Rum and Relaxation in a New Nicaragua
By Steve Bergsman
Photos by the author
Salvador Barras looked somewhat like me, slightly built, medium-height and shaved head; except that Salvador came from Mexico and I was from the United States. We came together in a rum tasting room at Mukul Resort & Spa, the new, luxury, Nicaraguan resort overlooking the Pacific Coast.
Barras had spent decades in the lodging industry and was well known for his knowledge of wines and liquors. I had a spent a lifetime traveling the world in need of lodging and drinking wines and liquors. We were a good match. Barras would take me and two ladies through an in-depth tutorial on rum, and when we all were through, we would be able to discern the fine aromas distinguishing a four-year old clear rum from an 18-year-old, deep-brown rum that would go perfectly with another great Nicaraguan creation, the Joya de Nicaragua cigar.
What I knew about rum was pretty much what everyone knows about Nicaragua, which is “nada,” a useful Spanish word meaning nothing. When we were young, we might have imbibed a rum and coke or two, or three or four!, or, if we’re old enough to remember the Ronald Reagan years, we might recall the nasty Nicaraguan civil war between the Sandinistas and Contras. And that’s about it.
Recently, I traveled to Nicaragua for the first time and realized my preconceptions were all wrong. I envisioned a Costa Rica-like topography but with no development and moderate tourist attractions. What I saw was a country about to bloom. It boasted dramatic, volcanic topography; colonial beauty in its remote cities; new accommodations; and a host of activities to make any outdoor enthusiast squeal with delight. It also has a national drink, the Flor de Cana rum.
Rum to a Nicaraguan is like a cigar to a Cuban: they can’t imagine it could be produced better elsewhere. And they are probably right, although they make some really fine cigars in Nicaragua these days.
After traveling about the western region of the country, in that narrow band of earth between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific Ocean, I ended up in an area either called Playa Manzanillo or Guacalito de la Isla, both names referring to small, remote bays on the Pacific Ocean that are now part of the Mukul resort development.
It was at Mukul that I met Salvador.
The day before I had traveled overland along the western shore of Lake Nicaragua, and then boarded a ramshackle ferry to Ometepe Island, a volcanic land of mystery shaped like the number eight, with each orb of the numeral dominated by a grand volcano, the active Concepcion and the dormant Maderas.
Although there are some fine accommodations on the island, Nicaraguans go there for day trips and picnics, while foreigners tend to backpack or climb/hike to the top of one of the volcanoes. Me, I just wanted to see it all, stroll along the Lago de Nicaragua beaches, eat the local foods and soak in the clear, spring-fed waters that can be found where the two orbs of the island crash together.
I was an explorer without purpose until my guide made a suggestion: a visit to a museum.
Hmm, I thought. This isn’t a very good idea, because, why the heck would there be a museum here and what would it show?
We ended up on someone’s farm and my fears played out exactly as I had expected. When we arrived at the grand sounding El Ceibo, the Museum of Ometepe, all I could see were random objects, dilapidated wagons and old farm implements.
Then we walked into what looked like an early 20th century brick structure, probably once used for storage. In a sense, it still was. In the building was the largest collection of ancient artifacts in the country – and it was all privately owned and gathered. Here was truly an amazing collections of figurines, jewelry, food preparation and storage vessels, items of war, and burial urns, many from as far back as 3,500 BC.
I caught up with the owner, Moises Ghitis Rivera, who happened to be wandering around the grounds, a working farm. He told me he took an interest in antiquity when he was of elementary school age. His grandfather or father would be plowing or digging and something would turn up and they would call him. Then as he got older and people knew he was interested in antiquities, they would let him know when they found something and he would trade for the pieces.
Many of the most important items in the collection came from right there on Ometepe, because in ancient times it was a trading area for peoples from as far to the north as Mexico and, in the opposite direction, the Inca territories in South America.
Asked if he was expanding his collection, Rivera simply said, “all we have to do is dig down for planting or plowing and something would turn up.”
Ometepe Island proved to be an exhausting all day journey. Lake Nicaragua, with an area of 3,191 square miles, is the largest lake in Central America and the 19th largest lake in the world. The ferry ride to and from Ometepe to the mainland takes an hour, not counting the unique weirdness of the docking which involves dual anchor lines that help swing a backward, slow-trudging bucket of rusting metal into the dock space.
So, after a day of exploration, it was time to pamper the body.
Earlier in my Nicaragua journey I overnighted in the beautiful Spanish-colonial town of Granada, and while touring about in a quaint horse-drawn carriage, I made a stop at the boutique cigar manufacturer Dona Elba, where I bought myself a small box of hand-made stogies. I hadn’t opened the box yet, but in preparation for my rum tutorial, which I supposed would tell me how to match fine Nicaraguan rum with fine Nicaraguan cigars, I sat on the veranda of my casita (called a bohio) and lit up.
Each casita boasted its own dip pool, and earlier that morning, after a four-mile jog through the property and its golf course, I stripped off my clothes and sat in the pool stark naked. I was traveling with five women, and when I told them of the sheer delight in sitting au naturel and looking out at the Pacific Ocean coastline in something like rapture, it must have made an impact because that evening, in what I would call the night of the skinny-dip, three of the ladies, including a proper Mormon gal with four children, ventured into their own dip pools wearing only a smile.
It wasn’t the only time we got naked that day. The Mukul counts six unique spas, each with a different theme, and all of us scattered to the hillsides looking for our therapeutic muses. I ended up in the Rainforest Spa where I was supposed to be getting a sports massage. The ladies would all have some other type of treatment to talk about.
About the only thing we had in common was the pre-treatment shower. In my case, I was blasted by four shower heads, one above and three from the side wall. The pressure was so great that water pushed out under the shower door and when I opened it, a river was flowing across the dressing room.
Finally, I made it to the sumptuous and expansive treatment room, where a petite young masseuse indicated I was to remove my robe and climb onto the massage table. I was expecting a deep-tissue massage to work those tired muscles, but she had other ideas, mostly involving stretching. Once she was underway and under-pressuring my muscles, I simply closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep.
That was my day: a jog, a naked dip, lunch, a massage, a cigar on the veranda, and then to the rum tasting room with a couple of fellow travelers.
Salvador was waiting for us with a beautiful array of fine glasses and bottles of Flor de Cana rums.
This is the way it went down — so to speak. First, a four-year old, clear rum, which Salvador suggested was best to be mixed into fruity concoctions. Indeed, it had the sharp taste of an inexpensive alcohol. Then came a five-year old dark rum, which was recommended for the Nicaraguan version of the rum and coke, the Cuba Libre. Since the rum was Nicaragua’s Flor de Cana, Salvador would call this drink a Nica Libre.
The turning point in quality came with the third rum, the seven-year-old Gran Reserve, favored by the Carlos Pellas Chamarro, chairman of the Pellas family conglomerate Grupo Roble, the makers of Flor de Cana rum and the developer of the resort.
Then came a 12-year-old rum of fine, red-brown color, and finally my favorite, the 18-year-old, which Salvador recommended to be enjoyed with a top of the line Joya de Nicaragua, which at the Mukul would cost something like $40. Good taste doesn’t come cheap.
There was something Contra, or counter-intuitive in Nicaragua’s opening of its tourist doors, but also a lot that was Sandinista-like, revolutionary in land and presentation. In Nicaragua’s tourist world — not the political world — these opposing characteristics blended nicely … like a good cigar and a glass of fine 18-year-old rum.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE. There are direct flights to Nicaragua from a handful of cities in the U.S. Southeast. I flew United Airlines from Houston to Managua, about a three hour flight. http://www.united.com
TOURS: My activities and guides were arranged by INTUR, the Nicaraguan Institute of Tourism. http://www.intur.gob.ni
ACCOMMODATIONS: As noted, I stayed the sumptuous Mukul Resort & Spa (http://www.mukulresort.com), but while traveling around the country, I also resided at two finely restored properties: the colonial Plaza Colon Hotel (http://www.hotelplazacolon.com) in Granada; and the Victorian cottage, El Victoriano Hotel (http://www.hotelvictoriano.com), in San Juan Del Sur.