Lost in Nicaragua: A Renewal at Aqua Wellness Resort

Featured, In-Room Reviews, Nicaragua — By on March 3, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Aqua Wellness Resortby Courtney Dubin
Special to Lost Girls World

Like a few things in my life, Taylor Swift deserves a bit of credit for my vacation to Nicaragua, or at the very least the idea for how I would write about my trip to the Aqua Wellness Resort in Redonda Bay.  The way she shares her feelings through her lyrics exudes wisdom far beyond her 21 years.  And to get the most from her songs, Taylor (I’m going to write like we know each other), dives heart first into any new experience, working out what it meant on the other side. In pitching this story to my fabulous friend, Lost Girl Amanda Pressner, I told her that I could use a wellness-focused vacation reset to focus a bit less on the small stuff, much like my unknowing mentor (who’s 13 years my junior).

So I invited my most pushy friend Kathi, packed a very small bag, and headed to the Aqua Wellness Resort that sits on the Pacific side of the country, about three hours from the city of Managua.  I booked the ticket knowing full well that change does not occur with just a few days of a yoga and said pushy friend telling you to put away your laptop and be in the moment, but I also figured the serene environment and holistic philosophy of Aqua would be the best possible place to ease up and make new priorities.

The resort, after all, was founded on the basic concept that true beauty respects and shines a light on what’s already there, (rather than force-fitting a perception of what beautiful should be with a lot of pomp and circumstance).  It practically cooed, “lower your blood pressure” from the pictures on the website and article I read in Food & Wine magazine.

After what seemed like a quick two flights, we arrived at Managua International Airport, where a smiley little man was waiting to take us and one other passenger to the resort.   Turns out, our companion Clifford owned a villa at Aqua, and had made his way back for the first time in two years to attend their yearly meeting.

When we weren’t volcano-gazing on our drive (the mountainous landscape of Nicaragua has 50 of these active peaks) and speaking in broken Spanish, Clifford shared the roundabout story of his personal journey to Aqua. We had come to this nook of the world at a unique place in time, and our new friend urged us to seek and hang out with owners, who could give us an insider’s perspective on the evolution of the resort.

Our favorite part of the ride jolted us back into the excitement of being in a foreign land, and in flip-flops.  Four hours on the road (with stops), and well into the “are we there yet” mental loop, we hooked a right onto what can only be described as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Nicaragua, complete with living obstacles in the form of cows, horses and dogs.

It was hard get the full lay of the land at night, so we did a quick change in what Clifford assured was a room with one serious view, and made our way down 167 steps and along the barely lit beach to the resort’s one, outdoor restaurant.

Aqua’s bountiful organic menu, I’ll admit after a few days eating from it, does not seem quite as diverse, though they offer a handful of options for the meat and gluten intolerant. But given the newness of the place, and staff, it will likely get better and better as they learn from guests.  Everything tasted fresh and earthy, and comely waiters and waitresses catered to even the pickiest of New Yorkers (which says a lot).  The work in progress energy also contributed to an overall feeling that everyone was doing the very best they could for us.  Just how I want to feel on vacation, and a nice reminder of the reason I took this trip in the first place.

Lighter fare won’t lull you into a food coma, and it’s a good thing because if you do nothing else but eat and sun on your vacation, the stairs on the way back up, make you feel like you’ve earned your daily bread.  Kathi and I commemorated each sojourn with a swift, gentle kick to the gong at the top of the steps (side note for the singers, sound travels at Aqua because it’s just so quiet, so don’t flex your pipes in the shower, or you may get gonged). And no disrespect to sound machines, but they have nothing on the sleep inducing effect of waves crashing into the shore, even from our heights so high.

Nicaraguan CoffeeThe morning brought with it the opportunity to take in the view we’d heard so much about, and check out the finer details of our villa, aptly named Yucca #1.  The large deck that wrapped around to a separate kitchen had two optimally placed rocking chairs that we ended up spending much of our time in.  In defense of our inaction, the combination of delicious, almost chocolate-y coffee, that you can make in your kitchen, rocking chairs in the sun, and that view, make it so hard not to at least attempt leaving behind a semi-permanent dent in the seat cushions.

We stayed on the upper level of Yucca #1, but the lower level also had a dipping pool that our kind Chilean neighbors below welcomed us to use.  These pools, in most of the villas at Aqua, face the ocean, and Kathi and I often thought about what a great destination the resort is for couples. With just the top level, we had more than enough room for two friends who wanted separate space.  The upstairs bedroom and living room, set up with a futon, each had a bathroom and spa showers that rain down on you like a shampoo commercial, and the minimalist décor connects back to that same spirit of relaying the beauty of one’s surroundings.

In fact, everything at Aqua was designed to harness the power of the land and its resources, from the water filtration to the wood used to build the villas.

Aqua uses sustainable technologies to operate the resort, like preserving the seepage area under the property, and offering tours and experiences that involve and employ the local communities.  On one of our daytime excursions, we took a 2.5 hour chartered motorboat ride and viewed some turtle eggs on a private beach not far from Aqua.  Although we expected to see baby turtles, the intention of the resort is to give guests the opportunity to care for eggs, and hatched turtles if you’re lucky.

Some other options for tours include a full-day trip, travelling by boat to the coastal town San Juan del Sur to meander, eat lunch and pick up a few souvenirs for friends and family.

Nicaraguan BeachIf it’s impending danger and hot magma you seek, you could trek the active Masaya Volcano through lava stream caves, and channeling your inner Joe Banks, stare down the great, smoking crater (Waponis and orange soda not included).

 To see the “country of lakes and volcanoes” by day, Aqua offers a day trip up the peak of the Mombacho volcano for a canopy tour with hiking (at different levels), and ziplining.

Prices for half and full-day trips range from about $100-150 dollars per person, depending on the activity you chose, and Aqua works with you to set everything up and arrange for the necessary transportation.

Aside from our boat tour, I enjoyed a ocean-facing massage at the newly opened spa, and one yoga class, also facing the ocean, on a platform close to the beach bar and restaurant.  Our spritely Canadian teacher Grace guided us through poses and steady Hatha breathing that, while not an intense workout, still left me with the warm buzz I look for in a good yoga class.

Grace teaches two daily classes at 10am and 5pm, along with intermittent weekly workshops like raw chocolate making.

It took a lot to get moving on a relaxing vacation, but more than anything, food will do the trick.  Kathi and I followed our stomachs and ventured off the resort grounds to see the surfer town, Playa Gigante to try what we heard were some stellar fish tacos (one of my favorite treats!) at Chele Palmados Barefoot Bar and Grill.

To help us get to the town, and more importantly, the food, Aqua manager Natalia led us on a backwoods path that opened up to the ocean and the town of Playa Gigante after about a 20-minute walk.  While dark, our small flashlights, and one iphone flashlight app were more than sufficient to light our way.

Aqua Nicaragua DeckAfter hitting what was definitely a travelers’ bar on the beach, run by a worldly Seattle native named John (note: if you’re looking for a quiet, warm place with a growing community of travelers who want to surf and chill, this is your place), we walked further into the town to the grill. Proprietor and trained chef Dave Lowe, also an American from D.C., prepared the food and intermittently charmed us.  I would have eaten enough of those delicious and really affordable fish tacos to make my stomach hurt, but I give full credit for my pain to Dave’s dance moves and utter ridiculousness.

With only a few nights in Nicaragua, we decided to have another meal in Playa Gigante, serving up more indigenous food.  This nameless “joint” (it felt like a joint) with a homey vibe looked promising when we glimpsed the food and facial expressions of the guys at the only other occupied table.  After a meal of five lobster tails, fried plantains, vegetables in some type of cream sauce, and rice and beans later, we practically hugged the chef, an old woman who called us amore, and backed our way out of the restaurant on the hill at the edge of Playa Gigante as we continued to compliment the food and service.

On our first night at Aqua, our friend from the drive to Redonda Bay, who popped up at various points throughout our stay, recommended we join the dinner and bonfire festivities for home owners gathered at the resort.  So on our last night, we did one last run on the 167 steps to get to the restaurant by the beach. There we were welcomed by traditional “Nica” food prepared by the staff—the dishes included guacamole-esque avocado salad, stewed chicken for fajitas, grilled plantains and veggies, and blood rice, which is bound together in a small cone shape with the blood that gives it its dark, rich color.

Because the tables were close together around the buffet and not on the usual restaurant platform, it gave us a chance to talk more with the home owners at Aqua Wellness and get a sense of the changes they’ve seen come to pass in the past couple of years.  What struck me most was the energy and willingness of these people to dedicate time and resources to transforming Aqua into the international wellness destination they know it has the potential to be.

Karen, a feisty Southerner and transportation expert is looking into how to make the resort more accessible, while a retired fireman and paramedic named Alex wants to bring more medical equipment for the facilities and the town.

Aqua employs people from the community and asks its owners and guests to share in the experience of giving back to the community if they so choose.  Hearing about how their combined efforts have made life better for local citizens was pretty cool, and affirmed my belief that Aqua has a great shot at living up to its full potential.

Try as I did to get work done while I was away, it was easier than I thought to keep email updates, and any kind of checking in to a minimum and settle into the surroundings.  Proving that if the desire’s there, just letting go isn’t all that hard.

Being back in the dense energy of Manhattan for a little while, I’ve lost most of the vacation rub-off that leaves your calmer (aside from our last night when I FREAKED out about the tiny gecko in our room).  But the experience did spark something that’s been building up for some time.  And even though I’m still an overly sensitive, overthinking, semi-workaholic, I’m not the same.

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