by Brooke Berlin
“What is the most perfect gift I can give my husband for his 50th Birthday?” That was the question I kept asking myself leading up to the Big-0 celebration. Even before the time of social distancing, I knew it was quality time together with our best friends because in a world where so many of us feel we are on a treadmill that is set on the “sprint” speed, I wanted to give the gift of time slowed down, of time spent in deep conversation with no end to musings, of time for play like when we were kids with no cares in the world. And knowing him, it also needed to be an adventure somewhere in nature where we were doing good for ourselves, and others … and that is exactly why we chose Jicaro Island, Nicaragua.
An intimate private island with only nine casitas, my original hope was to book out the entire island and fill it with all our besties. We started the planning process, and realized that getting there was a little difficult as flights from the US and Canada weren’t as easy or cheap as we assumed (but once there the experience was seamless and affordable!). When I asked the Jicaro Island team about this, they explained that because of the politics between the US and Nicaragua, and travel warnings that turned off many travelers, “airlift to Nicaragua is only 30% what is was two years ago, but we are working on bringing it back.” So in the end, we took four casitas instead of nine, and after only a few days at Jicaro Island, we all knew we would be back … and would work twice as hard to get all of our friends to join us! And, some of those friends who chose not to come because of said travel warnings, followed us on social, saw our photos, called to hear about our experiences, and were already expressing regret long before we even departed Jicaro. Next time!
We eventually arrived in the town of Granada, on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, for our boat transfer to Jicaro Island. The team was welcoming, warm, and wonderful! We cruised along the clean blue waters of Lake Nicaragua, past the tiniest of islands (more like braggartly rock piles) and past the most developed of islands (one had a “water park” built upon it, which we definitely wouldn’t be visiting ourselves as this was an adults-only trip, though we were to find out quickly that Jicaro Island itself is like an “adult summer camp” anyway). Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America, containing freshwater and more than 400 volcanic islands, and so we really didn’t know what to expect, however after about 15 minutes of motoring, we pulled up to the dock at Jicaro, were met with broad smiles, hands-on hearts, and welcome drinks made from local ingredients … we instantly felt at home.
So often when we travel, we feel less healthy; we’re indulging and imbibing more than at home, with more rich foods and less routine exercise. However, that was not the case at all on Jicaro Island. Our travel team gathered every morning for an hour of yoga on the deck; practicing tree pose under the swaying trees above us, savoring Shavasana with the sounds of the waters surrounding us. Every day we took out the kayaks, used the SUPs, and swam (in the lake and in the pool), and took turns getting massages and other spa treatments. Meals were deliciously divine, with perfect portions, local and organic ingredients, and tailored to our dietary and inquisitive needs: fresh fruit, green juices, creative salads, daily-caught fish, local meats, and more. We were always happily satiated and then took whatever iteration of a siesta we needed: reading by the pool, swaying in our private hammocks, waiting for sunset at the top of the water tower (we climbed up there again on the night of the full moon, which was spectacular!).
Each meal seemed to last a lifetime as we chatted away with the time to go into deeply reflective conservations about a wider variety of topics than a quick WhatsApp text or check-in normally allows back home. We all agreed that while some of us have known each other more than 20 years, this was one of the first times in years that we laid a new foundation to our friendship. Some mornings we would have Ibby, our yoga instructor, join us for breakfast to hear about his journey and what brought him here; one afternoon we had Howard, Jicaro Island’s manager, join us for lunch so we could learn more about the sustainable initiatives they have implemented to support the local environment and community. Just from being on the island and in our casitas we could see that the property was built sustainably, around trees instead of cutting them down, with solar power and no plastics, with organic and biodegradable products, fans instead of air-conditioning … you get the idea. What we wanted to learn more about were the community projects from education (the Padre Nello School) to outreach (teaching and training the local fisherman about best practices) to employment (during the worst of the tourism downturn a few years ago, the owner decided to mothball the property for six months while still paying the salaries of the employees!!!). And while that was important then, it really hits home now.
The Jicaro Island website states: “Hiring of local staff is essential to the success of the lodge. We want to spread the potential wealth that tourism brings to Nicaragua by hiring locals as employees, subcontracting services locally, and buying and producing locally.” The travel and tourism industry employs 330 million people – that’s 1 in 10 people in the world! – and the ripple effect of a tourism downturn, like the one we’re in now can be devastating. It isn’t just a matter of a property’s staff … everything from agriculture (no guests to feed, no need to buy any local products) to manufacturing (furniture, linens, water toys, spa and bath amenities) to retail and more all suffers. We took a day trip into Granada to explore the old town and were very surprised by the lack of stores. Everyone loves a little souvenir from a great trip, and we wanted to find a locally-owned store with traditional handicrafts if possible. Not only were there no “big name brand stores” there were very few one-of-a-kind local stores either. We finally stumbled across Soy Nica. The front was the retail space and in the back we could see the workshop where people were hand-making the beautiful leather accessories from Nicaraguan free range cow hides and pig skin. I went to ask the cashier for recommendations for other store like Soy Nica, and found out he is the founder and owner, and that none of the other local stores survived the last round of tourism fall out. The other business all closed up with no one visiting or buying, and he was just lucky to have held on. I wonder now how they are doing with the full-on stop of international travel.
So full disclosure now, I work in the travel industry myself, which is how I came to learn of Jicaro Island. My company, Karoo Consulting, represents properties in Africa, one of which, Tswalu Kalahari, is affiliated with the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, of which so is Jicaro Island. When I decided to ask our friends to join us at Jicaro Island for my husband’s birthday week, and started planning with Hans, the co-founder of the Cayuga Collection, of which Jicaro Island is also apart, I received an email from Hans that has lasted with me until today, and will long into the future. I believe every travel experience should start with this feeling of knowing that the choices made are making a positive, lasting impact, or as Hans says: sustaining a destination. “We are so thankful to you, Johann and your friends for coming to Nicaragua. You are making a huge contribution to Nicaragua’s recovery and keeping Jicaro ‘alive’. This is much more than just a 50th Birthday, it is really sustaining a destination. Thanks again.”
In a world where many destinations are over-touristed and others under-appreciated, Hans’ email hit home. At a time when everyone is at home, hopefully thinking of when and where they’ll travel next, I’m sure they’re asking themselves the same question I am: “where will I feel safe to go?” A place like Jicaro, a private island with only nine casitas, will be high on my list. A place that is easy to completely take over with just our family and friends, yes please! A place that puts its money where its mouth is to turn profits into a way of supporting communities and conservation, that puts me into pristine nature, and can heal both the Earth and my soul at the same time … definitely!
Our last night on Jicaro Island was the grand finale for sure. I don’t know how they did it, but the team created a 50th Birthday Bash beyond our dreams: from balloons and lights to flowers and other decorations, a heavenly gluten-free cake (because I have Celiac) that every one of our friends went back for seconds of, and a celebratory song from the entire team. We are purposefully and consciously non-consumers … instead our gifts to each other and to our friends will always be experiences, creating memories that things just can’t compare with, and hopefully, one day again soon, including travel to international destinations that benefit from sustainable eco-tourism, and where we are able to share in the wonders of the world’s rich cultures. Even today, our friends are still reminiscing of our time on Jicaro Island and looking forward to returning. There are mountains we didn’t climb, forests we didn’t visit, and parts of the lake we didn’t explore … because we just couldn’t bring ourselves to leave the serene oasis that is Jicaro Island … but now we just know to stay longer so we get the best of everyone on and off the island!
Photo Credit: Jordan Lewin. Muchas gracias.