In recent years, Nicaragua has been attracting the attention of surf travelers world-wide. Considering the fact that just a few short years ago, Nicaragua was a disaster zone, this is surprising. For nearly two decades, a civil war raged that killed an estimated 40,000 people. From the mid-1970’s to the late 1980’s, the war-torn country’s future looked bleak.
Fast forward to the present. Nicaragua is emerging from the conflict years, building its economy and promoting tourism. Canadians seem more attracted to the country than the rest of the world. Almost everywhere you go, you’re either following in the footsteps of Canadian travelers who have just passed by or running into them. This is because Nicaragua is beautiful, the waves are incredible, and the people are friendly – a far cry from its past.
The amount of waves in Nicaragua is unbelievable. Reefs hide beneath hollow waves, reaching up and snatching the bottom out from underneath them, tripping them up so they throw a perfect green curtain over your head. Points jut out from rocky hills that fall into the sea, grabbing at walking walls of water and molding them into roping freight trains. Sandbars move with tide and swells, building shifting peaks that change with the season, always creating something new for someone to seek out.
I spent a few weeks in Popoyo, just down the road from the sleepy little surf village of Playa Gigante. Popoyo is home to a couple of absolutely world class waves. Panga Drops and Colorodo’s roll towards land just a few short miles from each other, while countless other named and unnamed spots supply everything from fun, rippable a-frames to hollow and thick-lipped waves.
One of the best things about the country is that those rumors you hear about “300-plus days of offshore” are true. It howls. Sometimes, it will blow for weeks. By the afternoon in these windy weeks, the wind has usually reached a frenzied state, whipping sand and dust into a sandblaster and holding waves up for a seemingly impossible amount of time, spray blowing off the back like snow on a high mountain peak.
Most of the time, the wind pushes gently back at the waves, playfully holding them up until they can’t stand it any longer, folding over on themselves as the one behind it struggles to make it to shore. And sometimes, of course, the wind is bad. Sometimes the tide is bad. Sometimes it’s lake-flat. But sometimes – and there are more of these times in Nicaragua than most places – it’s amazing. There will always be those variables in surfing that make it finicky. The “perfect wave” doesn’t actually exist, but Nicaragua is a good place to look for it.
On Cows and Monkeys:
Cows and monkeys live together in Spanish harmony in Nicaragua. If the tides happen to correspond with the cows’ internal alarm clock and the waves are working, you may find yourself walking a dirt road, dust spiralling around your feet while the sun rises in your face. The cows will block the road, lowing at each other mournfully. The monkeys will wrestle in the trees above your head, screaming at each other, the sky, or you. They may be urinating randomly and forcefully on each other, the sky, or you. For the first few days, you may be nervous, depending on your experience with cows. Nicaraguan cows have large, droopy ears, immensely boney spines, and a rib cage like a beer barrel. They aren’t small animals, and no matter how much your head tells you that they will not hurt you, shouldering your way past a half tonne of beef on the bone usually leads to a twinge of nervousness.
There are a few ways to do this:
The Sidle – Passive. Turning sideways while carefully watching the rear hooves, waiting for the inevitable rib-shattering kick. Of course, the inevitable rarely happens, and you pass by without a bruise. You are unmolested while the cows shift from one side of the road to the other.
The Slap – Aggressive. Walking quickly towards the cows blocking the road, give a short, loud whistle. Then pick the closest and biggest bull (which will most likely have been rendered a eunuch via cruel invasive techniques), puff out your chest and slap the delicious portion of the bull, situated just to the right and slightly above the tail. When they don’t move or react, revert to The Sidle and pass by unmolested.
The monkeys, on the other hand, are a different story. Cows are stupid. Monkeys are not. Depending on who you talk to, they can be either cute like puppies or filthy, rancid creatures hell-bent on filling your eyes with their feces. I have seen, with my own eyes, a monkey shamelessly urinate (and with incredible accuracy) on a target the exact size of a girl’s shoulder from seventy feet up a tree. Monkeys like to party when the sun is rising. The earlier the sun cracks the horizon, the more excited they get. If it’s five am, they are partying like Hunter S. Thompson on day three of a dusty, mescaline-filled bender. But there is an upside to this: no matter how much Flor de Cana you’ve ingested on that hot, sweaty previous night, you are not sleeping through their early morning salutations and missing out on the day.
Given the mix of the cows and the monkeys, plodding over the dusty road towards the ocean for dawn patrol is always either exciting, or depending on how long you’ve been doing it for, annoying. But it’s always distinctly Nicaraguan, and you will miss it once it’s gone.
There is a community of expatriates in Nicaragua. They trade things like pork for liquor. Pork from Managua, smoked in backyards for hours on end. Clear, corked bottles of distilled amber-colored fire that moves down your throat before somehow making its way into your head. The next morning, it is breaking bricks inside your skull. They smile and laugh with each other at night, drunkenly trading stories of home with accents as thick as the daytime heat. Some are rich from business ventures at home, but most are not. They are scratching for cash like chickens in the dust, running bed-and-breakfasts or drugs. They build their homes and raise their children barefoot and outside. Some are retirees, sitting poolside sipping on beers that sweat in the heat, smoking cigars while their hair grows longer and greyer. All seem incredibly happy.
Take Paul and Charlie, for instance. The first time I met them, our bottle had run dry and we were searching the empty dirt roads for a full one. In the distance, we heard drunken singing. We ended up on an empty beach, lit only by an incredibly big moon. When we came to the source of the music, a large open air house, a woman was sitting with her back to us at the bar. The house sat on stilts and was covered with an A-framing thatch roof. Their front yard was the sand. A man was alternately pulling from a bottle and singing to her a song which I’ve forgotten. He is Paul. His wife is Charlie. They love each other more than any couple I’ve ever seen. Paul saw us, and Charlie did not. Without pausing, he held up his hand and signaled for us to wait. He finished his song, kissed his wife through her laughter, then stood up and somehow managed to hug us and pour drinks at the same time. They are raising their three children, Alex, Matty, and Carl, in a different way than most. Dogs bounce off each other underneath the hammocks while children speak Spanish. The boys have hair to their shoulders, blonde from genes and sun, and they can never find any shoes to wear. They sleep in different places each night and don’t have a bedtime. Five-year old Matty breaks hearts with a smile filled of missing teeth and a laugh that sounds like wind chimes.
They left Australia a few years ago, tired of dealing with it. Now they spend their days building, drinking, laughing, and exploring with each other. It may be a problem later on for the children, because they’re not playing the game that most people do. But the game they’re playing (along with a lot of the others that move there) makes them happy, and maybe that’s better than the alternative. That’s the thing about the future: You don’t know how it will unfold until it has.
On dancing and people who want to sell you fish:
The people of Nicaragua are, like in most of the travel stories you read, amazing. Of course, there are dangerous ones, but that doesn’t take anything away from the ones that just want to dance or sell you fish.
The first night I got there, I spent the night in Managua. After missing a few flights and spending entirely too much time underneath the too-bright lights of airports, I walked out of the plane into the tepid Nicaraguan night. I made my way to an open air restaurant, where I ordered a plate of chicken, a pack of cigarettes, and four beers. It was nearly eleven at night, and things were starting to wind up. Roving guitarists weaved between tables with singers in tow. Couples danced with each other while I sat awkwardly by myself, enjoying the music, the heat, and sucking grease off my fingers. I smiled at a hostile group of guys who thought I was smiling at their women. Eventually, a woman of about 70 swayed up to me with surprisingly agile hips and a twinkle in her eye. “Quieres bailar?” she asked, grabbing my hand as she tried to pull me out of my seat. I hate to admit this, but I refused. She did not make it easy for me. Neither did the group of hostile guys. I might be the first person to be booed in Spanish (still pronounced “boo”) while eating chicken. One thing you cannot do in Nicaragua is refuse to dance. Next time I go, I will remember this.
After wiping the shame off my face and the grease off my fingers, I emerged onto the street, sweating, tired, and half in the bag. Street vendors barbequed meat, filling the air with smoke, hollering at each other over car horns and the other restaurants, full of music and laughter. A man approached me with a smile so big I thought we must know each other. It was a smile reserved for close friends. In my broken Spanish and his broken English, we spoke at length about his night, his family, and his job. We became the friends that initial smile was reserved for. After inserting his smile about an inch into my personal space, he clasped my shoulder and dangled a fish in my face like a hypnotist’s watch. He somehow convinced me that I wanted, needed, this fish. It was fresh, he assured me. I could use it, he was certain. It would be delicious, this warm, long-dead, never refrigerated fish. And after all, we were friends.
Walking back to my hotel with my warm fish, I reflected on what had happened. Did I just buy a rotten fish off a man in front of a bar at one a.m.? No. I bought a rotten fish off a friend in front of a bar at one am. I don’t care if he made friends with me to sell me a fish. I paid for a good conversation and a smile.
If there are two things I love about this country, it’s the Nicaraguan’s willingness to boo a person for not dancing and their eagerness to make friends with someone for a sale.
I had a moment the last day I was in Nicaragua. My flight was leaving in a few hours, and I had eaten my last supper and spent my last rum-filled night. My bags were packed and sitting by the door of our apartment, filled with unwashed clothes and sand. With just a few short hours left, the waves turned on for me. Walking down the beach, sprinting through the scalding hot sand from shady spot to shady spot, I found a wave with no one else on it. It had a mellow drop, a wide open face, and one of those dredging, sand-filled, barreling inside sections – the ones that usually either pinch on you or clip you in the chest, pitching you onto almost-dry sand.
Sitting out in the water by myself, looking back at the long, empty beach, I realized that Nicaragua is one of those places that is almost perfect for travelin right now. A few years ago, it was still pulling itself out of the Contra War, too busy building itself back up to really show what it had to offer. And, I suspect, in a few years, it will be too overrun by people like me, people that realize just how special it is and want a piece for themselves. Already, signs of major development are happening all over the country – and this is a good thing. It would be selfish to want to keep it the way it is for the sake of the empty waves. It would be selfish to want the country to stop its ascent from devastation. But in a way, I do. I don’t want it to change. I want to return in a decade and see old women dancing and smiling fish salesmen. I want to see it still dusty, still full of surly cows and pissing monkeys, still full of monstrous bugs and expats looking for a place to escape to. Nicaragua needs a pause button.
Glimpses of Nicaragua was originally published in Canada’s SBC Surf Magazine