What to do in Colombia: Maderas Village

This article was originally published on Huckberry, written by Liv Combe here

This article was written based off an El Camino experience. To have a similar experience, book our Nicaragua trip here, or let us make you a customized itinerary here.

SHELTER: MADERAS VILLAGE

 

In the Pacific coastal hills of Nicaragua, one hotel is reinventing what it means to escape to paradise

Apr 13, 2015 | By Liv Combe

    

We're stoked to be heading down to Nicaragua with El Camino Travel, with whom we'll be spending nine glorious days eating fresh seafood, surfing, sailing to secluded beaches, and rolling cigars. Leading up to our adventures, we're taking a look at what will soon be our Nicaraguan home-away-from-home: Maderas Village

 

t’s easy for Matt Dickinson to name his favorite thing about Nicaragua: the weather. “It’s beautiful here for twelve months a year,” says the founding partner and general manager of Maderas Village. “As a native of Toronto, that’s huge.”

Well off the beaten path and nestled in the Pacific coastal hills of Nicaragua is Maderas, an eco-friendly, open-minded boutique hotel, hostel, and resort all rolled into one. Here, you’re just as likely to find a solo traveler taking surf lessons from the local instructors down on the secluded Playa Maderas as you as you an aspiring tech mogul who’s taken three weeks out of his schedule to hop a few flights and live in this vibrant, creative community in order to write the first draft of a business plan. 

And — even the five-minute walk to the Pacific comes in at a close second — that is Dickinson’s favorite thing about Maderas itself. 


“You can carry on life here without feeling like you’re compromising,” he says. “This isn’t the traditional idea of escaping to paradise. You’re not escaping or trying to get away from anything. What we celebrate here is going away and engaging. And that, to me, is what’s exciting — not necessarily realizing that you couldn’t work from paradise without giving up your real life, but rather that real life could be much, much better.”


Nicaragua is having a moment. It’s been hailed as the “next Costa Rica” — same beautiful tropical climate, a friendly culture, similar rice and beans dishes pervading the menu. Contrary to Costa Rica's well-beaten paths, though, Nicaragua is still relatively unexplored. 

The largest country in the Central American isthmus, Nicaragua borders Costa Rica to the south and Honduras to the north. The country has much to recommend it — sleepy surf towns, dramatic volcanoes, vibrant colonial cities, rain forests and nature preserves. As the L.A. Times put it, however, what Nicaragua also has is an image problem. It hasn’t been viewed as a mainstream tourist destination on account of its decades of political turbulence; the 20th century alone saw civil war, foreign intervention, dictatorship, and revolution. Not the stuff of timeshare fodder, to be sure. 


All the better, says Dickinson, who came to the country five years back, fresh out of the world of commercial real estate and looking to work on this development project. “The fact that Nicaragua was viewed by the world as dangerous — but was actually quite safe — was really appealing to me because that just equals opportunity. And the fact that it was still unexplored and had an association with adventure? Even better.”


The many buildings and rooms of Maderas didn’t all come into being at once. In the first two years of the project, Dickinson and his fellow founding partners worked on the main hotel, where the restaurant and bar is also housed, and then built three cottages and three cabañas. In year three, they put in four casitas. In year four, Maderas had a fundraising drive that brought in enough money for them to build a recording studio, which they just opened a few months ago. 

The Maderas buildings are made entirely with local and natural resources. The floors of the cottages and cabañas are constructed of wood from naturally felled trees from the Autonomous region of the country — primarily Brazilian cherry, ipa, teak, and tropical cedar; the walls are made from wood that was grown on nearby plantations. The roofs? Eucalyptus and palm leaves, which naturally regenerate on the tree every three months.

(Oh, and all the gorgeous wood furniture? That's the handiwork of the team of Nicaraguan carpenters that make up Maderas Collective.)


Maderas’ dedication to using local resources extends to the food they serve, where the meals are inspired by whatever is freshest at the local fruit, vegetable, and fish markets in the nearby surf town of San Juan del Sur. A typical breakfast could be granola with fresh fruit or the “Nica Tipica,” as Dickinson puts it — fresh eggs, avocado, tortillas, and home fries. Lunch is a burrito, falafel, or an omelette. Dinners are served family-style each night and range from chicken to sushi to grilled salt fish. 

The family-style dinner is very much on purpose, since the community at Maderas is more important than the physical makeup of the village (yep, even more important than the open-air yoga studio, the massage room, or the penthouse overlooking the ocean, as hard as it is to believe). Maderas is beautiful, to be sure, but what sets it apart is the vibe, the atmosphere, the idea that you can be both relaxed and deeply engaged at once. 

“Being at Maderas isn’t just about sitting on a hammock with a guitar and doing some writing,” says Dickinson. The recently opened music studio proves his point exactly — now, guests have the space to create something tangible. (A darkroom is next on the list.)


And that opportunity extends to more than just artists, Dickinson points out. “If somebody wants to come down and spend two or three weeks writing a business plan or programming, it’s all accessible and celebrated down here. Maderas is really just a place where you can come and sit back, think quietly, and work on whatever it is that’s your passion.”

And the fresh tropical fruit smoothies really don’t hurt, either. [H]

Want to check out Nicaragua for yourself? El Camino takes several trip there every year, and you can, too. The next is already sold out, but in the meantime, you can experience everything El Camino has to offer on their upcoming trip to Colombia. Grab your spot now.

What to do in Nicaragua: Grill Your Own Lobster

This article was originally published on Huckberry, written by Liv Combe here

This article was based off an El Camino experience. To book a similar experience, check out our Nicaragua trips here, or let us make you a customized itinerary here

PROVISIONS: GRILLED LOBSTER

With the help of our guides at El Camino Travel, we head out to catch our own Nicaraguan seafood (and eat it, too)

Jun 12, 2015 | By Liv Combe

Our captain clambered up the ladder and into the small boat, holding a spear gun and a fish he'd plucked straight from the Pacific. He grabbed a knife, a cutting board, a lime, and a small container ofsalsa verde made earlier that day. Boom — five minutes later, ceviche. That’s about as fresh as it gets.


Have you ever gone out and caught your own fish? Actually, you probably have, so let me rephrase that — have you ever gone out on a fishing boat with El Camino Travel, manned by local fishermen from San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, and caught your own fish? Not yet. But you really, really should.

The Pacific Ocean nestles against Nicaragua’s western coast, where the warm waters have made for great fishing for generations. On a larger scale, the industry took off in the early 1900s, when the Japanese came over and begin fishing the sharks and shrimp out of the crescent-shaped bay of San Juan del Sur; this, of course, soon resulted in overfishing, and those who had a vested interest in the operation’s moneymaking moved on. The locals, though, had been fishing long before it became a larger industry, selling fish at the markets and bringing it home to feed their families.


Three styles are popular: handlining, trolling (for larger, more commercial fishing), and spear fishing. Handlining is the most common, since you can do it from shore or out on the water, and is a relatively easy way to catch enough fish to take home for dinner that night — or sell at the San Juan del Sur fish market, which is exactly where we bought our dinner: lobster, pulled out of the ocean earlier that morning. 

That night, we headed back to our homebase of Maderas Village, where the kitchen whipped up a feast of grilled lobster tails, mashed potatoes, and carrot salad — the perfect meal after a long day on a boat.

Want to travel with El Camino? You're in luck — they've got three trips to Nicaragua coming up this year. Find out more and book here.

Thanks to the folks at Maderas Village for providing the recipe.

What you'll need:

4 lobster tails, about four ounces each
1 teaspoon lemon juice
4 cloves garlic
4 ounces butter
Salt, pepper, and paprika to taste

What you'll do:

Prepare the garlic butter sauce by placing the butter in a small pan and heating it over the stovetop at medium heat. Add in one minced garlic clove and stir. Keep the sauce warm as you prepare the lobster tails. 

For the lobster tails, fill a large pot with water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to medium so the water is simmering. Place in the lobster tails and boil for two minutes. 

Remove the tails and place on a cutting board, bottom up. Using a sharp knife, cut the tails in half; use clean kitchen scissors to cut through the shell if necessary. Brush the flesh of the lobster tail with garlic butter sauce and sprinkle with a pinch of salt, pepper, and paprika. 

Oil the grill generously to prevent sticking. Heat the grill and place the lobster tails on the grill meat-side down. Cook the lobster tails for four to five minutes, then rotate so the shell side is on the grill. Cook for an additional three to five minutes, or until the flesh is opaque and firm. Brush the tails with more garlic butter and serve. [H]

 

What to do in Mexico City: Club Tengo Hambre

This article was originally published on Huckberry, written by Liv Combe here

This article was based off an El Camino experience. To book a similar experience, check out our Mexico City trips here, or let us make you a customized itinerary here

A Modern Take On Mexican Cuisine

 

Think Mexican food ends at Taco Tuesday? Think again. We talk to professional foodie Jason Thomas Fritz about this evolving, age-old cuisine

August 1, 2016Words by Liv CombePhotos By Chad Cress

Jason Thomas Fritz eats tacos for a living. Sure, he’s also trained as a journalist and takes some incredible photos of people and places throughout Mexico, but his main gig is as cofounder of Club Tengo Hambre, "a roving supper club that explores the food, wine, spirits, and craft beer of Baja California and Mexico City.”

Jason Thomas Fritz, professional taco eater

Yes, it’s as awesome as it sounds, and we got to see Jason’s expertise in action as he took us on a street food tour of Mexico City this past spring with the fine folks atRicher Poorer and El Camino Travel. Once we’d recovered from our food coma, we talked to Jason about how he came to Mexico, changing food trends, and his favorite taco in Mexico City.

Missed our first story in the Richer Poorer series about famed Mexican architect Luis Barragán? Read it here, and keep an eye out for part three of our DF adventure coming soon.

Huckberry: Tell us about your background. How’d you get to where you are today?

Jason Thomas Fritz: I’m trained as a journalist and I worked as one for a number of years. I went to grad school at San Diego State, and when I was there I found that I didn’t like San Diego very much, so I moved to Tijuana. I’ve always been a food lover, but I think when I was living in Tijuana there was a really interesting movement happening with the food there, and since I was a journalist I started to write about it and pay attention to it.

There weren’t many people writing about it, and I knew the few people who were writing about it, so we were a small community. Those were the people I started Club Tengo Hambre with: Kristin and Antonio Díaz de Sandi, a wife and husband powerhouse, are the cofounders in Baja, and Bill Esparza, another cofounder, is in LA. They were also food bloggers and food journalists and we just started to write about it, and basically that’s how we came together and started Club Tengo Hambre. And that was about five years ago.

How did you make your way to Mexico City?

I was living in Tijuana for a few years and Club Tengo Hambre had started to do pretty well. I had always wanted to move to Mexico City – I’d been coming here for more than 15 years, and it’s a city that I’ve felt was flying under the radar for a really, really long time. But I’d fallen in love with it when I first got here and I always wanted to figure out a way to move here. I also think Tijuana was a little small for me, and the opportunity came up to expand the Club Tengo Hambre project to Mexico City, so I jumped at the chance.

What do you do for Club Tengo Hambre in Mexico City?

I’m one of the co-founders, so I do a lot of the un-fun stuff. A lot of the back-end stuff. I do host tours on occasion when we get so busy, but we have a local guide who does most of the tours. But I do a lot of the back-end stuff, I eat a lot, and do a lot of Instagramming. When I do get to guide tours, it’s a lot of fun. We get people from all over the world.

Eating for a living isn't a bad way to make your money.

Exactly. Although I’m probably headed towards a heart attack at 40 with the food I’ve been eating. But we’ll see.

This is a cuisine that goes back a long, long, long time, but a lot of people who are not from here are finding out about it for the first time.

What’s happening in the world of Mexican food right now?

It’s really interesting. I don’t think much has happened – people are doing what they’ve always done, essentially. Some chefs are certainly doing more interesting things. But I think it’s more that people who never knew about Mexican are finally figuring it out, and finding out about it, and finding that it’s a very, very complex cuisine and it’s one of the world’s great cuisines.

I’m from the Los Angeles area, so this cuisine was always a part of growing up for me – Mexican food is essentially Californian cuisine at this point. But a lot of places in the world are finally starting to find out about it. There’s a lot of places in New York and on the East Coast, for instance, that just suddenly discovered it, so I think a lot of people are paying attention to something they didn’t know existed or had such a misinformed idea of what it was. This is a cuisine that goes back a long, long, long time, but a lot of people who are not from here are finding out about it for the first time.

Also, I think there’s been a trend among more affluent classes here in Mexico to think that other cuisines were better; that going to a fine Italian restaurant or a restaurant where food from Argentina was served is better. But people in those affluent groups are really starting to discover the ingredients they’ve been using here for so long. Before, a lot of the ingredients like huitlacoche or some of the insects that a lot of the indigenous communities used weren't taken seriously in some more affluent classes. I think what a lot of this chef-driven movement has done has really shown people that Mexican ingredients are absolutely amazing and some of the best in the world. People are starting to pay attention to that again.

But that said, other people have always been loving and eating Mexican food. They don't need to rediscover it because it never went away.

A lot of these Mexican chefs are starting to conquer really food-obsessed cities.

So the change is coming from people paying more attention, and not from any specific difference in Mexican food itself?

People are definitely starting to pay attention. Also, I think some of the “rediscovery” of Mexican cuisine is the influence of how it’s been perceived in the States. For instance, the best restaurant in New York last year, by the New York Times, wasCosme, which is Enrique Olvera’s restaurant, and he’s a Mexico City chef. In San Francisco, the best restaurant last year, by the San Francisco Chronicle, was Cala, whose chef is Gabriela Cámara, a Mexico City chef as well.

So I think that what’s happening in the food world outside of Mexico City, is that a lot of these Mexican chefs are starting to conquer really food-obsessed cities. They’re getting called the best chefs in these food-obsessed cities. And therefore the entire world is starting to pay attention to Mexican cuisine.

I think some of the best chefs in Mexico will tell you that their creativity and their influence comes from the streets.

I hate to use the word “authentic,” but which do you feel would be more authentically Mexican – food from a fine restaurant or a street food stall?

I also find the word ‘authentic’ problematic. People always want something that’s authentic, but anything – whether it’s on the streets or it’s fine dining – that Mexicans are doing is authentic. They’re just two different ways to see a beautiful cuisine. I don’t think that one is better than the other, I just think they’re different. And in fine dining now, they’re really started to emulate what you find on the street. It’s plated differently, but it’s essentially the same combination of flavors that they’re working with. I think some of the best chefs in Mexico will tell you that their creativity and their influence comes from the streets. If you had to choose and you have a gun to your heard, I’ll always go for the streets. But to truly understand Mexican cuisine, you have to do both.

Mexico City has three restaurants on the world’s best listQuintonilBiko, and Pujol. Paris has three, New York has three, so the restaurants here are competing against the best in the world, and I’ve had people come on the tours and say, “Oh my gosh, Pujol was so amazing – but so was the food we had today on the streets." It’s just different. Different prices. But both are essentially really, really beautiful expressions of Mexican cuisine.

It’s your last meal. What would you eat?

It would probably have to be a green chorizo taco. Because it’s the best taco I’ve ever had. With a bottle of mezcal, too. I’d definitely bring that with me. [H]

 

The famed green chorizo

Jason's Mexico City Picks

Hungry? Headed to Mexico City? You're in luck. Here are Jason's top five food picks for this sprawling city, complete with street food stalls and fine dining alike. 

Fonda Fina
A modern take on Mexico’s classic fondas, traditional taverns. Chef Juan Cabrera applies fine dining techniques to traditional, regional flavors resulting in a menu that’s just as homey and comforting as the space itself.
Medellín 79.

Lalo!
This casual dining spot is the child of Eduardo García, award-winning chef at Maximo Bistrot and one of Mexico’s most celebrated chefs. This popular Condesa restaurant serves food until 11:30 pm, so swing by to line your stomachs before you hit the mezcal bars.
Zacatecas 173.

El Huequito
The best al pastor taco in Mexico City, according to Jason. Enough said.
Calle Ayuntamiento 21.

Pujol
Considered one of the best restaurants in the world, the tasting menu at Enrique Olvera’s restaurant is a bucket list item for foodies from Europe to Asia. Fun fact: Olvera was featured in this season of Chef’s Table, a Netflix series.
Calle Francisco Petrarca 254.

Churreria El Morro
This company has been making traditional churros in the Centro Histórico for 75 years. Order your chocolate in one of seven varieties, including the classics: the bittersweet especial, the thick Francés, the sweet Español, or the milky Mexicano.
Río Lerma 165.