I recently had the pleasure of staying at Calala Island, a private island resort located off the coast of Nicaragua. It turned out to be one of the most special travel experiences I’ve ever had.
In Part 1 of this in-depth review of Calala Island, I’ll talk about how I booked my stay, the process of getting to Calala Island, and the Junior Suite villa that we stayed in for three nights.
In Part 2, I’ll cover the rest of the resort experience, including the food and drink, activities, and facilities that you’ll find on the island.
Calala Island – Background
Calala Island operates as an “ultra-all-inclusive” luxury resort, offering a total of only four beachfront villas, each with an occupancy of two guests.
This means that a maximum of eight guests can stay on the island on any given night, which creates an unbelievably exclusive experience for the lucky few who are able to snag a booking on the island.
As part of the ultra-all-inclusive rate, all food and beverages (including most alcoholic beverages) are included in the stay, along with all activities while on the island and round-trip transfers from Managua, the capital of Nicaragua.
As you can imagine, a stay at Calala Island doesn’t come cheap. The paid nightly rate starts at US$2,350 per night in the low season and reaches as high as US$3,650 per night in the high season. Given the logistics of travelling to and from the island, the resort imposes a three-night minimum stay.
However, Calala Island is also member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, which has a marketing partnership in place with Hyatt Hotels & Resorts. World of Hyatt members can therefore redeem 40,000 Hyatt points per night for a highly aspirational stay at Calala Island.
Calala Island – Booking
Calala Island’s four beachfront suites are composed of one Master Suite and three Junior Suites. Two of the Junior Suites are made available for World of Hyatt members to book on points on any given night.
As you can imagine, World of Hyatt award availability is hotly contested at this property, and it’s very much recommended to book well in advance.
I used 120,000 Hyatt points to book my three-night stay at Calala Island about one and a half months prior to the stay. I’m fairly certain I had gotten lucky and stumbled into a three-night pocket of availability after someone else had cancelled.
Note that Calala Island has a fairly strict 90-day cancellation policy, and you’ll be charged the cost of the first night’s stay if you need to cancel within that 90-day window.
Immediately after booking, you’ll receive a welcome email from Mandy, the resort’s reservations manager, who will correspond with you via email to arrange all the details prior to your arrival. Mandy confirmed with me the PCR testing requirements for entering Nicaragua, as well as any dietary preferences and special requests that we had for our stay.
Mandy is also able to facilitate any date changes independently of your Hyatt reservation. Indeed, I had initially booked for November 6–9, but Mandy was able to change our dates to November 7–10 independently, given that the resort did indeed have World of Hyatt points availability on the night of the 9th.
Overall, I found the booking and pre-arrival experience to be seamless, if a little shrouded in mystery. Correspondence is only done via email, and the phone number in Mandy’s email signature went to voicemail every time I tried to call.
Calala Island – Location
Calala Island is a small 11-acre island that forms part of the Pearl Cays, sitting 4 km off the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua in the Caribbean Sea.
The island is only accessible via boat or helicopter, the latter of which can only be chartered out of Managua at an enormous expense.
Instead, you’ll most likely be taking advantage of the resort’s complimentary round-trip transfers, which includes a flight from Managua to the city of Bluefields, a taxi ride through Bluefields, and then a 90-minute boat ride to the island.
If you’re a guest at Calala Island, simply book your international flights into and out of Managua – the resort will take care of all the rest.
Calala Island – Getting There
Across more than 300 kilometres and three separate modes of transportation, the journey from Managua to Calala Island takes about four hours from start to finish.
The times of day at which you can make the journey are determined by the flight schedules of La Costeña Airlines, Nicaragua’s domestic airline. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, La Costeña currently only offers one daily service between Managua and Bluefields (and vice versa) in the mornings.
Consequently, the outbound and return journeys to Calala Island are also only offered once per day – in our case, leaving Managua at 5:30am and arriving at Calala at around 9:30am on the day of departure, with the return journey following a similar schedule.
During pre-COVID times, La Costeña also offered a second daily service on the Managua–Bluefields route closer to midday, meaning that Calala Island guests could choose from two times for both their departure and return journeys.
I’d certainly loved to have stayed on the island for longer during our last day and taken advantage of the midday flight, so I’d recommend planning your visit to Calala Island once La Costeña hopefully restores full services in the near future.
Anyway, given our early-morning departure from Managua, I planned our inbound flight from San Salvador to arrive at 10:30pm. We’d then stay at the Best Western Las Mercedes Airport, which is right across the road from Managua’s Augusto C. Sandino International Airport.
Calala Island’s Managua-based staff representative, Nestor, was on hand to greet us upon exiting the airport in the evening. He let us know to reconvene at the domestic terminal at 5:30am in the morning, and escorted us across the street to the Best Western.
(If we had booked a hotel in the city of Managua, Nestor would arrange a licensed taxi to bring us to the hotel. However, we felt it was simplest to stay at the Best Western across the street, since we only wanted to get a few hours of sleep anyway.)
Flight to Bluefields
At 5:15am the next morning, we checked out of the Best Western and went to meet Nestor at the airport’s domestic terminal. Rather hilariously, the hotel staff offered to drive us in the airport shuttle, even though it was immediately back across the street.
Managua’s domestic terminal is a small and dimly illuminated space, serving locals and tourists alike who are looking to get to other parts of the country – especially the more remote communities on the Atlantic coast which aren’t as well-connected by road.
Calala Island guests enjoy a VIP priority queue, and the La Costeña staff member inspected our documents and waved us through – no need for boarding passes or anything like that.
It’s worth noting that our bags were taken from us at this point, and we never had to worry about them from this point onwards, until we arrived at our villa on Calala Island.
There’s a small convenience store and cafe here in the waiting area. Jessy and I snacked on an express breakfast that the Best Western had prepared for us, running on very little sleep but fuelled by the excitement of the journey ahead.
After waiting for about an hour, the airport staff indicated that the plane was ready for boarding. The Calala-bound passengers (ourselves and another couple from the US) were given priority to walk across the tarmac and board the plane.
La Costeña’s domestic operations in Nicaragua are a little more flexible than what you’d typically expect from an airline. The daily flight to Bluefields is actually designed to serve an additional community, Corn Islands, as well.
Each day, depending on the number of passengers booked on each route, the flight can operate any of the following routes:
- Managua–Bluefields–Corn Islands–Managua
- Managua–Corn Islands–Bluefields–Managua
- Managua–Bluefields–Corn Islands–Bluefields–Managua
Furthermore, the actual aircraft tends to vary every day as well. On the outbound journey to Bluefields, we were in a 12-seater Cessna 208B Grand Caravan…
…whereas we took a larger ATR-42 on the return journey, boarding at Bluefields to join many other tourists who were coming back from the Corn Islands.
Jessy and I sat in Row 1 of the Cessna on the way out, getting a front-row view of the pilots in front of us, as well as the passing landscape to our sides. I was very much reminded of our seaplane journey en route to another incredible island resort experience in the Maldives last year!
The flight to Bluefields takes around one hour, and affords some spectacular views of Nicaragua’s claim to fame as “the land of lakes and volcanoes”, including Lake Nicaragua, the Mombacho Volcano, and even Ometepe Island far off into the distance.
We had planned a few days to explore Nicaragua after our Calala Island adventure, and I was already looking forward to that part of the trip.
For now, though, we were headed to the country’s less-travelled Caribbean coast. After dozing off for the second half of the one-hour flight, I watched with avid interest as our pilots made a smooth landing at Bluefields Airport.
Bluefields Airport to Puerto El Bluff
Bluefields is the capital of Nicaragua’s South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region. Compared to the more developed Pacific side of the country, Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast is much more lush and tropical, and its inhabitants mostly Creole of African descent rather than the predominant mestizo (i.e., mix of Spanish and indigenous ancestry).
Calala Island team member, Shorvin, greeted us at Bluefields Airport, his shirt soaking wet from the boat ride that brought him over here – a harbinger of things to come.
Shorvin let us know to use the bathroom here if we needed to, as we wouldn’t have many opportunities to do so on the journey ahead.
Shorvin also put us in touch with the Calala Island general manager, Claudia, over the phone, who let us know a little bit about what to expect from the boat ride ahead.
Now, even though I had known what we were getting into upon booking this stay, I had purposefully told Jessy to avoid researching Calala Island at all and keep things as much of a surprise as possible. In hindsight, I’m glad that Claudia gave Jessy a heads-up about what to expect, as I don’t think Jessy would’ve been a very happy boat passenger otherwise. 😉
Once we wrapped up our phone call with Claudia, Shorvin ushered us into a local taxi, bound for Puerto El Bluff, the local pier.
It felt as though we were in a bit of a hurry, which may have had to do with the predicted weather patterns on the open ocean that day – although I certainly didn’t mind getting to the island as quickly as possible!
As our taxi zipped through the narrow and fairly dilapidated streets of Bluefields, it was clear that this part of Nicaragua was very much lagging behind in terms of development.
The scene at Puerto El Bluff was similarly chaotic. Shorvin guided us expertly through the crowd and to our Calala-bound motorboat.
Boat Transfer to Calala Island
When staying at Calala Island, getting there is half the fun – at least if you’re a thrill-seeker like me. The 90-minute speedboat journey from Bluefields is very much unlike anything else you’ll encounter in other parts of the world.
First up, the boat makes its way through the surrounding lagoon…
…before navigating through the lush mangroves along the coastline – which serve as key waterways that connect several small communities by boat in this part of the country – for about an hour.
The open-air boat travels at top speed, cutting through the mirror-like surface of the water. It’s quite the unusual experience, as you watch the water fly by on both sides with a strong gust of wind blowing in your face the whole time.
Eventually, the boat makes its way to Pearl Lagoon, the closest major community to Calala Island. From here, it’s about another 15-minute ride to Calala, but it’s an opportunity to step off and use the restroom if you need to.
Immediately after Pearl Lagoon, we pulled up at a Nicaraguan Navy checkpoint, which was no more than a single dock on the shoreline with a few young officers stationed there. The lead officer spoke to Shorvin for a bit, glanced at the passengers, and waved us through into Nicaragua’s territorial waters without detecting anything suspicious.
From there, it was time for the real adventure: the last 4 km stretch of open ocean to reach Calala Island.
We happened to arrive on an exceptionally stormy day, so we were in for an extremely bumpy ride!
Our boat captain expertly navigated through the windswept waves. We’d fly through the air, crash into the ocean with a loud bang, get splashed all over by the water, before doing it all again and again as we inched our way towards the promised land in the distance.
I must admit, even as someone who was relishing this part of the journey, I was ready for it to end by the time we pulled into the lagoon. Next to me, Jessy had her hood over her head the whole time, her eyes slammed shut in fear.
Arriving into Calala Island is not for the faint-hearted. You’ve really got to earn the wonderful private island experience that lies ahead!
Calala Island – Check-in
As the boat pulled into the main jetty, we were greeted by a couple of songsters, along with our hosts and the resort’s general managers, Claudia and Leon.
As Shorvin and the rest of the staff members brought our luggage over to our villa, Claudia and Leon brought us over to the island’s main pavilion to complete our welcome formalities (in addition to offering us some towels to dry off from the ocean!)
We sat down with some delicious coconut chips to snack on, along with welcome drinks of our choosing. Since it was a bit early to get started with cocktails, we asked for some coffee and coconuts to sip on as Claudia walked us through everything we needed to know during our three-night stay.
After letting us know how the meals and activities would work, warning us about bug bites, and reminding us to keep our eyes peeled for unique wildlife (including the endangered hawksbill turtle and the island’s two resident sloths), Claudia and Leon brought us over to our Junior Suite to settle in.
Calala Island – Junior Suite
Calala Island’s four beachfront villas (or “cabanas”, as they like to call them) are named Awas, Kakabila, Lafe, and Orinoco, respectively. We were assigned Suite 2: Kakabila.
The four villas are spaced out evenly along the southwestern corner of the island. Each villa has a front door facing the ocean and a back door facing inland, and guests are asked not to walk across the front of other villas so as to ensure privacy for everyone.
The Junior Suites are marketed with a square footage of 47 square metres, so they aren’t necessarily the largest rooms compared to other resorts out there. They’re constructed with glass walls and thatched roofs, combining the rustic vibes of island life with plenty of modern touches throughout.
Let’s begin with a tour through the interior of the Junior Suite. The suite consists of a bedroom and a bathroom, connected to each other in an open-air style.
The king-sized bed is covered with a net, although it’s not to keep mosquitoes out. Calala Island (thankfully) doesn’t have mosquitoes, although it does have sandflies or “no-see-ums”, which do bite, but are too small to be kept out by the net. Instead, the net serves to protect you from any bits and pieces from the thatched roof that might fall down from time to time.
The bed is definitely on the harder side, which I didn’t find to be a problem, but it might not be the most comfortable if you prefer softer sleeping surfaces. On the plus side, the ocean views from the comfort of our bed were simply unbeatable.
Around the back of the king bed, you’ll find some storage cabinets to keep your belongings. Then, a small bench sits to the side of the bedroom, serving as a divider to the bathroom area.
The bathroom consists of a counter with double sinks. This is also where you’ll find the complimentary bug spray and anti-itching creams, in case the no-see-ums take a particular liking to you (as they did with me).
The toilet is housed in a separate chamber. One of my complaints about the room was that the toilet didn’t flush very well. Indeed, it would often take two or three tries to properly flush the toilet – especially after some of the gargantuan meals that they feed you here at Calala Island. 😉
A major highlight of the Junior Suite is the outdoor shower, which is just so much fun! It’s fully enclosed with straw thatching, but exposed to the outdoors, and the water simply flows down into the sand below.
What’s more, the water is piping-hot with superb water pressure, so it makes for an all-round excellent shower experience – one that I enjoyed so much, I ended up taking about three showers per day in-between spending time on the beach, dipping in the ocean, and going for meals and drinks.
Heading out onto the front deck, then, let’s take a look at the outdoor facilities that complete the Junior Suite.
There’s an outdoor table with two chairs, which was the perfect place to sip on some Nicaraguan dark roast in the mornings or a cocktail in the afternoons.
Stepping down onto the sand, there’s two recliners for soaking in the sunshine, and then what we found to be the single-best place to relax on the property: a casita with a giant, sturdy hammock that can comfortably fit two.
Whether it was curling up with a good book, watching the sunset, or simply sneaking in afternoon nap, our hammock was our happy place.
Lastly, our Junior Suite in particular also had direct access to a small stretch of beach in front of us. The other villas mostly have a rocky seawall in front of them, so I had specifically requested Kakabila with its direct beach access.
It was awesome to be able to frolic in the ocean merely steps away from our front porch, before retreating to the hammock with a drink in hand.
In Part 1 of the review, we’ve covered the arrival experience and the beachfront villas at Calala Island – which is by no means an easy place to reach.
While the boat ride from Bluefields was something that I personally relished as an adrenaline junkie, you’ll probably feel less enthusiastic about it if you prefer a more serene start to your island getaway.
As for the living quarters, the villas at Calala Island make for a very cozy beachfront home during your time on the island – but I dare say that they aren’t necessarily the highlight of the resort. Indeed, you’ll likely find larger, fancier villas with more spruced-up interiors at other resorts around the world.
Instead, it’s very much the sheer exclusivity of the four villas on the island, combined with the magical curated experience across the food and drink, activities, and wonderful service, that sets apart Calala Island as one of my all-time-best travel experiences and a truly extraordinary use of your hotel rewards points.
We’ll be covering all of that, and more, in Part 2 of the review. Stay tuned.