Dawn casts a rosy pink glow on boats bobbing in the bay. A couple of kids toss themselves into the flat surf as locals and tourists take quiet walks on the beach. It’s not even six a.m., but people are up and enjoying the relatively cool air in what will be another blazing day in southwestern Nicaragua. A few green parrots perch on telephone wires, cocking their heads. And towering above all, the biggest Jesus statue in Central America watches over the laid-back surf town. It’s the perfect beginning to a day in Nicaragua.
Until 1851, San Juan Del Sur was a small fishing village when it became a transit point for the California Gold Rush. East coast Americans with gold fever took ships down to the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, then traveled by river to huge Lake Nicaragua. Once they crossed the lake, they only had to go overland 10 miles to San Juan Del Sur (SJDS), where they boarded a boat up the Pacific coast to California.
Nowadays, tourists are more bent on surfing, relaxation and drinking than on panning for gold. I had the chance to spend five days in the area taking surf lessons, scanning trees for wildlife, and having my first up-close look at Central America and it was a trip better than any gold strike.
ChicaBrava: The Surfin’s Fine
In 2003, Texan Ashley Blaylock ditched her law career and moved to Nicaragua to surf. The six-time Nicaragua women’s surf champion realized her dream of founding an all-women’s surf camp.
I spent three nights at a ChicaBrava mini surf camp with Ashley, her crew of female surf instructors, and four other surf campers. Surfers of all levels – including rank beginners like me – are invited to join ChicaBrava’s clubhouse atmosphere. Accommodations in the Surf House are basic, but clean and comfortable. The morning starts with a home-cooked meal, including platters of fresh tropical fruit. The day’s schedule revolves around the tides, with at least three hours devoted to surf instruction and practice.
If you’re a surfer girl, or just surf-curious, this is an excellent opportunity to take a crash course in the sport. The instructors were supportive and patient with me, who was not exactly a natural at surfing. I overcame my fear of wiping out – which happened many times – and even managed to repeatedly stand on the board and ride some tiny waves. It helped to know that last year the ChicaBrava gang taught two 70-year-old women to surf.
Colonial Architecture, Local Crafts, and More
During my days in San Juan Del Sur, the surfing itinerary kept me pretty busy. But I also had time to explore other local attractions both with my new surf buddies andindependently.
A visit to the colonial town of Granada revealed a more formal side of southwest Nicaragua. Here the buildings were more substantial, with a lovely town square in front of an impressive yellow cathedral where a funeral procession with an ornate horse-drawn hearse was taking place. Granada is a dignified place to die, with one of Nicaragua’s most beautiful cemeteries. Six former presidents slumber eternally in the Cementerio de Granada, which was used between 1876 and 1922.
Those who prefer shopping for local crafts can ride up the road to the town of Masaya. You can shop for leather and wood items at the huge, gothic Mercado Artesanias. (You’ll need to hire a car, take a bus or join a tour to get to Masaya or Granada from San Juan Del Sur.)
Activities right around SJDS provide opportunities to explore the natural landscape. Horseback riding is popular. I went ziplining for the first time at Da Flying Frog Canopy Tours. The course had 17 lines and cost $30, which seemed very reasonable. I enjoyed seeing the tops of the trees as I whizzed by.
SJDS’ biggest attraction is the beaches. Swimmers, surfers, sunbathers, sunset watchers and boogie boarders flock to coastal hotspots. Playa Maderas has an adorable open-fronted café with good espresso and is a favorite place to watch the sunset. Playa Hermosa boasts the longest shoreline, luring beachcombers who hunt for shells, then relax in hammocks sipping freshly made smoothies.
Good Vegetarian Eats in SJDS
You don’t need to dress up to eat in SJDS; shorts and sundresses are de rigeur. El Colibri is the best restaurant in town, especially for vegetarians. They make a delicious South Indian curry, fresh tasting and mildly spiced. The Mediterranean stew over couscous also looked like a winner. This eclectic restaurant has at least four vegetarian dishes to choose from. The night I was there, all the customers sat outside in the garden. But the inside is also very cute and crammed with colorful folk art.
Restaurants and bars line the beach and make excellent spots for watching spectacular orange sunsets. You can eat pizza at Pizza San Juan La Playa or get a drink or smoothie at Iguana’s. El Timon has many happy hour specials for a dollar or two. Vegetarians who want to try a local specialty can order a canasta at El Timon. You get a bowl of deep-fried plantains stuffed with roasted corn, served on a bed of refried black beans with hunks of cheese. Pretty greasy for my taste, but typical of some of the popular local food.
Wrap and Roll, owned by a Hawaii native, is a perfect lunch spot for vegetarians. Order a falafel wrap or a noodle bowl with teriyaki or Thai peanut sauce. This is humble and nutritious fare and only costs $3 or $4. For dessert, head down the street to Banana Hamaca’s, which makes both healthful and decadent smoothies. I opted for decadent and ordered the Backdoor, which features dark chocolate, peanut butter, coconut and probably a full day’s calories.
Don’t miss the simple pleasure of Nicaragua’s fresh fruit. The bananas and pineapple are sweet, and the more exotic pitaya, or dragonfruit, is flavorful and beautiful with its deep red color.
Morgan’s Rock Eco-lodge
I spent my last two days in Nicaragua at Morgan’s Rock Eco-lodge. About 25 minutes from San Juan Del Sur, this eco-lodge sits in the middle of a nature reserve. As one who relishes animals more than people, this place delighted me. I crossed a suspension bridge and followed many pathways and steps to arrive at my isolated, spacious bungalow. Its walls were mainly screen so I could hear monkeys howl and waves splash on the private beach below. Everything I needed was right on the premises: pool, restaurant, bar, massage, kayaks, boogie boards, hiking paths, and a tour director to teach me about local history and help me spot the animals. My biggest thrill was watching a mother sloth slowly traverse the branches with a baby clinging to her stomach.
Morgan’s Rock inspired a feeling of ease in me. My first night, I walked down to the beach between a little row of chimineas (earthenware fireplaces). I sat alone, feeling the sand between my toes. The whole sky blazed orange as the sun dipped behind a cliff. It was the perfect ending to a day spent in Nicaraguan nature. – Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor
If You Go
You’ll need to fly into Managua and take a shuttle to San Juan Del Sur. Group shuttles cost about $45 one-way. Private and night shuttles cost more.
Plane and shuttle timetables make it likely that you’ll need to stay a night in Managua at one or both ends of your trip. The Hotel Camino Real is clean, comfortable and has a lovely pool area. Take advantage of the free airport shuttle service and giant breakfast buffet. www.caminoreal.com.ni
To arrange a surf stay, contact ChicaBrava: www.chicabrava.com
For an eco-lodge retreat, Morgan’s Rock: www.morgansrock.com