Nicaragua’s Rancho Santana strikes the perfect balance between delivering laid-back luxury and staying true to its traditional ranch-style setting, with large swaths of untouched land as the centerpiece. This is reflected in the main inn’s Spanish-inspired architecture, which blends perfectly with the landscape.
The ranch sits on 2,700 acres of rolling hills and two miles of rocky, dramatic shoreline, with five private, unspoiled beaches — each with different scenery and surf. The property strictly abides by its philosophy of limited development, which creates a peaceful atmosphere. Nicaragua is fast becoming known as a hot spot for adventure travel, but at Rancho Santana, families can be as active or as relaxed as they choose.
Family-Friendly Review of Rancho Santana
Rancho Santana has a variety of accommodation options for families. The Inn, which opened less than a year ago, has 10 rooms and seven suites. Many privately owned homes are available for rent and can be booked through central reservations; in addition, 24 condos and 21 new villas were under construction during our visit. The most affordable and modest option is the two-bedroom casitas with garden views.
We stayed for two nights in a pied-à-terre (suite) at the Inn and our kids had their own room, connected by a vestibule. The pied-à-terre units have sleeper sofas that can fit two kids, but it is nice to have the additional space and privacy of a second room. Rancho Santana has two sets of rooms that connect.
Our suite had a roomy private terrace with wraparound ocean views and decor with a blend of rustic charm and luxury. The custom woodwork and furnishings in the accommodations are made by the millwork shop at Rancho Santana, which employs many of the locals. The large bathroom had beautiful tile handpainted by local artisans.
We also stayed in a private home called Villa Escondida for three nights of pure bliss. Built into a cliff with 260 steps down to the beach (yes, I counted them as I ran up and down every morning for exercise), the villa had an infinity pool with jaw-dropping views of Playa Escondida, also known as Hidden Beach.
The private homes are quite remote, so a car is necessary. The staff can arrange to have a rental car delivered to the ranch; SUVs are ideal because of the dirt roads.
La Finca y el Mar, the farm-to-table fine dining venue at the Inn, features items from the onsite organic garden. Rancho Santana’s goal is to become 100 percent self-sustaining — they have their own chickens and pigs. One of our favorite dishes was the Gallopinto, a traditional Nicaraguan breakfast with scrambled eggs, beans and a local cheese similar to feta.
El Café is the casual dining option at the Inn, serving breakfast, lunch and snacks. My kids loved the betidos (smoothies), which were named after the various surf breaks in the area. In addition, the Taqueria at Los Perros beach served some of the best tacos we’ve ever had. The squid is a must-try, along with a local Tona beer — at $2 a bottle, it’s quite the bargain.
Rancho Santana’s in-home dining is wonderful, and we scheduled a taco fiesta at our villa one evening. It was part cooking class, as my daughters thoroughly enjoyed helping Chef Faviola make tortillas from scratch. Not only was the dinner delicious, it was quite reasonably priced too.
TIP: The closest grocery store is 45 minutes away, so it’s best to request a provisions list from the reservations team to have your home stocked prior to arrival, or stop in Rivas at the grocery store as you drive in from the airport. There is a very small market (La Tienda) on property, but options are limited.
Amenities and Activities
I strongly recommend that guests take a driving tour of the property with Alberto, head of guest experiences, to get oriented. It takes about 45 minutes and covers all five beaches along with their unique attributes — for example, Playa Rosada is known as the pink beach because at sunset the white sand turns pink.
Costa Esmeralda (Emerald Coast) has world-class surf conditions nearly every day of the year. The excellent conditions and experienced surf staff at Rancho Santana make for the perfect first surfing lesson; you’ll soon see why everyone wants to “surf Nica.” If surfing is not your thing, there are also paddleboard lessons, kayaking and yoga.
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A guided nature hike with Teo, the resident naturalist, is a great way to start the day and learn about the natural fauna and wildlife. Families can have a bocce ball or horseshoe competition at the Inn while enjoying the beautiful view of Playa Santana, then take a break from the sun to play billiards.
Horseback riding is a great way to experience the varied landscapes and beauty of Nicaragua’s southern Pacific coast. The stables at Rancho Santana offer different types of rides depending on guests’ experience level and interests.
We did the diversity tour, which took us on trails through the forest, on a dirt road through the village and then onto the beach. This 90-minute ride gave us a good overview and was the perfect amount of time for the kids (but bring bug spray and sunscreen). At the end of our ride, our guides demonstrated their horses doing dressage to chicheros music — what a treat!
A day trip to Granada, the oldest Spanish colonial town in Nicaragua, is a great cultural experience. It was so interesting to watch my kids observe how the way of life and conditions in Nicaragua contrast with our lives in the United States. The Guest Services team can arrange for a driver or stop for lunch in Granada en route to the ranch on the day of arrival; the Garden Cafe is a lovely spot for lunch with a wonderful courtyard.
You can also take an outing to nearby Ometepe Island, a full-day trip that leaves at 6 a.m. to drive to the ferry. Once on the island, activities include hiking the volcano and visiting a coffee plantation.
The reservations team is based in the States and is extremely helpful with the logistics. Guests can fly into Managua and either take a connecting flight to the new Costa Esmeralda airport (which is 10 minutes from the resort) or have the reservations team arrange a car transfer to the ranch. The two-hour drive from Managua is part cultural experience and part adventure, as a good portion of it is on a dirt road. Self-driving is not advised.
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Editor’s Note: Sandy was provided a media rate to review the property for Ciao Bambino. As always, our opinions are our own. Photos by Sandy Pappas.