FINDING THE PARTY & THE SURF
Despite its budding recognition and increasing popularity, Nicaragua still seems to fly under the radar when compared to its slightly more lush and touristy Costa Rican neighbor.
We fell in love with Nicaragua during our honeymoon, and even though our second trip through this country was MUCH less luxurious than the first, both offered great ways to explore this awesome country.
What follows is the more budget-conscious, surfer-friendly version of our two-part Nicaraguan Saga.
This quaint pacific beach town is located in northern Nicaragua, just south of Chinandega, about 15 miles west of León. Despite its underdeveloped and secluded location, this little hideaway is now easily accessible thanks to the new paved road. It offers the perfect place to relax in a hammock or attempt some intermediate-level surfing.
For travelers on a budget, Las Peñitas is very accommodating. Stay in the dorms at Playa Roca for $10-15/bed depending on the season. With a full service restaurant and air-conditioned private room options, this establishment provides plenty of seating, a great staff, and some of the best views of the rock formation on the beach. For a more intimate and modern accommodation, The Simple Beach Lodge boasts handmade furniture using sustainable practices and local resources ($25-40 for a private room).
All of the above locations rent boards for around $10/day but beginners can take lessons at Coco Surf School and the locals can point out the best places for surfers of all levels. Watch the undertow (it’s strong) and be mindful of the rocks. Most places on the beach offer a sandy bottom, but scope out the area during low tide to avoid the rocks that the town is named after. For avid surfers, the waves are consistent year-round, almost always un-crowded and offer right and left breaks between 1-3 meters high.
It’s not the best party town, but that means the beer is still cheap and you can sometimes even find live, local music at the Pirata beach bar. With $2 Toñas and very few places to go, you’ll meet lots of locals and travelers all under the same thatched roof.
From Las Peñitas to Playa Popoyo you can either catch a chicken bus back into León or have one of the hotels call a taxi. If you’re driving yourself, you’ll still have to head back into León and it’s worth a quick stop at the central cathedral for some incredible rooftop photos. Bright white domes cover the surface and you’ll have spectacular views of the city if you can tear your eyes away from the roof itself.
To Popoyo, drive 72km down the Pan-American and you’ll find a dirt road off to the right. It’s called NIC-62 but don’t expect any clear signs, just know that if it looks “off the beaten path” you’re probably headed in the right direction. And if all else fails, ask a local!
Driving or riding on unpaved roads heading into Nicaraguan beach towns, after rainy nights, does NOT make for the easiest trip. But if you enjoy a muddy and bumpy off-roading experience, then you’re going to have a blast! For travelers in your own cars, be sure and turn on the 4-wheel drive otherwise I imagine you’d pop a tire, flood an engine, or end up stuck in mud. Remember, we’re not in tourist-central and sometimes the most desirable locations are off the roads less traveled :)
Once you arrive in the area of Playa Popoyo your options for surfing and lodging are plentiful. But being a little spread out, a 4-wheel drive vehicle or scooter is pretty critical unless you plan to walk a LOT. With new developments popping up every day, this hidden gem will be booming before long and may have us all wishing for simpler times.
Magnific Rock serves as a mid-point between two different surf breaks: Popoyo and Santana. This hotel sits atop a cliff overlooking one of the most incredible natural rock formations just on the edge of “Beginners Bay” where most instructors hold their lessons. For a higher-end stay, Magnific Rock has it all: an open-air restaurant with great food, lodging with the best views of the ocean, a great selection of surfboards, and a popular pool bar. The amenities such as surf lessons, board rentals, and yoga classes are all offered at discounted rates if you stay as a guest at their lodge.
Closer to Playa Santana (south of Mag Rock) you’ll find the Meson Nadi Boutique Hotel and the Hotel SUYō Beach Cabañas. These incredible new developments are well worth the trek and their hosts are incredibly welcoming. For less expensive, dorm options you’ll find plenty of beachfront hostels near the sandier Popoyo surf break north of beginner’s bay.
In the tiny town of El Limón you can have a tipico meal at Yolanda’s or visit the Ding Repair Surf Shop for rentals and board repair.
We loved this area of Nicaragua and with two surf competitions going on, some great surf instructors and a cool party at Mag Rock after some morning yoga, there’s more than enough to keep you entertained.
Playa Gigante (Party) & Playa Colorado (Surf)
For a cool hostel with some organized fun and lots of good people, visit Camino del Gigante.
On Tuesdays, for $20 and all-you-can-drink Pirate Punch, the owner takes travelers out on his private sailboat for some open water sailing, a cliff jump, and the most incredible sunset on the ocean.
Every morning, the chef leads a FREE 7am yoga class for all staff members, volunteers and travelers. It’s the perfect way to wake up your body and creates nice community vibes for everyone working or staying at the hostel. We told ourselves we would take this morning ritual on the road with us, but that lasted less than a week.
While surfing right out front isn’t typical, it's the perfect place to swim and you can find plenty of places to surf and rent boards up the beach, just be ready for a little hiking to get over the hill and down to the cove.
From Playa Gigante, you’ll want to catch a car or boat ride to the private beach of Playa Colorado, accessible by foot via Hacienda Iguana where the beach is beautifully developed and the barrels are known to be just as consistent as most places in southern Pacific Nicaragua. Offshore winds in Nicaragua blow more than 300 days out of the year, making for surf-able waves almost all the time.
Another well-known cove for some incredible surfing is Playa Maderas. Unfortunately for us, the swell didn’t sit well in the cove and we were stuck fighting the currents. But in most cases, this place is awesome. There’s a taco joint on the beach, multiple surf rental shops in the area and some great hostels and hotels up in the trees.
We stayed at Hostel Clandestino and it felt like home. The owner and hosts were some of the kindest, most welcoming people we’ve met so far. They built the place from scratch and with affordable dorms, awesome private rooms, a great outdoor kitchen and yoga studio, free coffee and filtered water, plus a veggie truck that visits the hostel twice per week, you could comfortably settle into this tree house oasis for days or even weeks at a time.
Just below them on the hill, is Maderas Village. An incredible new construction just outside our price range but we hear it’s well worth the money. They offer instructor-led yoga classes, can organize fun local tours and have modern rooms at varying price points.
For a picturesque beach town, with good surf and a relaxed atmosphere, Playa Maderas really delivers.
(Visit https://surfnicaragua.wordpress.com/ for more info on the best Nicaraguan Surf spots from someone who actually understands the surf - we are newbies)
San Juan del Sur
You’ve probably heard of it by now but if not, we’re here to tell you it’s worth a stop. Best known for its nightlife, the hostels in San Juan join together for Sunday Funday, to provide a pretty crazy bar hop from pool, to bar, to beach starting at 2pm and lasting until you can’t hang. But that’s not the only reason to visit.
After a number of small (although beautiful) beach towns towns along the coast, it’s pretty nice to have some of the amenities provided by touristy cities like San Juan. We found awesome food, good grocery stores, local markets, surfer-chic shopping, and of course PARTIES.
PLUS we had our laundry done at a local lavanderia for 100-150 Cordobas per load - what a treat! Sometimes there’s just nothing better than clean, scented, and folded clothes.
We stayed in a dorm at Casa de Olas for $16/night (breakfast included). The staff is incredible, they make you want to party even if you think you’re going “take it easy” and the kitchen serves family dinners for $5-7 each night so you don't have to stress about food when you’re 4-12 drinks in. Regular happy hours make drinking even easier, and with a pool that overlooks the entire city of San Juan, it definitely takes the cake for one of the best party scenes in Central America. Oh and did I mention they have monkeys hanging around on the back patio and a bar that gets going around 11 in the morning? Like I said… if you think you’re going to take it easy, you’re wrong.
The actual Sunday Funday starts at a hostel next door called the Naked Tiger. Tickets cost $35 ($15 if you stay at their hostel) and include a T-shirt or tank top, shuttle services with the group for the whole day, and a drink at each location. Get ready to party you guys, because we were there during low season and the turn out was still in the hundreds.
Nicaragua has been great and we loved exploring what it has to offer to some budding surfers. For the first time visitor, there is much more to Nicaragua than its beautiful coastline. We have to recommend the wonderful colonial town of Granada on Lake Nicaragua and the Isletas de Granada (small islands on the lake). We stayed at the beautiful and luxurious Jicaro Island Ecolodge last year on our honeymoon (what a different trip that was!) and had an incredible 5-star experience. If you are in the mood to splurge, it's definitely worth every penny. Mombacho Volcano is lush and a fairly easy hike with great views overlooking Granada and the lake. Masaya Volcano is Nicaragua's most active volcano, and if you are lucky, you will get to see the red lava bubbling as you peer over the edge (hold on tight). And after visiting Masaya, you absolutely MUST visit Laguna de Apoyo for a relaxing dip in the caldera formed lake with beautiful navy blue water and mountains on every side. We hope if you choose to explore Nicaragua, you find it as amazing as we did!
Meg + Tyler