In search of a sun-soaked destination with pristine beaches and uncrowded landscapes? The best-kept secret of Central America is Nicaragua.
With coastlines on both the Caribbean and the Pacific and notable for its 19 volcanoes, Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America and has been a paradise for surfers for decades, well-known for its big wave season in June, July and August, and a steady supply of swells year-round.
Jade Sheppard began her discovery of Nicaragua five years ago. It started with Malibu Popoyo, an eco-friendly all-inclusive surf and wellness resort, which she now owns in Popoyo, Nicaragua on the Costa Esmeralda.
With over 150 miles of coastline, Costa Esmeralda aka the Pacific coast is where most visitors are headed for surfing or to indulge in the unspoiled coastal areas.
Nicaragua wasn’t on Sheppard’s radar as a surfer—Mexico, Indonesia and Hawaii were some of the places she had dreamed of chasing waves—but a fortuitous trip in 2017 sent her to surf here. Nicaragua’s charm made an immediate impression.
She saw an entrepreneurial spirit flourishing in Nicaragua and appreciated that it wasn’t overdeveloped. “Nicaragua reminded me of Costa Rica 20 years ago.”
Malibu Popoyo Resort was then an adult-only luxury beach resort, a remote getaway for those who wanted to be far from the crowds.
Sheppard immersed herself in the epicenter of the country’s best surf spots and the unpretentiousness of a country that still had ox carts on its roads among the cars and trucks, devoted to tradition and slowly embracing the 21st century.
Falling in love with the hotel, she bought land across the street from the resort after the end of her first trip. When the hotel’s owners let her know they wanted to sell, Sheppard bought the hotel in October 2017.
Despite her lack of knowledge of the hotel industry, Sheppard’s business experience recognized a well-run resort operation with great employees. She focused on changing the business model, relaunching Malibu Popoyo in December 2018.
“It had been a high-end beach resort, only for adults,” said Sheppard, “I changed the business model to an all-inclusive surf and wellness resort, which was also family-friendly.”
Sheppard wanted to offer a myriad of options: a boutique hotel, surfer destination, retreat center, yoga studio and great dining.
But she didn’t stop there, adding activities for kids, like surfing lessons, having babysitters on staff and a well-stocked surf shop making it easy for visitors to focus on having fun, and not having to worry about the details.
And as a surfer, she knows her sport (Costa Esmeralda boasts Nicaragua’s top 10 surf breaks), making sure it was welcoming to surfers of all skill levels, with instructors on staff, a hotel surf boat and surfboards from cutting edge brands like Firewire, Rob Machado Surfboards, Valerie, Haydenshapes and Slater Designs.
With 12 rooms surrounded by the hotel’s lush gardens, guests can choose from garden, loft or master suites, each featuring handcrafted local furnishings, distinctive art, plants, artisan tiles, organic bed linens and Moroccan-style outdoor seating areas. It’s an intimate place and one that fully embraces the typical west coast laid-back vibe.
Beginning in January 2022, surf and yoga retreats will be returning to the hotel’s schedule, each week-long retreat providing ample time to indulge in their chosen activity.
The hotel currently offers a comprehensive wellness program including yoga, massage, meditation, reiki as well as cacao ceremony and ayahuasca, each offering a way for guests to create a customized holistic program of outdoor and activities to reenergize and rebalance.
Sheppard has seen the effects of covid on many guests, as they go through an awakening and wanting to seek a deeper connection and purpose for themselves. “People come here to change their lives.”
Another wellness offering is horseback riding: Malibu Popoyo works with a community partner to provide guests with tours to explore by horse on the beach or through the jungle.
But soon, the hotel will also offer equine therapy, as Sheppard’s two horses are currently being trained to offer animal therapy to guests and the community in the future.
Another welcome addition to the resort’s footprint by Sheppard is a La Quinta, the hotel’s three-and-a-half-acre organic and sustainably planned orchard and farm.
Located less than a 10-minute walk from Malibu Popoyo, the farm features over 40 different types of herbs and vegetables, as well as eight types of mango, lime, dragon fruit, plantain, coconut, orange, passion fruit, fig and melons. And soon to be added to the acreage: chickens and bees.
Guests happily start their days with smoothies and can indulge in fresh-pressed juices all day long made with farm-fresh fruit, but they’re not the only benefactors: La Quinta also provides fruits and vegetables to the local community too.
Sourcing locally as much as possible for ingredients and offering daily fresh-caught seafood fuels the menu at the hotel’s Sunset Cantina & Beach Bar which is focused on fresh-made west coast cuisine with a dash of Central American flavors.
For guests wanting to explore farther afield than Playa Popoyo and Playa Santana, Sheppard recommends a visit to historic Granada, the country’s oldest colonial city, well-known for its colorful architecture.
Nearby is Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve, or take a day trip to the volcanic island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua.
You can also visit Masaya Volcano National Park, featuring the only volcano in the world where you can drive to the edge of the crater and see the lava.
“Guests are discovering the special vibe, the special energy of Nicaragua,” said Sheppard, “a quarter of guests are here to buy property. They see how pristine the beaches are, many only accessible by boat.”
Not as developed as Costa Rica, but that’s added to the allure of this area in Central America. “Only people truly in love with Nicaragua have stayed in recent years”, says Sheppard. “It’s the place to go for the love, one of the world’s most underrated places. It’s paradise.”