Finding family-friendly adventure in Nicaragua

Photos by Michael Mundt

A sunset stroll along the private beach at Morgan's Rock. Photo by Gary Mundt

A sunset stroll along the private beach at Morgan's Rock. Photo by Gary Mundt

     In the decade we’ve traveled together, my husband and I have prided ourselves in making each trip different from the last, never staying in one place for more than a couple of days, and jam-packing our itinerary with new adventures and sites.

     But for our first trip with our 9-month-old son, we knew we needed to visit a familiar place, one that was family friendly yet still offered enough activity that we wouldn’t miss the adventuresome sojourns of our pre-baby days. Morgan’s Rock in Nicaragua was precisely that place.

     We first ventured to Morgan’s Rock Hacienda and Ecolodge, located on the country’s southern Pacific Coast near the now-popular fishing village San Juan del Sur, in January 2006. Our friends and family thought we were crazy to visit Nicaragua at all, let alone while I was 6 months pregnant.

     For starters, the civil war has been over for more than 15 years, and the country is considered to be among the safest countries in Latin America for travelers. Plus, if those skeptics had seen the exclusive white-sand beach from one of the lodge’s 15 luxurious, cliff-hugging bungalows; eaten the culinary delights created primarily with ingredients grown or raised on the hacienda; or trekked through the tropical dry forest in search of howler monkeys, sloths or birds, they’d understand why we couldn’t wait to return with our son.

     “Wow, you’re ambitious,” said San Franciscan Alyson Sinclair when she saw us arrive our first night for dinner in the community dining area with Brody. She and husband David Lazerwitz visited for a week with their 20-month-old daughter, Talia, so I understood her comment.

     Without question, Morgan’s Rock welcomes children, but it certainly was not designed for babies or toddlers. (The lodge’s site recommends children 6 years or older.) There are no stroller-friendly trails or ramps, so a carrier or backpack is a must-have item for young kids.

    And the walk to your bungalow is a challenge for even the fittest adult, with or without children. It includes a steep climb up a dirt path toward the stunning, 350-foot suspension bridge, which leads you to even an even steeper climb to your room. (A beach-access trail also leads to the bungalows if you want to avoid the bridge, but it’s even more of a climb.) Any parent will learn quickly that forgetting something for your child, like bug spray (as I had one afternoon while trying to hike by myself with Brody), means an exhausting 20-minute retrieval process.

     Nonetheless, the staff went out of their way to accommodate both Brody and Talia. They brought a crib to our bungalow when we arrived, and high chairs were available in the dining area. And without prompting, the kitchen staff created a delicious vegetable-soup concoction each night at dinner for Brody. They also arranged a special trip to pick up pasteurized milk and yogurt for Talia and even offered to watch her briefly so her parents could go horseback riding together. 

     “They’ve been great about taking care of Talia, unsolicited,” Lazerwitz says. Morgan’s Rock combines all he and his wife wanted in a family vacation—beach access, guided tours and endless outdoor activities, plus a little R&R—all in one place.

     “You have to like the outdoors,” Lazerwitz says. “For the right person, it’s great.”

     And for the right family, one that can live without television sets, videogames and cell phones—and with access to only one reception-area computer that offers painfully-slow-as-molasses Internet access—it’s ideal. Kids will be thrilled to spend the day body surfing at the secluded beach while parents either join in or laze in one of the beachfront cabanas. Or if the ocean is too daunting for your little one, as it was for ours, the infinity pool—complete with a small but adequate stash of pool toys—was a great alternative for keeping our son entertained and us relaxed.

     For a more active group, there are numerous ways to explore the lodge’s surroundings, on foot or via mountain bike, both guided or unguided. We enjoyed several hikes during both trips to Morgan’s Rock, including one that followed a well-marked trail through the nature preserve and offered several howler monkey and exotic butterfly sightings, as well as glimpses of the estuary and organic shrimp farm. (Our little hiker slept in the backpack.) Another led us to nearby Playa Blanca for glimpses of blue-green water and a change of scenery.

     There are also several guided tours that will appeal to kids, such as a 90-minute night hike through the nature preserve—sightings included a tarantula, a scorpion, and many sets of beady little eyes staring unnervingly back at us—that ended with an explosive display of stars at the beach.

     And parents, in particular, will love the lessons their children learn on tours like Breakfast at the Hacienda, which I enjoyed one morning by myself while my husband and in-laws watched Brody. We milked the cows, gathered eggs from the hen house and patted our own tortilla from ground corn.

     Truth be told, the dairy farmer’s wife did most of the work in creating our breakfast of scrambled eggs, beans, gallo pinto, pico de gallo and coffee. But it was a good reminder that, as the Web site states, “food doesn’t grow in supermarkets.” The tour ended with a trip to the Butterfly Farm, where I saw my favorite: the dazzling Blue Morpho.

     For the budding conservationist, there’s the Magic of Reforestation tour. In addition to lodge’s tree-farming endeavors—in which more than 1.5 million tropical hardwood trees have been added to enable sustainable logging practices—more than 100,000 native hardwood trees have also been planted to aid reforestation efforts. Guests can contribute to that by planting a tree in honor of self or a loved one; two Savanna Oak trees now grow there in Brody’s honor.

     And if you’re really lucky, your children may get to see a female sea turtle as she labors to lay eggs on the beach, as we did one night after dinner. The lodge staff scans the beach each night during the egg-laying season, typically August through January, to keep track of nests and prevent poaching. With filter-covered flashlights in hand, we felt privileged to witness such a rare event.

      There are many lessons for children at Morgan’s Rock. But some of the most important ones are those we adults can learn ourselves. For us, that meant learning to just sit and enjoy the view, something we never did before Brody.  It also taught us that you don’t trade adventure for predictability once you have a family. On the contrary, where there are children, there’s bound to be adventure.