Dreamy Ometepe & Finca San Juan

Our ferry boat sailed towards Ometepe Island: twin volcanoes that rise out of Lake Nicaragua, sloping down to lush forests and sandy beaches. We always heard about Ometepe during our Central American travels, and it sounded like a mythical place…volcano trekking to sky-high lagoons, wild horses galloping the shores, kids riding to school on ox carts, and community farms growing organic vegetables. We disembarked and drove around the base of Volcano Concepción and reached the lush grounds of Finca San Juan de La Isla, and thought this may be paradise after all.

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The “driveway” went on for over a mile through orchards, pastures, and banana plantations, until we reached the historic Spanish-hacienda-turned-hotel. The reception was in the former stables and the original house was now the lobby that flowed out to the open-air restaurant, twinkling with lights.

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Walking through the gardens of papaya and frangipani trees, the bellman showed us to our room: a stilted suite with a spacious porch on the lakeshore. Outside looked like a classic log cabin and inside was freshly designed with minimalist décor and a luxurious bathroom.

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We got a great night sleep and went down to enjoy the complimentary breakfast. I had the Finca (eggs, gallo pinto, plantains, and homemade cuajada cheese) and I had the French toast with fruit. When we heard most of the ingredients on the menu were grown on their 160-acre farm (with 40,000 fruit trees!), we had to hike the grounds. Wandering between the forest of fruits, we stopped by the horse stables, a bubbling spring, and the farmhands’ house–where we got invited in for a special stew!

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Each afternoon at San Juan presented us with tons of things to do: horseback riding, kayaking, mountain biking, swimming, or a guided hike up the active Concepción or the lagoon-topped Maderas volcano.

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The hotel helped arrange a motorbike so we could cover the most ground and adventure in a short stay. We headed toward Maderas, the smaller of the two volcanoes (still an impressive 4,573 feet tall) and enjoyed local life along the slopes. We stopped at the historic coffee plantation of Finca Magdalena, had picnic on the beach with the horses, and joined the fanfare at a Balgue soccer game.

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From Finca Magadalena, we followed one of the hiking trails to an ancient petroglyph in the forest. Ometepe has a rich pre-Columbian history with over 73 different sites scattered around the island.

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For our final night at San Juan de la Isla, we took a private cooking class with their head chef Ernesto. He wanted to show us classic Nicaraguan cuisine with an Indio Viejo soup. This recipe is said to date back to pre-Columbian times and made with ingredients, like the achiote plant, that are native to the region. We had a blast chopping, chatting, and sampling our way through the class and ultimately eating a delicious meal together.

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When the owners of San Juan de La Isla, saw this historic finca, they weren’t hoteliers or farmers at the time, but dreamers with a vision for a lodge to match Ometepe’s mystical reputation.

Anne & Mike Howard

Mike and Anne Howard left on their honeymoon in 2012 and have been traveling the world ever since. HoneyTrek.com chronicles their adventures across 7 continents, 44 countries, and counting! Their writing, photography, and the story of the “World’s Longest Honeymoon” can also be found on Condé Nast Traveler, BBC Travel, The Knot, Los Angeles Times, CBS, and dozens of other international publications. Connect with @HoneyTrek on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Lake Nicaragua’s Secret Island

We pulled away from the dock in the colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua. Our wooden sailboat weaved between dozens of the rock islands, spouted from an angry Mombacho Volcano a millennia ago. A day cruise around Las Isletas is the typical tourist activity, but we were going deeper into Lake Nicaragua with two-days on Isla Zapatera. It’s the lake’s second biggest island and an acclaimed Pre-Columbian archeological site, though few make it to this national park. Zapatera has been owned by the Cordova Alvarez family, a political dynasty of six Nicaraguan presidents and dozens of leaders, for 166 years. But it’s slowly been opening up to travelers, with the help of Rafael. As great-grandson of the original owner from 1850 and someone who grew up coming to the island, he decided to build Hotel Bahia Zapatera as a means to preserve and share this special place. “Bienvenidos,” said Rafael with a big smile as we pulled up to the beach dotted with bungalows. “Let the adventure begin!”

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Built alongside the 100-year-old family home, the four-bungalow inn has traditional thatch-roofs, vibrant decor, and an incredible sense of the history. The “lobby” is decorated with black and white family photos, the calligraphy-scrolled deed to the land, and tons of Chorotega Indian artifacts. Rafael, pulled out a map to plot our two-days of excursions and it felt like we’re beginning a treasure hunt.

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Zapatera Island is an extinct volcano, weathered down to a 2,000-foot peak with rolling hills, valleys, and lagoons. We hiked down the ridge for a view over the surrounding archipelago then climbed down the crater walls to its lake. Rafael jumped in first, did a few kicks, and dove down for a handful of mud. “Want to try a Zapatera spa treatment?” We followed his lead and rubbed the silky mineral-rich earth all over our bodies and let it bake in the sun for 15 minutes (or until we were a few years younger).

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We returned to the hotel and there was a feast of fresh fish, crunchy patacones, and arroz con frijoles. For dessert, we had cinnamon and honey-infused plantains… sooo scrumptious.

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Just a ten-minute boat ride away is one of Lake Nicaragua’s most important archeological sites… Isla El Muerto. We pulled up to the sandy shores, expecting a little museum and ticket booth, but there was simple house and four brothers playing an intense game of baseball out front. We waved and followed the narrow dirt path to the Plazoleta. The 80×20-meter rock slab was covered in some of the most intricate petroglyphs we’d ever seen. Before the Spanish arrived in the 16th-century, the Chorotegas used the Plazoleta to chronical their history, track the sun and stars, and make sacrifices to the gods. Rafael, told us about the symbolism of the various carvings and stories of playing here as a child, filling the lines with chalk like a coloring book.

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We settled into our villa and positioned ourselves for a perfect sunset over Mombacho Volcano. When the Zapatera chefs heard we were on an eternal honeymoon, they surprised us with a special fish soup appetizer, sopa de amor.

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All born and raised on the island, the Zapatera staff were so sweet and took such amazing care of us. No request was too outlandish…like moving a table to end of the dock for the best breakfast spot. We dined on farm-fresh eggs and stacks of pancakes topped with pineapple, and sipped our coffee to the soundtrack of the lake’s breeze, birds, and waves.

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With cleverly designed island of hammocks hovering over the lake, we were lured in for a swim multiple times a day. The structure was the perfect perch for views, as well as an umbrella for shade below.

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For more activities, we could have chosen to hike to highest point of the island, take a dip in the river’s ojo de agua, or enjoy a boat ride to the Zapatera islets. We opted for a sail to Jesus Grande island for more petroglyphs, caves gripped with strangler figs, and a sunset toast to an amazing stay.

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There is something undeniably special about Zapatera. Maybe it’s the feeling of mysticism from the ancient cultures, the lore of the country’s leaders, or the warmth of the local Zapaterans…whatever it is, it’s authentic and a rare gem we hope you discover for yourself someday.

Anne & Mike Howard

Mike and Anne Howard left on their honeymoon in 2012 and have been traveling the world ever since. HoneyTrek.com chronicles their adventures across 7 continents, 44 countries, and counting! Their writing, photography, and the story of the “World’s Longest Honeymoon” can also be found on Condé Nast Traveler, BBC Travel, The Knot, Los Angeles Times, CBS, and dozens of other international publications. Connect with @HoneyTrek on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Escape to Samaná: Dominican Tree House Village

We woke up to a gentle breeze, tropical birds, and Caribbean sunshine. We rubbed our eyes, from sleep and a bit of disbelief. This wasn’t like any hotel room or even glamping lodge we’d ever stayed in. Our view was of a lush forest, the leaves had intense detail…we were in the boughs of a tree. This is the Dominican Tree House Village, an eco-retreat so dreamy, we had to pinch ourselves.

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Nestled in the jungles of Samaná, a lush peninsula on the northeast coast of the DR with mountains, jungles, beaches and islands, The Dominican Tree House Village (DTHV) is one of a handful of lodges in this little known paradise. The 15,000 people that live here are proud of the region’s beauty and are making efforts to develop it slowly and sustainably, with environmentally conscious hoteliers like DTHV leading the charge.

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When we saw the DTHV sign pointing up a winding path that vanished into the greenery, we knew the adventure had already begun. Just as we started to size up our luggage and our level of physical fitness, three staff members appeared: one with a tray of tropical drinks and two others to whisk our bags away. We strolled the stone paths, passing the waterfall-fed pool, vibrant bromeliads, birdlife, and then shortly arrived at the canopy of cabins.

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The main building set the tone for the village—made from locally sourced materials, open-air, bohemian decor, and fabulous views to the jungle. Hammocks hung from the columns and seating areas offered nature books, board games, and plush cushions for relaxation. The manager Melissa came to greet us, “Please make yourselves at home!” She explained the casual and social nature of DTHV and said meals (included in the price of the stay) are served family style and often turn into an evening of lively conversation, games of Uno, and the occasional merengue session. “If you need anything at all, just ask!”

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Melissa led us through maze of suspension bridges and elevated pathways to our private tree house, one of 22 on the property. We climbed the stairs, which wended their way around two tree trunks, and reached our chic quarters. A queen bed draped with a mosquito net, whimsical swing chair, locking rattan trunk, ceiling fan, and power outlets…this was hardly roughing it. “One last thing,” said Melissa, “the shared bathrooms are downstairs.” We knew there was a catch! We descended, expecting summer-camp latrines, but these single occupancy bathrooms were gorgeous! Walls made with recycled glass bottles, seashell chandeliers, a flushing toilet, spacious shower, and plenty of privacy. Phew! (Though if you still want an ensuite bathroom, you can book the VIP Tree House.)

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After a breakfast of German pancakes, fresh fruit, and Dominican coffee, we geared up for ziplining—DTHV’s signature activity. Before they even built the lodge, they worked with German engineers to create the tallest and highest-rated zipline experience in the Caribbean: Samaná Zipline. With helmets and harnesses secured, we began the 12-line course, flying 450-feet above the canopy, rivers, and through the dense jungle. We had never done tandem ziplining or tried flips, twirls, and upside-down kisses, but that made it our best zipline to date. To top off an exciting morning, there was a fantastic waterfall and swimming hole near the end of the course.

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Already wet from our dip in Cascada Lulu, we decided to continue to the nearby Playa el Valle. This beach was our favorite in all of the Dominican Republic, complete with lush mountains, rugged cliffs, palm trees, golden sand, and an endearing local’s scene. Fishermen were mending their nets, boys were tossing around the baseball, and Emma the palapa owner was serving cold Presidente beers and the catch of the day. We walked the shore to the dramatic cliffs and found the shade of a palm tree for the little beach reading and a cat nap.

For guests who want to explore more of the incredible Samaná region, DTHV offers tons of day trips: humpback whale watching, horseback riding to El Limón waterfall, ATV tour to Playa Rincon, river rafting on Yaque del Norte River and more!

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We opted for the boat trip to Los Haitises National Park and Bacardi Island. Leaving from a private dock in Samaná Bay, we took the speed boat to the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Los Haitises’ Bird Cay. The dramatic karst landscape and soaring birds of prey was straight out of a Bond movie. The park’s interior is a system of brackish rivers, dense mangrove, and caves filled with ancient pictographs from the Taíno natives. With 618-square miles of terrain and 58 islands, there was enough here to explore for weeks…though Bacardi Island was calling! An islet with golden sand, swaying palm trees, and beach bars blending tropical drinks…sounds like a rum advertisement, right? Well, Bacardi shot a campaign in the 80s and Cayo Levantado has been dubbed Bacardi Island ever since.

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We returned to the Dominican Tree House Village and did an evening stretch in the yoga dome… trying not to think about our departure the following morning. Meditating on the beauty of this place, we set an intention and promised to come back some day.

Anne & Mike Howard

Mike and Anne Howard left on their honeymoon in 2012 and have been traveling the world ever since. HoneyTrek.com chronicles their adventures across 7 continents, 44 countries, and counting! Their writing, photography, and the story of the “World’s Longest Honeymoon” can also be found on Condé Nast Traveler, BBC Travel, The Knot, Los Angeles Times, CBS, and dozens of other international publications. Connect with @HoneyTrek on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.