Wind, Swell, and Sun
Crossed the border at Las Manos, where there were many truckers, but no major problems. Though we were through in less than two hours, this was probably the most hectic of borders to date. We headed to the colonial city of Leon to get some local currency. Paul had no problem at any of the ATMs, but I didn’t have any luck at the first 6 ATMs I tried. Don’t fail me now credit union… for a while it looked like Paul was going to be supporting me financially all through Nicaragua, but finally the Mexican BAC bank came through. After all this stress, we ditched Leon and headed to the beach, playa las Penitas for a couple of days. Our first impressions of Nicaragua were: it is crazy windy, things are more expensive here, there are more expats, the rum is better (Flor de cana), and there is less camping available.
We managed to download a pretty detailed map of the country from an on-line map site. and decided to take the coast road, which we quickly discovered was less of a road and more of a trail. Paul whipped out his machete, and for a couple of days we hunted for surf in the northern part of the Pacific coast. We didn’t find much that suited us, most of the waves are fast, hollow, beach break, but we did find some secluded beaches, and free camping. We stayed in one spot for a couple of days that had decent waves, but little accommodation.
I tore Paul away from the beach against his will, not quite kicking and screaming, to go inland to the colonial cities of Granada and Masaya. Masaya was a pretty chill place with a beautiful handicraft market for tourists. Bargaining had mixed results here, and I did not want to replicate the situation in the Antigua market where my ruthless bargaining offended the hammock salesman so much that he refused to sell me the hammock at all at any price. Thus, I dropped some money here on jewellery. Granada is super close to Masaya, and is a much more touristed place, but beautiful nonetheless. The churches are ornate, and numerous, the restaurants are beautiful, and expensive, and it is easy to see how people can spend a lot of time just wandering around and looking at things on the street. The food was all time. We ate, and looked at old buildings, and ate, and stayed in a seedy place, and ate more expensive food. We had to get out of there and back to dirt bagging it on the coast for the sake of our budget.
We cruised back to the coast, where we checked out a secluded beach, and for the first time since Belize we felt comfortable free camping on public land. The beach was close enough to the town of Gigante to have easy access to restaurants, stores, and beer, and the surf was good, but challenging. This was one of the best camping spots of the trip. Later we were told by a surf shop owner that there are lots of robberies at this beach. Lucky for us, we had no bad experiences, and the few people we did see were nothing but friendly.
We continued south in search of better waves. We got to the touristy, and overdeveloped town of San Juan del Sur. The first thing we saw was a gigantic cruise ship. The beach had no surf, and we wanted no part of the town’s party vibe. One of the guys working at a surf shop told us to head down the coast 20 minutes to a surf camp on the beach where the waves were supposed to be good. We got to the ‘camp’, and the waves were really good, though it was more of a hotel/ resort. The staff were really nice, and allowed us to camp, provided it did not look like we were camping. They have a no cooler rule, so we had to wait until dark to cook. It’s a pretty decent business plan since lots of people hit the beach for the day, and the restaurant makes money on beer and food, but in my opinion, unless you allow camping, you should not call yourself a camp. This was a common theme in Nicaragua. Most ‘surf camps’ are not camps, they are resorts, often all inclusive geared to a much higher income level than us. That being said, we had a blast at the beach, stayed for six nights, and the staff were amazing.
Our last stop in Nicaragua was the Island of Ometepe. We took a super sketchy ferry across Lago Nicaragua. Who knew a lake could have that much wind swell. Paul and I both for sure thought that Phyllis was going to tip over while we were being pelted with water that came up over the bow of the boat. For future reference: the four PM sailing isn’t full for a reason. We arrived on the island which is home to two massive volcanoes, one of which is active, and one of which has a lake in its crater. The island has tons of camping options, and we found a cool little farm to stay at called Finca Magdelena. This farm produces coffee, fruit, and vegetables, and has 24 owners. They run it as a cooperative and all come from farming backgrounds. Only recently did the Finca expand their services to tourism, and though the income is much more reliable and steady, the farm is still active. Apparently, the owners have had lots of offers from foreigners to sell the property for a pile of money, but are holding on to this amazing chunk of land, that feeds the 130+ members of their immediate families. It was really cool to see so much sustainable tourism on the island. We hiked up the smaller of the two volcanos to the lake which was a pretty magical place to be. I could have spent much more time exploring Omotepe, but we wanted to get back to the Pacific to catch a few more waves before crossing into Costa Rica and figuring out the storage of our vehicle.