From the print edition
When you live in a country where more than a million people vacation every year, sometimes you have to get a little creative when it’s time for some R and R. I like to head north and explore Nicaragua, where the dollar goes a little further and the tourist industry is sufficiently developed, yet still up-and-coming.
So when Matt Prezzano, who manages property and vacation rentals at Rancho Santana, in the department of Rivas on Nicaragua’s southern Pacific coast, invited me to check out the ranch, it was an appreciated excuse for a weekend getaway.
Just 80 kilometers north of the Costa Rican city of Liberia, Rancho Santana has been around for 15 years. But as Prezzano describes it (in baseball terms fitting for Nicaragua), development at the ranch is in the “third inning of a nine-inning game.”
I grabbed a ₡5,000 ($10) bus ticket at Transportes Deldú in San José and headed for the border. Crossing Nicaragua’s border on foot usually takes about 20 minutes, much faster than waiting on the international bus lines to Managua or Granada. On the Nicaraguan side, a driver from the ranch was waiting in an air-conditioned SUV to shuttle me the rest of the hour-and-a-half drive.
Traveling in Nicaragua is what I imagine much of Costa Rica looked like decades ago. Farm animals dash across dirt roads that wind through small towns, where most people commute on bikes or horse-drawn carts.
Entering Rancho Santana, we pass through several kilometers of farmland, winding up and down an unpaved road into dry tropical forest stretching to the ocean. As we pull in front of the ranch’s hacienda-style clubhouse and elegant open-air restaurant, a couple things become apparent: At 1,100 hectares (2,700 acres), calling this a “ranch” seems like an understatement, and with lush central gardens, a swimming pool and five pristine beaches with perfectly breaking waves, Prezzano may have downplayed the magnificence of the place.
We drive up a steep road near the clubhouse and stop at a luxurious white stucco house perched on a cliff, with a panoramic view of the Pacific. Prezzano, a former Peace Corps volunteer from the U.S. state of California, is outside waiting for me. Lounging in a line of hammocks near a horizon pool are Tim Rogers, editor of the Nicaragua Dispatch, Damien Hopkins and Xiomara Díaz Hopkins, co-owners of Granada’s popular Garden Café restaurant and other friends.
As the sun begins to set, turning the sky a magnificent pink over a blanket of steely blue ocean, the value behind vacation rentals like Rancho Santana becomes apparent – it allows friends and family to gather in a more intimate setting than all-inclusive hotels or other mass-packaged vacation destinations. Plus, vacation rentals provide a sense of community, which is enhanced by Rancho Santana’s obsessive focus on guest services, which recently helped them win a TripAdvisor Award of Excellence. Not to mention you get to live in a private paradise that someone else has paid to build.
The ranch doesn’t yet have a hotel, although one is scheduled to go up by 2014. In the meantime, guests can choose from three levels of rental accommodations: Garden-View Casitas (two-bedroom bungalows that sleep up to four), Puerta del Mar Villas (two- or three-bedroom condos built two years ago on Santana Beach) and private houses with up to six bedrooms and ocean views. Each of them are unique, some are beachfront.
The first night we stayed in a private home. On the second night, we switched to a three-bedroom condo (again, a slightly understated description) just 20 steps from the beach. Both options were spectacular.
“The way I see it, people who come to Rancho Santana start to have an emotional attachment to the place,” Prezzano explained. “You go to a lot of spots in Central America or Europe, and they all feel the same after a while. I want people to know they’re on a really special piece of earth. It’s not a snobby experience. The roads are all dirt roads, and that’s not going to change. It’s a unique destination that you’d want to go to with your friends or family again and again.”
It was hard to beat that first night’s sunset. But the next day, we loaded surfboards into Hopkins’ pickup truck (getting around the ranch requires a four-wheel drive vehicle, which can be rented with the help of guest services prior to traveling) and toured the property, which includes five kilometers of coastline. We drove to the highest point on the ranch, a lookout that provides a bird’s-eye view of the secluded Playa Duna in one direction and Playa Los Perros, a surfer’s dream, in the other.
“The image of the ranch I give to people who have never been here is Santa Barbara, California, in the 1940s,” Prezzano told me as I tried to balance my awe of the dramatic landscape with my nagging fear of heights. “It is rugged, with three miles of coastline, dirt roads and incredible topography. It’s what the Pacific frontier was 70 years ago.”
We descended to the beach, where Prezzano and Hopkins grabbed a few waves while I boogie-boarded and took in the hot Nicaraguan sun. I saw only a handful of people on the beach the entire morning.
Next, we headed back to the clubhouse and La Finca y El Mar Restaurant. For being in such a remote, rural area, the restaurant is surprisingly top-notch. Run by Prezzano’s sister, chef Calley Prezzano, who studied at California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and worked at One Market Restaurant in San Francisco (which won a Michelin Star four years in a row), along with other stints in Nicaragua, La Finca y El Mar focuses on letting fresh ingredients speak for themselves, similar to the northern California style of dining inspired by Alice Waters and the slow-food movement.
Herbs, vegetables and fruits come from an on-site organic garden, which guests can also use for cooking in their own kitchens. (Among several guest services is the option to have kitchens pre-stocked upon arrival.)
Seafood is locally caught and fresh from the ocean, and daily lunch and dinner specials make the restaurant more than a cut above what one would expect in such an out-of-the-way location.
Among the dishes I sampled were coffee-rubbed pork loin and shellfish penne pesto, which had one of the freshest pesto sauces I’ve ever tasted. I usually skip dessert, but after tasting Calley’s double chocolate cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, I ended up ordering it after every meal for the rest of the weekend.
Later that afternoon, I did some horseback riding at the ranch’s stable and checked out Playa Escondida, appropriately named as I didn’t see a single soul on the tiny, secluded beach. Other activities for guests include mountain biking, hikes through the forest and one- or two-day trips to Ometepe Island and the colonial city of Granada – both reasonably short drives.
That night we moved into a beachfront condo and continued our conversation about Prezzano’s vision for Rancho Santana. Our modern condo had all the amenities, including a large, modern kitchen, a dining room table that seats eight, air conditioning and flat-screen TVs in all of the rooms. But we chose the back patio for our evening entertainment, where we downed cold Victorias and watched a sunset even better than the previous night’s, a few short meters from perfect waves rolling in over white sand. A handful of surfers rushed to catch the day’s last breaks before night set in.
If Rancho Santana’s goal, as Prezzano repeated throughout the weekend, is to provide a personal, unique and emotional experience that guarantees return visits, they’re pretty well on track. I was hooked.n
Rates range from $150-500 a night, minimum three-night stay. Costa Rica’s Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia, capital of the northwestern province of Guanacaste, provides easy access to Rancho Santana, located an hour and a half north of the Nicaragua border. Staff can arrange transportation from the airport or the border. For more, call +(310) 929-5211 in the U.S., or visit www.ranchosantana.com.
From San José, Transportes Deldú (2256-9072, Ca. 20, Av. 1) offers bus service to the border from 5 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, ₡5,000 ($10) one-way.