Nicaragua: Surf, Sand and Cake

First stop in Nicaragua was Managua. Driving down from the hills of Honduras was a scenic but windy route. The scenery was nice, but we also noticed it was incredibly dry. Everything looked dead or dying which made some sense as we were at the end of the dry season, but I wasn’t expecting it to be this arid. By the time we got to Nicaragua it was dark, but we were glad to pull up to an old friend of ours’ house. Richard Novoa was waiting for us to introduce us to his new family. For those of you who haven’t heard, he’s got a little girl less than a year old at the moment. We got to see his workshop where he’s starting a local clothing business before Richard and his dad led us down to San Juan del Sur, where we would be spending the next week. The Novoas have a weekend house in San Juan del Sur they graciously invited us to spend the week in, and after three big days of driving we were ready for the R&R.

San Juan del Sur is one of the top surfing spots on the pacific coast of Central America. The bay of the city itself is actually home to barely enough surf to get your ankles wet, but the half dozen or so beaches that are within 30 minutes of the house offer up some incredible surf year round. The town itself is the hub for cheap hostels, good food and a bit of night life in-between days at the beach. One of the big goals of the trip was to learn to surf, so we thought this was the perfect time to stay put for a few days. The first day we did absolutely nothing. Enjoyed the views, went for brunch, hung out at the pool and checked out a few of the local beaches. The town of San Juan is pretty low key while still having a ton of character. We checked out the top surf beach in the area, Playa Maderas, but quickly decided we weren’t ready for the 10 foot waves there. It was, however, a great spot for a beer and a fantastic sunset over the ocean.

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While we were down there we saw a couple overlanding vehicles and met a couple that drove down from Canada and a South African family that have been on the road for 2 and a half years. They were driving North from South America, so we swapped information and advice on spots to visit. Later when I looked up their name I realized it was a family that had come up in a lot of my research for the trip, Graeme and Luisa Bell. They’ve written a book, called “We Will Be Free”, on overlanding that has now been added to my list of books for the trip. Definitely worth checking out.

After a day off we were ready to get back at it and the first stop was to get some surf boards and a little professional help. We got a local lesson and recommendation to go to Playa El Remanzo where the waves and rocks were more newbie friendly. This beach turned into our favorite spot and we went back to surf it three times before we left. It’s enough off the beaten track that there’s at most 10 surfers in the water at anytime and the waves were consistently 4-6 feet, small enough for us to practice on, but big enough to still keep things interesting  (and to entertain Natasha as I got rolled for the umpteenth time). If you’re in the area, be sure to check out Playa El Remanzo, but even if that beach isn’t for you there’s Playa Hermosa, Marsella, Ocotal, El Yanke, Escameca, El Coco and more.

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The next morning we set out to go fishing. Natasha had never been deep sea fishing and we had a recommendation from Richard to try out. 6am is damn early to be out on the water, but it was when the water was calmer and the sun wasn’t going to bake us into platanos fritos (we were beat red from surfing even after applying and reapplying a gallon of sunscreen). We trailed lines for the first hour or so hoping to snag some big fish without any luck, but just as we were bringing the lines in a family of dolphins showed up making for our third encounter of the trip. Natasha assumed her position leaning off the bow of the boat beaming while we chased them around.

We switched to bottom fishing and finally had a little bit of luck pulling in a few groupers and snappers, but nothing big enough to get good fillets out of. They were big enough to make some fresh on the boat ceviche. Something about a fish that was in the ocean 30 minutes prior makes the best ceviche you’ve ever had. It was fun having a day on the boat, but we were a little disappointed we didn’t get any big fish for the grill. So we did things the old fashioned way, swung by the fish market and picked up two pounds of mahi mahi. After that Natasha whipped up grilled mahi and pineapple on coconut rice with mango salsa. When we added everything up, total cost for the meal was $4. Thank you Nicaragua!

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The last day in San Juan was Natasha’s birthday. So I did what any respectable boyfriend would do, and made her a kickass breakfast and took her surfing. The good news is, I’m still awesome at making french toast and pancakes (try them with a little condensed milk on top… sooo good, but sooo bad). The bad news, a fire knocked out power in all of San Juan and a rough day of surf meant no bueno at El Remanzo. After one too many wipeouts and an hour sweating in the town with no A/C we figured a hike up to the nearby peak would help. At the top we were greeted by one of the best sunsets we’ve had, sweeping views of San Juan del Sur and a little up close and personal time with the big JC (Seriously big, it’s a 40 foot statue of Jesus). To end Natasha’s birthday and our week in San Juan we closed out with a good night of reminiscing with Big Rich complete with candles on quatres leches cake and nutella crepes.

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We can’t recommend San Juan del Sur enough and we can’t thank Richard and his family enough for putting us up for the week. We checked out, to some hilarious looks from the neighbors as they watched us load up our lives into the trunk, and were on our way by mid-afternoon. The last bit of driving along Lake Nicaragua with views of wind turbines and Ometepe, the volcanic island in the middle of the lake. The weird thing was, as soon as we crossed into Costa Rica the dry forest turned into green jungle setting the mood for the next big leg of our trip.

Frigates fighting for bait we'd throw in the air
Frigates fighting for bait we’d throw in the air

Recommendations

  • Barrio Café – Cool café. Great brunch spot. Eggs benedict and bloody mary’s are highly recommended.
  • Segadas – Killer juice smoothies and juices. Try the sour sap (esp: guanabana) with anything sweet (bananas or strawberries)
  • Playa El Remanzo – Good learning beach. Small crowds and 3 – 6 foot waves. $10 rentals on the beach.
  • Playa Maderas – Go early in the morning to watch the pros (or join em) on big waves. Also one of the best sunset spots.
  • Mirador del Christo – Good for a 1 hour hike at sunset or sunrise. Start from the beach and work your way up. Avoid mid-day cause it’s going to be hot.
  • Fish Market – I can’t remember the name of it, but ask around and you’ll find it. $2 / lb of fresh Mahi Mahi. Need I say more?
  • El Timon – Nicer seafood restaurant, good for a meal out. Expensive for Nicaragua, but still a good price.
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