I’ve always been drawn to Central American countries, thanks to the warm weather, delicious food, and picturesque beaches. Following a trip to Costa Rica for surf camp a couple years ago, and subsequent trips to Mexico after that, I put Nicaragua on my list of dream travel destinations after hearing from fellow travelers about the largely undeveloped land and gorgeous beaches. So when an invitation to spend a long weekend at Morgan’s Rock Hacienda and Eco Lodge in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, fell into my lap, I jumped at the chance to go, and invited my mom, Cheryl, to join me. Here’s a rundown of what we experienced.
We flew to Managua, the capital city, and were driven the additional two and half hours to San Juan del Sur, a coastal municipality (aka a city) in the Rivas department (aka a “state”), located on the Pacific coast of southwest Nicaragua. Instead of seeing the drive as another few hours of annoying travel to get to our eventual destination, my mom and I viewed this as an opportunity to at least see more of the country, if even just threw a car window. Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America and suffers from widespread underemployment, with nearly 50 percent of the population living below the poverty line. Visiting a country with that much poverty can be and, I think, should be uncomfortable in some way, especially when, as a privileged American, I was there to visit a luxurious, if rustic and ecologically sustainable, resort property hidden in a tropical forest overlooking the ocean.
During the two-and-a-half hour drive to San Juan del Sur, we went through a couple of small little villages and passed countless homes that reflect the way a large portion of the population live — whole families packed into small houses, some with only two rooms, with dirt floors and tin or palm frond covered roofs. We also were surrounded by an otherwise lush landscape of intense greenery where some type of animal, including horses, cows, pigs and goats (above), could be seen grazing almost constantly. We saw fields of sugar cane and plantains, and copious mango trees dripped with fruit.
San Juan del Sur is a beach town popular with surfers and also a vacation destination for the country’s residents. Morgan’s Rock Hacienda and Eco Lodge is situated just outside the town on 4,000+ acre parcel of land used primarily for their reforestation efforts, as well as a government designated wildlife reserve. The Lodge itself is small — just 15 bungalows total — and serene, overlooking a mile-long stretch of private beach. Everything about Morgan’s Rock is done with sustainability in mind. The gorgeous bungalows are crafted from the trees grown on the property (teak, mahogany, almond) and, are situated in areas that required the least amount of trees to be cut down or where dead trees needed to be removed anyway. The food, including all the meats, fruits and vegetables, served at the Lodge’s bar and restaurant is grown, raised and killed at the nearby farm. Morgan’s Rock was Nicaragua’s first hotel to combine Certification for Sustainable Tourism guidelines with fancy-pants facilities and services. While the hotel certainly operates as a business, it aims to offer its clientele a relaxing and high-end vacation experience while making as little impact on the surrounding environment as possible. The evidence of that is in the density of the property itself: 15 bungalows on over 4,000 acres of land? The priority is conservation over profits.
One of the things I loved the most about our experience at Morgan’s Rock was just how well the hotel merges the comfort of a four-star property with the wild, relatively untouched landscape and atmosphere of the property itself. Unlike the typical resort, nothing about Morgan’s Rock felt overly pristine, generic or yuppified. Everything — from the layout and design of the bungalows, to the food served at every meal, to the activities offered — felt effortlessly authentic and thoughtful. I appreciated how conscientious their approach was to everything, and loved that educating the guests about the work they do with reforestation and sustainability was a natural, and never overpowering, part of the experience.
Our first full day at Morgan’s Rock started off early — we didn’t want to waste a second sleeping! — with coffee on our bungalow’s porch (left), followed by a relaxing beach walk. I’m an avid beach comber and whenever I travel to new beach destinations, I’m always on the lookout for interesting pieces to add to my shell collection. I’m super choosy, but these three shells I brought home with me (right) are unlike any other shells in my collection. They’re not worth anything, but to me, shells — or, say, the naturally polished pieces of drift wood I brought home from Costa Rica — are priceless mementos from my travels.
We spent the rest of the day lounging on the beach (above right — how cute is my mom?) and by the pool (right), drinking coconut water straight from the shell (above left), reading books (I made it through both Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon and J. Courtney Sullivan’s latest The Engagements) and boogie boarding. Oh, and the sunsets at night? Beyond.
One of the highlights of Morgan’s Rock is the suspension bridge that stretches through the trees and accesses 13 of the bungalows overlooking the ocean. It was while posing for a photo on the bridge (below right) on our second day that I spotted one of the many howler monkeys that live on the property, eating leaves on a tree branch right next to the edge of the bridge.
“Mom! Monkey!” I yelled using my quietest voice so as to not scare away our new best friend. The little guy finished his snack before we could snap a photo, but later that day, I snapped a photo (above left) of a monkey chowing down in a tree by the pool. We heard them too, often at night, when small groups of howlers would yell at each other from across the trees.
Morgan’s Rock is also home to variety of birds — which I avoided like the plague, as birds terrify me — sloths (which we unfortunately did not see), and these amazing, brightly colored crabs. They were everywhere, especially after it rained, and their shiny, almost fluorescent orange hue made it looked like the pathways were scattered with plastic toys. I was obsessed with following some of the bigger guys around with my camera; I caught this one (left) eating breakfast in a rather polite manner.
No vacation would be complete without some form of pampering, so my mom and I both got (excellent) massages, which were especially blissful thanks to the sound of the ocean lulling us into relaxation. Enya ain’t got nothin’ on Mother Nature, that’s for sure.
Although I was tempted to spend all day every day working on my tan on the beach or by the pool (the Instagram video to the right captures my view for a good chunk of the trip) and monkey watching, my mom really wanted to check out the farm that supplied all of the food for the property. At the farm, we were taught how to milk the cows (milk that would then be used in our breakfast). I’m a city gal, and milking a cow has long been on my, heh, bucket list. Despite no prior experience with teats beside my own, I discovered I have a natural talent. Look how pleased my instructor is with my efforts (below left)! I didn’t taste the milk straight up, but my mom did. She said it was “warm and sweet.” And how cute is the baby cow nursing from its mama (below right)? Love!
After we milked the cow, we headed into the chicken coop. Not to go off on an anti-bird tangent, but it is pretty well documented on this site that I have a paralyzing fear of birds that are pigeon sized or bigger. I don’t like the flapping, I don’t like the evil look in their beady little eyes, I don’t like the weird manner in which they walk, I don’t like their feet (although I am slightly more amenable to birds with webbed feet), and I don’t like the fact that they will kill you for sandwich crusts. So, entering a closed space with dozens of birds inside is really not my idea of a good time.
But I did it. And I didn’t cower in a corner – in fact, I even plucked my own freshly laid egg from underneath the chicken that just laid it. Look, video proof (right)! I still don’t like birds, but chicken terrify me slightly less than before. I didn’t expect to leave Nicaragua having conquered — kinda, sorta — a fear! Visiting the farm was the perfect way to cap off our trip and should not be missed if you’re ever lucky enough to visit yourself.
Overall, Morgan’s Rock Hacienda & Eco Lodge is incredible and I recommend it to anyone looking to “get away from it all” in a place that is both luxurious and conscientious of its surroundings — but it was made even better having my mother by my side. Though we’re close — both emotionally and physically, as she lives just a few subway stops away from me in Brooklyn — we haven’t ever traveled together, just the two of us. I generally feel like I don’t take her for granted, but my dad’s passing in November has made me that much more determined to not only appreciate her, but to really know her beyond her role as my mom. (Like the fact that, in her 20s, she stayed in a convent while traveling alone in Europe, and in that convent she found the dirtiest book she says she’s ever seen — which, in fairness, may not be saying much — hidden on a bookshelf in her room. Nuns! Who would thunk?) It was so cool spending time together as, yes, mother and daughter, but also as two adult women. How grateful I am for that, and for her, can’t be put into words.
Learn more about and book a stay at Morgan’s Rock Hacienda and Eco Lodge on their website.