Regrettably, we had to move on, this time heading for Surf City, CA (read that "Central America," not "California"). Although the general tourist market is just beginning to discover Nicaragua, surfers have known about it for years. Most pass through San Juan del Sur, the country's favorite beach town, on the way to surf camps and nearby beaches known for their excellent breaks.

San Juan has become a fave with expats and tourists too. Barefoot bars and open-air restaurants line its beautiful, crescent-shaped bay. The shellfish is served fresh and cold, and the gallopinto (a beans-and-rice dish) is served hot and spicy. Top it off with an icy bottle of Toña beer.

"I'm not sure how we ended up living here," said Norm Maywright, formerly of Ithaca, N.Y., "but we're incredibly happy."

Maywright and Linda Giordano said they were vacationing in San Juan del Sur for the first time when they decided to pretend they were on the TV show "House Hunters International." "We were just going around looking at houses," she said, "when someone made us an offer we couldn't refuse." They packed up and moved south.

"There's something about living in a beach town, hearing the surf and seeing the waves," Maywright said. "It's a peaceful, no-stress world."

If that's what people are searching for, they can find it up and down Nicaragua's Pacific coast, sometimes referred to as the Emerald Coast because of the lush vegetation that grows there during the rainy season (mid-May until November). The country's vast stretches of beaches are considered one of its prime assets, the jewels that may boost the nation — among the poorest in the hemisphere — out of poverty.

If it happens, Carlos Pellas, one of Nicaragua's richest men, will have had much to do with it. Pellas, who oversees the Flor de Caña rum distillery, among other businesses, decided the nation needed a high-end luxury hotel to compete globally, so he carved one out of a 1,670-acre chunk of pristine beach and hillside in southwest Nicaragua.

Mukul, his 37-room, $40-million resort, opened last spring and is part of a larger $250-million private beach community that could eventually include 600 residences. Among the hotel's perks: six spas (when you visit one, you "own" it for much of the day), two restaurants, 24-hour butler service and an 18-hole golf course created by Scottish designer David McLay Kidd. Each guest room is a separate casa with its own deck and infinity pool; some are beachfront, others sit on a hillside overlooking the Pacific.

Rooms at Mukul — the word means "secret" in the Maya language — start at $550 a night, a far cry from the inexpensive accommodations found through much of the nation. But given the amenities, the tariff is comparable to those charged by Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton, which Pellas considers competitors.

We toured the resort, sat on a deck watching the sea and felt like billionaires. Our long-ago trip to Costa Rica faded from memory. Nicaragua had won the contest, hands down.

travel@latimes.com