in the colonial
city of Leon.
Barran has a degree in aerospace en-
gineering from Princeton, and tends not
to think like a traditional hotelier does.
His COO, American Chris Shanks, a self-
taught botanist and landscape designer,
also comes from outside hospitality: He
arrived in Nicaragua 10 years ago to work
on social aid projects. And the chef, a Brit
named Ben Slow, learned his trade by bicy-
cling across India and Southeast Asia and
asking if he could cook with local families
along the way.
Barran’s German-born architect wife,
Karin Eigner, went from designing high-profile public buildings around the world
to constructing creative beachfront and
cliff-hugging units for Aqua.
The property features a yoga platform,
beautifully positioned above the gently
curving Redonda Bay, where morning and
sunset sessions are held for a modest $10
fee. (Although all beaches in Nicaragua are,
technically speaking, public, Aqua owns all
the land fronting the bay.) A recently expanded spa treatment menu offers everything from body massages to ear candling,
though the spa facility itself is somewhat
modest and simply equipped. There is no
fitness center, but beach rental equipment,
available for token fees, includes kayaks,
surfboards, paddleboards and snorkeling
gear. Lessons for the board sports, as well as
for fishing, are also offered.
Slow’s menu reflects both a focus on
“wellness” and his diverse Asian fusion
training. Much of the produce he serves
is grown on Slow’s and Shanks’ adjoining
Continued from Page 20
farms on Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua.
Each member of the management team
is a pleasure to speak with, and their chemistry results in some fun surprises, from
clambakes to the building of a brick oven
for baking pizzas to digging an outsized
marshmallow roasting pit on the beach
(complete with 6-foot-long sharpened
bamboo poles, so kids can keep a safe distance from the pit when roasting).
This area is not far from San Juan del
Sur, which is the primary tourist center in
the south (it also has a cruise ship terminal). Guacalito could do for southern Nicaragua what Casa de Campo did for the La
Romana area of the Dominican Republic.
Value, delivery and a vision
The Nicaragua value proposition is simply too high to maintain its current imbalance of supply and demand. Relatively
speaking, one gets a lot for the money. The
infrastructure is good enough and improving, and the service delivery is of
satisfactory quality at the better
My arrangements were made
through Careli Tours, an established operator that also handles
the lion’s share of the cruise
shore excursions. I found the
outfit to be professional from
start to finish. The company is
run by Lourdes Fuentes and her
husband, Axel, who learned the
trade in Costa Rica during its
golden phase of tourism. Our
guide for the week, Juan Carlos Mendoza,
was simply amazing and extraordinarily
well-versed in Nicaraguan history, botany,
ornithology and volcanology.
I was also encouraged about Nicaragua’s
future after having lunch with its tourism
minister, Mario Salinas Pasos, in Managua.
Salinas, a former architect, real estate developer and manager of Aeronica, the country’s
airline before the Sandinista revolution, un-
Game changer on the horizon?
Not five minutes outside Aqua’s gate is
a low brick wall with letters spelling out
The additional 39 rooms, and even a
new golf course, would not be enough to
move the needle significantly for Nicaraguan tourism if they were standalone developments, but the infrastructure being
built around the entire Guacalito project
might very well change the game. Plans include building an airport nearby and pav-ing roads for miles up toward the national
derstands what it takes to create a
welcoming environment for tourists.
He is also an unapologetic Sandinista.
He saw tourism languish when there was
no “clear vision” for the sector before 2007,
and he has worked with Ortega to “promote
laws to facilitate tourism,” including lifting
restrictions on tourists entering the country
and dropping laws he felt were discouraging
development. The country lowered taxes on
retirees looking to settle there and instituted
stricter environmental safeguards.
Salinas still feels the infrastructure is not
where he wants it and has an eye to developing the Caribbean coastline. (Currently,
there isn’t even an all-season road connecting the Pacific and the less-developed Caribbean coast.)
The Sandinista in Salinas came out when
outlining his vision for where he wants Nicaraguan tourism to go.
“Tourism, properly developed, will help
us create wealth to combat poverty, and will
help us preserve the country, nature, culture
and traditions,” he said. “That’s not an easy
task. When tourism becomes mass tourism,
it invades everything without taking into
consideration a country’s natural strengths.
It can create great damage to the environment and tends to erode a nation’s culture.
It’s very difficult, to stimulate growth while
not destroying our richness.
“The most important thing of all,” he
continued, “is to achieve a unity of vision
for government and private enterprise, both
domestically and internationally. I’d like for
everyone to have the same vision, to achieve
a unity around a vision of developing tour-
ism in Nicaragua.”
In other words, he is hopeful that “unity
tourism” will be a superior replacement for