The rainy season, we had been assured, was over. But that hadn't stopped the torrential rain from pounding the roof of the Hotel Villa Isabella as I tried to fall asleep.
My husband, Duane, and I, plus some of the other hotel guests, had planned to explore the Pacific coast beaches the following day, and as the rain beat its staccato, I wondered whether our journey from San Juan del Sur, a fishing village south of Managua, would be canceled.
By dawn, however, brilliant sunshine told me our trip was on.
We were soon heading for Playa Yankee, a white-sand beach about 15 miles south of San Juan del Sur, on an unpaved jungle road when we encountered a full-sized stream that was fast becoming a river, stopping our four-wheel-drive truck in its tracks. As I climbed out, a man in our party braved the rushing water to test its depth. Splash! He had dropped into a pothole and was waist-deep in water. The other men looked on, weighing the chances of proceeding.
Uh-oh, I thought. A bunch of gringos floundering around in a developing country. I walked a few paces up the road. The bushes rustled, too loudly for a bird. I froze, my imagination racing through every danger the jungle could throw at us.
Doubt struck. Why had I decided to come to Nicaragua?
A barefoot girl, about 6 years old, emerged from the foliage, standing a safe distance away. A few more paces up the road and I could see, through the bushes, a single-room house made of corrugated tin.
I waved to the girl. She gave a tiny wave back. I smiled; her face lit up. I silently admired her dress, hues of vibrant orange and blue. As I approached, the look of wonder in her dark eyes mirrored the excitement I had felt when listening to a group of Nicaragua-philes Duane had introduced me to a few weeks earlier.
Duane's passion for surfing had turned him on to Nicaragua. Not being a surfer, I needed other inspiration. I associated Nicaragua with the Sandinistas, malaria and aching poverty that had been seared into my mind during the heavy media coverage of the 1980s. Duane wanted to disabuse me of those notions.
"Honey," he said, "you need an update. The proxy war with its violence and turbulence between the Contras and Sandinistas was over 14 years ago.
"I want you to meet some people who just got back from Nicaragua," he had told me.
As the girl disappeared into the foliage and then popped up, with two older children, in a paneless window in the house, the words from the Nicaragua-philes echoed in my mind.
"It's a frontier. "
"Sweetest, friendliest people."
"Nicaragua's at peace, you know."
"Third democratically elected administration."
"Just watch, it will be the next Costa Rica."
"Simply the best real-estate deal of the decade."
"Mile after mile of deserted beaches."
"The rainy season's over now."
Well, not quite.
The men managed to turn the truck around, and my husband beckoned. The children ran out to wave goodbye. As we maneuvered through puddles on the way back to our fishing village, the sun blessed the lush foliage, droplets glistening, and everything smelled fresh.
Climbing up over the hills, the vista opened before us, revealing the horseshoe-shaped harbor of San Juan del Sur, its fishing, sailing and diving boats bobbing beyond the white beach.
"Why Nicaragua?" I asked myself again. The unexpected poetry of the place and its people touched me. I was already falling in love.
Greeted with smiles
The trip from Los Angeles to Nicaragua was easy: no inoculations needed, just beach and hiking clothes and a round-trip ticket to Managua, the capital. We were met at the airport that November day of our arrival by the Isabella hotel's driver, Juan Carlos, who got us to San Juan del Sur in less than three hours.
About halfway to our destination, the landscape opened up. I was astonished to behold Lake Nicaragua, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, between two green ridgelines. This tranquil inland sea stretched to a horizon broken only by two volcanoes on the island of Ometepe.
At first, San Juan del Sur seemed like a jumble of buildings — single-story dwellings mixed in with storefronts. Tin, wood, stone and brick were mixed and matched. Oxen pulled a cart laden with firewood alongside a family of three on one bicycle. A few people ambled on foot. No one seemed in a hurry. It was humid, but offshore breezes cooled and soothed my traveler's fatigue. People greeted us with smiles.
The Isabella hotel, a two-story, red-tiled building nestled among flowering plants and vines and trees, is a few blocks from the bay. Our first-floor room was spacious and cool with two wardrobes, a queen-size bed, a dresser, tables, a TV and a private bath.
American Mike Iacoboni, an energetic retired dentist and pilot, and Jane Mirandette bought the hotel together and were excellent sources of information, history, lore and inspiration.
After unpacking, we took a boat trip around the bay, a refreshing hour or so of gliding in and out of coves and bays with no people and very few houses in sight. From the water, we saw Marsella Beach Resort, a group of seven octagonal cabanas nestled on a steep hill immediately above Playa Marsella.
After the boat trip, we ate lunch at La Cascada, a hillside restaurant that, along with its hotel, Piedras y Olas, was designed by San Francisco entrepreneur Chris Berry in 2003. Berry's design incorporates a style typical of San Juan del Sur: One side of the structure is open, which invites nature in.
The restaurant features local pottery and weaving, has an infinity pool that cascades toward the village and offers views of the bay and surrounding hills. "La Cascada is as beautiful a spot as any I've seen anywhere," said Millie Paul, a seasoned traveler from La Cañada-Flintridge.
As I looked out over the village, watching the children flock out of school and disperse onto the church square, I realized that the local atmosphere was delightful and calming.
It was hard to imagine that just 18 years ago, youth from this village had armed for the revolution; now it was the modern young people of San Juan del Sur who most disarmed me with their friendliness.
Hiking up a steep hill above the village the next day, we saw spectacular views of Costa Rica, just 30 miles south, and numerous bays and inlets. Imagine the Southern California coastline of the early 1900s but add more tropical trees, monkeys, parrots, some humidity and perpetual offshore breezes.
From this vantage point, it's clear that things in San Juan del Sur are scaled down and simple. Unlike in larger Managua and Granada, San Juan del Sur has no American-style billboards in sight, no graffiti, no begging children.
During the week we visited, we met a mix of adventure travelers: backpackers, fishermen, baby-boomer investors looking for property and people seeking someplace different. We met energetic surfers of all ages, finding and riding excellent waves. Many hotel guests also spoke enthusiastically about the diving, fishing and sailing.
If you're looking for low-budget adventures, you can try traveling the hostel route. We met backpackers staying at the Hospedaje Nicaragua; with a private bath, it costs $8 a night. The nine local hostels are priced from $3 a night with shared bath to $25 a night.
It takes some initiative to travel on your own in rural Nicaragua. San Juan del Sur has no theme parks, no franchise businesses and no signs pointing out photo opportunities. It has no five-star hotels, no high-rise resorts.
Many locals and foreigners who live here would prefer this more relaxed approach to the tourist industry. But because cruise ships are docking here in greater numbers (as many as three a week from November through March), more visitors are discovering this corner of Nicaragua. The infrastructure will grow to accommodate those who visit and those who choose to make this beach community their home. But for now, the marina is peaceful and picturesque.
"San Juan del Sur is relatively undeveloped and very pristine," Mike Iacoboni of Hotel Isabella said after fixing us a robust breakfast (included in the price of the room) of mixed fresh fruit, scrambled eggs and pancakes. "It also happens to be one of the traditional places that Nicaraguans come to for a beach vacation."
In Salman Rushdie's book "The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey," former President Daniel Ortega is quoted as saying, "In Nicaragua, everybody is considered to be a poet, until he proves to the contrary."
Perusing the books in the village's library one day, I saw a tiny, wide-eyed girl, about 3 years old, rush in with her mother. After choosing a book and putting it on the checkout table, she crawled up into the lap of the handsome young librarian and waved her library card in his face with a coquettish flourish. Perhaps she was another poet in the making.
San Juan del Sur is a great place to simply be. You can spend your time reading, talking or relaxing, or you can backpack, surf, fish, dive, kayak, sail or take a canopy tour. You can also use San Juan del Sur as your resting point after day trips.
After several days of activity, I found myself increasingly content to talk with residents, expatriates and fellow travelers. I wanted to learn more about Nicaraguans. They are said to have come here 1,500 ago, leaving behind a more violent culture and following a bruja, or female sorceress, to a place of peace.
Their warmth and gentleness still cast a spell.
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The simple life
From LAX, direct service (stop, no change of plane) is available to Managua on TACA, and connecting service (change of plane) is offered on American, Continental, TACA, Copa and LACSA. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $612.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 505 (country code for Nicaragua) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hotel Villa Isabella, Diagonal Norte Iglesias Católica, Apartado Postal 17, San Juan del Sur, Rivas; 568-2568, fax 568-2549, http://www.sanjuandelsur.org.ni/isabella/ . American owners and standards: comfortable rooms with queen-sized bed, private bath and TV/VCR. Starting at $75 for a double including breakfast. Lovely new swimming pool and four one- or two-bedroom condos are available.
Marsella Beach Resort, Apartado 8, 887-1337, http://www.marsellabeachresort.com . Octagonal one-room cabanas, nestled in the side of a hill, spectacular views and own beach. Restaurant provides fresh fish, good food. Secluded, yet only four miles from town. (Restaurant's availability is sporadic, so call first.) Doubles begin at $60.
Piedras y Olas Hotel and Resort, De La Parroquia, 1 1/2 blocks to the east, 568-2110, fax 458-2511, http://www.piedrasyolas.com . High quality, new and built into the hill above the very classy restaurant La Cascada. Awesome views and infinity pool. Doubles begin at $100.
Hotel Casablanca, Apartado Postal 36, San Juan del Sur; 568-2135, fax 568-2307, http://www.sanjuandelsur.org.ni/casablanca . Right on the beach, air conditioning, a small pool, doubles from $140, including breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT:
La Cascada (see above): Beautiful views and atmosphere. Fine gourmet fare, combining continental and Central American food in innovative ways. Entrees $10-$20.