitchen is in a separate adjacent villa.
Budget an additional 17 percent for Nicaragua’s hotel tax. Rates don’t include meals.
If you don’t have your own transportation, the resort will send a car and driver to pick you up at the Managua airport ($110).
The resort’s restaurant, which serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks has two seating areas: one on a deck just above the beach, where you can hear the surf splashing gently against the adjacent rocks, and a second on a larger terrace slightly higher on the hill.
The menu is a mix of international standards with local ingredients and more regionally-specific dishes. At breakfast, you can have your eggs with gallo pinto (traditional Nicaraguan rice and beans), fried plantains (another local specialty), local cheese, and thick corn tortillas, or opt for a bowl of tropical fruit or housemade granola with yogurt. Also popular are the fruit smoothies; I loved the avocado-passionfruit zinger with a kick of ginger. It was hard not to drink multiple cups of the rich Nicaraguan coffee.
Later in the day, an unexpected favorite dish was a simple salad of organic greens and tomatoes that was topped with tender, flavorful local beef. We also enjoyed Aqua’s version of vigorón, a traditional local dish of vinegary cabbage slaw and boiled yucca, served here with grilled pork; the street-stall preparations usually include chicharones (fried pork rinds) rather than the healthier grilled meat. The rondon, a fish stew in a coconut milk broth, gave us a taste of Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast.
While some dishes were more successful than others, they were all fresh and tasty, particularly when we washed them down with an icy-cold Nicaraguan Toña or Victoria beer or a macuá, Nicaragua’s signature cocktail made of rum and tropical juices.
Dishes average $7-9 at breakfast, $9-14 at lunch, and $12-25 in the evening.
There are no grocery stores right nearby, so if you want to prepare any of your own food, staff suggest that you stop for provisions in one of the larger towns en route to the resort. Although there’s a basic market in Gigante, the nearest town with a supermarket is Rivas, about a 30-minute drive.
On the day of our early morning monkey wake-up call, I considered going out to try and photograph the animals but opted instead to go back to sleep. When I did head out a couple of hours later for the morning yoga class, I spotted several monkeys snoozing in the trees above our villa.
Hotel review by Vancouver-based travel, food, and feature writer Carolyn B. Heller, author of the books, Moon Handbooks: Ontario and Living Abroad in Canada. Photos © Carolyn B. Heller. We paid a discounted media rate for our stay at Aqua Wellness Resort.