Nicaragua became home for a while in 2015, after a party changed my course. Leaning over a bar in New York City, a tall, zen-like character struck up a conversation with me; he had just got back from San Juan del Sur – a former fishing village turned surf town on the Pacific coast – where he’d been helping put together an artist-residency programme at a hip new hotel in the jungle. A week later I was on a plane with a one-way ticket to the capital Managua.
I stayed at that property, Maderas Village, for six months. A combination of Nicaragua’s affordability, its under-the-radar reputation and rising surf scene – in a rare corner where 300-plus days of offshore winds a year means near-constant rideable waves – had suddenly made San Juan del Sur the next big thing. And it was for three short years, a time when life was fairly peaceful compared to the country’s politically tumultuous northern neighbours Honduras and El Salvador. The economy was growing at about five per cent a year, and tourism was booming.
But, as with much of the nation’s modern history, pockmarked with dictatorships, revolution and an earthquake in 1972 that destroyed most of Managua, that stability wasn’t to last. In April 2018, President Daniel Ortega announced social security reforms that involved slashing retirement benefits to save money. People revolted, taking to the streets to demand his resignation. He retaliated with force, leaving more than 300 dead and thousands injured. As authorities around the globe began to advise against visiting Nicaragua, people fled en masse and businesses closed, ravaging the nascent tourism industry. Almost everyone I still knew there left, but the ones who stayed, mostly surfers with an unbridled sense of adventure, have a love affair with the place, much like I do.
In the years that followed, I lived in some of the all-time greatest surf destinations – Indonesia, Brazil, California and now Nosara in Costa Rica, about four hours from the border. But Nicaragua always stood out: the beauty rawer, the line-ups less crowded and the waves some of the best on the planet, with that elusive sense of discovery that is harder and harder to chase these days. Recently, there was an on-the-cusp feeling about it again, so I decided to go back and see it for myself, to pursue the breaks along the Pacific shore, mentally prepared to encounter an entirely different country.
Holding hard onto the railings of a pick-up truck, I crossed over to Nicaragua standing up, feeling the warm wind on my face as I rode past fields, farms and dilapidated roads from the border at Peñas Blancas north through San Juan del Sur to Hacienda Iguana. The scene wraps around Playa Colorado, a mile-long stretch of white sand and barrelling swells, home to two of the most famous breaks: Panga Drops and Colorados. The latest way to access them is via Aurea hotel, a brutalist escape created by a sustainably minded group of Venezuelans.
Down on the beach, the steep, unforgiving waves attract pro surfers and diehards from around the world, so I was impressed when I saw a young woman coming out of the water with a six-foot custom fish board looking undefeated. ‘Ciao!’ she said. I asked her where the best spot to go in was. ‘Colorados too big! Go to Popoyo.’ But first, she invited me to her nearby restaurant Casa Ananas, where a few tables set beside a rustic wood-fired oven seemed to be the go-to hangout for homemade gnocchi bolognese, fresh tuna tartare and authentic Italian pizza. Tatiana Di Spirito was not only a fierce surfer, but a talented chef who had cooked at restaurants in London, Italy, Chile and Peru. ‘This was the only country where I felt the possibility to open my own place. It was easy, until we hit crisis after crisis,’ she said, referring to the uprisings, the back-to-back hurricanes, and then the pandemic. ‘Surfing saved my life. It’s free therapy. Sometimes there are people and sometimes there are not. So I surf, sleep and the next day I try again.’
The following morning I took her advice and headed up the dirt road to Popoyo, about 40 minutes north, where more than 10 breaks make it one of the best locations to ride waves in all of Central America. With the swell coming in, locals started zipping around on their bicycles, boards under their arms. This six-mile sweep of sand between Playa Santana, the southernmost point, and Magnific Rock, the northernmost, is home to humble surf shacks, straw houses and boutique stays – from laidback, hammock-strung Suyo Cabanas Popoyo and Sirena Surf House to the more souped-up Rancho Santana – that somehow endure the temperamental tropical depressions the area is known for, surviving a major tsunami and a series of earthquakes over the years.
Though when I visited in December most hotels here were empty or closed, the shores were not. Hole-in-the-wall joints where you could order fried plantains, rice, beans and chicken were busy serving tireless fishermen, farmers and anyone else interested in simple food. Amid it all, Malibu Popoyo, a thoughtfully designed 12-bedroom retreat two blocks from Playa Santana, had just reopened following two hurricanes that flooded the town towards the end of 2020.
‘When you can go anywhere but you choose Nicaragua, it says something about you,’ said Jared Rosa, previously a chef based in North Carolina who now heads up jaunts to secret coves and hiking trails as the chief adventurer at the property. His 12 years living in Popoyo are demonstrated in his command of local slang and knowledge of every break along the Pacific. ‘Back in the day, only surfers and backpackers came to this part of the world. Now it’s amazing to see how many families and curious travellers are visiting,’ he continued, promising to get me on a wave.
Playa Santana, Lance’s Left and Popoyo Outer Reef were barrelling in, but at Beginner’s Bay perfect offshore winds and waist-high peelers made for the ultimate conditions to catch my first wave of the trip. There were only two others on the line-up. ‘Here you wake up to enjoy the small things,’ said Rosa, ‘such as days like this.’ Later, kids put on a show with flying tricks and turns and groups gathered to watch the sun go down. Latin Christmas music echoed over a loudspeaker, and I was invited to a pig roast nearby. Life ebbed and flowed through the slower weeks.
While Colorados with its private beach felt exclusive and out of reach as it’s part of a gated community – going against the tide of surf’s usual democratised spirit – in Popoyo, there is a new model of wave-chaser, led by an international band of holidaymakers turned expats: a Portuguese couple, who like everyone else I met couldn’t seem to find a good enough reason to go anywhere else once they’d come to Nicaragua; an Israeli chef preparing to open a pop-up restaurant; a Belgian surfer who founded the local surf school for underprivileged girls; and a supremely cool South African jeweller and her pro wakeboarder boyfriend. The lifestyle here attracts the adventurous and resilient; those madly in love with the ocean for whom Nicaragua’s unpredictable nature makes them feel as if they’re just riding another wave. They’ve not only stayed through the toughest of storms, but are helping to pave the way forward.
Further north, surfing has also begun to create a micro economy in El Tránsito, a fishing village of about 2,000 people with a break so heavy they call it Pistols. Once a main hub for ranchers bringing cattle from one end of the country to the other, El Tránsito became wildly popular among well-to-do Managuans in the 1990s; unfortunately it was practically wiped out by a tsunami in 1992.
Today, the crescent-moon-shaped bay is the gateway to four consistent and quiet breaks and the charming village pulls in those eager to escape more crowded spots. ‘I know it’s a cliché, but it’s like Tulum 30 years ago,’ said Damian Bristow, a South African surfer, boat captain and co-owner of Mandla, El Tránsito’s only smart hotel, which opened in 2019. ‘Right now there is a rebirth going on,’ he told me over a cold beer. The cabanas he built with his British partner, chef Katie Hunt, are right on the main beach in town with an oceanfront pool and bar where the neighbours gather during happy hour. By now the swell had mostly disappeared and the water resembled a lake as fishing boats made their way in with the catch of the day. ‘Do you like oysters?’ Hunt asked as she came down with a plate of freshly prepared shellfish. But the tides don’t stop rolling here. Further north in Aposentillo, The Boom is a legendary break so strong it echoes in the night and snaps boards on big days.
On my final morning, I went for one last surf, hoping that I would find what everyone comes here looking for and perhaps, once and for all, be convinced to stay forever. After I failed several times to get up on a roller too steep for a longboard, a tanned young man with the wildest head of curls paddled towards me and insisted we do this differently. He gave me an impromptu lesson and stayed until I finally stood on my own. His name was Kairo Aguilar, a 23-year-old competitive surfer and coach with his own school. Aguilar refused to charge me for my session, though I know he had been out of work for months. ‘I used to make $1.50 an hour when I was a fisherman, then I started earning $25 teaching surfing,’ he said. ‘Now there’s no tourism but I am reinventing myself again.’ Because, through all the instability and troubles, Nicaragua remains a place of simplicity and grit where life is full to the brim if you just keep riding its waves.
THE BEST HOTELS, RESTAURANTS AND SHOPS IN NICARAGUA
Inside private community Hacienda Iguana, this multi-functional hotel – you can rent the entire retreat, a bedroom or villa – has the best location on the Emerald Coast, a 10-minute walk from two of the most coveted breaks in the country. Low-slung, glassy structures have been designed to merge into the surrounding jungle and eucalyptus trees, blending natural materials, such as locally sourced laurel and fire-treated pine, with concrete and metal, while monochrome tiles add a pop of pattern to the otherwise sleek, minimalist look.
Doubles from about £90. aureanica.com
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Tatiana Di Spirito’s weekly changing menu of authentic Italian cooking might come as a surprise in these parts: linguine carbonara, lasagne della Nonna, crispy capricciosa pizza. Set in a garden under string lights and stars, it is the place to listen to live music and meet the surfers you crossed paths with in the water.
This is the ultimate check-in, chill-out surf lodge. All-inclusive stays cover organic feasts – mangoes, dragon fruit, coconuts and plantains come from next-door sustainable farm La Quinta – and cold-pressed juices as well as surf lessons, boat trips, yoga and the occasional dance party. Airy rooms have floor- to-ceiling windows looking onto lush interior courtyards, while massages and reflexology soothe wave-pummelled bodies.
Doubles from about £200. malibupopoyo.com
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Buying a custom board from renowned Giezi Amador is almost a rite of passage for surfers in Nicaragua. Born and raised in Popoyo, Amador started shaping 11 years ago, first repairing his own boards and then creating unique designs. His shop is set on an unassuming street corner in the centre of the village. Though it may be hard to find, asking anyone in town about Giezi will quickly set you in the right direction.
The dream of a former yacht captain and chef, this is a space where you can wake to the sound of palm trees rustling and waves breaking just a few feet away. A rustic palapa decked out in blue and white textiles acts as the hub around which oceanfront cabanas are spread among the gardens, tall cacti leading the way to the pool and bar. Outdoor showers with volcanic-rock walls and handmade beach-wood furniture complete the balance of elements. Food turns the tide on the usual surf fuel, with tropical smoothie bowls served in coconut shells and platters of intricately plated sushi.
Doubles from about £125; from about £540 per night for exclusive use (sleeps 10). mandlanicaragua.com
Book your stay
Plan South America arranges 10-night trips to Nicaragua from £5,480 per person, including two nights at Aurea, three nights each at Malibu Popoyo and Mandla, two nights at Tribal Hotel in Granada and car hire. Excludes flights. plansouthamerica.com
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