Something happens to you, mentally, when your feet touch the ground in the Third World. Your senses are heightened – even just a bit – and your actions are that much more purposeful. If you’re a Westerner, you’ll likely become painfully aware of the general tattering of life where you land, the lack of regard for the cleanliness of the streets, and how well scrubbed you appear to be, even if you have been traveling for hours and hours on end. A savvy traveler will also silmoutaneously check the locations of their travel documents, recite the locations where they have hidden money and passports on their person, bear a smile just wide enough to bridge cultures, but not wide enough to inspire onlookers to believe you are aloof.
And so, it takes a very special place in the Third World for travelers to all but forget these inclinations; to leave their safeguards locked up in their backpacks at the hotel, and to explore with rather reckless abandon with smiles large, arms broad, and minds open wide enough that it takes a couple of run-ins with the Federales to bring beats of sweat to the brow, and those street-smart survival skills rushing back to the forefront like a tsunami wave on the horizon. Said “incidents” are inconsequential; the point is that Nicaragua was this place for us.
Bumping along both well paved and completely inadequate roads with river crossings so deep, and crevasses so wide that our little rental Corolla nearly didn’t make it, I was struck with how this place could be any other place — Okinawa, rural Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand, Mexico. Tuk tuks darted in and out of traffic, bicycles steered by men, women, children balanced bushels of bananas, jugs of water, babies, and/or other men, women and children, sometimes larger than the person charged with maneuvering the bike safely along the bumpy dirt road. There were pigs, cows, goats, chickens and dogs to be avoided, tiny sewing machines moonlighting as cars buzzed, and tremendous dump trucks acting as school buses and commuter vehicles, as well as brightly painted actual school busses shuttling people and their belongings between major cities around the country charged the streets. Women balanced laundry in baskets on their heads, children played in the dust and bare feet plodded everywhere — nimbly between trash fires.
This was my first time in Central America and the parade of symbols from past travels that flew past as we headed the three hours from Managua to our resort tucked above the Popoyo surf break in the Southwestern part of the country put me all over the map. By the time we arrived, I could hardly believe my eyes – the infinity pool was clean and inviting, the cold drink in my hand (incedentally, the BEST mojito on the planet,) was perspiring.
Ceiling fans spun in the afternoon heat, hammocks swayed in the wind, and farmlands framed by volcanoes as far as the eye could see and the air seemed to smell of cacao butter and coffee.
I blinked my eyes like this for the next eight days, each time I emerged from our little bungalow to the early morning sounds of birds and howler monkeys. “Blink blink.” Then to a cup of coffee. Then to my surfboard and into the ocean. After a few hours of catching waves, and floating in the sea and sharing high fives with the local kids in the village near our break, a mojito (or two) a nap, another surf session, another mojito and fresh dinner before melting into bed to prepare for a luscious repeat.
And so why Nicaragua, you may ask? Despite the strange hand that President Daniel Ortega’s FSLN movement (Children of the 80’s read: the Sandinistas) has played in the recent economic boom in this poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, Nica is on the rise. Poverty has fallen, the number of homes with electricity has climbed to 70% (over 55% in 2007,) the beer is good, the charming colonial cities are still intact, the surf breaks are superb, the tow-in sized waves are on vacation for the months of October – March, and therefore the beaches are practically private and calling for intermediate surfers to stay a while this time of year. And, there is still a great deal of discovering to do. So, the answer is why not Nicaragua?
We did a few other amazing things besides surf, eat and sleep (not check email, not run or ride, and not write to-do lists); we hiked volcanoes, hunted monkeys, sloths and butterflies, tasted coffee straight from the plantation, sat in hot springs, were welcomed into the home of one of the world’s most renown cigar makers for a rolling lesson and some shopping. We made chocolate (and ate chocolate,) wandered fishing villages, sipped cacao in the parque central of charming colonial cities, met scorpions, escaped brushes with the law (again, don’t ask) ushered baby turtles to the sea, gazed at stars, got lost in the jungle, went on photo safari, and stood agape at the foot of the ocean for unbelievable sunsets that seemed to be designed just for us (for, there was no one else around.)
Bumping back along the road to Managua on the last day of our trip, we were refreshed and exhausted – eating well, sleeping well, and surfing your heart out for a week with the realities of the world another world away will do that to a person.
The backpacks we carried from the plane contained a new conviction to connect with the ocean via surfboard here in San Francisco, and to escape on remote adventures more often. Boil it down to a sense of luck that we didn’t need to declare at customs – we feel so lucky to see the world on a shoestring — a world where, truly, you’re lucky to have shoestrings at all.
If you’re looking to explore Nicaragua, here are a few places you shouldn’t miss:
- Soma Surf Resort – a tiny, tranquil retreat tucked away in the jungle in Tola, with out-of-this-world mojitos, perfect hammocks, but still proximal to all of the best surf breaks in Southwest Nicaragua. http://www.surfresortnicaragua.com/
- Choco Museo- go to school on all things chocolate, make your own bars, have a glass of cold cacao, and enjoy their courtyard in the heart of Grenada. http://chocomuseo.com/
- Dona Elba –inquire with the locals about the “cigar company,” and they’ll send you here. They’ll welcome you into their home-turned-factory with a cigar and a chat about how they make their organic products.
- Rio Escalante Refugio Chacocente: Located 45 minutes off of a jeep trail from Playa Astillero, this reserve is one of the only places on the planet where you can still have a peek at the miracle of baby sea turtles hatching and traveling into the big blue sea, unimpeded.
And, here are my favorite shots of the adventure. It was quite an undertaking to limit the list so enjoy, and here’s to surfing the waves of 2012!