Fit for Man and Beast
Sunday, December 24, 2006
It was pitch-black and pushing past midnight on a desolate beach when I more or less gave up on spotting a sea turtle. My two brothers and I had braved a bumpy hour crammed in the back of an old Jeep as it rumbled across gravel and muck to La Flor, a wildlife sanctuary on Nicaragua's Pacific coast. The week before, we were told, more than 10,000 of the suitcase-size reptiles had landed in the darkness to lay eggs, the turtle equivalent of the Normandy invasion.
But for two futile hours, we had crisscrossed the shore in sweltering heat, flashlights drawn, with nothing to show for it. Even so, we had few complaints. It was 30 degrees warmer than the brisk New England fall we'd left behind two days earlier. Not a single structure was visible anywhere along the pristine, mile-long crescent of sand. And on a moonless night, flashes of lightning on the horizon shone bright enough for us to make out boulders jutting from the sea, washed by the gently breaking waves.
Then some of the boulders began to move.
"Is that one?" my brother Ben asked our guide, a young woman from the nearby town of San Juan del Sur. What else could it be? At the plodding pace one might expect after a journey from as far away as Alaska, the turtle ambled toward the palms that lined the beach, then stopped to dig its nest. As about a dozen other turtles made landfall all around us, the first one unloaded more than 100 eggs into the pit, buried its treasure with frenzied feet and returned to the sea, as slowly as it had come.
It was the rare sort of scene for which travelers have long ventured to better-known destinations in Mexico or, more recently, Costa Rica, Nicaragua's southern neighbor. For centuries, most foreign visitors to Nicaragua came to meddle in its politics, including the American military advisers who worked with contra guerrillas during the 1980s civil war. But in recent years, waves of tourists have discovered that the beautiful country has treasures to offer and is working to bury its troubled past.
The Western Hemisphere's second-poorest nation, Nicaragua is at something of a crossroads. In a pivotal presidential election last month, its voters backed Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandinista Front, which controlled the government during the civil war. U.S. officials, along with foreign investors in Nicaragua, whose numbers have surged in recent years, are concerned that Ortega, who was backed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War and remains close to Cuba's Fidel Castro, will impose market-unfriendly policies.
"Tourism and foreign investment are what is driving this part of the country," said Jon Thompson, who moved to Nicaragua from California in 1998 and last year founded a bilingual magazine called El Puente (The Bridge) that closely covers the country's burgeoning new industries. "There are a lot of people worried that Ortega will undo all of this, and there is no Plan B."
Those worries were dismissed in San Juan del Sur, about 15 miles up the coast from La Flor, where I spent a week this fall. The charming, Sandinista-run village has long been a point of entry for those exploring Nicaragua. Of arriving in San Juan del Sur by sea in 1886, Mark Twain wrote that "bright green hills never looked so welcome, so enchanting, so altogether lovely." Simple homes now sprawl up those hillsides, and the exquisitely manicured grounds of the Piedras y Olas (Stones and Waves), the town's first luxury hotel, overlook dozens of fishing boats that bob on its half-moon bay.
San Juan del Sur has undergone a dramatic transformation since surfers began arriving in the mid-1990s. Initially the surfing scene was dominated by transplanted Californians and Hawaiians who relied on local kids to help them find beaches with the best-breaking waves. But after a while, many of those kids picked up surfing themselves, and now more than half of the dozen or so surf shops in town are run entirely by locals. Slowly, the town has been reborn as the country's hottest travel destination, popular with Nicaraguan vacationers during Easter and home to growing numbers of foreign tourists year-round.
"When I was a kid, there was basically nothing here," said Gaspar Guadamuz, 23, who works at the local branch office of American real estate company Century 21, one of several U.S. firms with a presence in town. "Land values have gone up 20 to 40 percent just in the last year, and 500 percent in five years. It started with the surfers. I remember them coming to town and wondering what were the long things they were carrying."
My brothers, an artist and a college student, and I wanted to give surfing a try, though we knew it wouldn't be easy. Born and raised in Vermont, the closest we'd gotten to water sports was the frozen kind: skiing and ice hockey.
A company called Arena Caliente (Hot Sand) offered lessons, board rentals and transportation to and from a renowned nearby beach called Madera for $35. We heard the busted muffler on its dilapidated white van coming about a minute before it arrived, just after 10 o'clock one morning. We piled into the back and went barreling through town with the windows down and the radio blaring reggaeton, a Latin American fusion of rap, rock and reggae. The driver, a 19-year-old with flowing bleach-blond locks, initially introduced himself only as Don Bigote, "Sir Mustache." (We later learned his name was Kelvim).