Costa Rica bills itself as one of the eco-tourism centers of the world. For those that do their homework, just next door, Nicaragua may be an even better eco-friendly destination.

For the most part, Nicaragua is unspoiled by multi-nationals’ monster-sized footprints.  Unsightly food chains are rare, and even the major hotel brands are nonexistent in most parts of this nation sandwiched between two oceans. Nearly 80 grocery stores owned by Walmart are heavily disguised under the name Palí, and with little in common with the big daddy of retail. Many will agree there’s not much at Palí that you can’t buy from a mom-and-pop corner store. These are just some of the reasons why Nicaragua is an attractive alternative. It’s a country where travellers can find beauty in simplicity, and at very affordable prices.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that visitors to Nicaragua are comfortable in simple accommodations that are not lacking in character. Upgrades are not oversized pillows, a super duper shower head or an over-rated over-priced mattress. Rather, eco-friendly, organic vegetarian food, and proximity to a good surf, volcano or jungle are the perks here.

For just those reasons, and many more, one of the star attractions on the Nicaraguan tourist trail is San Juan del Sur.  

San Juan del Sur bay view from Casa Andalucia.

 Riding the Wave of Eco-Tourism in San Juan del Sur

Everyone in San Juan knows about Casa Oro. Located a block from both the central park and the beach, the recently renovated and expanded eco-hostel was bought by an American expat a few years ago as part of an altruistic mission.

“The country is at a tipping point and we believe that we can help push which direction things move from the inside out,” says Muffadal Saylawala, Casa Oro’s master planner. “We are riding off a rising wave from the eco-conscious efforts of Costa Rica and targeting a widely underserved market. It is within our reach to transform Nicaragua into the premiere eco destination in the world, a place where the rest of the world comes to learn,” adds Muffa.

Guests and volunteers at Casa Oro.

Shortly after the Chicago native bought Casa Oro, he added more pearls to his strand of eco-friendly bed-and-breakfast offerings: Hotel Pacífico, Casa Andalucía and Nuestra Casa. While he has multiple properties in his portfolio, he’s the opposite of a Leona Helmsley, Paris Hilton or J.W. Marriott. His passion is to make the world a better place, starting from a prime locale on the Pacific. His vision is to give back to Mother Nature, the economy and the San Juan del Sur local community.

Interestingly enough, this tree hugger has roots in financial analytics. He fled the banker’s investment podium to create “an ecosystem of sustainable social enterprises. Our aim is to influence a more natural evolution for Nicaragua. We are building a regenerative eco-lodge and learning center.”

In addition to his multiple guest accommodations, he bought an 80-acre piece of land sprawling up a mountain overlooking a beach.  All his guest properties return their organic waste products to nourish his organic farm. Additionally, inorganic waste products feed construction and decor at the rural and guest properties. Muffa is building a supply chain going to and from the farm and his eco-friendly accommodations.  

“The guesthouses are constructed from natural and recycled materials like pallets, adobe and bamboo. We collaborate with the local community learning from their ancient ways of life, and teaching them how to build sustainable businesses.There’s dedicated spaces full of energy, optimism and enthusiasm for yoga, meditation, healing, experimentation, open to art and music. And, there’s an organic café in the heart of San Juan Del Sur where we live our values in the urban jungle,” says Muffa.

Today, among the menu items on the Casa Oro menu board, the cooks slice papaya, green peppers, squash and tender corn on the cob all of which was harvested at Muffa’s mountainside finca. New age-y or artistic folks may be drawn by the donation-based yoga or creator space designed using inspiration from nature. Most like the inexpensive rooms infused with creativity, re-purposing and camaraderie.

The front desk at a chain hotel treats you like just another credit card holder. Swipe your credit card and you get a mag key card in return.  Enclose yourself in a cookie-cutter room, where your mini-fridge, bar and Pay-Per-View become your companions.  At hostels and B&Bs there’s a sense of community. There’s not that thick of a line between the employees and the guests. People are invited into the living areas to play — sing — share. Your country of origin is just an ice breaker. It doesn’t matter who you’re traveling with, or without. Your bank balance is invisible.  But your voice and smile are not.

“We’re building bridges between worlds, peoples and communities. We generously share what we’re doing with the hopes that San Juan Del Sur becomes the most authentic eco-travel destination in the world,” says Muffa.

Strengthening the Chain of Tree Huggers

Hopefully, with every contact at one of Muffa’s properties, a touch of that respect for Mother Nature will be multiplied. Rooms at Casa Oro are named: Regeneración, Transformación, Humanidad and Soñar.

“We know we’re not the only dreamers. We believe in collaboration. We seek to help people who wish they could live more holistically; the people who dream about leading a life full of meaning and fulfillment. We believe shared and united space fosters collaboration and creativity. We believe in building bridges between modern society and the new world, between business and nature, between travelers and locals.”

Part of the dream includes Muffa’s ever-morphing team of collaborators. People from around the world, united, in Nicaragua to reinforce a circle of sustainability.

“We’re all weaving together, collaborating, sharing space and resources, building something greater than any of us could have ever imagined doing alone: an intricate and enormous web of elements around the world living regeneratively.”

Deborah Charnes teaching English to Casa Oro employees

For example, the colorful walls at Casa Andalucía, Nuestra Casa and Casa Oro are love-of-nature offerings from artists from around the world. Smaller personalized touches came to life through a team of volunteers from Argentina, Mexico, Spain, Nicaragua and the U.S. Hand-painted up-cycled chairs invite people to sit with messages like “Creer es Crear,” or, “En el mar, la vida es más sabrosa.” The painters and writers of the chairs weren’t all artists. But they were all creative and shared a love for the environment. Muffa hopes his properties provide a canvas, or a comfort, for those wanting to make a difference.

“The more that we give, the more we have to give,” he says.  “Our work is guided by design inspired by nature. Her system is the most optimal that we know; self-maintaining, beautiful and circular.”

Common Area at Nuestra Casa

The Bottom Line

Since financial profits are not Muffa’s sole goals, his measurable objectives are different than those of your typical hotelier. He believes in using business to preserve ecology, empower communities, shape culture and as a space to foster community. Thus, his bottom lines are in sync with humankind and nature.

  • “I will measure how much physical soil is created by this project to give back to the earth.
  • I will measure how much food is grown, how much electricity has been saved and how many families in the local community are better because they were part of this project.
  • I will measure how many people go home and do something to make their life more sustainable.
  • I will measure how many synchronistic connections are spurred as a result of being in our spaces and interacting with people and places.”

The world as an interconnected ecosystem, yet most of us are blind to the big picture as we obsess on insignificant deadlines and details. “We believe in amplifying these connections to foster an environment where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole,” sums up Muffa.