SAN JUAN DEL SUR, Nicaragua — Tell anyone you're headed to a destination wedding here, and they are likely to assume that the bride or groom is from this Central American country, more closely associated with war than weddings.
But neither the bride nor the groom whose wedding I attended in late January has ties to the country. They simply knew they wanted to get married abroad. Their relationship, after all, had started with a passport stamp when they studied in Chile as undergrads.
So they sought a place that could impress people who have traveled extensively and those who rarely leave their hometowns.
"Nicaragua doesn't have the same ring as Hawaii," bride Theresa Vargas said. But she and husband Matt Lutkenhouse chose it because they did not want to be just one of many resort weddings taking place the same weekend.
They also liked the idea that the resort they chose, Piedras y Olas, has a partnership with a foundation that provides education and employment to young people in the community. "If you're spending all this money, you want to know it is feeding the local economy," said Matt, an economist.
Not only has Central America grown in popularity as a travel destination in the last few years, but it's also become a new locale for destination weddings. Although some people may question the choice of a developing country as a place to tie the knot, it has much of the same appeal to brides and grooms as it does for adventurous travelers. It's easy to get to: There are no long flights or excessive time zone changes, and airfare is relatively cheap.
"Honeymooners have long been beating a path to Central America for the combination of gorgeous beaches, photogenic jungles and the chance to experience other cultures," said James Lohan, co-founder of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, which books luxury hotels for weddings.
"But our concierge service is seeing a growing interest in brides and grooms wanting to take the whole wedding to Colombia, Guatemala and Belize."
A surge of couples has sought recommendations in Costa Rica and Panama as well, Lohan said. Adventurous brides and grooms who choose Central America like the idea of getting married on the Mayan Riviera, near a volcano in Puebla or in the jungles of Jalisco.
Holding weddings abroad gives couples the perfect excuse to trim their guest list and guarantee a select celebration with their closest friends and relatives, wedding planners say. (Post-wedding, Theresa and Matt held a reception in San Antonio, Texas, for her large extended family.)
It is equally important, planners say, to know the requirements of the country before going, such as whether blood tests and chest X-rays are needed.
Destination weddings have increased 400 percent since 2001, according to wedding expert Danielle Andrews Sunkel, who cited industry statistics. Destination weddings account for 18 percent of the wedding market and are expected to increase in popularity, she said.
"Couples are getting more creative when it comes to where they say, 'I do,'"said Sunkel, owner of theweddingplanners.ca, which encourages clients to think beyond the Caribbean and the Bahamas.
Matt's family was fine with the choice of Nicaragua from the start. Theresa's family, however, needed persuading. They read the State Department Web site on travel warnings regularly before endorsing the idea. The Vargases made their wills first, then got their passports.
Guests flew into Managua, then took a shuttle to San Juan del Sur from the airport. That ride can take two to four hours, depending on the time and day of the week.
Despite looming clouds upon arrival, our driver strapped our American-size luggage to the roof of a 15-passenger van so we could all fit. The added weight slowed us down, as did our need to pull over for traffic on a stretch of road that inexplicably turned into a one-way street.
Ox and donkey carts carrying goods and people dotted the landscape on our ride to the hotel, as did trash-strewn thoroughfares and corrugated-metal homes that appeared to lack electricity. Several wedding guests started to question Matt and Theresa's decision to marry here.
Then we rounded a turn toward San Juan del Sur, and the reason became obvious. The coastal town, known for its beautiful, unspoiled private beaches, sat nestled along the Pacific.
Our resort, Piedras y Olas, was expansive enough to make foot travel difficult. So drivers were ready to ferry guests to their rooms. And the resort had warned us of some "eccentricities of life in Nicaragua," such as erratic electricity causing short blackouts.
The rooms, however, were large and well appointed, with sweeping ocean or valley views.
As with any destination wedding, the guests wanted to see more than the resort before the main event. Options were abundant, but it's best to plan to be gone awhile if you want a decent tour that ventures any significant distance from your hideaway.
We chose an eight-hour tour that started in San Juan de Oriente, known for ceramics and pottery. At Ceramica-ARTE, Duilio Jimenez and his son gave us an old-school demonstration of pottery-making, foot-spun wheel included. An hour later, we saw similar handiwork for twice the cost at the crafts market in Masaya.
Our last stop was the Masaya Volcano National Park, or, as tour guide Eduardo called it, the "volcano for lazy people."
Paved roads lead to the smoking crater, making it accessible by car, compared with the treacherous climb necessary to scale Nicaragua's other volcanoes, which range in dormancy and hiking difficulty.
After a passive day of touring, I opted for adventure on the day of the wedding. Instead of lounging on the beach, I took in spectacular views of the bay from a zip line.
Da' Flying Frog offers a 1.5-mile canopy tour. Reaching speeds of almost 45 mph on the fastest line, the ride provided quite a thrill and a chance to bond with other wedding guests.
"People thought we were going to give them some social experiment and put them in huts," Theresa said. "I think everyone was pleasantly surprised. We really think it changed some people's perceptions of the country."
Rosanna Obregon, events coordinator at Piedras y Olas, said that when the resort opened in 2004, guests suggested it would be ideal to host weddings. Yet Obregon still has to sell some couples on the destination. "You have to convince them it's safe," she said. "They are looking for insurance, in case there's a war."
Once a couple buys a wedding package, most of the communication is via e-mail. That was just fine for Theresa, who was not fussy about the details surrounding her special day.
She and Matt checked out the venue beforehand, but they did not fly back for a tasting or to smell the flowers in the bridal bouquet, instead trusting the resort to deliver.
"Ultimately the people who come here don't want something elegant and fancy," Obregon said. "They want something simple and special."
Theresa and Matt had a sunset service overlooking the gorgeous bay. The wedding itself had all the efficiency of a city hall ceremony.
They chose not to exchange vows as the lawyer who officiated reeled off the passport identification numbers of the bride, groom and their two official witnesses.
In keeping with the lack of tradition, there was no toss of the bouquet or garter. The couple did indulge traditionalists by cutting into a three-tiered butter-cream confection and feeding each other pieces. The cake was topped with bride and groom PEZ dispensers.
So we ate. And we danced.
A mariachi band brought some San Antonio flavor to the reception, which was followed by dinner and a Patron-fueled party lasting six hours.
By the end, we were all family.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: May flights cost about $350, including taxes. To get there, you have two choices — American Airlines through Miami or Continental through Houston.
STAYING THERE: At Piedras y Olas, prices range from $180 to $224 a night, depending on the season and view. Houses are also available to rent, with prices ranging from $230 to $483 a night. 866-350-0555, piedrasyolas.com.