The scream wakes me up. I’d heard this sound before. When we were camping as kids we would tell ghost stories at night in the tent when we were supposed to be sleeping. We would try to scare the pants off each other by making loud ghost screams into the night. That’s the sound. A ghost is screaming. It’s an eerie sound, but funny too, comically eerie. But I’m not in a tent. I’m lying face down in a bed of fine sand covering a thin sheet on a stiff mattress. Where? I try to remember as I peel my tongue off the roof of my mouth. Its barely dawn. There’s that sound again. T is doing a great job of pretending to sleep through it.
Howler monkeys. If I had read the guidebook I would have known to expect this. The taxi driver mentions the monkeys during the two-hour diesel-fumed ride from the airport in Managua to this dusty town. The taxi driver mentions many things. Mostly because I ask questions constantly, my own personal Spanish Immersion lesson. I spoke fluently as a child, but to say my Spanish is rusty now would be an understatement. I wonder how to say rusty in Spanish while concentrating intently on the driver who is patiently answering my poorly phrased questions. I’m in the back seat, if you can call it that, leaning so far forward I am practically in front with T and the driver, no seat belt. T sits in front of course, because he’s a man and we are in Latin America. I’m not sure T understands any of the conversation but every so often I switch to English and translate a bit for him. “Over there are some active volcanoes, the local rum is called Flor de Cana, yes, we can stop at the grocery store on the way to Playa Colorados, in fact, we must. There’s nowhere to buy anything where we are going. We need to stock up…”
(Above: Market in Rivas)
T knows all of this already, of course, because he read the guidebook. Who needs guidebooks when you can (sort-of) speak the language?
The scream is the call of the Howler monkey and we are in Nicaragua, Playa Colorados. Despite the brain-fog I am so happy to be here I don’t care that we barely slept. I get out of bed and fumble through the pre-dawn palapa for cup and stumble to the water dispenser. I wonder what the Spanish word for stumble is. I think I’ll look it up in the pocket dictionary that may or may not be nestled next to that guidebook in my backpack. The guidebook I meant to read on the airplane.
It was my idea to come to central pacific Nicaragua. I love to travel and I’ll go anywhere. The more remote the better for me, and I love winging it.
(Above: street scene at Hacienda Iguana)
I had to get to Nica before they dredged the country for the worlds largest canal. Our taxi driver is giddy with excitement about the canal and all the riches and opportunity it will bring his fellow Nicaraguans. Real estate prices will go up, there will be foreign investment. People will have good jobs. Panama just widened their canal to accommodate the enormous ships that carry the goods that American appetites demand. Maybe Nicaragua wouldn’t dredge a canal through pristine forests, lakes, and beaches now that the expanded Panama Canal is open, but it still seems possible. Chinese investors have already bought land, paved roads, and cleared nearby forest for an airport. I am conflicted by my resistance to this canal through Nicaragua, a county I’ve know for eleven hours. Having seen the splendor of the landscape through the car window, I wish the Nicaraguans would preserve this unspoiled beauty. Who am I to want Nicaraguans, living in one of the poorest countries in the world, to not develop their own country when it could lead to a robust economy benefitting all citizens? We do it in the USA and we are not blind to the impact that development has on natural environments. I try to remember how to say conflicted in Spanish. I need to look that up.
(Above: Surf at Playa Colorados)
How did I get here? I have a system. If I’m ready for a trip, I pick a location near world-class surfing. Luckily, I want to go everywhere. I can think of a good reason to visit anywhere on this earth. Try me. Narrowing my choices to locations with good surf is not a burden, but a welcome challenge. T is a surfer and I love surf towns. Surfers are the best travel companions. I am an artist. In travelling I find inspiration and the space I need to recharge and renew the creative urge. For this I need time to myself. This may not be common knowledge, but surfers don’t surf that much. Most of what surfers do involves standing on a beach or a cliff, staring at the ocean for hours on end. I also love to stare at the ocean. When surfers do get in the ocean they could be out for hours. During this time I get the solitude I need. When my travel companion is done surfing he is hungry, happy, and has made a few friends. Inevitably this leads to a fun evening involving dinner and drinks. Works for me.
(Above: Our friends at the only restaurant in town, Beach Club, Colorados)
Many world-class surf breaks are in remote places. There is always a funky little town nearby. All surf towns share certain qualities. Here are a few. There is at least one decent coffee shop serving healthy food. There is always a magnificent ocean, and there is usually a yoga studio nearby. Additionally, surf towns often have inexpensive, rustic accommodations. Perhaps the best part about surf towns is that they generally do not appeal to average American tourists. The ocean is often dangerous for all but the strongest swimmers. Surf towns lack glitzy resorts and amenities like the loud nightclubs and theme parks that Americans enjoy. Although surf travel is a burgeoning industry, many of the best spots are still too remote to attract many people. Solitude can be found in surf towns. It seems that my needs as a traveler and the needs of surfers dovetail nicely. What more do I need to know? I pick a surf town, book tickets and we go.
(Above: street scene in Gigante)
Fortunately, my surf-seeking travel buddy is a planner. T reads the guidebook; he knows things I don’t know. He knows to book a taxi from Managua’s Augusto Sandino International Airport, and to negotiate a fare in advance. He knows we must stop for provisions in the town of Rivas, because there is no grocery store in Colorados. He knows we can rent bikes and surfboards inside Hacienda Iguana, at a surf shop called NSR (Nicaragua Surf Report). Hacienda Iguana is the gated development that owns the property all along the beach. There is an eco-village, a golf course, and many private homes for rent to travelers within this development. Todd knows all of this, too.
I know none of this. After a colorful and noisy shopping trip in the bustling little town of Rivas, we drive through villages where uniformed schoolchildren play. The homes along the way are modest concrete structures; a large pig in the yard is a common sight. Our Nicaraguan taxi driver continues to humor me with stories and speculation about the local landscape and culture. I now understand about two thirds of what he’s saying but I feel like I am acclimating, settling in. About an hour later we reach the end of the paved road and I am surprised to find that our vacation rental is located within a gated community and not a quaint Nicaraguan village. Later I try to mask my disappointment that most of the other occupants in the Playa Colorados community are Americans. I should have read the guidebook. Nonetheless I feel confident that I will find the solitude and adventure I am looking for.
(Above: Our palapa at the eco-village, Hacienda Iguana, Playa Colorados)
In fact, I already have. The sun is rising now. Black naked tree trunks stick up out of dusty, rocky terrain carved through with rutted footpaths and dirt roads. This place must be a mess when it rains. Clearly it hasn’t rained in ages. This is not what I had expected. I travel quite a bit in Latin America and I envisioned a green paradise. This is not a tropical rainforest. It’s much drier, a little like Mexico’s Baja Peninsula Norte, but with more trees. And monkeys. I wonder about the Spanish words for desolate and haunting. Now the sun is up and T is awake and we make a quick pot of French-press Rivas-purchased coffee and head to the beach for a surf check.
(Above: Our VBRO hosts showing us the footpath to the beach)
T and I are both surprised to find that it is a 20 minute gut-busting bike ride to the surf spot, Colorados. The maps we were able to access make the beach seem closer and it may well be, but the trail to the beach is meandering to say the least. Roots, rocks and underbrush scrape our legs and feet. The sun is hot, it’s windy, and there’s hardly anyone here. We find a beachfront restaurant and bar called Beach Club and I am relieved. I was starting to wonder if really craved solitude as much as I thought I did. There are a few people, music is playing, and a couple requisite lazy dogs lounge on the patio. A bar and swimming pool face a beautiful stretch of sand and ocean. Waves break rhythmically, right and left. There are surfers in the water, but not many. There is no one on the beach. This is going to work out just fine.We are staying in the eco-village, a section of Hacienda Iguana that consists of rustic palapas with no electricity. We have no car and no telephone. Our palapa has solar panels which charge a storage battery giving us enough power for our useless cellphones and, if we are careful, an hour or so of electrical light in the evenings. Mostly, the solar panels power the refrigerator and for that we are grateful. We have cold beer.
( T looking at the surf, Playa Colorados)
We settle into a daily ritual. Howler monkey alarm clock, coffee, surf check, surfing or not, food, nap, surf check, surfing or not, sunset, food. Much of the day is spent in transit, biking and walking to surf spots lugging boards over sand and rock cliffs that disappear at high tide. We time the tides. It is hot and dusty and exhausting. If we stay out late and the sun goes down we bike home in absolute darkness, our small flashlights only making the night darker. We end the day with beer and conversation by candlelight on the deck of our palapa. We sometimes run into friends who are staying in Gigante, the next town over. On our bicycle pilgrimages for surf or food we include a daily stop at a place where they sometimes have a wi-fi signal, I use skype to call home while sitting on the stoop outside the wi-fi building. T is trying to run his business from that stoop and surprisingly, it is working out just fine.
(Above: Beach Club at Hacienda Iguana, Playa Colorados, Nicaragua)
We get lost regularly and it’s always my fault, but everything looks the same to me. Several times a massive bull blocks the entire road ahead of us. This is such a common occurrence that the local surf-shop, NSR, uses the massive bull as their logo. Locals seem terrified of these prehistorically large beasts, but when I approach the largest of the bulls for a photo, he just stares at me blankly then sticks his tongue up his own nose. Way up his nose, deapan, just to make me laugh. The resulting photo becomes my profile picture. It’s hilarious in the same way Howler Monkey screams are terrifying and funny at the same time. Creepy-funny. This seems to be a theme.
(Above: The famous NSR bull)
A family of bats live on our palapa. We do plenty of sitting around, staring. Travel affords that, and we already know that staring is part of surf behavior. I stare at the bat family, hanging upside-down with their tiny feet on the screen that covers the front of the palapa, black leather wings folded at their sides. It’s funny that there is a screen at all considering that the palapa is wide open in many places. What is the purpose of that screen if not to provide habitat to the bat family? I move to look up the word ironic in the Spanish dictionary and then I realize I don’t need to. I haven’t spoken Spanish since the taxi ride.
(Above: Bats on the window-screen of our palapa)
It’s time to make arrangements to go home. The wi-fi isn’t working at the wi-fi stoop. We ask and are told no one knows when it will work again. T is worried that our friends wont come to pick us up for the return to Managua. We said we’d be in touch but without a signal we cannot reach them. We vaguely remember talking to them about a shared ride back to the airport. I’m confident they will come and at the same time secretly excited about the adventure possibility afforded if they don’t come. Either way it’s ok. We pack up and our friends arrive right on time. They have their surfboards inside the compact sedan stacked horizontally from the front windshield to the back. We share stories on the two and half hour ride to Managua; our heads are jammed between surfboards and windows on both sides. I’m taking pictures while hanging out my window but I have no idea how our friend can drive like that.
(Above: Sunset of Playa Colorados, Nicaragua)
We make it to Augusto Sandino International Airport in plenty of time and wait blearily for our flight back to USA. I’m not sure if I will return to Nicaragua, my mind is already searching the departure board for our next destination. I can tell T needs a little time before I propose our next adventure, and I know he will need more time to prepare. There are guidebooks to read and I wont read any of them.
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