San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
And the usual border scenario played out; a local bus to the crossing in Costa Rica, a wait in line and stamp out, crossing of a plain and into Nicaragua. Guided by a border official that looked very unofficial, we told him we were headed to San Juan Del Sur, the primary beach resort of Nicaragua and would be happy to pay the $25 taxi fare rather then take the long way on local bus. We screamed along the highway passing some modern looking windmills on grassy plains and rolling hills before setting our sights on the looming twin volcanoes perched in the middle of Lake Nicaragua which formed Isla Ompetepe, what a dramatic landscape. Across a few more green shrubby hills and through a small mountain pass we arrived at what was once a small fishing village but now the most visited vacation destination on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua, San Juan Del Sur. What put this little town on the map was two events. One being its surf break across the surrounding beaches which attracted a steady stream of surfing Americans and two, the recent series of Survivor Nicaragua in 2011. The town was home to approximately 18,000 Nicaraguans and a steadily growing ex-pat community opening up businesses in support of tourism and seizing the opportunity as “Costa Rica 15 years ago”.
After the last month and a half in a seemingly wealthy Panama and tourist central Costa Rica, there was a refreshing rawness felt crossing into Nicaragua. Was this the real Central America? It was definitely the poorest country in the region and with that had a dark side which we expected to become more familiar with as we traveled through Honduras and Guatemala. Here there were still armed insurrection, grudge-holding rebels (San-dinistas) against the government and bandits. More of a left swinging political party and its zero tolerance probably had something to do with the American tourist invasion not hitting the country like it had Costa Rica. But that said, the country was still deemed “the safest country in Central America” and we were very happy to be here.
We were dropped off at the far end of the beach to where we crosses a small red metal bridge over a stream to take us to HC Liri hostel, a lovely large white villa with beautiful pool right on the beach. This was owned and operated by a friendly Spanish family from Tarragona (which we had visited on our last trip before meeting my family in Barcelona and who we spoke of fondly with the girls) comprising of farther (and cook) and his two twin daughters. The place was also home to two middle sized dogs, one white and slim with no tail and the other a brown boxer cross that made it a habit of munching on rocks but the star of the show was Lolita. A beautiful florescent green parrot that sang all day, screeched “aloha” and laughed unsettling like a possessed child. Lolita also took a liking to me (or the other way around) and sat quietly on my shoulder as I sipped coffee over breakfast or sat by the pool with my book.
San Juan del Sur’s streets were lined with charming homes and store fronts built of wood painted in vibrant colors with hand made signs promoting “cafe”, “spanish classes” and even “Rebecca’s hostel”. The towns center held a quaint and colourful green little church where school kids played in the leafy square out front. Next door was the small town market where locally grown fruits and vegetables were being hustled up and tourists (including Murray) browsed and brought the “Nicaraguan” printed t-shirts and singlets. The taxis and bus drivers congregated around the market whistling and screaming out the next departure for Rivas or Managua. And then there were the expat coffee shops like El Gato Negro, serving San Juan’s best coffee, which the American couple grew and roasted themselves (they also refused to serve it to go, on the grounds that if you don’t have five minutes to enjoy a coffee, you can get it elsewhere.) where we sat enjoying delicious sandwiches and cakes in a bright and artsy building where the walls were lined with books to buy.
The crescent shaped bay of San Juan Del Sur was cradled by two cliff faces which made for a dramatic setting and spectacular sunsets. The sea was speckled with local fishing boats, sail boats and on one day, a large cruise ship (assuming from the states). We landed at the beach on a Sunday where the influx of local families from the capital city of Managua poured in to play soccer, swim and gorge on ceviche, grilled camarones, and as many Toñas (the local cerveza) as possible. Thatch-roofed bars and restaurants lined the long, sandy beach and serve cold drinks, fresh seafood, and traditional Nicaraguan cuisine. We opted for the “Black Wale” restaurant most nights for happy hour to watch the intense sunsets over two for one “Nica Libres” (the same deal as a Cuban but with the number one Nicaraguan rum – Flores del Cocas) and these were all off 40 cordobas or $1.80 for two or you could opt for a Toñas for 80c.
Although the towns beach looked inviting, rubbish still lined some of the beach and we were told the better beaches, Maderas, Remanso, Tamarindo were a quick 20 to 30min commute out of town. So on our third day we decided to catch an open air taxi to Playa Hermosa. The half-hour journey entailed several river crossings, passing towns and a $3 fee paid to a stern woman manning the gate. But on entering the park and bouncing along the sandy pot holed path through the jungle, we arrived at Playa Hermosa, a stretch of jagged Pacific coast with a rickety outdoor bar renting boards, a newly renovated Surf Camp for learners, a bunch of baby Ridley turtles in a brick water tank waiting to be let out at 4pm and of course, the setting for Survivor. We spent our time body surfing and getting dumped by the waves and watching the surfing students do the same.
Our three days passed quickly in San Juan Del Sur and after a few weeks of mostly beaches I was excited to head to our next destination, those dramatic twin volcanoes of Isla Ometepe. There was talk of a climbing one of the two volcanoes and not really believing it was a possibility with my dodgy knees I entertained the notion and exclaimed “lets just wait to we get there and sus it out”…and the neg leg began.