Hurricanes have devastated it. Political corruption has impoverished it. Earthquakes have leveled it. Trade embargoes have strangled it. International scandals have blemished it. Yet you should go there! If you can brave Nicaragua's bad rep," you will discover a vibrant land of extraordinary landscape, heart-wrenching history, and passionate people. I assure you—you will love Nicaragua. Surfing buddies of my youngest son invited him to spend his spring break from college, helping them out at a surf camp in Gigante. One week proved not enough. When his friends invited him to return for the summer, my son couldn't say "yes" fast enough. Not to be outdone, his older sister and I decided to descend upon Nicaragua ourselves. We would explore it for three weeks before joining him at Surf Camp and unwind in luxury before returning stateside.
Managua's Augusto Cesar Sandino International Airport is easy to get to—and easy to get out of. I flew from Los Angeles, with a stopover in El Salvador. My daughter flew from New York, with a stopover in Miami. Once we departed Managua's airport, our hotel's shuttle scooted us in less than an hour to Granada. Casa San Francisco proved to be a perfect welcoming hotel. Bougainvilleas draped over balconies and cascaded down to patio ferns. A few pet turtles paraded around the gardens, as if dutiful hotel mascots. Accommodations came with breakfast: fresh fruit, gallo pino (beans and rice,) fresh squeezed orange juice, steaming coffee, and eggs prepared anyway you want. The dinner menu is vast. Don't miss the hotel's specialty: tres enchiladas, oozing tortillas of cheeses, chicken, and fish.
Kitty-corner from the hotel lays Convento de San Francisco. Leisurely stroll through its grounds that display petroglyphs of half man, half lizard, turtle or jaguar. Then walk two blocks to palm-lined Parque Central. Here, plop yourself on a bench to chat with locals and visitors alike and soak in the colonial atmosphere. Then browse the souvenir stands. You'll probably decide to buy ceramic vases inscribed by the craftsmen or freshly-painted tee-shirts depicting parrots or monkeys. Small kiosks cater to your thirst, selling soft drinks, ice-cream, fruit juices, and smoothies.
In front of the bandstand to the south of Parque Central horse-drawn carriages line up. You'll have a dozen to choose from for a 90 minute ride that combines history, architecture, and natural beauty.
Welcoming breezes off Lago de Nicaragua soothe away Granada's heat. The shoreline is only one kilometer east of Parque Central. Lakeside restaurants and bars dot a narrow beach and grassy areas. My daughter Tania and I went with Giovanni, our hotel tour guide, to visit Los Isletas and especially Isla de los Monos (Monkey Island). Giovanni brought welcoming treats of bananas and tomatoes to ensure that monkeys hopped aboard our boat for their hand-fed morning snacks. 365 islands pop up on Lago de Nicaragua, many of them dotted with privately owned palatial homes and manicured gardens.
While Granada is good, its surroundings are even better. Casa San Francisco has set up a sister resort at San Simian, Laguna de Apoyo, a 48-square-kilometer lake inside the crater of Apoyo Volcano. Relatively deserted, it's only an hour's drive from Granada. Tell Jamie and his family, the caretakers, what you want to do and what you want to eat, and soon it will be yours. We lay out on the deck, chatted with the local fishermen, plunged into the silk-like water, and rode the waves on a catamaran. We walked the trails, noting falcons above and hummingbirds flitting to orchids alongside us. We sang back to the howler monkeys' chatter that echoed off the hills.
Close by Granada lies Masaya, home to Nicaragua's enormous craft markets. Wooden bowls, ceramics, paintings, hammocks, rocking chairs, or traditional clothing: you'll find them all here. Get ready for the sport of haggling for a good buy. Just outside Masaya, the Parque Nacional Volcan Masaya gives a glimpse into the smoking volcano's cone and stunning views of Managua's outskirts. Surrounding Masaya lies The Pueblos Blancos, given their name from the traditional whitewash used on their houses. Join in on a ceramics-making lesson or simply watch the experts as their toes soften the clay and their fingers mold artistic creations. Allow an hour's stop at Catarina, the prettiest of The Pueblos Blancos. Its magical lookout point, El Mirador, stares right down into the collapsed crater lake of Laguna de Apoyo, with Volcan Masaya standing guard behind.
Time came for us to leave Granada and head over to the Pacific Coast. My daughter and I had signed up to take Spanish classes at Spanish Ya in San Juan del Sur. Yajaira Jimenez, the school's director, arranged our shuttle. The new road provided a very pretty drive of less than two hours. Often, trees stretched their branches to touch the ones extending from the road's other side. It seemed as if a leafy canopy sheltered us as we travelled westward.
San Juan del Sur is a dozing fishing village. It's a popular spot with foreign travelers, with the waterfront restaurants and bars catering to an English-speaking crowd. The town sits in a lush valley with a river running down to the beach. Two cliffs provide the borders for the beach itself. Excellent seafood restaurants welcome visitors to linger over Happy Hours and magnificent sunsets. Fine dark sand stretches long and deep for the beach. Locals and their dogs mingled with visitors for make-shift soccer matches, ever so often a dog tripping a visitor on his run for a goal.
Tania and I plunked ourselves at Posada Azul, a cozy bed and breakfast inn only a few yards from the beach and a few blocks from school. Posada Azul knew how to begin our days off with stamina and smiles. Our breakfast plates over-flowed with tomato omelets, fresh fruit, blueberry muffins, home-made strawberry jam, and black beans and rice. Fresh squeezed juices of orange, mango, pineapple, or papaya quenched our thirst.
A number of Spanish schools offer one-on-one instruction in San Juan del Sur. Spanish Ya proved fine, and we also heard praise of San Juan del Sur Spanish School and Nicaragua Spanish School. On some afternoons after our mornings of conjugating verbs and learning idioms, we swam in one of three infinity pools at the deluxe resort, Pelican Eyes. This Five Star resort offers upscale accommodations, plus a tourist office that provides sailing, fishing, and surfing excursions.
One afternoon we jumped on a surf shop truck, driving to Maderas, a beach 30 minutes north of town. A few boulders popped out of the water, and cliffs enclosed the outstretched sand. At low tide, a handful of surfers sat far off shore. Small sand crabs scampered around, scurrying away as we walked near their homes. The water proved luxurious, both in its mid 70's temperature and bath-oil like texture.
Another afternoon Tania and I went with Spanish Ya teachers and their families to Madregral, a beach near Maderas. Clouds unloaded for an afternoon burst, bringing afterward bright sunrays and a rainbow bouncing off the waves. With the vivacity of five year olds, we pranced in the water, chased one another to shore, and dashed out to sea for more.
Coco, a beach close to the Costa Rica border, is so beautiful it would turn any die-heart atheist into a believer. Coco's gentle waves rolled in and out as if singing a lullaby. Ever so often a bare-back rider on horse trotted up and down the beach. Locals came, complete with baseballs and bats. Fathers tossed pitches to young sons and cheered them to run to make-shift bases, all in the training to become future Dennis Martinezes. Sailboats chartered from San Juan del Sur glided by. They hugged the shoreline, dropping off their guests to momentarily dip into the sea.
Surfers can hop on sunset cruises from San Juan del Sur. One afternoon we travelled south to let off three surfers at different breaks. Then we hurried out to sea to fish before returning to retrieve the surfers and hear stories of their conquests. With the help of Captain Juan, I caught a 2' lumber jack tuna. The crew filleted it, and a restaurant in town grilled it, adding scrumptious vegetables and rice to complete the dinner.
While great, don't limit your activities solely to the beach. One afternoon we rode horses in nearby mountains to San Juan del Sur. Howler monkeys and a 2-toed sloth gazed down from tree limbs as we passed. Once we got off our horses and walked to a nearby waterfall and pool. At its entrance sat a beckoning rock marked with petroglyphs, reminding us of the antiquity of this land. On the mountain top the view of the town below unfolded magically. The beckoning statue of San Juan sat to our right while fishing boats lazily swayed in the water straight ahead. Zip-line travelers shared these trails with us, day guests of Da Flying Frog Canopy Tours, which has set up 17 treetop platforms in a 2.5 kilometer area. Holding on to lines and mastering eagle-like stunts, they would raise their exclamatory hoots to rival howler monkeys.
If your timing is spring or early summer, you must attend a baseball game. While we were in Nicaragua, Rivas and Granada contended for the national playoffs. This contest made our World Series look tame. Bring a chair if you want more than bleachers, though you probably won't be sitting down much. Come early to the Rivas stadium, hoot and holler, and learn fantastic "National Español" as the fans idolize their home team and defile their opponents.
If your visit falls between July and February, be sure to stop by Casa Oro in San Juan del Sur to arrange an outing to Reserve La Flor during turtle season. They will drive you 22 kilometers south of town to watch the nesting and hatching of Olive Ridley sea turtles. It will outshine any grunion run, both in size and number.
Time had come to meet up with my son in Gigante. My teacher's husband picked us up early and we drove on paved and dirt roads northward. Easily, we understood the appeal of Gigante. It's a lazy fishing village, sprinkled with the locals' smiles and catches: lobsters. Its surfing beach, nestled between cliffs, is a ten minute stroll crisscrossing the wooded pathway. A bit further north sits Colorado, a premiere surfing destination. We treated my son and fellow surf camp "workers" to fish tacos and let them teach us how to ride a few waves.
Gathering up my son, we headed to the deluxe private community of Rancho Santana to spend our last few days in Nicaragua. We lounged in a circular shaped ultra-modern home, complete with every possible amenity: private cook, satellite television, fluffy bath towels, and monogrammed bathrobes. An infinity pool cascaded from our deck, as if flowing into the cove below. We waded through tide pools and jumped over rocks. Indeed, this luxurious stay seemed more like Malibu than Nicaragua.
Time had come for our departure. We secured a shuttle to the airport, packed up our beachwear and souvenirs, and set out for our final beach walk. The sun was rising, sprinkling its rays on the ocean's froth. We dipped our toes in the waves, splashed the spray on our faces, and turned to one another with a promise. Definitely, we would return to this land of hurricanes, political corruption, earthquakes, trade embargoes, and international scandals. After all, it is extraordinary. It is Nicaragua!
Nicaragua Side Bar
I. Where to Stay
l. Casa San Francisco
B. Laguna de Apoyo
C. San Juan del Sur
2. Pelican Eyes
D. Bahia Gigante (private community)
2. 2 bedroom condo
E. Rancho Santana
II. Where to Eat:
A. In Granada: Casa San Francisco
B. In San Juan del Sur: Pelican Eyes
B. Good restaurants at Coco Beach and Gigante (on the beach)
C. Good restaurants at club-houses in communities of Bahia Gigante and Rancho Santana
A. Book with Casa San Francisco in Granada. Giovanni is a super guide, bilingual
B. Book with Pelican Eyes in San Juan del Sur for upscale sailing trips
C. Book with locals at kiosks at beachfront for sunset surfing/fishing trips. (Strongly recommend this trip. It cost only $15 and catching a fish is almost guaranteed. Trip was nearly three hours, beautiful scenery and great crew.) Surf shops also sell these trips.
D. Casa Oro: They can set you up for transportation to surf beaches, turtle runs when in season, canopy trips, horseback riding in areas near San Juan del Sur
E. The Spanish School, Spanish Ya, incorporates afternoon trips with the students' morning language lessons.
A retired school teacher, Bonnie Lynn now enjoys travelling when kids are in school. She lives in southern California and enjoys, besides travelling, grandkids, Labradors, reading, and swimming. And, of course, can't forget the pasta and gelato.
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