In every decade there is an "it" country where everyday tourists find sun, seclusion, and a little local culture where they can get away from the humdrum of deskwork and inclement winter weather. In the 1990s, it was Costa Rica—its surfer destinations, cloud forests, and protected jungles—that drew the crowds of eco-tourists looking for canopy tours and a chance to view dwindling populations of scarlet macaws, toucans, and capuchin monkeys.
Proximity to North America and a peaceful environment also made Costa Rica as sure a place to purchase a winter home as any spot in the Americas, prompting a coastal land grab that caused property values to treble and quadruple. And as quickly as that, the place was saturated with foreigners.
So talk to any snowbird today and one name escapes his mouth over and again: Nicaragua.
To the outside world, Nicaragua is one of those places you just don't go; an Afghanistan, Kashmir, or Chechnya, where the casual observer imagines a constant state of conflict. But Nicaragua's long civil war is more than a generation past, and what remains is a country where one word—tranquilo—quickens every conversation. Nicaragua is the world's capital of rocking chairs, every house and hotel equipped with a half dozen wicker and wood rockers for whiling the breezy evenings away in gossip and reverie in colonial style central courtyards conducive to intimacy and sipping rum. The streets are tranquilo, the sea tranquilo, the music tranquilo, the people tranquilo. (Just try to imagine a town in New Jersey or Illinois where the dominant conversational trope is serenity.)
But the secret about Nicaragua is out, and like all travel hot spots tourists come with a fixed itinerary hugging the Pan-American Highway between Managua in the center and San Juan del Sur on the southern Pacific coast. Surfer havens with party scenes rivaling Mikanos; quaint Granada filled with backpackers' hostels and elegant Mediterranean restaurants catering to high end tourists seeking air conditioning, guided volcano tours, and rum soaked cruises on Central America's greatest lake. All of it lovely, but how far does one have to go to find the simpler pleasures free of surfers and sex tourists, the beaches not manicured to look like Miami, the streets not dotted with Bavarian bakeries?
The answer: Look no further than The Congo.
Tucked into the northwest Pacific coast due south of Honduras and El Salvador is a little district which shares only a name with war ravaged central Africa. This Congo is marked by the Pacific's most underexploited stretches of soft sand beach. Think the Oregon Coast only warm. Imagine the shores of Mozambique only without the stifling humidity. Picture Tobago without the self conscious Rasta pomp. Put those elements together, and you have the enchanting secret hideaway of the Nicaraguan Congo. It is, one might even say, tranquilo.
Not everybody you meet who claims to be sitting on a hidden paradise is to be believed. But the Redwood Beach Resort, run by an American couple Mike Vogelsang and Stacy Sabo, lives up to its billing, and more.
With nine elegant cabanas just feet from the beach and an open rotunda for meals and events (I can't think of a better site for a wedding), Redwood Beach is an ideal getaway for the diplomat from Managua who wants to disappear for a few days; the yoga enthusiast looking to practice sun salutations on the beach; or honeymooners wanting to walk hand-in-hand, then take in the sunset snuggled into a hammock.
As much as the natural surroundings are a magnetic appeal, Mike and Stacy's enthusiasm for their new digs is as much a draw as the white noise from the bubbling surf lapping at your bedroom door. Mike is a former ironworker specializing in state-of-the-art skylights. He worked closely on the modern glass structures designed by the architect I.M. Pei (the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Chicago airport, U.S. Capitol Building). A neuropsychologist from New York, Stacy spends her days overseeing the 30 acre compound, adding horses for guests to ride along the beach, and planning an organic garden to make the place not only magical but a model for sustainable development.
To their credit, Mike and Stacy enjoy the place as much, if not more than their guests—
"Every day is a good day in the Congo," Stacy is fond of saying—and neither has interest in turning their hidden paradise into a future Club Med. They want their visitors to enjoy their new home with them, and there is much the place has to offer. Go night fishing or crabbing with Mike in the nearby estuary, or check out the hot springs five kilometers north. Visit the nearby Volcano Cosiguina, by renting a four wheel drive truck that takes you within a thirty minute hike from the top. Rent kayaks for 25 dollars and take them out when the sea is flat, or go down to the calmer estuary when the surf is up. Then return home to dine on fresh fish, jumbo prawns, lobster, and crab caught by the local fishers from neighboring village of Mechapa.
"People need to come see this now, the way it is, before it's not like this anymore," Mike says solemnly.
Though the region is generally ignored by the popular guidebooks, there are a handful of ways to arrive at the resort, all of which Mike and Stacy patiently arrange with their guests. For a few dollars, a local bus takes you from Managua or colonial Leon to Chinandega, a commercial center in the shadow of the San Cristobal volcano which serves the textile industries, ranchers, and peanut plantations dominating this lesser traveled part of the country. From Chinandega, it is easy to get a bus to Mechapa, which sits just a few hundred meters from Redwood Beach.
With your own four by four, travel to Chinandega and take the three hour rutted road to Volcan Cosiguina. Once you have past the Volcano take a left to Mechapa at the wooden shack with the big metal roof, and the surf awaits you in moments. But to cut down on the travel time, call Mike and Stacy ahead of time and get yourself to the little fishing village of Jiquilillo, easily accessible from any major city. After stopping to dine on fresh lobster, hire a local fisherman to charter you across the estuary for five or six dollars. At low tide, the boat will shuttle you to meet Mike in his truck for the twelve mile ride along the glittering diamond beach, until you reach the coconut palms that mark the entrance of the resort.
Once there, drink in the long lazy sunsets that last for hours and nestle in for romance, relaxation, and the kind of tranquil experience nobody every thought possible in NW Nicaragua.