Nicaragua wasn’t anywhere I ever expected to visit, but the opportunity presented itself, and I traveled there a few months ago. Now, if I ever had the chance to return, I’d be on a plane in a flash and head back to Rancho Santana, a world-class resort and residential community located on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua. It boasts 2,700 acres of rolling hills and two miles of rocky and dramatic shoreline, broken up by five distinct beaches. I have told friends who like to travel—and especially those who like to eat well and ride horses in beautiful places—that Rancho Santana is a destination they would love.
From the minute I stepped off the plane, I was greeted by some of the happiest people and brightest smiles I’ve ever seen. The ride to the hotel took us on streets lined with small, colorful, tidy homes and an unfenced menagerie of horses, hens, and hogs calmly grazing along the road.
We passed bicycles and horses, loaded with multiple passengers and packages, going about their daily routines. There was no hurry here. As our driver waited patiently for cows and chickens to amble across the road, he welcomed me to his country and proudly listed places he hoped I would see and enjoy.
The drive to the resort winds through Rancho Santana’s farmland and leads to a beautiful stone complex that beckons you to enter and explore.
Greeted once again by welcoming smiles, I was escorted inside. The open-air spaces and huge common rooms instilled a sense of calm and comfort. Gardens and ocean views were a part of the decor; archways and high ceilings were adorned with iron fixtures forged in-house.
The entire facility serves as a gallery for local artisans to display their creations. Every staircase, nook, and cranny is decorated with vases, pots, sculptures, and paintings by local artists. The staff at a gallery off the lobby are eager to help with any questions about Nicaraguan arts and culture.
Rancho Santana succeeds in its goal of providing residents and guests with the services expected of world-class living while maintaining the peaceful and rustic appeal of the property. The ranch offers four types of accommodations: the main inn, ocean-view homes, garden-view casitas, and luxury villas. Properties are available for long- and short-term rental, or as investments.
I began my stay in the main inn. My room was spacious and comfortable, with a private, ocean-view terrace that was more like an outdoor living room than a balcony. A few days later, some friends came to join me from Connecticut and Panama, and we moved to one of the garden casitas. The private cottage, with a well-equipped kitchen, comfortable living room, bedrooms, and porch, was surrounded by beautiful flowering plants.
Guests can dine in their choice of four restaurants, or they can use the private-chef service. We found the food to be delicious and surprisingly inexpensive. Everything is prepared with fresh, local ingredients, most of which are grown on site. (A guided tour or walk through the huge vegetable and herb gardens is a must.) And of course, there is the freshest of fish, directly from the sea. Menus are varied and inviting, with a blending of unique Nicaraguan flavors. After I tasted the lemon-grass lobster soup at my first dinner, I had to have it again each night.
The house-made Burrata cheese is also not to be missed. It begins as mozzarella, which is prepared fresh daily using milk from their dairy cows. Then the cheese is molded and filled with a creamy stracciatella, or lightly shredded mozzarella and cream. Other homemade cheeses include cotija, creole, feta, and ricotta.
Rancho Santana’s signature drink, Hortelano, became our nightly treat. It is an infusion of silver tequila with fresh jalapeno peppers, muddled cucumber, cilantro, lime juice, and Cointreau. A great beginning to my days were classes in the beautiful open-air yoga studio. Even the walk to the studio, set high into a hill overlooking the ocean, was a treat. Other amenities include multiple pools and clubhouses, a surfing club, Pura Spa, and a kids club. In addition, there are 12 miles of marked trails to explore.
I enjoyed evening swims and sunsets in the company of hundreds of green parakeets, chasing and calling to each other in the tree tops.
Now, for the most important part of the trip for me! As an experienced rider, I have been spoiled by the high quality of horses and horsemanship I have been exposed to, and therefore I can be a bit of a critic. The riding program at Rancho Santana is exemplary. It is professionally run with carefully chosen, well-cared-for horses that are suitable for their jobs. They are a Nicaraguan breed called Iberoamericana, from a breeding program started in the early 1990s. Known as dancing horses, the well-trained Rancho Santana mounts are happy to show off their skills to Chichero music. The trainers at the ranch are extremely proud of these horses and take great care to give you the best equestrian experience suited to your level of riding. I found it interesting that the horses are a mixed herd of stallions and mares that coexist without issues.
I was treated to a variety of rides. My first outing was with the director of the program. As we rode, I learned how she had developed the stable to what it is today. She explained the selection of horses, customizing tack, and securing veterinary care.
We went for a leisurely stroll through the nearby village. While she waved to friends, she explained how horses were such an important part of the local culture.
When we got back to the barn, I was treated to a show by Nicaraguan father-and-son trainers. These horses truly do dance! Stepping high in place with beautiful balance and ease, they seem to enjoy the music and respond to the rhythms.
After lunch, I was back at the barn for a lesson. I was given patient instruction on how to ask the horses to do this dancing movement. It was not as easy as it looked, but I eventually got it—what a feeling!
The next evening I met the full team at the barn, and we set out for a sunset ride along a wooded path to the beach. From somewhere music began, and the horses were immediately alert. We danced our way down the shoreline. Our four white horses traveled in a row against the darkening sky, manes flowing, feet and breathing synchronized. It was a ride I will always remember.
My final excursion was a breakfast ride. This scenic trip took us through farm fields, along sand roads lined with tidy, simple homesteads, and to a beach. Then, a climb brought us to a hilltop restaurant with a beautiful cliff view of the many surfers in the waves below. After breakfast, we again climbed on the horses and set off at a faster pace back to the stables.
All week, I had been hearing about the upcoming Hipica horse festival. I felt the staff’s excitement mount as they bustled about preparing. Hipicas are huge parades with marching bands and festivities that take place in various cities each month around the country, held to bring international awareness of Nicaraguan horse culture.
Our trip to get to the parade was an experience. We traveled through busy towns with narrow streets, passed colorful markets and animals grazing roadside. Next we boarded a ferry across Lake Nicaragua towards two looming volcanoes on the island of Ometepe. From the top deck of the ferry we could look down on a large open truck with the horses standing side-by-side, looking out over the railing. An hour and a half later, we disembarked onto the small island and were welcomed by decorated streets and blaring music.
We joined the crowds lining the streets as group after group of horses passed by, along with trucks and trailers loaded with multi-piece bands. Music from all corners added to the excitement. There was a fun anticipation waiting for the Rancho Santana team to arrive. When they did, they clearly stood out from the crowd. Splendidly turned out in their matching deep-yellow outfits and coordinated tack, horses gleaming and in step, they proudly marched along.
I couldn’t help but feel a thrill as they went by, because I felt a connection to their home. That same connection has stayed with me since.
BETSY STEIN is a life-long rider, trainer, competitor, and equestrian professional with varied experience in in the hunter jumper, eventing, and therapeutic riding worlds.