Surf adventures aren’t supposed to be easy. You really shouldn’t show up with everything planned, get through customs, find the smiling uniformed hotel employee with a sign bearing your name, and then hop in a shuttle to the 4 star resort with mints on the pillow. Even staying at a “surf camp” and cruising in an air conditioned Suburban with a young fired-up local hired to guide you to the best surf spot doesn’t really count. Those sorts of outings are surf trips, but not adventures. Ask anyone who has been on a true surf adventure and you will doubtless get many more interesting stories than you would from the sunburnt “bro” who toted his epoxy Merrick to a resort, spent a week sipping umbrella drinks by the pool and eating safe but bland “international cuisine” at the hotel, whose biggest problem was the day of rain that kept him from “bronzing”.
As a pro surfer, I’ve had the luxury of participating in many comfortable trips where everything is planned. Body Glove sponsored boat trips to tropical wave rich paradises, 5 star all-inclusive resorts in the Maldives, and first class treatment in Tahiti are great opportunities for showing up, getting waves, and of course good photos. On the other hand, contest trips are usually far from luxurious with many girls crammed into overstuffed rental cars and hotel rooms. There isn’t much time to explore or enjoy the area with the pressure of preparing for the event at hand. So, when planning a much needed “free surfing” trip with my boyfriend, we opted for a Latin American adventure, but where to go? Costa Rica is too crowded. El Salvador has been getting too much attention lately, and I’ve already done Panama. We decided on Nicaragua and expected mellow crowds and all day offshores.
Even when certain details are planned, there are never any guarantees. I’ve come to believe that car rental reservations in Latin American countries are virtually useless. Not entirely surprisingly, when we showed up at the counter with a print out of our online reservation, we were told they didn’t have any available. After consulting with every company, our options were either a jelly bean on wheels for twice the amount we were quoted online or a 4×4 truck for three times that. When it comes to rental cars, “you get what you pay for” and we would seriously regret taking the cheaper option.
The plan of attack was to drive down to San Juan Del Sur, the tourist capital of Nicaragua, and then work our way North into the lesser-frequented parts. San Juan was exactly as you would imagine a town like that to be. Trucks pass by in the afternoons spraying nose-burning insecticide into the air. Ex-pat gringos with dark skinned kids driving big beat up trucks guarded by mean-looking dogs cruise the streets like they own them. Pudgy sun-burnt packs of American or Canadian girls marinated in mosquito repellant practice their college Spanish by ordering “una mas cerveza”. The locals hang out in clumps along the sea wall, watching both, but not in a surprised manner. There are plenty of hotels, night clubs, restaurants, and surf shops advertising surf guide services. Most surf spots are easily accessible by boat, but we weren’t looking for the easy way out. Armed with a map and a Surf Report we were determined to drive, hike, or paddle, or some combination of all three. Whatever it took, we weren’t going to be “sissies”.
Our first sunset in Nicaragua, San Juan Del Sur
We didn’t have the luxury of comparison to any number of years ago, however it was obvious that Nicaragua is changing. Every few Kms or so is a sign advertising land for sale by an American real estate company, and many high-priced fenced-in “gringo” communities are already in the works. We drove for a while and then turned off on a dirt road that dead-ended in a “no trespassing” barbed wire fence. One of the two Nicaraguan men hanging out in a small wooden shack informed us that we could walk to the beach from there. He pointed up a freshly bulldozed hill and around a corner giving mostly confusing directions for what he claimed would be about a fifteen-minute walk. He smiled and offered to let us park on his property and volunteered to watch our car. My boyfriend Ryan asked him if many surfers went to the beach there. He said, “yes, people go to the beach when it is hot”. It was far from clear whether or not we were at the right place, but we applied sunscreen, grabbed our boards, and started the hike. Fifteen minutes later, we were sweating off the sunscreen from the heat and the hill and still hadn’t spotted the ocean. Ryan decided to hop a fence and follow a trickling river that would surely be a shortcut to the beach. We came across a drainage pipe about 4 feet high and 20 feet long and were just about to pass through it when our voices set a flurry of screeching bats into frantic flight inside the pipe. Instant nightmares came to mind of having one stuck in my hair. Up and over we went instead.
Finally, we made it down to the surf. It looked fun, but not empty. There were five guys out on a short shoulder-high right with a boat anchored just outside. I paddled out just as they were heading back to the boat. Apparently, the tide was too low now, although they had scored earlier, and they had seen some guy with a machine gun roaming the beach. We didn’t like the sound of either report, but felt obligated to catch a few waves anyway. In a few minutes we were alone in the lineup and the surf had stopped breaking. There was nothing left to do but start the long walk back and hope for an afternoon session elsewhere. On the way up, we missed our shortcut, tried to find a new one, retraced our steps several times and found ourselves on the wrong side of a “no trespassing” sign. Jumping that fence quickly, the machine-gun patroller ever present in the back of our minds, we finally made it back to the car. The afternoon session at a much more easily accessible beach break wasn’t much better. The waves were small and mushy, and absolutely packed with way too many clueless beginners and un-sharing locals accommodated by a surf hostel and restaurant within heckling distance of the lineup. It was time to explore other options to the North.
Nicaragua doesn’t have a paved coastal road. The main highway sits inland several Kms and offers poorly marked dirt roads branching off to the West. We chose one and drove a while, passing through and around incrementally more threatening mud puddles. Keep in mind our “jellybean” had only about four inches of clearance. At one point, I thought the pool would be impassible, but a friendly local on a bike volunteered to ride through it and test the depth as well as the traction. He gave us the “thumbs up” signal and we skidded through only to come to a much thicker mud slick a few minutes further. This time there was no way our two wheel drive roller skate was going to make it. The beach was within sight and we jogged out to check it. Looking to the South, we could just see what looked like overhead offshore hollow peaks. It seemed a little crowded, but really good quality. The waves were better than anything we had seen so far, but we just couldn’t get to them. “Stupid car!” We contemplated leaving it there and hiking in to surf, but with all of our gear inside, it would have been too easy of a target for anyone wanting to break in and make off with everything. Sure we felt good about not taking the easy way out, but frustration was starting to set in. There was nothing to do but keep driving North.
A couple hours later we came to another well-known surf spot. There was definitely swell, but after everything we had been through, the thickness of the crowd was a turn off. There were plenty of guys in the water, guys walking towards the water, guys coming in, guys hanging out at the restaurant and on the balconies of a handful of surf ghetto-style hotels. That wasn’t what we came for. The frustration was building as we got back into the car once again. We had to wonder if there were surf camps everywhere now? Were the days of putting in a little more effort and getting un-crowded waves over? So far, it seemed that way.
Our last hope was a port town to the north that was rumored to have a few decent waves. There are two huge lakes in Nicaragua that produce offshore winds all day long. Unfortunately, like most of the rest of the world this year, the weather has been strange. We learned from other surfers that for ten days before we arrived it had actually been onshore all day, virtually unheard of in Nicaragua for that time of year. So far we hadn’t experienced the all day offshores either, but since this port town is the furthest North to benefit from the lake-effect winds and a solid swell was on the way, we were hoping all the elements would come together and we would finally be rewarded.
Morning dawned, sunny and offshore. We drove off through the mud to check a left we had heard about, through a very quiet rundown town. So far we hadn’t seen any other “gringos” and the local people seemed to regard us with curiosity, which we took as really good signs. The wave didn’t look like much. It was mushy and short, but at least head high with no one out! A friendly local offered to show us where to park so we could keep an eye on our car while we surfed. He eagerly hopped into the passenger seat for the ride and insisted we honk the horn as we passed his house so he could wave proudly to his family. After a few cutback filled waves, the tide seemed to improve and there were a couple small cover-ups on offer for about twenty minutes until the tide got too low and it just closed out. It wasn’t much, but it was our best session so far.
We went back for lunch at the only restaurant across from the only hotel in town. I ordered “Fajitas”, not really expecting to get anything like the sizzling chicken, onions, and peppers served at Mexican restaurants at home, but the waitress described them similarly enough, so I was surprised when she brought out fried chicken strips with french fries. Ryan had a couple beers and we sat back and tried to relax in the heat. After lunch, we took a walk to check another spot near the hotel and suddenly all plans for an afternoon of relaxation were off. Was it a mirage? It was really far out, but it looked like a reverse Maalea. Perfect lefts were rifling across, three or four at a time. It looked solid, fast, and absolutely amazing. “We’ve got to get out there!” We raced back to the hotel and grabbed our boards, but it was no quick hop into the lineup.
First came the frantic scramble through a guarded fence, down a slippery sludgy mud slope, over some flat rocks, to paddle across an estuary with a swift current. Then came a sticky walk across a mud flat and finally into the shorebreak. At that point, the journey was only half over. The waves were breaking on a shallow sandbar in the middle of a harbor mouth. With the tide surging in, the paddle to the distant lineup was made that much harder. Ryan is a mechanical engineer for a helicopter company and unfortunately spends Monday through Friday in front of a computer. Without the training of a pro surfer, the paddle for him was especially strenuous. He was a few yards behind me yelling, “Beck, we’re not going to make it! We’ll get swept into the harbor mouth and out to sea!” He did have me a little worried, but I had my eye on those perfect lefts and was determined to get out there no matter what. It was breaking so far out that we had only just realized that there were already a few guys out. I was both relieved and disappointed. We assumed them to be locals but couldn’t figure out why we repeatedly saw them do one massive turn and then not make the wave. They could obviously surf, so we wondered if the wave was just too fast?
Upon finally reaching the lineup, it all became clear. It was a handful of young Brazilian pros and a floating water photographer. They took off, pumped down the line, did a massive “hack” in front of the lens, and then the wave would peel off without them. It was a little smaller than it looked but even more perfect. I took off on my first wave, pulled in, came out right in front of the camera and the pro surfer in me considered pulling off the wave and paddling back out to quickly get another opportunity in the photo zone. I have been on so many photo trips that weren’t about riding the entire wave but just performing on the best section to get a shot. On a trip with David Pu’u to the Maldives, I was actually chastised for riding the wave all the way through, since it then took me longer to get back out into photo position. I had to remind myself that I was not working here. This was all about fun. Unfortunately, the ‘zilla boys did their best to remind me of the way their culture works by showing respect to Ryan but backpaddling me on every set. Machismo is definitely not synonymous with chivalry. After less than an hour the wind turned onshore and effectively ended the fun. I was a little frustrated with the boys, but overall we were ecstatic. We had finally found what we had come for, a perfect wave, with no surf camp in sight. We decided to post up there and await the forecasted swell.
Two days later we were up before the sun anticipating the reward for all our suffering. We had found the wave, understood the tide, knew the Brazilians had left for the South the previous night and the swell was filling in. We were about to enjoy the fruits of our labor and claim what we had come for; perfect waves with no one else out. It started with a walk, then a paddle, then another walk, and a final very long paddle. With no one else in the lineup and such a long distance to any markers on the beach, the take off spot was hard to find. The swell was much bigger and nowhere near as clean. It was cloudy, brown, and lumpy. I took off on the first wave I could get and rode it till my thighs burned. This left Ryan outside by himself. He caught a wave as I was paddling back out, and then I sat outside alone. I was overcome by a very creepy feeling. Ryan had ridden his wave so far that he was out of sight and I sat there a long time in the murky water with the distinct feeling there was something big in the water nearby. This was not the session we had imagined after all. Ryan finally made it back to the lineup and seemed just as uneasy. Sitting next to each other, we watched a set approach. I saw what looked like a fin pop up behind a wave with another swishing, water-displacing thing a few feet behind it. It wasn’t a dolphin.
“Did you see that?”
“Let’s get out of here!”
We turned on the first wave of the set, caught it together and rode it all the way to the sand on our stomachs. There was no doubting what we had seen and the paddle across the estuary was done very nervously.
There were only a couple days left before Ryan had to head back to work and already we seemed to have exhausted our options. We had dealt with the friendly surf environment and attached crowds to the South, we had explored the more rugged spots further North, and other than a few magical moments had mostly come up empty. Driving back towards San Juan del Sur we stopped at a resort to have a cold beer under a palapa and finally do some relaxing. Maybe we had put in enough effort and deserved a little pampering. There was even a beach break out front, although the river had been running for a few days and the peaks were a little too chocolaty to look appetizing. The next two days we slept in crisp white sheets, ate normal international cuisine, drank beers with the “bros” in the evenings, and walked down to a reasonably fun left that was only marginally crowded. Maybe living the easy life isn’t as evil as we imagined. As we packed up our jelly bean one last time and turned towards the airport we giggled about all the difficulties, the crowds, the long walks, the longer paddles, the shark. It was certainly an adventure, but maybe next time we’ll do that boat trip. We deserve it.