San Juan del Sur

As we traveled further and further south into Central America we kept hearing good things about San Juan del Sur.  Everyone said how peaceful and tranquil it was, its miles of unspoiled beaches and beautiful jungles and we knew that we had to get there.

Once we arrived and I had a chance to meet some of the locals and some of the expats that were living there I found out that its climate is quite unique in the Americas; it is far enough south that it is warm all year but because of its location by the ocean and next to Lake Nicaragua, it stays relatively mild all year-long.  It is located on a narrow strip of land between these two bodies of water that act like weather ballast; they keep it warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  The weather was quite pleasant and I could see why so many American, Canadian, British and German retirees were buying houses down here.

The town itself is situated on a small cove much like  or Avalon on the island of Catalina off the coast of Los Angeles.  The cove was like a semi-closed horseshoe that blocked out the harsh Pacific waves and allowed for the small boats and yachts to anchor.  In the photo above you can see the “right” or northern shoreline of the cove.  On the north  cove a small hill rose and developers were just starting to build new houses – beautiful houses with wonderful views that reminded me of Avalon.

I learned that the town has an active sport fishing industry and beautiful swordfish and yellow tail can be caught just outside of the cove.  Hiring a boat was not too expensive and while there wasn’t a lot of “advertising” of sport fishing, just asking around on the beach you could find more than a few willing captains and crews.

Looking up the beach (photo below) you can see “restaurant row.”  There were 6 or 7 restaurants along the beach with wonderful sea food.  I found the food here to be quite unique from what I’d previously experienced in Central America.  The fish was heavy with garlic and served with some potatoes and a salad.  During the day, Spanish tutors teach lessons on the ocean-front patios and lucky students sip on fresh fruit juice with the cool breeze and a majestic view that should (and probably will) a lot more than it does.  Meals could be had for $5 to $8 and we paid $8 per night for a hotel room.  Our hotel was in an old Victorian hotel building left over from the 1800′s.  It was in need of repair but the owner had turned it into an ad hoc hostel.  We had a balcony facing the ocean just across the street.  If I had more time I would have been happy to stay here for 3 months.

This place had a lot to do.  Swimming, fishing, sunbathing, drinking beer and tequila, eating, jungle hiking, stretches of beach to the north and south for walking, watching the turtles hatch and crawl to the sea and all sorts of other fun activities.  In the photo below, looking south along the “left” edge of the cove, you can see the thick jungle and its “undeveloped” state – many western real estate developers were buying land and subdividing it and selling it to retired people from North America and Europe.

I met one of the top real estate developers in town.  He was a retired American man who had moved down here a few years earlier.  He told me that the prices are climbing each month as more and more westerners come to buy land.  Apparently, the government had just settled most of the claims for the land that was confiscated during the Communist Revolution.  By taxing new real estate development, the new government raised revenue that was used to pay off those who lost land.  In sort of a “reverse Catch-22,” no one would invest in land in Nicaragua because of the “unsettled” claims of the past.  Now, by developing land and taxing the process, the government can settle the claims thereby encouraging more development.  The real estate developer told me that it started off slow but as more people were becoming acquainted with Nicaragua the money was beginning to pour in.  He advised me to quit my job, sell everything I had and come down here, buy some land, sub-divide it, sell it off and begin anew.  He told me that fortunes were being made and as a “young man,” I should take advantage of the situation.

His words have always stayed in my head.  I surely loved San Juan del Sur and I would love to have a house by the sea.  It seemed like a perfect place to have a vacation home.

At the end of our first day, spent mostly in the ocean and on the beach, Jeff and I grabbed dinner and a cold beer.  We watched as the sun set over the deep blue Pacific and I really thought that it can’t get any better than this.  This place is really paradise and I would love to come here every year.  The people were friendly, the food was wonderful and the scenery was spectacular.

Now, the local vendors and restauranteurs of San Juan del Sur certainly had a bit more business savvy than our hotel proprietor in , but they were still a few decades behind the business savvy “Ricardo” and his jammin bar and restaurant at the “top” (read: north end) of restaurant row.  The local restaurants had a certain ambiance with the local cooking and certainly the flavor couldn’t be beat, but when it came to after hours time, Ricardo topped them all.

Now, Ricardo was no Nicaraguan  Heck, he wasn’t even from Central America.  Ricardo is a “gringo” (read: American) who immigrated to this beautiful seaside port some years ago.  In fact, his name is Rick but who would go to a bar called “Rick’s” in San Juan del Sur?  You get it, he is now “Ricardo.”  He is a fair hair-blue eyed Anglo with a beautiful American wife and a kid or two who look like they come from Holland.  But, he sure knows how to run a bar and this place was “the place” to be after sunset.  Every expat, traveler and Nicaraguan with a sense of adventure was here every night after sundown.  Rick had happy hour, nightly drink specials, the most popular music, volley ball games on the beach in front of his bar, good service, fast food and free movies every night.  Of course the movies were bootlegged but there are no copyright restrictions down here, yet.  The movies are played on a screen projected from a DVD player hooked to a projector.  The place was fun, it was “happening,” and once you looked around, you realized that San Juan del Sur is a “sleepy” little town and this is the “only” game in town.

I wondered if any of the other restaurants had any inkling of how much $ Rick was making.  If they did, they might have stayed open a little later, played some movies, had drink specials and made more of an effort.  But, the rest of the town shut down at 8 or 9 pm and Rick just cleaned up.  Beers were a buck and a half and his cost was only 40 cents.  Hundreds of drinks went down and his cost for rent is probably nil.  I’m sure he was raking in the cash.

… view from the patio at “Ricardo’s”…

In the few days we spent in San Juan del Sur, we came back to Ricardo’s each night and in no time we came to know all of the locals – Nicaraguan and expats.  There was a boisterous community of “retired” American, Canadian and German men who “hung out” at Ricardo’s each night.  All of their wives seemed to stay at home, if they had any.  We came to know the rich Nicaraguans who lived in the capital but kept vacation homes here.  Within 48 hours it was like walking onto the set of “Cheers’ except that it was an open air bar, situated on the sand of the beach and everyone was half-dressed and feeling very relaxed – a far cry from snow blown Boston.

We met the local “Peace Corps” girls who were in fact part of the same party of girls that we met in Creel, Mexico some weeks earlier.  The girls we met in Mexico had finished their tours months earlier and were on their way home and the girls here were just finishing and were about to do some travel before heading home.

I remember one night at Ricardo’s, Jeff and I were sitting with the American girls from the Peace Corps, I thought we were doing quite well with them as Jeff charmed them with one witty story after another.  Meanwhile, the local prostitute, actually there were two of them, but in this case, the one was copulating with a German or Canadian man in the bathroom stall and it was quite obvious as everyone was commenting on it.  A few of his chums were standing outside the door of the stall (no actual bathroom – the stalls face right to the bar and the doors only go up to two meters, if you are tall or have a chair, you can look down into the toilet from the bar).  His chums were gawking and laughing in a drunken stupor and all of the Peace Corps girls were quite disgusted as were many of us.

We all talked about the “ugly American”; the tourist who makes a bad name for us all.  And some of the Canadians and Germans commented that it’s not just the Americans, there is always some “bad wheel” who makes the rest of his country men look bad.  So, we commented on this bad situation.

I commented that “some day,” this episode would be a “chapter” in my “book.”  One of the lovely young American Peace Corps girls said, really, and what will you call this chapter?  I thought for a moment and responded, “San Juan del Sur; 38 drunken expats, 7 Peace Corps volunteers and a prostitute.”  The whole table erupted in laughter.  It probably wasn’t a good name for a chapter but it certainly got a laugh from everyone there.

Also during my time in San Juan I met a Nicaraguan real estate developer.  He built some beautiful houses on the hilltop on the “north” edge of the crescent that makes up the San Juan bay.  He invited Jeff and I and some local girls that we had met to come and visit the show home.  In the photo below, it is the white house on the left side of the hill directly above the person in the surf on the far left.

When we drove up and around the hill I was quite impressed by this house.  It was built into the side of the hill and was completely furnished and fitted with the latest; big screen tv, stereo, fireplace, gazebo on the hill facing the ocean, the pool and Jaccuzi both faced the ocean.  The house was 4 rooms displacing 4,000 square feet, vaulted ceilings, a 3 car garage, huge kitchen, tile floors…  I could go on and on.  It was a multi-million dollar home with a spectacular ocean view.  I was quite shocked to find that the price tag was only $350,000.  I wanted to buy it right then and there.

Often, I think back to San Juan del Sur; I hope that I’ll have enough money to come back and buy a home before the prices skyrocket.  I’ve seen Vietnam, Thailand and Croatia get developed.  There are few places in the world with “affordable” beach property.  I’d sure love to buy one of these and pass it to the grandkids…


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Moyogalpa

The ferry from Rivas/San Jorge stops only at the little town of Moyogalpa on the west coast of Ometepe Island.  The ferry ride is about 1 hour and is the quickest way to the island from the mainland; ferries that dock on the north side of the island that come from Granada take as long as 4 hours.  Walking from the boat docks into town (above) you’ll see that there isn’t much there: four hotels, two restaurants and a gas station.  Up the hill at the top of the street is a small convenience store.

At the time of this writing, the only “decent” service in town (hotel or restaurant) was dispensed at the Bahia Restaurant and Hotel (pink building in top photo).  The proprietor there was friendly and helpful (I’ll write more about him later).  Standing at about the dead “center” of town looking back towards the docks (photo below) you acn see Lake Nicaragua.

The town had quite Spartan accommodations and only one place offered internet service.  The internet was slow but the food at the Bahia was served with cold beer, a warm smile and generous portions.

The owner of Bahia came up and inquired if he could ask us a question and we agreed.  He called back to the cook who came running out.  The cook was wearing a t-shirt that said, “If you aren’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes.”  The owner said that he and the cook had pondered the meaning of this phrase for a while and couldn’t interpret the meaning.

I asked him if he was familiar with the sled dogs in Canada and Alaska and when he said yes, I explained that in every team of dogs the best and fastest dogs are at the front of the team.  He nodded (but still didn’t understand the implication).

“So, if you are the lead dog, you see snow and trees and mountains.  But, if you aren’t the lead dog you see…?”

At this point he started laughing uncontrollably and the cook waited with great anticipation for the punch line.  The owner quickly relayed my story in Spanish and then the cook started laughing.  We all started laughing.  As they both walked away, they were shaking their heads and laughing, no doubt thinking (in Spanish), “If you aren’t the lead dog, you’re looking at ass all day long.”

Each time I came out of our hotel I would see these three children and would say, “Hola,” and they would smile and reply in kind.  Their father worked at one of the businesses next door and they lived just across the street.  I asked if I could take their photo and was given approval.  I showed them their picture in the screen of my digital camera and they beamed smiles of approval.  Their father came over to see and asked if I would mail a copy to him.

Exploring around the town I walked up to the top of the street where it came to an end in a “T” intersection.  At this T was a convenience store where sodas, beer and snacks could be had.  I turned back and shot a photo down the main street towards the hotels and towards the lake; you can make out the blue water at the end of the road just above the tree line.  It seemed that wherever we went in town we could see the lake; the gentle hill that the town rested on ensured that almost everyone has a 5 star view.

Directly across the street from the convenience store I saw an interesting shop and I can’t say that anywhere in my life have I seen a shop that specializes in truck tires and coffins.  Jeff and I began to speculate that perhaps the garage owner was also the town undertaker.  Or, perhaps the garage mechanic’s wife ran the funeral home?  We weren’t sure but it surely was an odd sight.

There is quite a lot to do on Isle Ometepe; jungle hikes, volcano hikes, kayaking, horseback riding and all sorts of trekking.  And sadly, we didn’t do any of those activities.  We were really quite exhausted and just enjoyed the tranquil peace and quiet of Moyogalpa; lazy days in the hammock sipping cold beer, chatting with some other travelers that were coming and going.  We contemplated a mountain hike but frankly, we were just too tired.  We had been on the road for a few weeks and had been packing in a new destination every few days.  This is one of the biggest dilemmas a traveler can face: not enough time.  Probably the only equal dilemma is: not enough $.

And so, I learned a valuable lesson on this trip, don’t bite off more than you can chew; it is better to see fewer destinations and enjoy yourself than to see a lot of places and get too tired to enjoy them.  So, we decided to forgo some of the other activities on the island save for a day trip to the interior villages (below).  We took the local bus and got to chat with some of the local people coming and going.  It was quite interesting to see how the locals lived, what they wore and how they got from here to there.  It was a Saturday and an entire soccer team was on their way to a challenge.  All of the young players looked eager to get out and show their metal and score a goal for the home team.

We walked around some of the local villages between stops and it seemed that no matter where we went on the island, the volcano always had a cloud forming at its summit.  The jungle was thick everywhere that crops weren’t being planted and the volcano looked down on everyone like a big brother or a parent.  I was really beginning to enjoy Nicaragua; it is a beautiful country with warm people and a wonderful climate.  Since my visit there, I’ve always dreamed of returning.


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Lake Nicaragua

Our next stop was to be the Island of Ometepe in the middle of Lake Nicaragua.  Ometepe is the largest island in the world situated inside of a fresh water lake.  The lake is just inland from the Pacific Ocean and its west bank forms a narrow isthmus.  This isthmus has a western Pacific shore and an eastern lake shore; the result is that this narrow strip of land has cool weather in the summer and warm weather in the winter.  It has ideal weather year around and is home to many wonderful towns including San Juan del Sur.

Driving south along the western bank of Lake Nicaragua from Granada the landscape looked (to my eye at least) what I would expect to find in the African savannah; flat plains dotted with thick jungle patches.  While we were driving south I shot a photo (above) that shows how this landscape looked.  We drove south on the Pan American Highway as far as Rivas where a regular ferry service takes passengers from the mainland on the isthmus to Isle Ometepe.

I captured a screen shot from Google Earth to show Ometepe Island’s orientation inside of Lake Nicaragua to include the Pacific Ocean, the Costa Rica border, the capital at Managua and the beach town of San Juan del Sur.  You can see how Ometepe Island is formed by two volcanos that have formed a land bridge between them.  The white spots that appear at the peaks of the twin volcanoes are not formed by snow but by clouds that are constantly formed as the warm jungle air is pushed up the side of the mountain by the onshore breeze.  As the warm air rushes up the side of the volcano it condenses and forms a rain cloud that is almost constantly present at the peak; on the back side of the island the clouds create rain that falls on the wayward side of the mountains.  This in turn creates a lush jungle that is habitat to monkeys and all sorts of exotic birds.

At the San Jorge docks near Rivas, we inquired about securing the Blazer and found that we could actually park it on the dock.  We were told that the dock house was staffed 24/7 and that the truck would be safe.  The ticket fees for the ferry to Ometepe were nominal, perhaps $7 or $8 dollars and we were looking forward to getting away from the truck and having a new adventure.  In the photo below you can see Jeff at the dock, just outside of the “secure area” where we parked the truck; in the background the twin volcanos of Ometepe Island.

We had a quick chat:

Jeff: “What if the truck gets stolen?”

Me: “I only paid $1200 for it, we’ll just take the bus”

Jeff: “Sounds good.”

And at that, we boarded our ferry.

While on the boat I went and sat at the bow and had Jeff take my photo.  He suggested I take off my sunglasses for the photo and just as I did they fell right into the lake.  I watched sadly as my Ray Bans sunk to the bottom of Lake Nicaragua.  Also in the photo you can see the matching volcano peaks that formed this island in the middle of the lake.

As we neared Ometepe Island we could see that it had a thick jungle covering and the volcano had a semi-permanent cloud that formed at its peak.  As low as we were in the tropics I expected the temperature to be much hotter but the combination of the ocean and the lake kept the temperatures quite mild.

After about an hour boat rive we arrived at the dock at Moyogalpa, I was surprised that there were no hawkers pushing this or that hotel or hostel.  The town of Moyogalpa barely noticed our arrival and we made our way up the single street possessed by this sleepy lake village.  As we approached the “center’ of the town we could see that there were 4 hotels (2 on each side of the road) and 2 restaurants (one on either side).

At the hotel/restaurant on the right, a nice man greeted us and offered us menus.  He asked if we wanted to sit down and have a cold beer or a meal.  He was really quite friendly and we were tempted to take him up on his offer but, as the sun was setting, we decided to find lodging.  Based on his amicable attitude we inquired about rooms in his hotel; just our luck – he was booked out.  That his hotel was booked out and that he had a friendly attitude would teach me a lesson in customer service and in capitalism.

We made our way up and across the street and found that only one of the four hotels had rooms available.  Our hotel looked nice; it had a beautiful garden and a decent looking restaurant.  The room was a cinder block room with a metal door and two metal framed beds with mattresses.  It was very Spartan; but, what can you expect for $5 a night?

As soon as we packed our bags away, we returned to the “nice guy’s” restaurant and ordered a pair of cold beers.  We had a nice dinner and chatted with some of the other travelers and found out what the island had to offer to a couple of American travelers.

Later, we made our way down to the lakeshore to capture some photos.  Lake Nicaragua is really quite pleasant and beautiful.  While there I saw some beautiful birds who didn’t seem to have a care in the world.

We found a small cafe with an ocean view and ordered another cold beer.  The view was somewhat obscured by some palm trees and creeping jungle but is sure made for some beautiful tropical photos.  I made the photo below into a postcard and sent it to a few friends.  I’d say that of all the photos I took in Nicaragua, this one sums up the place the best: peaceful, beautiful and relaxed.

Jeff and I met a business man from Managua who was at one of the hotels with his mistress.  He gladly announced that he had a wife and 3 kids at home and this mistress stayed at a hotel in the city.  Every other weekend he took her out of town and told his wife that he was on “business.”  He was eager to know about us “Americans” and we chatted with him about the new government, the old government and the civil war.  His English was quite immaculate and it saved me a lot of embarrassment using my broken Spanish.

As we chatted the sun set and I captured dozens of photos.  I had to look through them all for perhaps 15 minutes before I could select two that captured the Nicaraguan sunset the best.  I selected these two: both are the same shot but captured 10 or 15 minutes apart.  They show the changing colors at sunset.  Just behind the mountains on the far side of the lake are located on the isthmus that separates Lake Nicaragua from the Pacific Ocean.  For those who like fresh and salt water, few places on earth offer such beauty and versatility of natural wonders.


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