A haven for backpackers, beachgoers, volcano explorers and history buffs, this Central American country has something for everyone
Author Erin Brady Photography Andrew Rowat
DAY THREE | I start the day with a light breakfast (a tortilla basket with warm banana bread has magically appeared on the porch) followed by a stroll to the center of the island, where I come across a viewing tower. I climb a ladder to a wooden crow’s nest that looks out over a canopy of broad-leafed tropical trees, the conical bulk of Volcán Concepción in the distance. I could happily spend a lifetime up here, but it’s time to head back to Granada, where I have a date with a bus that’ll take me to the Pacific Coast.
Following an hour-and-a-half ride through grassy plains dotted with lazy-looking cows, my bus arrives in San Juan del Sur, a fishing village of colorful wooden buildings, rickety taco stands and a whole lot of dreadlocked surfers. As the bus squeezes itself onto one of the narrow streets, a skateboarder wearing headphones glides serenely (and dangerously) across its path.
I’ve scheduled a horseback ride at Rancho Chilamate, about 20 minutes south of town, but I have some time to kill before then. On Avenida Mercado, I grab a crispy fried fish burrito at Taco Stop and walk to the crescent-shaped beach Playa San Juan del Sur.
Though this is Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast, there’s a Caribbean feel here. Taking a cue from locals lounging on their porches, I lie back on the sand and let the afternoon pass me by. Joggers run in the surf. Kids play volleyball. Boats bob in the harbor. Christ of the Mercy, a hilltop statue 440 feet above sea level, watches over the bay impassively.
Back in town, I meet up with Rancho Chilamate owner Blue, a San Juan local by way of Canada whose outfit matches her nickname. We drive to the ranch, where I’m quickly put on the back of a speckled filly named Cappuccino, who initially refuses to leave the corral with the rest of our group. “Attagirl,” I say, giving my horse an encouraging pat on the rump, though I suspect our relationship has already soured.
For an hour or so, we ride narrow paths flanked by towering trees in which I spot observant howler monkeys. After passing through a field of saddle-high weeds—each more enticing than the last for the peckish Cappuccino—we climb a hill and descend to the deserted Playa El Yankee, a golden beach bracketed by jungle-swathed cliffs.
Under a jicaro tree, we dismount and pass around cold beers. Blue offers a Tupperware container of sticky, dark brown logs. “I know how these look,” she says. Once I get past the unappetizing appearance, I find that the chewy bars, made of tamarind and shredded coconut, are sweet and tangy and pack a nice burst of energy. “Now that you’ve had some liquid courage,” Blue says while I lick the last of the tamarind off my fingers, “let’s run these horses.”
I walk Cappuccino out into the middle of the wide beach. Blue gives some basic tips on how to keep yourself in the saddle at high speed. We trot, canter, then break into a screaming gallop (the screaming is coming from me). My hat, having had enough, leaves my head and skitters down the beach. “Again!” I say when we finally come to a halt, surprising myself. Later, back at the ranch, we kick off our boots and throw back shots of Flor de Caña rum with a squeeze of lime.
Reluctantly, I say my goodbyes (to Blue and Cappuccino) and make my way back to San Juan del Sur, where I meet my ride to Aqua Wellness Resort, a resort of treetop villas scattered through the hills around Playa la Redonda.
My suite, the Kinkajou, has what the concierge says is his favorite view.
Stepping onto the room’s wooden deck, the first thing I see (yay!) is a plunge pool, and beyond this a white beach, rocky cliffs and a stretch of blue Pacific Ocean. “Do you see that?” the concierge asks, pointing at an unusual rock formation. “It’s called Pie de Gigante: the Giant’s Foot.”
Inside, the two-story villa is all burnished wood, sliding screen doors and neutral tone linens. After a quick rinse in my teak shower, I head down to the beach. From the sand, I watch the sun blaze before it dips into the sea. Do people get used to this?
When the dark finally settles, I walk back to the resort’s open-air restaurant, where soft music mingles with the crashing waves. I order a plate of fried dorado (mahi mahi) with a side of sweet plantains and Nicaragua’s famous gallo pinto (mixed black beans and rice). As I eat, I see a flurry of flashlights on the beach. Some diners are abandoning their meals to see what’s going on. I put my fork down and follow.
Surreally, wonderfully, the beach is filled with hundreds of baby sea turtles windmilling their way into the surf. We stand and watch the spectacle in silence. Back at the restaurant our meals are growing cold, but that doesn’t seem to matter. All of us have everything we need right here.
Hemispheres associate editor Erin Brady actually, almost, kind of cried at the sight of baby sea turtles hatching. Nature, man!