Shelter: Isleta El Espino
Foraging for mangoes, dipping into the pool, gazing out at a misty volcano – if any of this sounds like your idea of paradise, then a trip to Isleta El Espino on Lake Nicaragua is most definitely in order. Co-owned by brother and sister duo Andrew and Kristin Werner, this three-room property embodies idyllic luxury in an eco-conscious setting, offering the serenest of island experiences. El Espino is an intimate place to stay, home to just two thatched-roof treehouses and one bungalow. By the time you leave, everyone there will know you by name.
After changing their travel plans at the last minute, Andrew and Kristin purchased the island in 2007 during their first trip to Granada, Nicaragua. “Andrew showed up to Nicaragua a few days before I did and went on a little adventure of his own,” Kristin laughs. It was during this adventure that Andrew first set eyes on the island now known as Isleta El Espino.
“I happened to go out on a guided excursion from Granada to the islands on Lake Nicaragua, and I noticed many of them had For Sale postings with phone numbers. There was a good mix of locals and fisherman on the islands, and there were a few luxury homes,” Andrew says, "but there were no accommodations. So I saw an opportunity, and given Granada’s growing development, the trajectory seemed positive.”
When Kristin arrived in Granada, Andrew told her his crazy idea – "Let's buy an island!" – and the next day they ventured back out onto the lake so Kristin could see what the talk was all about. Kayaks in tow, Andrew took Kristin to see the lush vegetation and serene quality of the islands firsthand. Both parties were smitten with the idea of purchasing this small slice of paradise, and throughout the next few days of zip lining, beach-hopping, and adventuring around Nicaragua, the idea fully took root. The final tipping point occurred at the end of their trip, when Kristin realized that no one in and around Granada seemed to notice her as a tourist.
“I kept wondering why I didn’t feel like an outsider. No one seemed to mind I was there, and I felt like I blended in,” Kristin says. “And that’s what I love when I travel. I like to enjoy the food, the people, the experiences, and find ease in the beauty of a country.” It was on this day, their final day in Nicaragua, that Andrew and Kristin walked into a real estate office and requested one more tour of the island. Before the boat could make it back to the marina, Kristin and Andrew made an offer on the island they now own.
“We found the perfect spot,” Andrew says. “Once we saw the view, the trees, the orientation to the rest of the isletas and how ideally situated this place was, we had to do it.” Due to the size of the island, Andrew and Kristin considered it a manageable project, where they could build a hotel that felt intimate, unique, and discrete – a place they would wish to stay, creating a more personal, scaled-down experience, where a family could rent out the entire island or a solo traveler could quietly read a book beneath the tree-lined pool.
The duo put their background in design, architecture, and project management to work to create Isleta El Espino. Although it took almost eight years to see the plan through to fruition, the result is picturesque beyond what they could have initially imagined. Every detail is carefully considered, making even the most mundane of daily tasks, like washing your hands, a treat, as they use local clay pottery to hold soap, shampoo and conditioner.
The property features many such traditional craft elements native to Nicaragua; rancho builders from the La Paz Centro region of Nicaragua, architects and engineers from Granada, and craftspeople from all over the country helped build the property, creating everything from light fixtures to stone sinks. Andrew and Kristin enlisted landscape expertise from Chris Shanks, a permaculture educator based in Ometepe, who helped educate the duo on practical plants to grow for teas and edible consumption. Accessory designs like white bed linens with colorful throws are a work of Daina Platais of local shop Amano.
“All the lighting, the sinks, the furniture, the ceramics, almost without exception are locally produced,” Andrew says. The Isleta El Espino staff are also entirely from the isletas and Granada, with General Manager Martin Mayorga leading local operations. There’s even an island caretaker named Don Jose, who will turn 101 in May. Don Jose has lived on the island for over 30 years and still lives in the same home today. “When we first bought the property, Don Jose was worried we would want him to leave. But we said absolutely not, this is your home. You can stay as long as you want,” Kristin says.
Sustainably speaking, Isleta El Espino is outstanding; Andrew and Kristin worked tirelessly to make the property entirely self-sustainable. The island's solar panels power everything from lights and fans to systems that pump and filter fresh pool water, run kitchen appliances, and power small electronics. Andrew and Kristin practically invented a water filtration system themselves, using the surrounding water in Lake Nicaragua and sending it through a bio filter where it is further cleaned by aquatic plants and used to irrigate landscaping.
Andrew and Kristin still have big plans for Isleta El Espino. They're currently building three to four more bungalows on the island, and are purchasing a neighboring island to expand their property. Their hope is to continue to provide travelers with a transformational experience while staying at Isleta El Espino, offering access to these areas that was once unavailable. “In Granada, hotels and restaurants are mixed in with the community. It isn’t separated by zones,” Andrew says. “It’s the same in the Isletas – it’s all about local, traditional ways of supporting your families. We’re hoping we can preserve this in some way and contribute to that community.” [H]