Secrets of Central America

Casona Don Carlos (here) at Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa has 20,000-square-foot indoor-outdoor living area with soaring 80-foot-high palapa ceilings.

Casona Don Carlos at Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa has 20,000-square-foot indoor-outdoor living area with soaring 80-foot-high palapa ceilings.

Luxury Travel Advisor loves the concept of combining several vibrant Central American countries into one brag-worthy trip or just diving deep into an untouched location. Here’s what our experts are saying about the must-see destinations, top hotels and under-the-radar sites, which work well for new and repeat travelers to the region.

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Nicaragua is on top of the mind for Hope Smith of Born to Travel. Smith has been an independent contractor for more than 25 years, but it’s a trip she took to Nicaragua two years ago that we love playing through our heads. Her Top Tip: Stay at Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa resort. Jim Augerinos, president and luxury travel consultant at Perfect Honeymoons, also recommends Mukul to his clients. “My upscale travelers, who want not just luxury but also a destination that none of their friends have visited, flock to Mukul,” he says. Augerinos adds that there really isn’t anything similar to Mukul in the rest of the country. (We love a unique kind of stay.) Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa is just a short, 20-minute flight from the Managua International Airport, which can be reached from major hubs on both the east and west coasts of the U.S.

Costa Rica (right) is home to six active volcanoes. Seen here is the Arenal volcano, a popular site for visitors.Pictured: Costa Rica is home to six active volcanoes. Seen here is the Arenal volcano, a popular site for visitors.

Looking to see more of the landscape? It is possible to drive to this top resort. Smith notes that the roads are safe and Nicaragua is home to the Pan American Highway. Though the signs are easy to follow along the roads, Smith says a driver can easily be hired for little expense. Need more of a reason to visit? We hear that Mukul is offering a six-night yoga and wellness package. Guests will participate in five private yoga sessions, tailored to their skill level. Other fun touches include six 90-minute treatments at Spa Mukul and a choice between a cooking class, hiking adventure or a forest bathing and meditation experience. Wellness trips are all the rage and on top of the existing health package, Mukul is debuting a new set of wellness packages this fall that are led by some of the top members in the industry. Jennifer Pansa, an acclaimed yoga teacher and Jim Rohr, a well-known acupuncturist, are teaming up to offer yoga, sound therapy, discussions and meditation for guests. Those looking to take advantage of this package will want to stay in resort owner Carlos Pellas’ private beach house. Imagine a 20,000-square-foot compound made up of two buildings with six suites and a large swimming pool. Tip: Guests are welcome to book Pellas’ home only when he is away. To plan a special stay, contact Lorrianne Mesina ([email protected]).

Travelers headed to Nicaragua will probably want to mix in some adventure to their trip. Smith’s suggestion to the adventure-seeker: Sandboarding down Cerro Negro volcano. VIPs will hike to the top of this famous site and fly down the volcano as if they were skiing. Those looking to just hike some of the country’s 19 volcanoes should consider Masaya, El Hoyo, Concepción and Telica, Smith notes. Why else go to Nicaragua, or Nic for short, as it is known? Augerinos explains that during his visit, he didn’t see any other American tourists (hello bragging rights). Augerinos suggests visiting San Juan Del Sur for the ultimate beach, which is also ideal for surfers. Not into just beach vacations? Don’t worry; when Augerinos was ready to get out of the sand, there were plenty of Spanish colonial cities to visit.

Belize gives a taste of both the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean, the jungle and adventure experiences found in Costa Rica.

Belize gives a taste of both the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean, the jungle and adventure experiences found in Costa Rica.

Looking forward, a new retreat is coming to Nandaime, Nicaragua. NEKUPE will be set on a 1,300-acre nature reserve and offer a range of activities, explains Augerinos. There’s space for a large number of outdoor experiences and also a good beach, which Augerinos explains as the “beach/jungle honeymoon combo.”

Hotel Rio Perdido (below) in Bagaces, Costa Rica, is famous for the hot springs that run through the property.Pictured: Hotel Rio Perdido in Bagaces, Costa Rica, is famous for the hot springs that run through the property.

Costa Rica is always a popular destination in Central America, but travelers should skip the known sites and head to the Pérez Zeledón region of the country, offers Ignacio Maza, the executive vice president of Signature Travel Network. His top tip? Go to this region for excellent horseback riding, hiking, bird watching and more. Best part? Travelers can enjoy all these experiences in the shadow of Cerro Chirripó, the tallest mountain in Costa Rica. As for accommodation recommendations, Maza suggests Hacienda AltaGracia, an Auberge Resort that has an intimate number of casitas on a large estate. “Do not miss taking one of the early morning ultralight flights from Hacienda’s runway, flying over the mountains and the Pacific coast,” Maza continues.He also urges travelers to visit the dry forest of Costa Rica, which is between the cloud forests of Arenal and the beaches of the Guanacaste area. Those who venture to this landscape will be rewarded with views of two active volcanoes, Tenorio and Rincon de la Vieja, says Maza. There are also thermal spas and adventure activities in this area. Maza suggests travelers to stay at Rio Perdido in Bagaces. “Do not miss the hot springs that run through the property, as well as the lodge’s signature ‘Canyon Adventure,’ which combines zip lining, climbing, and swinging in the air like Tarzan,” Maza explains.

Then it’s off to Belize, Maza says, emphasizing that the western region near San Ignacio won’t disappoint. He points out that this area has Mayan ruins cave tubing, hiking, and some good old-fashioned exploring opportunities. As an added perk, travelers can pop over the border to Tikal and Yaxha National Park in Guatemala. For more under-the-radar experiences head to Placencia, Belize. Here, things slow down. It’s all about the local eateries, beach bars and kids kicking around soccer balls, explains Augerinos. We like the idea of spending some time here, hopefully with a cocktail in hand. “I always rent a bike from the hotel and just cruise around town during the day,” Augerinos continues.

Visitors looking to see the Panama Canal should head to the Chagres National Park, one of the largest parks in Panama and the main source of water for the canal.

Visitors looking to see the Panama Canal should head to the Chagres National Park, one of the largest parks in Panama and the main source of water for the canal.

For the best of all worlds, try mixing the atmosphere of San Ignacio with Ambergris Caye, a more known part of the country. This offshore island is perfect for those who want to go scuba diving or snorkeling. “Belize is the perfect place between choosing a Caribbean island and going to Costa Rica or Panama,” says Augerinos. “Meaning you can do a little R&R and have the turquoise, crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean, but then when you are bored you can do some of the jungle/adventure stuff you would do in Costa Rica.” As for where to book a stay, Augerinos suggests the following: Blancaneaux Lodge and Turtle Inn, both Francis Ford Coppola hotels. “The attention to detail at both are incredible and I feel these two properties paved the way for my other favorite small boutique properties and put Belize on the map,” Augerinos reveals. (We like the sound of that.)

For travelers thinking about Panama, consider visiting the Portobelo National Park along the country’s Caribbean shore, Maza mentions. We think this site should be moved up the “bucket list” as it is slowly growing in popularity. VIPs can look forward to seeing monuments that are several hundred years old. “The best place to stay in this area is El Otro Lado, a new Design Hotel featuring charming casitas in bright colors and modern style,” Maza says. While in this area, travelers should also visit Chagres National Park, one of the largest parks in the country, he adds. Looking to see the Panama Canal? Then a stop at Chagres is a must as this park is the main source of water for the canal.

Augerinos tells his travelers to visit Panama if they feel Costa Rica is too “westernized.” “Panama has similar landscape, beaches, jungle and wildlife but is less uncharted and still extremely cheap,” Augerinos elaborates. For a hotel option in Panama, he also suggests travelers stay at El Otro Lado, which he describes as “funky.”

The Quick Hotel Guide to Central America

Nothing can make or break a vacation like accommodations. Let’s face it; the difference between “beachfront” and “a trek through the jungle for beachfront” can be a very real thing. That’s why travelers should take the above suggestions or these key recommendations from John Clifford, president of International Travel Management.

Costa Rica

Hacienda AltaGracia: “In the peaceful, green mountains of Pérez Zeledón, in Costa Rica’s southern region, the property boasts 50 estate-size casitas, one of Central America’s finest spas, three unique dining options and an exclusive equestrian experience found nowhere else in the country.”

Nayara Springs: “The uber-luxe, 16-room, adults-only upped the bar in the Arenal region to compliment their family-friendly sister property, Arenal Nayara Hotel, Spa & Gardens.”

El Mangroove: “Autograph Collection has a hip option in the Papagayo Peninsula region with affordable and chic all suites for Millennial-minded clients.”

Nicaragua

NEKUPE: “Opening in November 2016, a short 30 minutes from the alluring, colonial city of Granada. The inland locale, about an hour from the Pacific coast, makes a great pairing with Mukul.”

Panama

Casco Viejo: “Millennials and like-minded travelers love the hotel’s thoughtful design, onsite coffee, jazz and dining options. Onsite ‘Cultural Engineers’ help guests plan activities in the Old Town, New Town, out at Lake Gatun, hiking Cerro Ancon and much more.”

El Otro Lado: “Rainforest, reef and more are at your doorstep and the resort owns four private motor launches. Arriving is quite an adventure as it involves rail travel from Panama City to Colon and then land and boat transfer.”

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