How To Get To Calala Island (Brace Yourself)

Filed Under: Hotel Reviews, Travel

It’s time to review my recent stay at Calala Island, though I first want to write a separate installment about getting to Calala Island. Why?

Because as Ford described it to me while we were on our way there, “this is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever voluntarily put myself through.” Below is what that sentiment looks like in a facial expression…

“Really?”

I actually don’t disagree with Ford, at least as far as hotel transfers go. This makes getting to a secluded resort in the Maldives seem easy, by comparison.

What Is Calala Island?

When I mention “Calala Island,” I’m guessing some regular readers will immediately know what I’m talking about, while everyone else will be saying “eh?” Calala Island is a private island on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua (or the “NiCaribbean,” as the hotel calls it).

Calala Island was turned into a luxury resort with just four rooms, with nightly rates of $2,800 per room. The reason this suddenly became relevant in our world was because Calala Island belongs to Small Luxury Hotels of the World, and they have a partnership with Hyatt.

You can redeem 40,000 World of Hyatt points per night for a stay here, which is pretty incredible, especially when you consider that the resort is all inclusive, so it includes food, drinks, transfers, etc.

Arranging Transfers To Calala Island

Prior to our stay Mandy was in touch with us, who is in charge of the pre-stay experience for guests. We were staying March 7-10, 2020, and for our dates we were advised of two options for our transfers:

  • To get from Managua Airport to Calala Island, we either had to be at the airport at 5:45AM or 1PM
  • To get from Calala Island to Managua Airport, we could either be back at the airport at 9:45AM or 5:15PM

We chose the early transfer in both directions, and that meant on the way back we were actually leaving at 5:30AM from Calala Island. For what it’s worth, these transfer times are based around the timing of the flights within Nicaragua, since that’s the limiting factor.

As mentioned above, transfers are included with room rates at Calala Island, so Mandy takes care of all of that.

Getting To Calala Island

Even once you get to Managua Airport, your transfer to Calala Island includes planes, cars, and boats. We flew to Managua Airport the evening before on American from Miami, and we spent the night at the Hyatt Place Managua.

Just to give you a sense of how time consuming the transfer process was, we left the Hyatt Place Managua at 5AM, and we only made it to the resort at around 11AM, so it took about six hours door-to-door.

The transfer first includes flying to the Nicaraguan coastal city of Bluefields, then you have to take a car to the port of Bluefields, and then there’s a 90-120 minute boat ride to the resort.

Being Met At Airport By Nestor

Calala Island has a Managua Airport representative, Nestor. The resort asked when we were arriving, because when we landed in Managua the night before, Nestor met us upon arrival. He showed us the domestic terminal at the airport, and then would meet us again the following morning at 5:30AM.

Flying With La Costeña Airlines To Bluefields

The first step in getting to Calala Island is to fly with La Costeña Airlines, which is Nicaragua’s airline. They have a small fleet of just seven planes, including two ATR42s and five Cessna Grand Caravans.

The airline operates two daily flights to Bluefields, though the routing they take varies by day. Essentially they operate the flight to Bluefields in conjunction with the flight to Corn Island, which is a popular Nicaraguan vacation destination off the coast.

Based on my research, the flight operates in one of the following ways, and you don’t know until the day-of which route they take (even though they publish schedules as if it’s certain):

  • From Managua to Bluefields to Corn Island to Managua
  • From Managua to Corn Island to Bluefields to Managua
  • From Managua to Bluefields to Corn Island to Bluefields to Managua

It seems that they decide which route to operate based on what people booked on a particular date. To give you a sense of the distances:

  • Managua to Bluefields is 162 miles
  • Managua to Corn Islands is 210 miles
  • Corn Islands to Bluefields is 50 miles

The domestic terminal at Managua Airport is to the side of the international terminal. When you’re facing the terminal from outside, it’s on the right.

Nestor met us there at 5:30AM sharp, and he escorted us right to the front of the line, which was almost awkward, since they even have a special Calala Island VIP counter.

Calala Island airport VIP service

The check-in agent was friendly, and handed us a laminated boarding pass with a number, as well as a bottle of water with a baggage tag on it. Lol…

La Costeña Airlines boarding pass

Security took just a minute, and then we were inside the small domestic terminal. The crowd was a combination of Nicaraguans and American backpackers of all kinds.

I never thought I’d actually hear anyone say this, but there were two girls seated next to us that got to talking:

“Where are you going?”
“Well, I’m on a spiritual journey…”

Managua Airport domestic terminal

Our flight was scheduled to depart at 6:30AM, and at 6:25AM boarding was called. While everyone rushed up to the gate, I was pleasantly surprised that the gate agent came and got us first.

“Calala?”
“Yes.”
“You are my VIPs, come with me.”

Talk about impressive service! The ATR42 was parked outside, and as the gate agent escorted us to the door of the plane, she explained that we would be making a stop on Corn Island first.


La Costeña Airlines ATR42

On the ATR42 you board through the rear, since the cargo hold is in the front of the plane, behind the cockpit.


La Costeña Airlines ATR42

The ATR42 is pretty nice for a turboprop, and we had our choice of seats.


La Costeña Airlines ATR42 cabin


La Costeña Airlines ATR42 cabin

We sat in row seven, behind the wing on the left side. The plane has “bench” seats, rather than Individual ones.


La Costeña Airlines ATR42 seats

Anyway, the flight was about 90% full, and within five minutes boarding was completed. We pushed back at 6:30AM, and were airborne five minutes later — interestingly there was no safety demo.

View after takeoff from Managua


View after takeoff from Managua

The flight was fine — there was a water or juice service, but otherwise there’s not much to talk about. I would note that the bathroom door wouldn’t close and the light in there wouldn’t turn on, but otherwise the experience was fine.

While the nonstop flight to Bluefields would have taken 45 minutes, the flight to Corn Island took about 60 minutes. Below you can see us leaving the coastline (right where Bluefields is) and crossing some of the Caribbean Sea to get to Corn Island.

View enroute to Corn Island

We arrived there at 7:30AM.

Corn Island Airport

We parked on the apron, and about two thirds of passengers got off. We had quite a wait, and then 30 minutes later we departed for Bluefields, again with a nearly full load.


Corn Island Airport

View after takeoff from Corn Island

That flight took only about 15 minutes, and by 8:15AM we landed in Bluefields.

Bluefields Airport


Bluefields Airport terminal

Interestingly there were some drug sniffing dogs on arrival, and also a temperature check. Yet somehow the bathroom didn’t have any soap…

Here we met Shorvin from Calala Island, who would be accompanying us on the rest of the journey.

Taking A Car To The Port

Once we had our bags Shorvin brought us to a taxi that was waiting to take us to the port — the drive took about 10 minutes.

Taxi to port in Bluefields

Oh my gosh, getting to the port was a sensory overload, with the number of people, and how loud it was. There was also a Saturday market there at this point, with the freshest meat imaginable (which was kind of tough to see as a former vegetarian) — you could have a chicken killed right in front of you, and any part of a pig just cut off for you.

Even though the port was a bit crazy, I felt totally safe and comfortable.

Bluefields port

When you think of your transfer to a $2,800 per night resort that includes going out into the open ocean, the below boat is probably not what you’re expecting… but that’s exactly what you get.

Calala Island boat

The Calala Island boat is parked right next to all the other local boats, which are a vital part of the transportation system in this part of Nicaragua, since it’s the only way to access many towns.

Bluefields port

A Boat Ride To Remember

There were no other hotel guests on the boat, so it was just Shorvin, one of his colleagues, and the boat captain. Here’s how the transfer is described in the email to guests:

You will motor through the lagoons and mangroves on a traditional Nicaraguan open top speed boat, taking in an array of wildlife and then out to sea where the waters clear and you catch your first glimpse of your island home where ice cold cocktails will be awaiting your arrival.

We sat in the boat for a while while our passports were verified by local authorities, or something. After about 15 minutes we were on our way.


Calala Island boat

Bluefields port

The few people I had heard from who had been to Calala Island all mentioned that the boat ride was quite something, and I’m not sure that does justice to the experience. You spend the first hour going through mangroves and lagoons, which sounds nice, except:

  • You’re going really fast, to the point that your eyes are watering and you can barely look outside, even with sunglasses; I spent most of the boat ride just looking down
  • The boat just constantly “hits” the water over and over and over; it’s physically painful
  • Make sure you put on lots of sunscreen, since there’s no shade
  • Similarly, if it rains you’re exposed to all of the elements, and weather in this region changes very quickly; your bags are put into plastic bags and trash bags so that they don’t get wet, and you’re given a poncho

Mangroves enroute to Calala Island

When you get out of the mangroves area you arrive at a military checkpoint, where armed military officers check your boat very carefully to make sure you’re not bringing anything you shouldn’t be. I guess this is the coastal entry point to Nicaragua, which is why this is there. That took about 15 minutes.

Military checkpoint enroute to Calala Island

And then you go into the open sea. OMFG.

Here’s the thing — a rough boat ride is kind of fun… for like five minutes, or maybe ten minutes tops. But you spend the first 60 minutes of the ride with the boat constantly “hitting” the water every couple of seconds, and then the last 45 minutes or so is spent just rocking back and forth to the point that you wonder if you’re going to make it.

To be perfectly clear, I felt totally safe, and didn’t feel like it was dangerous at all. However, the reason I came to that conclusion is because I know they do this every single day, and I assume nothing usually happens, and not because I actually wasn’t at least a little bit scared.

Pictures can’t do justice to this, so you can see a video here (the first 30 seconds is in the mangrove area, while the last 60 seconds is from the open sea):

When we were on the open sea, Ford started asking me already about what the other options were for leaving Calala Island, as he was seasick, and had terrible back pain. We asked Shorvin if the roughness was normal, and he said it was, noting it was actually a fairly calm day.

After quite a long journey, beautiful Calala Island was finally in sight…

A view of Calala Island

Why Can’t They Have A More Luxurious Transfer?

Chances are that at this point you’re asking yourself “and why can’t they have a nicer transfer option?” I asked myself these things as well, and here are some thoughts on that:

  • There is an option to pay to use a helicopter, though it’s exorbitantly expensive, and personally I’m terrified of helicopters, so wouldn’t consider it
  • While a nicer boat might sound nice, there’s a practical reason for these boats, which is that they can go in really shallow water, and in some cases you’re in water that’s just a few feet deep
  • In some cases you go through some tight turns in the lagoons and mangroves, and a bigger boat just doesn’t make sense
  • The boat goes really fast, so short of taking a huge speedboat, it’s going to be rough
  • I’ll say this about the resort in advance — I don’t at all understand economics of Calala Island, and I imagine a more luxurious boat transfer would throw off the numbers even more

While the transfer is far from luxurious, I actually get it. Enduring this is the cost of admission to Calala Island, I guess.

Calala Island Transport Bottom Line

Getting to Calala Island is a trek, and involves planes, cars, and a very rough boat ride. While this isn’t what you’d necessarily expect from a luxury resort:

  • It’s nice that they at least fully include the transfer with the rate, even when paying with points
  • The whole transfer is well organized, if nothing else
  • Given the unique challenges the resort faces, this system is probably the only economically viable and practical way to get people to the resort

Still, the process of getting from Managua to Calala Island isn’t easy. And if you’re someone who gets seasick, and/or someone who has back pain, I wouldn’t recommend it for you.

For everyone else, stay tuned for the review of the actual resort before deciding whether or not Calala Island is worth visiting, in spite of the transfer…

Comments
  1. Wow.

    My back is KILLING me after watching that video (and yes, I already have a bad back to begin with).

    Can’t wait to read the review of the property!

  2. Omg! This reminded me of the boat ride from Gateway of India to Elephanta Island on a speed boat. But at least that was in a bay and not nearly as long. There are no freebie luxury resorts worth that kind of transfer imo. I would be seriously pissed off if I spent $2800 cash/ night And have to endure that kind of transfer to come to this resort. I much prefer three hours of Indian traffic. If you ever want to use your Bonvoy points for North Island, you will need to take a helicopter. Otherwise you are looking at rough sea which I def don’t recommend!

  3. During our honeymoon our tour boat had to return to Phuket from the Phi Phi islands as a storm approached. I was holding onto the railing for dear life as the speedboat bounced up and down for about an hour. I actually bit my tongue for most of the ride because I figured I’d I didn’t then the hard crashes on the waves might make my teeth crack as they slammed together.

  4. Ford: I’ll pay $2,800 to get off this boat.

    I can only imagine dreaming of a romantic vacation at a luxury hotel then finding yourself bobbing up and down on a fishing boat.

    Shows how much he loves you 🙂

  5. Pretty much identical travel experience with few exceptions:

    1. Military Customs checkpoint on the mangrove ocean part felt like a straight-up bribe to me.

    2. Taxi ride from the airport to boat felt more sketchy to me (maybe because I had kids with me and we had to take two separate taxi’s – wife and few kids didn’t like being separated from me and my taxi left few minutes before hers).

    3. Your experience of the boat ride is accurate, but my family probably just laughed the whole way there thinking we were on a big roller coaster ride with oh… and ahs… when we got air! 🙂 – One thing to note is they do have full body nice ponchos if it rains on the boat, we had to use them for 20 minutes and never got wet.

  6. This gave me bad flashbacks. And I think our ride to the island was rougher. The ride back to Bluefields was definitely less bumpy, but still quite the “experience”.

  7. Wow, I thought the transfer between Almirante and Bocas del Toro in Panama was bad, but this….

  8. I’ve always wanted to explore Bluefields. Can the resort arrange a stopover of a few days on either end if the trip??

  9. THANKS, LUCKY [AND FORD!] FOR BEING THE BLOGGER WHO — IN TRYING TIMES — KEEPS THE SPIRIT OF TRAVEL ADVENTURE ALIVE AND MANAGES TO TAKE US ALONG FOR A CRAZY BOAT RIDE.

  10. Oh my. I have a booking for February next year. It needs to be good as it is after I go to Antarctica and Galapagos. Can’t wait for the review of the island.

  11. There’s an AirBnB on a tiny island off the coast of Honduras called Cayos Cochinos. You get there in much the same way. In our case the transitions from inland waters to the open ocean and back were quite dramatic, as it occurred at the mouth of a river with a strong current. One of the crew had to jump out and sort of guide the boat. Quite an adventure, and we got totally drenched during the hour long ride to the island. But heck, it’s the caribbean, the water is warm. And it was worth it because that island is soooo spectacular when you get there. (And a lot less expensive than $2800/night.)

  12. I wouldn’t do that if they paid me $2800 per night. No way!!

    I hate helicopters but that would be the only way they could get me to go there.

    The island loomed like Gilligan’s.

    Lanai is just fine for me.

  13. Yikes! My back hurts just after watching the video!

    But the thing that gets me is how much the boat is moving up/down when it’s in the calm water in the mangroves (unless it’s rougher than it looks??). Seems like either that’s a really weird boat to be doing that, or they need to put some weight up in the nose of the boat.

  14. Not to be a douche here…but as someone who has traveled the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, what really surprised me in this article was how little sense you actually get of the place. For all that transit, you didn”t seem to get much of a sense of the realities of the area (which is unique and fascinating and scary in all sorts of ways.) I guess that’s not the point of ultra-fancy resorts.

  15. Reminds me of my boat ride to the Bijagós islands in Guinea-Bissau. It was so bumpy I bruised my tailbone and had trouble sitting and laying down for many days afterwards. Luckily I was able to take a plane back to Bissau

  16. I wasn’t aware that there is an airfield on Corn Island. My friends who have been there all described getting there by boat from Bluefields with about the same experience.

    I was a bit surprised that Ben would mention feeling “safe” at the dock. Nicaraguans in general are the nicest people I’ve ever met.

    @Kevin

    I just went to Elephanta Island 3 weeks ago via the normal tourist boat, and never saw any offers of a speedboat.

  17. @ Kirk — To be clear, I mention I felt “safe” for two reasons. First of all, because anytime you’re anywhere and you stand out, have a bunch of luggage, etc., it’s normal to be approached by people and feel on edge, while that feeling wasn’t the case here.

    Second of all, I mention this because I know some people canceled their Calala Island trips because Nicaragua is a “Level 3” country according to the Department of State, due to “civil unrest, crime, limited healthcare availability, and arbitrary enforcement of laws.”

    So my mention of safety was supposed to be positive, that I didn’t experience any issues and felt comfortable.

  18. @ Franklin — I’ll share more on my take on that in the upcoming installment, since virtually everyone working at the resort is from nearby villages. I figured a 2,400 word intro post about how to get somewhere was sufficient, so I didn’t want to make it any longer.

  19. @ Tom — It’s my understanding that Nicaragua has a very limited number of helicopters, so not only is it outrageously expensive, but often it’s not even available, since they’re often used by the government. While I didn’t get an exact quote, I was told it would be $10K+.

  20. @ Mitch Cumstein — Yep, it’s my understanding that they’re happy to book you the flight earlier or later so you can have a stopover there before continuing to the resort.

  21. @ utahshane — Interestingly, I was actually pleasantly surprised that I didn’t at all feel like they were trying to get any bribes in either direction. What happened in your situation?

  22. If they are charging $2800 per night to stay at a tiny remote island (which is basically extortion for a country as undeveloped as Nicaragua), they should include a helicopter transfer with a stay of at least 3 nights.

  23. Hey Ben, did they give any inking that they may close the resort due to the virus? We have reservations in May and are wondering what is going to happen.

  24. Yes, the “economics” of this place raise a lot questions (best left unasked and likely not answered).

  25. Loved this, thank you. The open ocean part of the video had me straight up laughing the entire time. Hope you and Ford recovered quickly lol

  26. The high quality of your travel posts never ceases to amaze me. This is one of the best! My back is hurting just from watching the video. Time to get up and move about the house . . .

  27. Lucky, I’ve done two hours up the Sepik River in pouring rain, just me and the small boat operator (smaller them your boat) and hours long trips down the rivers of Borneo, both similar to the mangrove part of your trip. However, I would gladly do them over again than take your open water journey that had me bracing with every bump at the seat of my computer. LOL. I hope your backs were okay. What a journey and thanks for sharing. Did you have to do this in the dark coming back????

  28. @JetAway

    In a review that Lucky link to earlier some of the comments mentioned that a lot of the guest were Brits that had won the stay or bought it trough charity actions.

    So the business model seems to be; set a very high rate and then sell it at deep discount to resellers that can claim you are getting a deal of lifetime.

    Doubt they get many guest that pay the full $2800 per night, hence the rather shabby transfer arrangements.

  29. When are you planning on posting your review of the resort itself itself? I’m interested in seeing how your’s compares to the recent review of this same property on TPG.

  30. Can’t help you with the bad back other than suggesting you do your stretching exercises daily.
    As for seasickness… scapolamine transdermal patches (prescription required) placed behind your earlobe are life changing. Makes seasickness a thing of the past!

  31. @Ben ,
    I am sure you have been to Maldives and you know they have seaplanes there which are fantastic . However sea needs to be relatively calm and perhaps a plane does not make sense for a resort with 4 rooms .

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