It has been six years since I was last in Nicaragua, and on the surface little has changed. Outside of the increasing number of tourist friendly sustainable eco lodges, the warming traits I remember remain. The roads and drivers are crazy, the beer costs 80 pence, ice cold, but most importantly the people are still the friendliest I’ve had the good fortune to meet.
My travels took me back to San Juan Del Sur, a coastal town on the Pacific side of the country. San Juan was originally a fishing and shipping hub, but has over the last 20 years grown more popular with tourists and surfers.
Where a few years back were a few lively bars along the front now stand board rental stores, shuttle services to the beach and endless 2-4-1 cocktails.
Nicaragua and San Juan del Sur in particular had long been surfing meccas for Americans, Canadians and Australians, but the last few years have attracted hoards of backpackers from all corners of the globe.
Playa Maderas is a small beach 30 minutes from San Juan Town, and it’s one of the most popular and accessible surf beaches in the area, and at times has unpredictable and fantastic waves. Waves that can range anywhere from chest high and crumbling to double overhead and barreling, making it perfect for surfers of all levels.
The surf crowd is a real mix: If you get there before 8am and beat the first shuttle from San Juan you’ll see some locals and the lucky few who have accommodation off the dirt road in the hills overlooking Playa Maderas. Come midday the water is bustling with a mixture of locals and beginners from the numerous surf schools, some top class surfers both local and foreign, all really taking advantage of the larger swells.
Along the beach it’s not unusual to find locals playing football or practising baseball (the national sport), equipped with a machete should the ball go into the thick trees on the hills overlooking the beach. On the horizon surfers wait for the swell and further in the distance are cruise ships sailing away. It’s quite the sight.
On the way back from Playa Maderas you can leave town and hit a dirt road brimming with local hitchhikers looking for a lift to Rivas, the biggest city in commuting distance with a famous baseball team. Grab a ride, and as the road gets bumpier you’ll see local kids practising baseball on the side of the dusty roads, people stood flogging ice cold beers and snacks to the passing Toyota pick up trucks.
Inside the stadium (you can grab a ticket at the gate) the atmosphere is electric: homemade sandwiches, local beer and rum being sold around the many plastic seats carried from home.
I settle in at the front, looking back towards the excitable crowd. I’m taught a few chants, share beers with the fans sat alongside me. The party continues until dawn.
There’s something refreshing and raw about San Juan, something that makes it so appealing and endearing, unlike any other surf town in the Americas. Get there if you can before it changes.