2021 is turning out to be a relatively quiet travel year for me, mostly due to the small matter of the ongoing global pandemic.
Indeed, I’ve limited myself to nearby domestic and US getaways ever since returning from a few months in China back in the spring and summer.
Needless to say, I’ve worked up quite an appetite to sneak in a few international adventures before the end of the year, and I’m very excited to be heading down to Nicaragua for the upcoming week.
Inspiration for this trip only struck relatively recently, when my partner Jessy learned that had a week’s worth of vacation days that had to be taken before the end of the year.
We paired up those vacation days with the Remembrance Day holiday, resulting in the chance to embark on a week-long getaway in early November.
From there, we had to decide where we wanted to go. While I had taken a few international trips to Dubai, China, and the US since the start of the pandemic, this would be Jessy’s first time leaving Canada since we returned from the Maldives in early March 2020 – so I did want to make the trip stand out in some way.
I toyed with the possibility of heading to Bora Bora, but it proved too difficult to get some aspirational flight and hotel redemptions to line up – which tends to be the case for Bora Bora, unless you’re booking almost one year in advance.
For a while, I had booked ourselves a Qatar Airways Qsuites flight to the island of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean, but we eventually felt that it’s the type of place better suited to a longer trip instead of a quick one-week affair, especially given the longer travel times involved.
Upon searching closer to home, then, I eventually set my sights on Calala Island, a Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH) resort that can be booked using World of Hyatt points, situated off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.
Calala Island is a tiny island no more than 11 acres in size. It’s a private island resort with only four guest suites, meaning that there are no more than eight guests at the resort at any given time.
The resort books stays on an ultra-all-inclusive basis, so there’s unlimited food, drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), and activities are included in the stay.
It’s very much been on my bucket list in terms of aspirational points redemptions, and for Jessy’s first international trip in 20 months’ time, it surely would not disappoint.
The rest of our trip was planned around our three nights in Calala Island. Those familiar with Nicaragua have advised me to avoid spending too much time in the capital of Managua, as there’s much more interesting places in “the land of lakes and volcanoes” to visit.
We’ll spend one day exploring the city of Grenada, followed by another two days over in León, where we’ve booked a volcano-boarding tour to hike up the nearby Cerro Negro volcano and descend its slopes snowboard-style.
Despite Nicaragua’s relative proximity in Central America, it was surprisingly challenging to arrange a sensible flight itinerary en route from Vancouver and back. That’s because flight restrictions going into Nicaragua remain in place, and only a handful of airlines are currently offering inbound flights.
My first instinct was to book a flight into Managua with Avianca or Copa Airlines using Aeroplan points, perhaps with some Air Canada or United flights as part of the start of the journey. However, because of the ongoing flight restrictions, award availability was severely limited, so I ended up finding it more optimal to search for cash fares.
Alas, those weren’t cheap either, again due to the relatively closed-off nature of the Central American nation in comparison to its neighbours. While paid tickets into Costa Rica or El Salvador are cheap and plentiful these days, setting Managua as the destination instantly ratchets up the fare by a few multiples.
I had to get a bit creative on both the inbound and outbound direction, playing around with different combinations of fares out of and into various US gateway cities (which were much cheaper than originating or terminating in Vancouver), combined with an Aeroplan booking on Air Canada to/from Vancouver.
In the end, I found an outbound cash fare with Avianca that priced at around $220 (CAD) in economy class from Los Angeles to San Salvador to Managua, followed by a return cash fare with Aeromexico that priced at around $600 (CAD) in business class from Managua to Mexico City to San Francisco.
(While the latter was more expensive than I would’ve liked to pay, we’d at least be treated to a nicer experience in business class – and the economy fare was actually even more expensive on this particular fare construction!)
The itinerary also gives us some long layovers to explore San Salvador and Mexico City, the latter of which I had already enjoyed a very fulsome 24-hour layover a few years ago. That adds a few extra dimensions to our trip, between the Mayan ruins of Joya de Cerén in El Salvador and digging into some fine dining in CDMX.
Finally, to get to Los Angeles and back from San Francisco, my goal was to redeem Aeroplan points for Latitude Economy fares and applied my eUpgrades to upgrade into business class.
The standard business class pricing was far too dynamically high, and plus, I needed to get my eUpgrade balance down to 50 so that I could roll them over into next year with my premium Aeroplan credit card.
The flight down to Los Angeles has cleared into business class successfully, whereas with San Francisco–Vancouver, I’m hoping for eUpgrade “R” space to open up – and I also have a Standard Economy fare booked as a backup just in case.
Our overall itinerary looks as follows:
- Vancouver to Los Angeles, Air Canada business class, departing 7:50pm and arriving 10:43pm
- Los Angeles to San Salvador, Avianca business class (bid upgrade for US$100 each), departing 12:50am and arriving 6:45am
- San Salvador to Managua, Avianca economy class, departing 9:30pm and arriving 10:25pm
- Managua to Mexico City, Aeromexico business class, departing 12:35pm and arriving 3:30pm
- Mexico City to San Francisco, Aeromexico business class, departing 9am and arriving 12pm
- San Francisco to Vancouver, Air Canada economy/business class, departing 4:50pm and arriving 7:13pm
Calala Island, part of Hyatt’s SLH portfolio, is naturally the focus of this trip. As a Category 8 property within World of Hyatt, a free night redemption requires 40,000 World of Hyatt points.
That may sound like a lot, but you’ll quickly see why it’s a valuable redemption when you look at paid rates at this resort.
Furthermore, due to the special nature of this resort, a three-night minimum stay is required, so I redeemed a total of 120,000 World of Hyatt points for this stay.
I actually didn’t have enough Hyatt points to cover the full stay, because I’ve already been redeeming a fair chunk of Chase Ultimate Rewards and World of Hyatt points for Hyatt stays recently. But this is where the magic of buying points comes into play.
Since Hyatt was running a 30% bonus promotion on purchased points through the end of October, I was able to spend a few hundred dollars and top-up my account to have enough points for this redemption – which would’ve otherwise cost me thousands of dollars out-of-pocket if I were to pay cash.
As you can imagine, it’s quite rare to find World of Hyatt points availability at this resort, given that there are only a total of four suites on the island (a Master Suite and three Junior Suites), and only two of the Junior Suites are available to book on points.
Therefore, I consider myself extremely lucky to have snagged a three-night window of award availability during the exact week that we could make the trip. Someone must have cancelled their reservation or something, because otherwise it’s quite tough (but by no means impossible) to find points availability on this tiny speck just off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast.
Compared to Calala Island, the accommodations on the rest of the trip certainly pale in comparison.
We’ll be staying at the Best Western Las Mercedes Airport in Managua on the night we arrive, as our departure to Calala Island by way of a pre-booked domestic flight takes place at the early hour of 5:30am, so we figured we’d stay close to the airport rather than heading into town just to sleep.
I redeemed 20,000 Best Western Rewards points for this stay, because I still have a pile of Best Western points sitting around from when I had held the MBNA Best Western Rewards Mastercard many years ago, and didn’t have any plans to burn them otherwise. Let’s see if this hotel remembers to deduct the points, because not all Best Western properties do. 😉
Meanwhile, the Nicaraguan cities of Granada and León do not have a single major chain hotel to their name, so it’s very much the type of place to go for an Airbnb booking or a local hotel through Hotels.com.
I’ve locked in a few of those bookings, and will cover them when it comes time to share the stories and memories from this trip.
Finally, I’ve booked the St. Regis Mexico City for our quick overnight stay in Mexico, as it’s a property I’ve been meaning to check out for a long time and situated close to the action in the city. Redeeming Bonvoy points for this Category 7 property wasn’t worth it compared to the cash rate of US$244.
Testing and Proof of Vaccination
Finally, as is customary these days, a few quick words about the entry requirements for the various countries on this trip, and how we’ll be dealing with them:
- Nicaragua requires a PCR test taken within 72 hours of landing in Nicaragua; furthermore, Avianca requires passengers to send the PCR test results by email no less than 36 hours before that time. As you can imagine, this doesn’t leave a lot of room for error, so we’ve completed our PCR tests at A+ Travel Tests here in Vancouver, which should give us just enough time.
- El Salvador requires either proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test to enter, so we’ll be well-equipped with both, having downloaded our Canada COVID-19 Proofs of Vaccination through the BC Health Portal.
- Mexico only conducts a health screening for entry, with neither a negative test nor proof of vaccination required.
- The United States requires at least an antigen test taken within 72 hours of entry, which our PCR tests would satisfy. As of November 8, the US will also require proof of vaccination to enter the country, so we’ll need to present those during our return journey the following weekend.
I’m beyond thrilled to be checking out Calala Island, one of my bucket-list hotel redemptions and an outstanding use of World of Hyatt points.
I’m so curious to see what it’ll be like to spend three nights on a private island in the ocean with at most three other sets of guests, being looked after by a team of 25+ staff members and having all of our dining, drinking, and daily activities taken care of. It promises to be a different kind of luxury experience to, say, the overwater villas of the Maldives, though I’m sure it’ll be no less memorable.
Beyond the focal point of the trip in Calala Island, I’m also eager to discover what the country of Nicaragua has to offer, as it’s a place I hadn’t previously given too much thought to. I look forward to sharing with you all of the highlights from sun-soaking, island-hopping, and volcano-boarding on this trip!