Nicaragua’s reputation has yet to recover completely from its civil war, a conflict that ended 28 years ago. Its southern neighbor, Costa Rica, draws almost double the number of visitors, even though Nicaragua is blessed with similarly beautiful, unspoiled landscapes. And unlike Costa Rica, Nicaragua has well-preserved colonial cities, notably colorful and pedestrian-friendly Granada. True, Nicaragua doesn’t have as wide a selection of luxury hideaways, but the gap is closing.
On my previous two visits, I explored the exquisite archipelago of Las Isletas in Lake Nicaragua from Jicaro Island Ecolodge and the splendid southern coast from the plush Mukul Beach Golf & Spa resort. This time, we headed inland, delving into the countryside off the well-maintained main road leading south from Managua. The contrast between Nicaragua and Costa Rica is most obvious during drives like this. In poorer Nicaragua, horse-drawn carts are still common.
Our destination was one of Central America’s newest and most exclusive resorts, Nekupe. Its name means “heaven” in an indigenous language, which sets expectations rather high, as does the stratospheric price. We reserved the smallest of the eight accommodations, the 700-square-foot JR Villa, which cost a bracing $1,650 per night, including tax, service, food and most on-site activities. I wondered how a resort in middle-of-nowhere Nicaragua — without any sort of water view — could possibly justify such a price tag. It did not take long to discover the answer.
On its 1,580 acres, Nekupe has created an extraordinarily luxurious summer camp with unusually attentive service. Each accommodation comes with a private ATV and a “ranger,” who functions as a butler, guide and driver. This last duty is particularly important, since the accommodations are not within walking distance of anything but the hilltop chapel. Our personable young ranger, Jason, was always available to navigate the tangle of dirt roads crisscrossing the property. I mean that literally: From the time he took us to breakfast until he deposited us back at our villa after dinner, he stood at the ready. I tried to give him a break on our first afternoon, telling him that we planned on relaxing in our villa for two hours before heading to dinner. Instead of taking a breather and returning at the appointed time, he remained nearby with the ATV, in case we decided to leave early.
We never once had to phone for him, or indeed phone anyone, for anything. When we exited the clubhouse’s swimming pool and were drying off, a staffer appeared with robes. When we left muddy boots inside our foyer, we returned after dinner to find them fresh and clean. And when we arrived at one of the property’s many scenic viewpoints to watch the sunset, a bartender was waiting for us, mixing sundowners. Anywhere outside the privacy of our JR Villa, it seemed as if I couldn’t furrow my brow without a staffer approaching to see if I required something. Such attentive service might sound awkward, but it’s frightening how quickly one can become accustomed to it.
Inside our villa, we discovered a stylishly appointed retreat with sublime views of Mombacho Volcano. We never tired of watching its changing face from the two daybed-like chairs on our broad terrace. Sometimes clouds wreathed around Mombacho’s broken cone; sometimes the bright sun threw its green striations into high relief. We could also see the volcano from beneath our bath’s monsoon showerhead, as well as from the gold mosaic-tile tub. The latter almost ranked as a plunge pool. It took an hour to fill, but I won’t soon forget the night we settled in for a soak, nibbling complimentary chocolate chip cookies and watching lightning flash behind Mombacho. The limestone-like tile of the bath continued into the rest of the high-ceilinged villa, including around the well-lit single vanity and into the bedroom. I liked the simple cream-and-brown color scheme accented by nature photos and a colorful abstract sisal weaving, but I wish there had been room for nightstands on both sides of the bed. I recommend reserving a larger standard villa, which has similar views, or one of the suites in the glamorous La Residencia Doña Theresita, which has a chic masculine décor.
Even with just one nightstand, it was difficult to muster any feelings of disappointment. Our ranger filled our days with fun, and for much of our stay, I felt like a kid again. We rode well-behaved horses through the jungle up to a panoramic viewpoint, improved our aim with a rifle (Nekupe has a series of elaborate target arrays) and blasted along trails in a teak forest with our ATV. We helped collect eggs from the resort’s chicken coop for breakfast, met the nature center’s 70 adorable rabbits and held a charming monkey named Panchito.
We interrupted our whirlwind of activity with meals at the clubhouse, which never failed to impress with its polished presentations. I especially liked the delicate zucchini carpaccio with olive oil and hazelnuts, perfectly cooked giant shrimp atop spicy quinoa, and traditional Nicaraguan-style buñuelos, delectable fried quenelles of yuca and cheese topped with a cinnamon-sugar syrup. Cocktails, too, were expertly mixed — Nekupe, inexplicably, seems to be the only place in rum-soaked Central America that can pull together a proper classic daiquiri. The wine list also had some interesting selections, but I didn’t care for the fact that the only options available by the glass were a Merlot and an insipid and overpriced Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio.
As good as the food, service and accommodations are, the real reason to come to Nekupe is its wide range of activities. I had a terrific time, and I can only imagine that it would be even more fun to gather a group and take over the entire resort. For the active traveler who also appreciates luxury, Central America has few better resorts than Nekupe.
The extraordinarily attentive service; the sophisticated food presentations; the well-crafted cocktails; the sprawling property full of memorable viewpoints; the numerous on-property activities; the glamorous accommodations.
The high price of nonalcoholic beverages; the difficulty in communicating via email.
It’s not necessary to walk long distances at Nekupe because your personal ranger will take you everywhere you want to go by ATV, but the roads on the property are unpaved, and many are quite bumpy; a spa building was nearing completion at the time of our visit.