Calala Island Hyatt Review
Since the partnership between Small Luxury Hotels of the World and Hyatt became official in 2018, Hyatt fans have eyed one of the holy grails of the SLH family: Calala Island. Our review of Calala Island covers the entire process, from booking the luxury property, to the arduous transfers to the island, and the experience once you are there. But what is Calala Island, you ask?
A rustic island off the eastern coast of Nicaragua, Calala Island is an “Ultra All-Inclusive” luxury 5-star hotel in the “NiCaribbean.” The property has only 6 guest rooms and 28 staff. Since there are few opportunities to share an entire island with 12 guests or fewer, Calala Island presents a unique opportunity to expand your horizons and experience a part of the Caribbean that is unfamiliar to many. With this in mind, we set out to find availability and book a trip as soon as possible.
Booking & Location
Calala Island is a Category 8 property, meaning it costs between 35,000 and 45,000 points per night. We discovered 3 nights of availability over Labor Day weekend almost exactly 13 months in advance. Our 4 night stay was 3 nights at peak pricing of 45,000 points and 1 night of standard pricing at 40,000 points. In total, 175,000 Hyatt points for a property averaging almost $3,000 per night ($12,000 for the 4 night stay).
We earned most of these points from a Chase Sapphire Preferred® sign-up bonus. We also earned through ongoing spend on a Chase Ink Business Cash® and the World of Hyatt Business credit card. Remember: Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer 1:1 to Hyatt, so often the “best” card to earn Hyatt points is a Chase Ultimate Rewards card. Bilt Rewards also partners with Hyatt and the Bilt Rewards Mastercard is another great option for earning Hyatt points.
Once we booked, we turned our attention to arriving at Calala Island. Located off the eastern coast of Nicaragua, Calala Island is about as remote as you can get while being only a few miles off the mainland. The only method of travel is to fly to the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, catch a flight on the Nicaraguan domestic airline, La Costeña, to Bluefields, a Caribbean port town. From Bluefields, you take a taxi to the port and then hop aboard a riverboat for a 2-hour journey through the mangroves and out onto the Caribbean Sea.
The beauty of this “ultra all-inclusive” property is that once your free cancellation window closes at 90 days prior to the stay, Calala Island's team jumps in and plans, pays for, and supervises all aspects of your Nicaraguan transportation. All transfers, including the boat rides and intra-Nicaragua airplane tickets are included! Approximately 30 days before our stay, we received an email requesting our international flight details, our passports, our food & beverage requests, and any food & beverage preferences, restrictions or allergies. The staff assured us that they would take care of all aspects of our intra-Nicaraguan travel and escort us throughout our journey.
Arrival in Managua
Flights from the US to Nicaragua were extremely limited at the time of our stay. So our best option was to fly Avianca Airlines from Washington-Dulles to Managua by connecting in San Salvador. Our flights were on-time and we encountered no hiccups along the way. We departed IAD at 6:05 p.m. and arrived in Managua just before 10:30 p.m. Immigration lines were very short and there was a $10 tourism tax per person (payable in USD only). The immigration officer asked us a series of questions about ourselves, including our occupations, how long we were traveling in Nicaragua, why we were there, and where we were staying.
Fifteen minutes or so after exiting the airplane, we were on our way. As soon as we left through the international arrivals door, we were met by Nestor. Nestor is Calala Island's official representative in Managua and handles all aspects of arrivals and departures at MGA. Additionally, he offers tours for Calala Island guests as well as all visitors to Managua. After brief introductions, Nestor escorted us across the street to the Best Western La Mercedes. He asked us to meet him at the domestic terminal at 5:45 a.m. the next day.
The Best Western was not the most luxurious hotel or the best location for most stays. But this hotel is perfect for folks with a late-arriving or early-departing flight, as downtown Managua is just 20+ minutes away. We booked this hotel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal with our CSP and received our annual $50 hotel credit. This brought the price down to less than $50 for the night.
Preparation for Depature to Calala Island
Shortly after arriving in our room at the Best Western, we received a call from Claudia, who along with her husband, Leon, are general managers of Calala Island. She welcomed us to Nicaragua and gave us an overview of the entire process for the following day. This briefing was helpful to learn what lay ahead of us, but it was heavy on information. The 30+ minute call was too much. It was almost 11:45 p.m. once the call ended, we had been traveling most of the day, and we had a wake-up call in 5 hours. The personal touch was extremely nice, but it did feel as though everything could have been summarized in a WhatsApp message and a very quick phone call.
Transfer to Calala Island
As promised, Nestor met us at the domestic terminal exactly at 5:45 a.m. The domestic airline, La Costeña, only sells same-day tickets to walk up passengers. So Nestor took care of these arrangements for us. The flights have baggage restrictions, but if you have too many bags or are over the luggage weight allowances, Calala Island covers these additional fees in addition to the cost of the airfare. We were “Calala Island VIPs” and everyone treated us wonderfully. We were checked-in and through security in under 5 minutes and then had a quick cup of coffee and a muffin in the waiting area. The flight was scheduled for 7 a.m.
Shortly before 7, a gentleman walked up, grabbed our bags and said “Let's go!” Luckily, Nestor had warned us this is exactly what would happen, so we were prepared! We followed the gentleman out the door and he escorted us to the airplane. For the flights to Bluefields, you either fly a 40-seat or a 12-seat airplane. The airline also decides the morning of the flight whether Bluefields or Corn Island is the first stop. That morning we were flying non-stop to Bluefields and on the 40-seater.
After entering the airplane, we took seats in the rear of the plane, as Nestor instructed us to do. This meant less crawling over folks to exit in Bluefields, as many were continuing on to Corn Island. Our bookbags (our only luggage for this quick trip) stayed in the back of the plane, so we had more space in our seats. In all, it took less than 10 minutes for boarding and for taxi to the runway. By 7:05 a.m., we were en route to Bluefields.
Thirty-three minutes later, we arrived in Bluefields. Jake, our escort to Calala Island, met us at the terminal and loaded us into a taxi to head to the port.
Taxi to the Boat
From BEF, it was a quick 5-minute ride to the port. Jake helped us to the boat, we donned our lifejackets, and we were off by 8:05 a.m. We later learned that Calala Island has a brand new boat that is less than a month old. But the new boat looks identical to boats from various reviews from 2020 and earlier.
The Boat Ride
The boat ride itself was very uneventful. Broken into two parts, the first hour is riding through the mangroves and on the river to the small village of Pearl Lagoon. The water was like glass the entire hour and was extremely smooth. We were also surprised to see a couple dozen monkeys in the trees! They were not excited to see us and avoided any pictures.
After an hour, we reached Pearl Lagoon. We were served breakfast, which was a bottle of water, an apple, and a cold tortilla filled with egg, cheese and ham. Afterwards, Jake took us for a tour of the small village, which we learned is his hometown. While the village of 300 people is tiny, it serves as home base for most of Calala Island's staff. After a 30-40 minute break, we set off for the final leg to Calala Island.
Once we were off from Pearl Lagoon, it was a quick 5-minute boat ride to the Nicaraguan military checkpoint at the mouth of the river. This naval base helps deter drug smuggling via the river system. This checkpoint took only a few minutes and we were not questioned at all or asked for our passports. After leaving the naval checkpoint, we reached the sea a few minutes later. It was a very calm day and the water was very nice. We arrived at Calala Island promptly at 11 a.m., which was our targeted timeframe from the phone call with Claudia the night before, and 1 hour after departure from Pearl Lagoon.
Calala Island is a 6 villa property, 4 of which are “standard” rooms (meaning they can, in theory, be booked with Hyatt points). Suites 1 and 6 are larger villas and included more sitting areas and a soaking tub. In speaking with most of the staff, all 6 villas are now occupied at almost all times. Each villa is waterfront and includes a private porch, seating area, and covered hammock. For our stay, we were in Villa 2, named “Kakabila.”
The island is not large, measuring only 1/3 of a mile around the entire perimeter. But it feels spacious and private due to the layout and natural foliage. There are 2 restaurant areas, an infinity pool and swim-up bar, the Mangla Spa, and the sports shack. If you're adventurous and want to drop $20,000-25,000, there is a helicopter pad for your private transfers from Managua.
The entire island is pristine and in wonderful condition. All sandy areas and pathways are cleaned-up and raked daily. The highlight of the property itself is the infinity pool and swim-up bar. For the vast majority of our 3 days on island, we had the entire pool and bar area to ourselves. It often felt as though we were the only guests on the island!
Calala Island is second-to-none when it comes to service. From the moment you arrive until the moment you leave, the ENTIRE team is assisting you to make your stay perfect. While it may seem overbearing to think 28 people are serving up to only 12 guests, it did not feel that way at all. If you needed anything, it happened almost instantly. But if you wanted your space and privacy, the staff seemed to disappear into thin air.
Each morning, the staff serves your first cup of coffee at your villa, starting at 7 a.m. You make the coffee selection from a coffee bean menu the night before. We tried all 4 selections and they were wonderful. Afterwards, breakfast is available from 7:30 a.m. until 10:30 a.m. The breakfast menu is small, but has plenty of options and is prepared very quickly. We were pleased with each of our selections and they were quite tasty.
During the day, we enjoyed spa services at the Mangla Spa. Karen is the very skilled masseuse. She comes by your table each morning at breakfast and inquires if you would like a spa treatment that day. She offers massages between 30 and 90 minutes each and massages are not included in the all-inclusive rate. We each did a 60-90 minute massage one day and a 30 minute massage another. The spa is in an excellent location. Hidden behind the mangroves, the spa is waterfront, open-air, and the only place on the island without wi-fi. You enjoy cool sea breezes and crashing waves during treatments. It was so relaxing and a highlight of the trip.
Lunch & Pool Service
When not at the spa, we spent the rest of our time at the infinity pool, snorkeling on the reef, and on a fishing excursion. It's important to note that almost all activities at Calala Island are free. Other than the spa, cigar & specialty rum tastings, premium wines, and cigar-making classes, everything is included. Although we did not take pictures during our snorkeling or fishing adventures, they were wonderful. The water along the reef is certainly not as clear as many parts of the Caribbean, but the reef had great coral and tons of coral fish. We saw a very large ray and the neighbor (allegedly friendly) barracuda, who followed us back to shore!
Lunch at Calala Island was at the swim-up bar each day. The selections were very nice, with a dessert of the day, and everything was delicious. One of our favorites was the snapper ceviche with house-caught snapper. If you happen to miss lunch, the staff keeps the pizza oven going most of the day. You can order a fresh made pizza at any time!
Dinner service is quite different from the rest of the day. You can choose what time to arrive, with no need for reservations of course. But the dinner menu is a set multi-course menu each day.
Although dinner is the culinary delight of the day, it was our only hiccup of the entire trip. The first evening had an incredible tasting menu that was delicious. The third evening ended with a wonderful Calala Island BBQ, which was buffet style and was very good.
But the second evening was quite disappointing. That night featured surf-and-turf. Yes, most folks love surf-and-turf, but I have a shellfish allergy. We notified the staff about my allergy a month in advance, prior to arrival, and the general manager confirmed it at check-in. Despite all of these discussions, my allergy was ignored and our surf-and-turf for 2 was served together on one large dish. Unfortunately, this meant that I couldn't eat any of it. I did not complain or ask for a different entrée, as that is not my style. But a 5-star resort with only 6 guests for dinner should never make such a mistake, especially when that mistake could result in an emergency medevac via helicopter.
As mentioned, there are 6 villas at Calala Island. Four villas are identical and 2 villas (suites 1 and 6) are slightly larger for families. Yes, Calala Island allows children. During our stay there was a family with a toddler and the staff were playful and friendly with him. The week prior, a family came with 2 children under 5. It's extremely rare to find such an exclusive property that is family-friendly, but note that only 1 villa has more than a king bed available.
Our Room, Suite 2
Our room, Suite 2, was lovely. While it lacks air conditioning and is mostly open air, it was a comfortable temperature most of the time. At night, we would have preferred only a sheet to remain a nice temperature, but the sheet was wrapped over a duvet and that combination was too hot. Otherwise, it was nice sleeping weather. There were no bugs in the room, but mosquito netting is there to protect you from geckos that may drop down in the evenings. Note: we did see many geckos in our room, but Calala Island is a mosquito-free place.
The villa itself comes with ample storage and a safe, a king bed, a toilet room, an outdoor shower, and 2 sinks. Plenty of fresh, drinkable water is in the room at all times and replenished throughout the day. The entire waterfront wall is floor to ceiling windows and the area in front of each villa is a “no go” zone for anyone else, so you can enjoy your privacy. Overall, we really enjoyed our villa. The bed was comfortable, the room was spacious, and it seemed like we were in the only building on the island. While at our villa, we never saw another guest outside. It's truly remarkable how they make the villas private with natural vegetation.
It's important to note that each room, as well as all public areas of the island, have homemade bug repellant, after-bite lotion, and hydrocortizone cream if the itching is unbearable. While there are no mosquitos, the mangroves lead to lots of “noseeums” that are around constantly. We liberally applied the bug repellant and finished our 3 days with very few bites and no need for the lotion or hydrocortizone cream.
Departure from Calala Island
The night before departure, we settled our bill prior to dinner. You have the option to include a tip for all the staff at that time (and pay with a credit card!), as there is no tipping requested throughout your stay. You can designate a specific portion of the tip to go to specific staff too, which is nice. We choose to leave a larger tip for Karen, since she worked with us in the spa for almost 4 hours. After dinner, you make your coffee selection for the following morning and review the timeline for departure.
Coffee arrives promptly at 4:30 a.m. and bags must be on your porch for pickup at 4:45 a.m. Lifejackets are donned at the pool bar at 4:55 a.m. and the boat leaves promptly at 5:00 a.m. Every single staff member is there to see you off. Our return boat trip was much faster, at only 1 hour 41 minutes. The total transfer time to Managua International Airport was only 4 hours and 40 minutes.
We spent the rest of the day with Nestor, the Calala Island representative in Managua. He was our tour guide to the Mayasa Market, the town of Granada, and then to the Masaya Volcano during our 6-hour tour. He returned us back to MGA precisely at the requested time for our return flight home. The town of Granada, the volcano, and the tour itself were lovely. We absolutely want to return to Nicaragua soon and plan to have Nestor as our tour guide.
Changes between 2022 and 2023 Trips
Overall, the booking and transfers to/from Calala Island were identical. The pre-departure and upon-arrival briefings were too long, at 30-90 minutes each. It is information overload and much of it is unnecessary. Once we are at Calala Island, the changes are quite significant.
First, the hurricane that hit Nicaragua last year devastated the island. It lost hundreds of mature palm trees and some of the privacy between villas is lacking. Second, the property added 2 new villas since 2022, which is a 50% increase over prior years. The total maximum adult guests is now 12, up from 8. Third, and probably most important, is that Calala Island now is running at 100% capacity. Gone are the days of 1 or 2 of the 4 villas being occupied. In our 2022 trip, we were alone in the pool for 2 of our 3 days. As of 2023, there are 12+ guests on property at all times. While it is still an amazing place, it is not quiet, tranquil luxury. It is more like a super-luxurious stay-away camp for adults.
ToP Thoughts: Calala Island
Wow, Calala Island is kind of overwhelming. While the intimate, completely private setting from 2022 is no more, it is still an amazing place. At 40,000 Hyatt points per night, I don't know how you can get better value from an all-inclusive property. The staff are wonderful and so friendly. Once you start chatting with them, they really like to make your day special. The one hiccup, obviously, was the surf-n-turf mishap. While it shouldn't have happened, and it led to me going to bed without a full dinner, I am willing to forgive and forget. It was one miscue in a 72 hour adventure that I cannot wait to do again.
I know that many award travelers are reluctant to visit Calala Island due to the location in Nicaragua, the lack of A/C, and the boat transfer. If ToP's review does anything for you, I hope it dispels fears about any of these. We loved our time in Nicaragua, especially on tour with Nestor. And the boat ride was really nothing to be concerned about. On a scale of 0 to 10, 0 being a kiddie pool and 10 being a storm on the sea that makes everyone on board seasick, this was, at most, a 2 of 10. We didn't get wet on either ride, were able to hold our phones and take pictures and videos, and it was not scary in the least. The captain was knowledgeable, spotted waves in advance and adjusted speed accordingly for maximum comfort. Any boat ride angst is, well, much ado about nothing.
Have you been to Calala Island? Are you hoping to go? Come over to our Facebook group and let's talk about it!