We are staying in a hostel near San Juan del Sur, a beach town on the southern Pacific coast. It is a basic place and there is a certain simple harmony between its construction and the natural backdrop: open-sided wood structures, winding pebble paths, leafy vegetation, palm-frond thatching, wigwams, trees, the sea. A ring of surrounding hills funnel cool wind through the site. Loud marimba music plays at all hours of the day.
It is a semi-rural area in which we find ourselves, somewhere that is neither village nor countryside. Outside the hostel gates, there is a series of corrugated iron and wood cabins strung out along a muddy road, smallholdings mainly, where chickens and pigs scratch away at the bare earth. Eagles circle overhead and small ragged children peer out from the shadows.
We plan to stay here for two weeks and we are not going to rent a car, so our world shrinks down to the limits of where we can walk to (or rather, where Matilda will walk to), a few kilometres of road leading to Maderas beach in one direction and the Machete Bar in the other.
Improbably we have a buddy here. Manu is a cosmopolitan Chilean who runs a couple of surf camps under the Dreamsea franchise. We stayed at his camp in Cantabria, northern Spain, a lifetime ago (last July) and I went surfing with him on a memorable occasion. He is now out here in his Nicaraguan camp only a klick or two up the road from us. We go to see him a few days into our stay.
Manu take us on a tour around his elegant – and empty – surf boutique. We peek into tents on teak wood platforms, where Balinese carvings gather dust on antique chests. We admire the huge central palm-thatch tower, walk up the spiral staircase to the surf theory classroom and stare out from the lookout platform over the jungle canopy to the far off sea. Arthur enviously eyes up the gleaming racks of surfboards.
We can envisage this place in its heyday: warm nights with mojitos, Soul Wax beats and candlelight, laughter at the poolside, beautiful people floating around in swimwear – basically a Vogue advert. But now the pool is covered in old leaves, the bar is untended, the bongos are unbeaten.
“We have only been open for two years” says Manu, “One good summer, then we got hit by the political crisis and all our bookings cancelled. Then it seemed like things were getting better, but… Covid! After that Hurricane Eta hit us pretty hard. Lots of roofs off! Then came Hurricane Iota…” He smiles and gestures in an inshallah kind of way. “We managed to find a corporate booking for new year – so at least I was able to pay the staff a Christmas bonus.” Another grin, “But not so many came in the end, so we lost out on the bar. Though now I have a lot of tequila!” We are doing dry January, I explain hastily, a midday tequila doesn’t appeal.
Although the worst is over now, Nicaragua’s reputation remains sketchy and this keeps people away. “This country is totally safe” Manu insists, “You don’t see real crime here, only opportunistic stuff. You go to Costa Rica and you get proper planned crime, especially in the surf resorts. Theft, mugging, kidnap. All the gangs and cartels are there. Here in Nicaragua there is only one cartel in town, and that’s Ortega and his government. And he doesn’t want to fuck with the tourists!”
He has a theory too about the competition for tourism, a narrative strand that will get repeated throughout our stay. “The Costa Ricans have been watching Nicaraguan tourism grow, and they don’t like it. It’s like how they were during the boom years, but now they’re flatlining and Nicaragua is taking more market share. So they’ve used the excuse of Covid to shut the border. San Jose is the international hub, all the flights from US and Europe land there. Then the tourists travel overland up to Nicaragua and back. Now of course they can’t get back again, so they don’t come…”
After an hour or two of chatting we leave Manu in his camp and head out into the bright daylight for lunch. He is a bright and vivacious guy, full of traveller stories, but even he cannot shrug off an air of gloom about the current situation. We leave him tapping away at his MacBook in the shadows of his empty bar, writing business plans, building projects for when the guests come back.
We make more friends here over time: we meet Tim and Melissa on the beach and have dinner at their place, they introduce us to various other members of the Canadian diaspora. We talk to a Dutch family who have lived here a decade already. Our long-suffering friends Josh and Meg cross the border to come and join us. Again and again in conversation, we hear the same narrative of stunted growth and sinister powers, of Nicaragua’s great potential nipped in the bud.
Over the next week Arthur and I surf with Manu a couple of times. One Sunday he picks us up early and takes us off on a jolting ride across the countryside, down jungle tracks, to Yankees – a legendary remote break. There we watch Manu drop into barrel after barrel while Arthur, Josh and I misjudge our takeoffs and get pounded by the fast heavy wave.
It is a place that encapsulates all the glory of Nicaragua – a world class hollow wave, white sand beach stretching out to the horizon, lush jungle backdrop and not a soul for miles around. It is named after a covert CIA landing spot during the Contra War, so there is a bona fide revolutionary connection too. It is what the Canadians call legit.
I understand why everyone is desperate for the tourism to return, but myself, I quite like it like this.