Nicaragua: Two Coastlines and Way More Than Twice the Fun
Nicaragua is a great place to learn to surf, but there’s plenty to keep you busy if that plan runs aground—from beachcombing to climbing volcanos to noshing ceviche [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceviche]
By Polya Lesova in the Wall Street Journal
I GRIPPED my surfboard with equal parts resolve and dread.
Unable to tame the waves from atop my board, I’d just been knocked into the Pacific for at least the fifth time. With the salty taste of defeat fresh in my mouth, I began to question the wisdom of my trip to Nicaragua—at least the learning-to-surf part of it.
Seeing I was flustered, my patient young Nicaraguan surfing teacher, Saul, tried to calm me down. “Move your body a little more back,” he instructed, holding the front of the board as I slid my 6-foot frame further down as best I could. “Paddle, paddle, paddle,” he said, pushing the surfboard forward. I felt the board begin to lift onto an arriving swell, raised my right knee first, then my left, and for the briefest of moments, I rode the wave, elated, before crashing down into the ocean again.
My husband, Paul, had much better luck on his surfboard as I sat and watched him from the beach at Playa Remanso, a stretch of white sand on a cove set between forested hills on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, just south of San Juan del Sur.
Fortunately—for me, anyway—Paul and I had come to Nicaragua to do more than surf. We’d been to Costa Rica and Guatemala and were eager to get away from Central America’s more touristy corners and tap its natural beauty. Nicaragua fit the bill: Its diverse geography includes smoking volcanoes for climbing and both a Pacific and Caribbean coastline, ideal given our plans to swim, surf and sail. We also hoped that the trip might give us a better understanding of the country’s recent revolution.
On the 30-mile ride from Managua’s airport to our guesthouse in Granada, we saw groups of uniformed schoolchildren toting pastel-colored sugary drinks—relief from the afternoon heat. We passed roadside stalls, some selling grilled meat and others overflowing with ripe watermelons, bananas and pineapples. Horses and cows plodded on the side of the road, where pink and magenta bougainvillea grew over fences. The face of Daniel Ortega smiled down at us from several billboards: The former Sandinista rebel-turned-president, who returned to power in 2006 (after his first leadership stint in the 1980s), has shown no interest in leaving office.
In less than an hour, we arrived in Granada, a colorful colonial town founded by the Spanish, in 1524, on the northwestern shore of Lake Nicaragua. Our guesthouse had an open courtyard with a tropical garden, a fountain, a small swimming pool and a lounge area. Minutes after checking in, we were enjoying a beer by the pool.
Strolling through the center of town on our first evening, we discovered that our visit overlapped with Granada’s international poetry festival. A stage was set up near the park, beneath the terra-cotta domes of the town’s bright-yellow cathedral. Vendors sold quesillos (cheese in tortillas), plantain chips, grilled meat and mango slices to the crowd, while, on the stage, poets from all over Latin America read from their work. Paul and I have only an elementary understanding of Spanish, but the verses were peppered with words we recognized such as muerte (death) and amor (love), and the authors recited with such passion that we were riveted. The audience of men, women and children listened, equally transfixed, even as a light rain began to fall.
Poetry and rebellion seem intertwined in Nicaragua’s character and in its turbulent history: Some of its most famous poets were also revolutionaries. The poems expressed the suffering and loss the nation has endured amid its dictatorships and wars. We were surrounded entirely by strangers, but the experience felt like an intimate and revealing welcome to the country.
The next morning, we explored Mombacho, a dormant volcano not far from the city, on a tour with about 10 other people, most from the U.S. and Canada. We ascended the 4,000-foot peak in the comfort of a Land Rover, and then walked on a dirt trail through fierce winds to see the cloud forest that blankets its crater. Promising that even better views were yet to come, our guide led us into the cold and wet forest, through vegetation so thick that we were walking in semidarkness. After about an hour, we emerged into full sunshine and a radically different landscape and climate. The air was warm and dry, and the ground was pocked here and there with fumaroles—holes from which hot, sulfurous steam issued like belches from the sleeping volcano. Further on, the trail opened up to an expansive meadow sprinkled with purple orchids, red-trumpet flowers and orange blooms the locals call Spanish flags. From our new vantage point, we had a birds-eye view of Lake Nicaragua, with the town of Granada spread out along its shore. Where Granada ended and the lake began, we could make out a multitude of tiny islands, known as Las Isletas, formed when Mombacho erupted thousands of years ago. In the distance, we could also see the giant caldera of the active Masaya volcano. It was a spectacle that no Instagram photo could do justice, and I was reluctant to leave.
After a couple of nights in the city, we were ready for some beach time, so we hired a driver to take us on the two-hour ride southwest to San Juan del Sur, a former fishing village on the Pacific Coast that has grown into a popular but still relaxed beach resort. The town is built on a series of hills, one of which is topped by a statue of Christ (at 80 feet, it’s one of the tallest in the world but still about 20 feet shorter than Rio’s). Another was topped by our resort, Pelican Eyes, which has an outdoor restaurant that serves juicy steaks and piña coladas. We enjoyed both during a sunset meal after our surfing lesson. They were all the more delicious for being so well-earned.
On our last full day, we chartered a sailboat. Well, not exactly, but we might as well have. We’d booked a sailing trip through the resort and discovered, on arriving at the boat that cloudless afternoon, that we were the only passengers. We sailed north along the Pacific Coast while our crew of three kept the beer flowing, the chips bowl filled and the ’80s tunes playing on the stereo.
It was Paul’s birthday and we were both content just to relax at the end of a few active days of exploring. After sailing past jagged cliffs for about an hour, we arrived at a quiet cove that was to be ours alone for the afternoon. Paul jumped in for a swim to the pretty beach and back; I was still waterlogged from my surfing lesson so only took a quick dip before returning to the sunny deck to wait for our lunch of ceviche and chicken sandwiches. Now, that’s my idea of taming the waves.
The Lowdown // Sampling Nicaragua, Whether You Aspire to Ride the Waves or Not
Getting There: Several major carriers fly from the U.S. to Managua. Most hotels can help you arrange a private driver to take you from the airport to Granada (a roughly 45-minute drive) and from Granada to San Juan del Sur (about two hours’ drive).
Staying There: Miss Margrit’s is a colonial-style guesthouse in Granada that offers comfortable rooms, excellent service and freshly made breakfast served at a communal table. It has a beautiful courtyard with a garden and a swimming pool (from about $80 a night, missmargrits.com). Pelican Eyes is a large resort with sweeping views of San Juan del Sur and the Pacific Ocean. It has three infinity pools, two restaurants and a spa. Many rooms are located up a hill; you can either walk the many stairs or take the free shuttle (from about $150 a night, pelicaneyesresort.com).
Eating There: In Granada, El Garaje serves well-made sandwiches, burritos and salads (Calle Corrales, 505-7-523-3473). The Garden Café is another good option, offering a menu of international and Nicaraguan dishes (gardencafegranada.com). At Pelican Eyes, La Cascada serves good fish tacos at tables with ocean views; definitely try the cocktails, such as Macuá, Nicaragua’s national drink.
Exploring There: Tierra Tours offers several tours around Granada, including one to Mombacho volcano (from $30 a person, tierratour.com). San Juan del Sur Surf and Sport offers surfing lessons (from $50 a person for one-on-one lesson, sanjuandelsursurf.com). Pelican Eyes offers sailing trips on its own boat ($60 a person for four hours).
Poster’s comment: I think most readers are familiar with the political frictions which exist between the new world USA and Nicaragua.