Ian Allen always has his bag’s packed. This past year, he spent 11 months on the road, shooting in places as far afield as Bhutan, Brazil, and Australia—so it’s rare for him to experience something entirely new. But recently, during one of Travel + Leisure’s bookable, editor- curated trips with luxury tour operator Black Tomato, Allen experienced two firsts: dynamic Panama City and the rural, unspoiled Emerald Coast of Nicaragua “Panama City is definitely the most modern place in Central America—you go there for the culture and nightlife,” Allen told T+L. “The Casco Viejo neighborhood, which is a unesco World Heritage site, is filled with coolbars and young people. Everyone uses WhatsApp to find out where the parties are.” Nicaragua proved to be the perfect complement, with its beaches, wildlife, and active volcanoes. “You get the sense that the countryside looks like it did centuries ago. Donkeys still pull carts on the road. Both destinations, in their own ways, are incredibly alive.”
I prefer to take photos in the morning, for the atmosphere. I like the light, the fog, the people beginning their day. In Panama City, I rose early to photograph the boats by the fish market. Fishermen were coming in with their catches, then bringing them to the vendors, who cleaned them with old, weathered knives. The American Trade Hotel is an excellent base, since it’s right in the heart of Casco Viejo. I’d come back after my outings and head up to the beautiful library on the second floor to answer e-mail and upload images. I also loved getting coffee at their Cafe Unido. I was shocked to see they had premium Geisha beans, which come from Panama’s Chiriqui Highlands and go for 5100a pound.
On my first full day, I met my Black Tomato guides for a boat tour up the Panama Canal. On the ride, these Geoffroy’s tamarins came down from the trees to sit on the bow of our boat. The next day, we took an excursion to see the indigenous Embera people. I watched two local women making lunch: one had a fire going, while the other cut fresh fruit.
One of the best parts of the trip was my behind-the-scenes tour of the Panama Canal’s new lock system. My guide was able to get us access to the control tower, which had a great vantage point. It was unreal to see these massive doors moving in and out to allow passage to what was, at the time, the largest container ship ever to get through the canal—the fee to pass was $800,000.
After three days in Panama City, I flew to Managua, Nicaragua, where I was picked up for the 2 1/2-hour drive to Mukul. The resort’s lobby is essentially one giant palapa with a50-foot-high ceiling, and what impressed me was that it was made entirely from trees that had fallen during hurricanes. They also have a cool collection of specialty rums on display. Mukul’s grounds are massive—everyone takes golf carts to get around. But the resort still feels very private and tucked away from the rest of the world.
Ometepe Island is an easy day trip from Mukul. A lot of people go to take hikes or spot wildlife. To get there, you have to drive about an hour east and then cross Lake Nicaragua on a ferry. On the approach, you see these perfect cones, which are the two volcanoes that formed the island. One of them, Concepcion, is still active. Once I got to Ometepe, I took a short hike around a lagoon, where I spotted this beautiful grouping of butterflies. The highlight for me was Ojo de Agua, a series of spring-fed freshwater pools. The water was quite cold, which was nice because the air was so thick with humidity. Playa Manzanillo is the main swimming beach at Mukul—you can see parts of the resort in the background. The beach also has great waves for surfing, and there were a handful of guests out there enjoying the water.
One of the guys was out quite far, and he’d bail just before he was about to crash into this rocky point. I’m a total novice at the sport, but the staff can accommodate both beginners and pros, so I took a lesson and managed to get up on the board. I had surfed only once before in my life, on the Big Island of Hawaii, and got totally throttled. So this was actually a nice and easy place to learn.
Playa Guacalito is Mukul’s second, quieter beach. The staff, of course, wants to be accommodating and shuttle you there in a van, but I preferred to walk, for the exercise. There were just a handful of chaises, and I had the entire place to myself. I went for a swim, and it was lovely to have that moment of solitude. Mukulis a little bubble—you don’t really ever have to leave. I met guests who were returning for their fifth time because they loved it so much.
I checked out of the hotel at midday and drove back to Managua. Visiting the Masaya Volcano, which is about 30 minutes outside the city, was an unbelievable experience. You are given 15 minutes to stand at the rim of the volcano and see the boiling lava before the rangers shuffle you right out. It’s shocking to realize you are only seeing a fraction of what’s going on underneath the earth’s surface. The whole experience really centered me.