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My Nicaragua

Alone on the Beach

The bay of San Juan del Sur
Sunset on the bay of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. (Richard Leonardi - Tours Nicaragua)

When I moved to the United States, one of the surprises in my shiny new American life was finding out that not every beach was isolated, pristine oceanfront. As a kid, that's all I'd seen: beaches you needed to ford streams to get to, where you could dine on what you caught.

Where, I asked in Managua, could we go for that? Outside of San Juan del Sur, relatives recommended.

Geographically blessed San Juan del Sur, set snugly in a bay between two high rock cliffs, has been a vacation haven for Nicaraguans since my parents discovered the Beatles. Over the past decade, surf-mad backpackers discovered it, too. Then in 1998, several of the Holland America Line's cruises started making stops there.

Knowing this made me wonder whether the sleepy town would now be another Puerto Vallarta, drenched in light-skinned tourists turning hot pink as they clutched pina coladas.

To get there, we drove four hours in the shabbiest rental either of us had ever seen: a dented white car with tinted windows and no hubcaps -- which fit in perfectly with the overloaded trucks and crowded buses barreling past us. The fact that, ironically, the gap between wealthy Nicaraguans and poor ones had widened since the revolution was brought home every time a blinged-out SUV swooped by like a luxury yacht.

As we pulled into town, though, we knew the travel had been worth it. On the main beachfront drag, lined entirely with open-air bars and restaurants, clumps of old men in guayaberas stood chatting quietly with younger ones wearing Tommy Hilfiger knockoffs. A gray monkey, roped to a fence, morosely rattled a plastic cup. A dreadlocked couple, burned nut-brown by the sun, wandered down the street in board shorts and sarongs.

That night, after a few muscle-loosening Nica Libres (the native Flor de Caña rum, Coke and a lime) at Ricardo's surfside restaurant bar, we chatted up a group of American twentysomethings who worked in a local surf shop. One of them drew me a map of the nearby beaches on a notebook page and related his own adventures.

"Going to Popoyo once, we almost got stuck in a river. We had to have people climb on the hood for ballast," he said. "But this is the dry season."

The next day, we took his advice and headed out from San Juan del Sur. A half-hour cab ride along a bumpy, unpaved road took us to the top of a treacherously steep, dusty incline that the cabbie refused to take on.

At the bottom: a thatched-roof backpacker bed-and-breakfast serving cold beer and fresh-caught fish -- and the beach I'd been looking for: a wide expanse of sandy bay dotted with boulders of volcanic rock. The plentiful tide pools held crabs, tiny fish and waving anemones.

By walking about a quarter-mile farther down, Rob and I found an inlet where we could snorkel and bodysurf all by ourselves. Before leaving, we walked back to the B&B for a celebratory meal: a giant 10-pound lobster, caught that day -- ours for $10.

Interior Views

Because Rob's background is German -- and he literally has stock in Starbucks -- I planned one more major stop in our itinerary: Selva Negra, an eco-resort and coffee plantation high in the mountains of the Jinotega district.

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