This past winter I skipped the ski holiday and joined the mid-latitude masses that head south. I didn’t want to vacation with the masses though. Nicaragua with its unspoilt scenery, consistently warm weather and interesting places to explore was the answer.
Destinations such as Mexico and the Caribbean islands, have mature tourist industries and cater better to tourists that seek the luxuries and excesses of North America while on holiday in places that lack them. Large all-inclusive resorts and newly-built suburban-style expat communities abound.
Until recently, the seven Central American countries had been left to back-packers. El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are still that way for the most part, as violence, crime and political unrest deter tourists and drive large increases in asylum-seekers. In the more developed countries of Panama and Costa Rica, resorts and expat communities are on the rise. Costa Rica, with its pura vida philosophy has become a mecca for the environmentally/health/fitness-conscious crowd and is the destination for millennials. Eco-friendly lodging, bullet-proof coffee, anti-oxidant/protein-rich smoothies, morning yoga sessions and gluten-free, vegan bbqs on the beach complement adventures such as canyoning and zip lining. Belize, too, may be headed that way.
Nicaragua, with its turbulent political past (revolution through the 1970s and the contra war through the 1980s) had almost two decades of relative calm and tourism began to grow. Then, in 2018, the risk of civil war loomed again after protests and demands for President Ortega’s resignation resulted in many deaths and thousands of fleeing refugees. The number of travellers, tourists and expats took a nosedive from which it hasn’t recovered.
We (as in me and my millennial kids) hoped to see Nicaragua before the crowds returned and development changed the face of the country. We have few opportunities to holiday together these days and we had just a week, only time for a snapshot.
We rented a house near Playa Maderas north of San Juan del Sur on the Pacific coast. It was a 3-hour drive from Managua airport and 4WD is recommended. If you’re not staying in San Juan del Sur, the pot-holed, gravel roads off the main road, climb directly up and over the steep hills and make for challenging terrain.
After almost 24 hours of travelling, including a grocery stop in Rivas, seeing the house we rented and the beautiful beach we shared with only three (seemingly empty) houses, instantly convinced us we had made the right choice.
The morning after our arrival (and most mornings thereafter) began with me trailing my daughter on a barefooted beach run. I couldn’t keep up and had to stop to catch my breath every 500 m or so. After a few hot and humid kilometres and then climbing the 100-odd steps back to the house, I longed for water, coffee, breakfast and a hammock.
Instead, my other daughter stood waiting with a second workout planned and the hammocks were occupied by the boys drinking the last of the coffee and staring at their phones. There was water though….
Our house was very private but a 5-minute walk away, just around the point, was Playa Maderas. It has four beach bar/restaurants catering mostly to surfers. At $10 (USD) a day for a surf board, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity. We shared two boards and settled in at the bar for the afternoon. We surfed 20 – 30 min at a time because that was about as much failure as we could tolerate in a go. Games of pool between shifts relaxed us and beer and 2 for 1 cocktails improved our confidence but definitely not our form or ability.
The “real” surfers arrived at high tide, as the sun began to set. Playa Madera is a popular surfing beach. Its beach break is known for its consistent, sometimes powerful and often hollow waves. We returned our boards, no point in ruining the day by being put to shame. Having had more to drink than eat that afternoon it was better that we went home anyway and made some dinner.
A few times we walked to Playa Maderas and caught the bus to San Juan del Sur.
The bus costs about 165 cordoba ($5 USD) return, serves both locals and tourists, takes about half an hour and is a dusty ride during the dry season.
San Juan del Sur, once a quiet little fishing village, is now a bustling backpacker/surfer town. The local market and bars sit alongside surf shops and hostels. Sunday Funday, a day-long pub crawl is a popular weekly event but we arrived too late to participate.
The town was eerily quiet. The protests against President Ortega’s cost-cutting policies and the resulting violence and deaths in 2018 have crushed business.We met Shea, Chez, Shay (sp??) in the street that day, a scruffy-looking, toothless retiree from California. He moved here four years ago for a less expensive life and now helps run tourist fishing expeditions. Tourism has driven up prices, although they are still lower than Costa Rica or Mexico, and for most Nicaraguans making ends meet in San Juan del Sur is increasingly difficult. The North American influence is evident and specialty coffee shops, the (American-owned) Nicaragua Craft Beer Co and The Loose Moose, a Canadian bar serving moose balls, poutine and caesars foreshadow an upmarket vibe.
The lush island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua is also worth a visit. Lake Nicaragua is an 8,000 sq km freshwater lake that, I admit, I didn’t even know existed. It’s on the Pacific side but drains into the Caribbean sea and the prevailing easterly winds build sizeable waves on the lake. The ferry between San Jorge and Moyogalpa on Ometepe is inexpensive and runs approximately every hour.
Ometepe has two volcanoes, Concepción, a perfectly shaped, active volcano that had its last ash-spewing in 2010, and volcano Maderas. They’re both hike-able if you have 8 – 10 hours to spare for each. We didn’t so we rented motor scooters and an ATV.
I’d never driven a motorcycle and wasn’t used to its weight, turning radius, throttle on the handle and fast acceleration. The rental company wasn’t concerned and didn’t even ask if I had a driver’s licence. I made it out of Moyogalpa without falling over or running into anything and it got easier from there. With three of us on scooters and two in the ATV, we crossed the island and stopped at a beach restaurant for a fresh fish lunch.
We were the only customers at Julia’s and were not sure what to expect but the food was fresh and delicious and the setting was lovely.
El Ojo de Agua spa was our next stop. This natural, mineral-rich pool is fed by a river originating on the volcano Concepción. Attracting locals and tourists, it supposedly has healing properties. For us it was just a cool plunge to rinse off the road dust.
More surfing, cocktails and an evening in San Juan del Sur filled the rest of a week that passed too quickly.
A note of advice: If you intend on spending an evening partying in San Juan del Sur, you could find that the taxi home in the wee hours of the morning is more expensive than you originally negotiated. Not only might the driver demand more money, he also might abandon you on the road part-way home when the taxi can’t make it up the hills without 4WD. I won’t go into how I know this but I know it involved a long walk home and an ATV that had to go back to collect those less able to walk in a straight line.
With more time, I’d add Granada’s colonial architecture, pastel-coloured buildings, old churches and vibrant market, hiking the volcanoes (and boarding down them) and visiting national parks and nature reserves. One snapshot is definitely not enough.