The view out over the expansive Pacific from the forested hilltop was vintage, travel-poster Central America – the beach-fringed, scallop-shaped Bay of San Juan del Sur, complete with its trademark 45-foot high fiberglass statue of Jesus de la Misericordia, glistening in the morning sunlight.
Not that my wife, my 11-year-old twin daughters, and I had much time to enjoy it before Pedro, our equipment-laden guide at Da Flying Frog Canopy Tour, indicated that it was our turn again to step off the elevated metal platform and zipline through the trees. But our exhilarating, two-hour airborne spree certainly had the girls grinning from ear-to-ear — and their father smiling inwardly at the exceedingly reasonable $30 per person price tag.
Squeals of delight were traded for glows of accomplishment that afternoon during their two-hour introduction to surfboarding lesson at Playa Remanso, one of San Juan del Sur’s justly famous surfing destinations. While dark-skinned, muscular, and completely fluent in English Oscar guided the girls through board basics, my wife and I alternated between monitoring progress while bobbing nearby in the gently rolling green surf and documenting it with our camera from the rocky beach.
It was indeed a banner day — the single best day in fact of our do-it-yourself, three-week tour of Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. And there would be an additional treat for us that evening: a spectacular sound and light show tropical downpour – provided by Mother Nature absolutely free of charge — as we sat in the power-outage darkness sipping Tona beer at a beachfront restaurant.
Ironically, Nicaragua was the only one of the three countries I’d had qualms about taking the family to, which is why I had made it our first destination . . . just in case. Despite its reputation as “the new Costa Rica,” I was still concerned about personal safety and anti-American sentiment in the country that for years had been the subject of State Department travel warnings. We were, after all, the country which had supported ruthless dictator Anastasio Somoza and then tried to undermine elected president Daniel Ortega by clandestinely funneling money to the Contras. Nor was I convinced that Nicaragua was still ready infrastructurally for anyone other than seasoned backpackers equipped with plenty of time and patience.
But times have changed in the most central of Central American countries. Overt political turmoil has abated (Ortega was elected to another four-year term in November), the economy is back on its feet, and thanks to a well-funded and well-managed tourism development campaign, Nicaragua is poised to receive independent travelers looking to expand their regional horizons. To be sure, the vast eastern part of the country still presents plenty of challenges, even to intrepid travelers. But the road south from the Managua to the Costa Rican border is both well traveled and well marked, a fact I was relieved to discover shortly after landing at the capital city’s international airport.
Managua itself, a city tag-teamed in recent years by earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, and civil war, is of minimal interest to leisure travelers. So after a quick look around the city center, including the site of the Somoza dynasty’s palace, now surmounted by an enormous silhouette of rival Augusto Cesar Sandino, who was executed here in 1934 and for whom the Sandinistas are named, we caught a clean, fast, and cheap (about $1.50) express microbus down to the colonial capital of Granada, where, for fear of not being able to find a decent place to stay on our first night, we had made advance reservations.
We needn’t have bothered. In addition to its aesthetically restored 16th and 17th century colonial ambiance (second only in Central America to Guatemala’s Antigua), Granada is rife with perfectly suitable hotels, inns, and guest houses. Ditto for its restaurants, many of which can be found along the pastel stucco, shop-lined Calle La Calzada, which runs from the quintessentially Spanish Parque Central with its mustard-colored cathedral down to 100-mile long Lake Nicaragua, Central America’s largest (by far) inland body of water. Over a plate of traditional vigoron (pork rinds and yucca) and the first of many bottles of cold Tona (or Victoria) beer that first night, I was finally able to relax, secure in the knowledge that Nicaragua was indeed ready for prime time and my family.
We spent the next day leisurely taking in the sites and sounds of Granada, including the view out over the red-tiled rooftops towards Mombacho Volcano from the tower of La Merced Church. The girls enjoyed testing the hammocks being made in the annex at Tio Antonio’s Social Center, while at the Dona-Elba Cigar Factory, my wife and I each got to roll a “verdadero organico”, enclosing the local filler tobacco in a shade-gown wrapper from our native Connecticut. An evening stroll down by the lake completed our Nicaraguan novitiate.
Reassured by the microbus trip down from Managua, we decided to try our luck on an “ordinario” (typically a surplus American school bus, derogatorily known as a “chicken bus”) down to San Jorge, departure point for ferry service out to quintessentially volcanic Ometepe Island. There were no chickens of course, but plenty of friendly ordinary Nicaraguans, crammed in as tightly as the “ayudante” could squeeze them, doing their best to make the hot and bumpy trip the least unpleasant for themselves and their fellow travelers as possible. And we certainly heard lots of popular music, blaring from the obligatory supped-up sound system.
If our “ordinario” ride was a sensory overload for the nose and ears, the island of Ometepe was one for the eyes. A lopsided, figure 8-shaped island anchored by the tapering twin cones of Volcanoes Conception and Maderas, Ometepe is downright spectacular from most vantage points. But it is exceptionally so from the modest lakeside lodge where we stayed on Playa Santo Domingo, the thin beach on the east side of the central isthmus where, if you wade or swim out into the warm, greenish water (which we did frequently), you can see both at the same time.
Climbing either is a lengthy, physically-demanding proposition, one that was not in keeping with the spirit of our relaxing family vacation. So we settled for a private tour of the island’s archeological museum – with its celebrated pre-Columbian petroglyphs — by curator Manuel Hamilton Silva Monce, and an afternoon horseback ride that included a dip at a natural spring and a sprightly canter along a black-sand beach. By American standards, our horses were small and scrawny; but then so was the price – only $10 per person.
Indeed, for many travelers, Nicaragua’s most compelling attraction is its price tag, which, generally speaking, is half of what is charged for similar quality accommodations or services in now firmly-on-the-beaten-path Costa Rica. On Ometepe in particular, we ran into dozens of young Americans and Europeans, intent on getting the most vacation for their money. To a one, they were satisfied with their success.
By the time we arrived in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua’s most popular destination, we were no longer Nica novices, but well-versed in the art of negotiation. By agreeing to spend two nights and pay in cash, we snagged a deluxe room at one of the town’s fancier establishments for about half the printed price.
During the California gold rush (and long before the Panama Canal), this otherwise sleepy natural harbor had been the Pacific port of embarkation for impatient prospectors who had traversed the Central American isthmus via the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua. By contrast, today’s onslaught of foreigners come to stay, often for weeks on end, their days spent boarding at the beach and their evenings overlooking it, drinking in the . . . atmosphere and one of San Juan del Sur’s celebrated sunsets.
We, too, would have liked to have stayed longer in this delightful and accommodating country, but I had let a little fear of the unknown get in the way. That’s one mistake I won’t make again – my daughters will see to that!