PLAYA GIGANTE, NICARAGUA - On a hot, sticky Sunday afternoon, a jolt pushes me back to reality as the plane touches down in this lovely country’s capital city Managua. I have been mesmerized for the past hour watching as we soared over endless lines of volcanoes and lush green jungle.
I came here to learn how to surf, speak Spanish, tackle a few volcanoes and immerse myself in the local culture. I also wanted to avoid the throngs of tourists who are slowly taking over the rest of Central America, and Nicaragua fit the bill — it has remained a hidden gem, sadly due in part to its corrupt governments, wars and poverty.
“Forget all your plans and expectations,” my host and surf legend Dale Dagger cheerfully told me when I arrived in the tiny fishing village about 2.5 hours from Managua. Many people come here only expecting to stay a few days and end up never leaving.
That’s a story I hear over and over from the ex-pats I meet during my two-week visit. Dagger, for instance, first visited Nicaragua in 1972, searching out the best surf breaks by boat from San Francisco to Colombia before settling here. Surfer, swimmer and sailor, Dagger has built some “cool places to stay” with his collection of surf shacks and yoga casitas in Playa Gigante.
Left: Surfing has become a big draw to Nicaragua. Right: Surfers usually camp out on the soft white sand.
As I looked down to the beach from one of Dagger’s accommodations, I see bright hammocks swaying in the cool breeze and a handful of colourful travellers patrolling the pristine shoreline. It’s not hard to imagine why people never want to leave here.
Staring out at the endless Pacific Ocean, waves crashing onto the beach one after another, sounding more like thunder than water, it became quickly apparent that surfing is the real draw in this area of the country. It’s hard to travel more than five minutes down the dirt roads that make up this town without seeing someone as young as 8 riding their bike while holding a surf board.
“You picked a good time to learn how to surf,” Dagger joked with me on Day One. “We haven’t seen waves this big all year.”
Playa Gigante is loaded with surfing hot spots, including Amarillo and Colorado beaches, where only a few surfers dot the water.
Here I looked out on long stretches of white sand, speckled with wild horses, where soft winds kissed my cheeks. It seemed like I had found paradise.
While heading to Amarillo Beach, I prepared myself for the notion that I may not be good at this sport, I might not even be able to stand up on the board.
My misgivings turned out to be entirely correct as I spent the entire day getting sucked under crashing waves and gasping for breath. The local professionals made it look so easy as they paddled effortlessly past the break and dove under the waves. At one point, I found myself gasping in disbelief as I watched two surfers catch the same wave and ride it in opposite directions.
Unfortunately for me, I took my eyes off the incoming break and got pounded back under the water.
Four hours later, I emerged onto the deserted beach, broken surfboard in hand, battered and bruised. I conceded that surfing was not for the weak, but I was determined to stick with it.
It was time to take a break from surfing and enjoy some of the local seafood this area of the country is so famous. After negotiating the rental of a panga boat — it came with a captain and a fisherman — I ventured out to catch my own dinner.
I quickly learned that an authentic Nicaragua panga boat experience involves a large quantity of rum and a couple of trolling fishing lines, along with plenty of laughs and a lot of broken Spanish and English. Cruising past towering jagged cliffs, lush green mountain peaks and swimming sea turtles, it soon became clear why so many people spend their lives on the water here.
Above: The waves in Nicaragua are powerful and give surfers lots of thrills.
In a relatively short period of time I heard the fisherman yelling “pescado, pescado” — I needed to reel in my fish.
As I struggled with the black tuna at the end of my line, I caught a glimpse of the crew snickering at my feeble effort to haul in the catch.
When I finally managed to get the fish into the boat, I had no clue what to do as it lay flopping around the deck. The fisherman handed me a large rock, held the fish down and motioned to me to hit the fish in the head. I closed my eyes, whispered “I’m sorry” to the tuna, and then took aim.
Nothing happened — the fish was rill flapping.
The crew told me to hit it again — harder!
As I slammed the rock onto the fish, blood spewed all over me.
“Bueno, bueno, bueno,” the crew shouted as the fish lay motionless.
Partly fascinated, and mostly traumatized, I picked the tuna up and quickly tossed it into a cooler thankful I didn’t have to look at its little eyes the entire way back to the beach house.
Now that I had checked surfing and fishing off my Nicaragua bucket list, it was time to tackle a few more local experiences before heading home. The baseball games I attended in the surrounding towns offered enough excitement and homemade food to get me cheering for the local team.
As I sat chatting in broken Spanish to the locals while munching on fresh fried plantains that I had bought for a mere 25 cents from a nearby neighbour, it became abundantly clear to me why this country has such an appeal to foreigners.
In the end, I didn’t tackle any volcanoes, nor did I make it to the colonial city of Grenada, or the tourist surf town of San Juan del Surf, which all on my list. And, I didn’t perfect my Spanish and I definitely didn’t get good at surfing, although it wasn’t from a lack of trying.
Instead, I spent hours swaying in beach hammocks and chatting with locals about the colourful history and culture of their amazing country. I enjoyed dinners in local restaurants while listening to Spanish music and enjoyed glasses of the local dark rum. And when it came time to bid farewell to the local store owners and fishermen I got to know during my stay, I made myself a solemn promise to return because one visit to Nicaragua is not enough.
The best surfing sites in Nicaragua are: Playa Maderas, Popoyo, Playa Colorado, Panga Drops, Lance’s Left and The Boom. Research your surfing holiday in Nicaragua at http:www. matadornetwork.com/trips/6-best-surf-spots-in-nicaragua/Canadians do not need a visa to visit Nicaragua. / Petty crime is always an issue in Nicaragua so caution is urged. / The best way to get to Nicaragua from Toronto is with Copa Airlines via Panama or Avianca Airlines via El Salvador.