Long known as a mecca for surfers and sun-seekers, Costa Rica is, has been, and always will be a hotspot. But what many travelers are only just starting to discover is that Nicaragua, its central American neighbor to the north, offers much of the thrill, scenery, and sizzle -- with a culture all its own. The fact that Nicaragua is an affordable destination, given its off-radar status, is a great reason to fold it into a Costa Rica itinerary. After all, both countries deliver their own brand of charm, and crossing them off your bucket list in one trip is both practical and illuminating when it comes to getting a feel for the region. Here's how to create such a Central American tasting menu:
The Itinerary: Begin in Nicaragua
A two-hour flight from Miami brings you to the capital of Managua, and before landing you’ll already have an idea of what you’re in for: about 150 shades of green. To get a feel for old-Nicaragua, a visit to Granada -- the colorful, colonial city founded in 1524 -- is a good starting point for the trip. A local tour guide can give you the lay of the land and the history. You’ll also get inside info on must-see shops, such as Café de las Sonrisas, where you can get a cup of incredible Nicaraguan coffee while purchasing a locally handmade hammock.
After meandering the streets and taking in the sights of Granada, the most peaceful, tranquil place to rest your head is at the enchanting Jicaro Island Ecolodge, a 20-minute boat ride away. The small resort -- on one private island out of the 365 islands of Lake Nicaragua -- is all about eco-friendly luxury. Upon arrival, you’re greeted with the local version of iced tea, doted on by incredibly friendly staff, then finally led to your two-story private casita sitting on the lake’s edge. You’ll spend your days spotting turtles and frogs, eating excellent local cuisine, swimming in the saltwater pool, practicing yoga on a floating deck, and visiting students whose school receives support from Jicaro -- so you can feel good about the $300/night (meal inclusive) starting rates. Of course, there's also just lounging in your hammock and staring off at the volcanoes in the distance.
Once you’ve had a taste of Nicaragua’s tranquil waters, head to the coast for a dramatic Pacific beach and a resort that’s oh-so-rainforest-chic. The 4,000-plus-acre Morgan’s Rock is home to a working organic farm that most of the resort's food comes from -- including the milk in your coffee and the eggs in your omelets -- and is populated by many more sloths and monkeys than people. The beach here is dotted with hammocks and nesting turtles, and when you crave a little more action you can opt for an array of activities, from surfing and deep-sea fishing to horseback riding and tortilla-making like a local.
At the end of the day, you can catch breathtaking sunset views in your private bungalow, from the rocking daybed hanging from your balcony. The lodging here is also all about sustainability and connecting with nature, so don't expect five-star hotel luxuries -- but you didn't come to Nicaragua for that. Rates begin at $200 per night, inclusive of breakfast and dinner (higher all-inclusive rates with alcohol and activities are also available).
Next Stop: Costa Rica
The proximity of Morgan’s Rock to the border makes it easy to cross over into Costa Rica. Many people go to Costa Rica specifically for the animals and the outdoor activities. Ziplining is especially popular, and for good reason. And while many choose to stay by the beach, an excellent alternative is to go inland and stay in the heart of it all.
The 600+ acre canyon and park site known as Rio Perdido, in Bagaces, is a great base for all of these experiences within the Guanacaste countryside. While its 20 funky and comfortable bungalows are fully stocked with creature comforts, and its open-air meals made all the more delicious with 360-degree views of the jungle and volcanoes, it's the onsite activities that truly bring the wow factor. Canyon ziplining offers spectacular views and the requisite adrenaline boost, while the warm mineral waters of the thermal river and spring-fed pools are healing and rejuvenating -- as is volcanic mud body painting. For more adventurous types, there’s also mountain biking, white water tubing, and hiking. You can enjoy all of these throughout your stay, and return to your modern jungle bungalow whenever the mood strikes. Rates begin at $160/night and include breakfast.
Finally, a visit to Costa Rica’s famous beaches, where many Americans have visited and simply refused to leave, is the perfect way to end the tour. In Guanacaste, a handful of beaches -- along with a collection of shops, restaurants, and bars -- are just a free five-minute shuttle ride away from Villa Buena Onda. Away from the droves of tourists flocking the name-brand hotels in the area, the intimate seven-room villa will bring you a better feel for Costa Rica. Whether you're enjoying exceptional meals on the terrace overlooking the two-level pool with a side of sweeping ocean views, or enjoying an indulgent outdoor massage, it's the perfect place to find your inner beach-hippie. Rates start at $264/night and include all meals.
It goes without saying that planning a two-country, multi-destination trip will require some effort. Particularly if it's your first foray in the region, consider working with a locally based tour operator who can give you the lay of the land, help with travel logistics, and guide you to the best deals. Namu Travel's Costa Rican Vacations and Nicaragua Vacations are considered matchmakers for Central American travel who designing itineraries that match travelers’ budgets and goals. Since both belong to the same company, either can be contacted for a Nicaragua/Costa Rica combo. If you decide to chart the trip yourself, it might be worth your while to research guides for specific portions of the trip, particularly if you're interested in nature and wildlife.