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.

Patagonia: Off the Grid But on the Radar

When I told people I was going to Patagonia, first reactions were usually a mix of jealousy and confusion. Many people know the wilderness of Patagonia through the eponymous clothing company, but couldn’t find it on a map.

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The mystique of Patagonia is perhaps its greatest allure. Straddling the Argentinian-Chilean border, many of the region’s more popular areas are an hours-long drive from the closest commercial airport. Traveling from the United States takes the better part of 24 hours, and cellular service is spotty at best. The result is a true off-the-grid experience, with nothing but beautiful nature as far as the eye can see.

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Off-the-grid doesn’t have to mean without amenities, though. My three-night stay at Tierra Patagonia was marked by incredible lake and mountain views from my bedroom, delicious food and local wines, and excursions throughout Torres del Paine National Park. That’s not to mention the lodge’s stunning architecture, a beautiful mix of wood and glass that seamlessly blends with the landscape.

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For those who want to be inside the park, Explora Patagonia fits the bill. Perched above the Salto Chico waterfall and with direct views of the monstrous Paine Massif, the vistas are almost unbelievable.

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For those looking to rough it a bit more, the domes, pods, cubes, and yurts at Patagonia Camp and EcoCamp Patagonia are ideal choices. Nestled amongst stands of trees, there’s no shortage of the requisite conveniences, but rather a closer connection with the surrounding nature.

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Make sure to allow enough time to experience some of everything. You’ve traveled this far, so being in nature should probably be the first priority. However, allow enough time for a morning or afternoon off, perhaps the perfect time to reflect, have a spa treatment, or recharge after long days outdoors.

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No matter how you spend your time in Patagonia, where you stay, or how you arrive, the natural beauty is sure to sweep you off your feet.

Rustic Glamping- Camping with a Touch of Posh

The idea of glamorous camping is the combination of two things in apparent diametric opposition- camping, which is sleeping in the elements, with glamor, which refers to luxury. Here we visit properties on the other end of the scale for a more rustic travel experience. These are accommodations for those of us who are more nature lover than jet-setter, with the luxury still present but dialed down to a modest level- camping with a touch of posh.

The Ponds of DobciceThe Ponds of Dobcice

If you’ve ever imagined yourself living “off the grid” but want to try it before completely pulling the plug, consider a getaway to The Ponds of Dobcice. The Madlenka (pictured) and Valdala bungalows are perched over idyllic waters, but have no running water, no heat, and no electricity- heating and hot water is obtained by wood burning cook and boiler stove. Interiors are spartan but comfortable and appealing with clean lines. Here, you can reside for a short time as a true bohemian in Bohemia, the region of the Czech Republic where this resort resides.

Jungle's EdgeJungle’s Edge

The simplicity of accommodations in this category is often reflected in the name of the resort. Jungle’s Edge of Costa Rica is one such example. It is located near Playa Guiones, a well-known surfing spot in the Nosara region of Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province. Surfing is definitely on the menu as is yoga, but try your hand at martial arts with a Muay Thai boxing and fitness retreat, then retreat to your cozy open air jungle hut, costing a mere $50 a night double occupancy.

3X2KBqKpQBlSYGZnRzWxPhopvmlw2W04Kr9JXuSpiqoPalpatha Eco Safari Lodge

Stay at the chalet, the name given to the abodes at the Palpatha Eco Safari Lodge in Sri Lanka, which anywhere else might be called a casita or a palapa for sleeping. But let’s call them chalets anyway. Why not, when you will feel like royalty abroad while on a leopard safari at the Wilpattu National Park, a short 15-minute drive away, or perhaps you’d like to view dolphins and whales in Kalpitiya? Then return to your chalet for the evening after an authentic Sri Lankan meal with a traditional ‘village’ experience, which is all-inclusive starting at a mere $95 per night per guest.

Shanthi Kunnj HomestayShanthi Kunnj Homestay

The owners of Shanthi Kunnj Homestay refer to their place as “Paradise by the Riverside.” Situated on the scenic, guests have the opportunity for white water or still water rafting, and Bhadra Reserve Forest trekking. If you don’t mind trekking a little further, visit Bhadra Tiger Reserve to view tigers and elephants. The resort features handsome wooden structures with simple elemental names, like glass house, mud house, and log house. If you’re not familiar with India’s currency, then one glance at the price in rupees will make your jaw drop. It’s a bargain starting at 2750 rupees a night, or less than $50 USD.

hGP2reFEwmGfhX_7sJyZ8Z0RBei1TqNPMhKaNHv55pMDesert Days

The place is called Desert Days, which sounds like it could be a small town festival in Nevada. This however, is a resort in Negev, a desert in Israel, with nine “eco huts” built by hand, “according to the eco construction principles,” with mud and straw bricks, making them suitable for desert lodging. Spend your days in the desert at Desert Days in the three connected circular swimming pools, or practicing desert archery, and spend your nights relaxing in a hammock in view of the bonfire in your private yard, spending only $67 per night to start.