Update from June 2015
Nicaragua is the biggest of all the Central American countries. It lays between Costa Rica in the South and Honduras in the North. The Caribbean coast lies in the East and the Pacific ocean in the West. It’s the poorest country in Central America, with almost half the population living below the poverty line and almost 80% live on less than 2$ per day. No doubt, traveling here is cheap, but many things are not much cheaper than in its neighboring countries. Many parts of the country that are interesting to visit as a tourist, you don’t even see that poverty, and with the fast growing tourism industry, they try to make it look nicer than it really is for most of the local people. And a lot of the beaches are sold to foreigners and are privately owned (or at least the access to the beach). By now, People from all over the world have their holiday house here in a gated community next to one of the best beaches in the country. Knowing that no one who they don’t want is going to show up there (unless he’s walking a long distance), they can happily spend their time in their nice little bubble. The same goes for surf tourism. There are some surfspots where you can find cheap places to stay, but many of the good waves are not easy to reach and it’s often hard to find a cheap place to stay. Local knowledge and a boat help a lot to score the Nica-perfection you so often hear about. No surprise that people are willing to pay a lot of money for a fancy surf camp and spending more money in one week than many locals earn in two years. This is in my eyes is a questionable thing, especially as most of this money goes to some foreigner who runs those camps and this money doesn’t help the second poorest country in the whole Americas much. ( I say it’s questionable, not bad! Some of those surf camp help the local communities, employ local people, and give them opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise.)
Of course I do understand the people who have a lot of money and just little time and don’t want to think about such things during their well earned vacation and simply want to relax and surf the best waves possible. But if you find a minute to question yourself, think about what you do in a foreign county and how this affects their economy and the life of the local people. After all…there is no such thing as “sustainable tourism”!
Most surfers know about Nicaragua because of one fact: 300 days offshore wind per year, more or less! As a result of this, the water is nice and the waves are hollow, but how come? In Central America (and every where else close to the equator), trade winds blowo But because they are blocked by the Cordillera Mountain range, they have to blow stronger in the places where they can pass through. Such a passage is in the South of this country, where the winds blow over Lake Nicaragua. This gives those priceless offshore winds. It has actually nothing to do with the lake as such, only with the fact that there is nothing blocking these winds. I know… a lot of people think different about it, but they actually just repeat what someone else told them before and don’t think about it much. If we ever meet, buy me a beer, we sit down and i explain the whole thing to you.
During the Northern hemisphere winter, those winds get even stronger (called the Papagayo wind) and the water temperature can drop to 10 degrees Celsius in a single day!
Nicaragua has much more to offer than just waves and offshore wind. With its many volcanoes, the two huge lakes and its diverse nature, it’s definitely a country for people who enjoy outdoor activities. It doesn’t matter if it’s bird watching, hiking, trekking or Volcano boarding. You will also find some beautiful colonial cities here, such as Leon or Grenada. These cities are close to volcanoes, and the difficult thing here is not in finding a tour operator, but in having to choose one from the countless different volcanoes, tours and organizations that can take you to where ever you want.
It’s also a country which is often chosen to study Spanish, with fair priced schools (language as well as Salsa and all different kinds of Latin dance). Most choose Leon for their Spanish lessons, and with all the additional Backpackers coming through, this city has made its self a name for great nightlife. But Granada or even Isla Ometepe has good schools and a bit of nightlife as well.
One of the things not to miss here is the island of Ometepe in the middle of Lago Nicaragua. It looks like it’s from a fairytale with its two perfect coin shaped volcanoes and not much more. You can climb the volcanoes for an impressive view, hike up to some waterfall or chill in the natural springs. For me the best thing to do is to rent a motocross bike or a quad, but not a scooter, and ride around the whole island. Make sure you know how to ride a bike, as the road doesn’t go everywhere you want to go. But this shouldn’t stop you, this is where the fun begins. If you leave early in the morning, you can see most of the island in one day. The nature here is as incredible as the look of the island itself. There are so many different plants, some with leaves much bigger than your hand that make you feel that you’re not in a fairytale anymore, but in Jurassic Park, and so are the creatures in the water. This lake is home to the world’s only and highly aggressive freshwater sharks! There used to be many of them, and swimming in the lake could be a bit of Russian roulette. But the same happened to them here as to their brothers in the oceans all over the world, they get caught and killed by us. And as it’s much easier to catch them in a lake than in the open ocean, there are not many of them left, or more probable non. They became more of a legend than a treat to swimmers. Even so, keep it in mind.
It is a perfect side trip from San Juan del Sur if it goes flat for a few days, as you step on the island only two hours after you leave town, if you time it right. Take a bus to Rivas and from there another bus or a quick cab ride to San Jorge and the ferry from there, that’s it.
There are also ferries from and to Granada (4hours) and San Carlos (9Hours).
The Surf from North to South
Coming from the north, this is the first stop where you’ll find waves. There are a couple of different places to stay, from cheap and basic to upper class. The wave people come here for (the boom) is a heavy beach break, that can offer some of the best barrels or worst wipe outs. It’s too far north to get the consistent offshore but it’s also far away enough from the consistent flow of tourists and crowds. The town is so small that it doesn’t even has a town center, just a petrol station with a shop where you can buy some snacks and one or two places to eat. Or if you walk a bit, you might find the Marina, with its expensive hotel/restaurant.
If you decide to go there, go to Chinandega (between the border to Honduras and Leon) and find out about the busses. There are 2, maybe 3 per day, and it’s not a bad idea to know where you want to stay, so you can tell the driver to drop you there. In this area are only a couple of places to stay, but they are all quite far apart from each other.
There are a lot of places where you have the chance to find amazing waves, such as: Salinas Grande, Miramar or many others. The problem is, most those places don’t have a lot of cheap accommodation. The other issue is, if you don’t have a car, it’s often difficult to get there, and there is no real road that is close to the coastline as let’s say in El Salvador. So going from one beach town to another is most the time a bit of a drive, even if those places are close together on a map. Plus most the surf spots here are sand bottom, which makes them change fast and you are never quite sure what you’re going to find. There are a couple of amazing reefs, but most of them are really tide-affected, and being still too far away to get the every days off shore wind, it can be really frustrating being around here, when the right tide is during mid day.
As tourism is growing so fast here, you’ll find surf camps and such things in a lot of places by now. It’s still not too crowded most of the time, and there is usually a good wave somewhere close, and you have it to yourself, if you walk a bit.
My advice is to choose one of those promising sounding beach towns, and try to be there as early in the day as possible. If you ask around, you usually find an affordable place to stay, and everything else you need to know is easiest to figure out once you’re there.
I’ve been to some of the places here, and there is definitely a lot of potential. I don’t want to tell you too much about it, go and figure it out yourself. You might find your little paradise, or you don’t find any good waves at all…
El Asillero is a small town, just a couple of Kilometer north of Guasacate (Popoyo). It is not really a tourist town but you’ll find a comfortable bed and great food. Most people who come to Asilleros, come for the fun beach break that works best with a higher tide, or the long point called “Lance’s left” that works on a low tide. Lances needs a fair bit of swell to start working, but with the beach and the point option, you can surf all day long, if there is enough swell around. It’s also pretty much the most northern beach that is blessed with the off shore from dusk till dawn. If you’re here, you should consider to treat yourself with a boat trip to a place called “Playgrounds”. The wave is what the name suggests and it’s a great fun. But make sure you choose a day with no wind, as it is really affected, and can turn into a big mess in no time. There is only one place to stay next to playgrounds, and it’s pretty expensive. But if there was no rain for a while, it would be possible to drive there, but better go with someone who knows where to go.
This is probably one of the best known surf destinations in Nica. It’s not far from Rivas, but it’s kinda difficult to get there. Best is to find enough people to fill up a cab and let them drive you there. It’s also better if there was not too much rain the night before otherwise you might get stuck with the car somewhere! But why not, it’s part of the Popoyo experience I would say.
Popoyos is famous for its heavy outer reef, a lefthander that handles almost any size, if the direction is right. But be careful, it is heavy, shifty, sea urchins infested and not as easy and as perfect as it looks from the shore.
There is also the main reef, which is what most people come for. It is an A-frame that almost always works. It starts working with a really small swell and can handle quiet a bit. It can be really crowded out there, but if you stick around, you might get a mid day session with not a lot of other people, and the wave is worth to stick around for a while.
But not enough. You can surf a couple of other reefs around here as well as the long beach break of Guasacate. Guasacate is usually only good on high tide and with small swells. But walk up and down the beach, and you might find some peaks that work in different conditions. Guasacate is also the beach with a lot of cheap hostels, some fancy ones and a few places to eat or buy food.
Playa Gigante is often advertised as a fisher village like San Juan del Sur used to be. Well… i would say these days are over. There is not that much tourism here, but a couple of places and a lot of backpackers who come here to have a more quiet style of party, but still far from quiet. Even so, it is super beautiful, but really tiny and you have to walk quiet a bit to reach the waves. If you don’t mind to spend a few extra Dollars, you can take a Taxi-boat, that brings you to the waves, and this is still much cheaper than staying in Playa Colorado. Best thing to do is, to go there for a few nights and decide if you like it or prefer Popoyo. And the 9$ for the boat ride to playa Colorado are well spend, even on a small day.
San Juan Del Sur (SJDS)
San Juan is one of the favorite places for every Central American backpacker to relax and have some beach time. And for surfers without a car, it’s simply the easiest option to get waves, while meeting people and party a bit.
This town is built on a perfect moon shaped bay with small to no waves (most of the time), but has a couple of other beaches close to either side. It has many backpackers, hostels, pensions and whatever they are called, but this is needed for the many travelers and hippies that come here. If you’re looking to find something a bit fancier, no problem, you’ll find nice hotels as well and all kinds of restaurants.
There are a couple of surf shops that take people to other beaches for 5-10$ per day, which makes it easy to meet likeminded people, have some waves and some fun. One of these beaches, Madera, has a few places to stay, for the ones who want to get away from the nightly craziness and have empty waves before the surf shops bring the crowds in the morning. It’s a really basic place, have a look, maybe it’s your thing.
And another notorious thing about San Juan is: “Sunday fun day”! but people will tell you about it…for sure!
This beach is exactly what all the backpackers think of surfing, so it becomes reality. Most people here have no clue about surfing. They were drunk the night before, rent a board, can barely paddle out and spend most the time lying on the board in the middle of the white water or on the beach drinking beer. There are so many backpackers on the beach, and so many girls in bikinis, it can feel weird after all those places up the coast with no one but you, a few fisherman and another surfer or two. But they are here, taking some pictures of there “Central American surf adventure” and for this, I couldn’t think of a better place. The water is clear and blue and the backdrop is a dense lush green forest (if there was some rain before). Even for someone who has seen many beaches and places to surf, this is a beautiful one, and why not having an ice cold Toña (Nicaraguas best beer), just a minute after you’re out of the water, and socialize a bit.
The other beaches the surf shops usually take you to are Remanso, Hermosa or Yankey, but if you have a couple of people, you can organise transport to where ever you want, often best by boat, but this has its price. I’d say, if you’re there, keep an eye on Manzanillo, could be worth the money.
In Playa Remanso the waves are smaller than in Maderas and this is where they will usually take you for surf lessons. By now, there are a few places right on the beach, where you can buy overpriced food and drinks, rent surfboards, and listen to the never ending Bob Marley blasting from there sound systems. As in all places around here, the conditions depend a lot on the tide and swell, but with a big enough swell, you often find a nice lefthander here and some peaks in the middle of the beach. Ask your driver if there are other spots around here you can walk to; maybe someone knows something worth the effort.
This beach is a bit further away and costs 10$ for the shuttle. It’s really long and as the name lets you guess, a beautiful beach. There are usually a few different peaks, but be careful, there are probably a few big rocks where the waves break. To the end of the beach to the right (looking at the water), is usually a good bet to find some barrels and waves, lefts and rights, but with weird currents, so you better know what you’re doing. Rights in front from where the car drops you off, are some peaks, which always depend on the sandbanks, direction, tide and size. These things become an important thing to you, if you want to score good waves in this country. You can also stay here. It’s a really beautiful place, but can feel a bit ghostly in the middle of the night, when there is nothing else around and all you hear are all the animals around you. It’s not as cheap as in SJDS but find out if it is something for you or not.
Between here and Playa Remanso, the nature is so intact and beautiful; many TV shows such as “Survivor” were recorded here. Even on a day when the waves are not perfect, this is still a nice place to be, walk around and enjoy the nature surrounding you.
By night SJDS is a whole different story! Everyone goes out, everyone drinks and most people use some other easy to find substances to keep the party spirit up long enough. There are just a couple of places where you can go and it’s a bit of a nightly migration from one place to another. Everyone here is going to the same place at the same time, what makes it easy to find people again.
It’s a crazy scene! I’m not sure how it comes? Probably because of all the backpackers who spend so much time hiking around, going to see ruins, learning a new language and things about other cultures and history. Maybe people are tired and worn out from traveling and simply need a little beach time. Everyone is in a great mood and it’s easy to get to know people here and have fun. Be warned though of the possibility of getting stuck there for much longer than planed and spending more money than calculated.
Nicaragua, this country has it all (except long right handers), friendly people, culture, nature, party, more party, sport, architecture, adventure, fairly cheap Spanish and dance schools and off shore winds all day long. But it’s a bit fickle if it comes to the surf, as a lot of the spots are affected not only by the tides, but need the right size of swell, right direction and sometimes even a matching period.
You are likely to pull into more barrels in Nicaragua in one day than in a whole year somewhere else, but it could be that the next day it’s all gone and the same beach offers just junk-surf for some time to come. It’s also a bit more expensive than you would imagine, if you have in mind how poor this country actually. You can’t understand how some of the local people can survive here. Many of the things you buy in a supermarket have the same price as in other countries where people earn so much more money.
But it’s definitely easy to spend a lot of time here while spending very little money. Or you go to one of the countless “all inclusive surf camps” that have their price.
As I said: Nicaragua has it all… And if you’re happy with one of the best Rums in the world (Flor de caña), and Gallo Pinto (rice and beans) three times a day, you’ll have a great time here.
For me personal, I like to surf when i want to surf. Sitting around and waiting for the tide is not really my thing, but this is exactly what keeps people like me away (with more or less success, as i’ve been here already 3 times!). For others, this is what makes this place so special. You surf a lot of perfect waves with not many other people in the water. All it takes is a little local knowledge ( or you pay someone who has it) and a lot of patience.
Great reflection on the reality of central american poverty and often overpriced surf tourism, heading to nicaragua next week for 3 weeks (no car) looking at popoyo, gigante, isla ometepe and maderas. Which beach is best to stay at to get to playgrounds? Cheers Phil
If you want to surf Playgrounds, you can stay in the expensive resort right next to it, or take a boat from El Astillero. You’ll fins a cheap place to stay in El Astillero, and the beachbreak is great fun. Plus, you can walt to Lances Left on the bigger days. Taking a boat to Playgrounds it pricy, but well worth it, if there is absolutely no wind. I loved it! But it is much more wind affected than all the other places, from here to Costa Rica!
You can also stay in Guasacate, surf there or walk to Popoyo, and share with a few people a surf shuttle to El Astillero to go to Playgrounds.
How ever, enjoy your time…
What money is used in Playa Gigante Pascal? Is it best to have US dollars on you?
Its usually best to have both, Cordobas and US$. US$ are accepted pretty much everywhere, but to probable get the small change in Cordobas. Nothing to worry about. Just use them to buy another coffee before leaving the country.
Pascal, thanks for telling your personal truth on the surf destination! !
I am an intermediate surfer, who likes to stay in the “comfort Zone” but wants to get as much surf as possible travelling alone from from mid september on till february.
It is so hard to Plan a Trip when all the blogs and guides are written by semi-pros or Surf Camps.
Do you have an advice on which route i can catch intermediate waves (even when it’s mostly off seasons f.e. in Pamama) . Just afraid to go to a country where there are mostly expert spots.
Was thinking about to start in Nicaragua ( Now Not any more 😉 ) down south as far i can get.
Wondering if car rental is worthwhile and if you would need a 4×4 to access the quieter breaks?
boat prices seem worthwhile if it saved you money from renting a car yet you could still get to the less busy waves
thanks for the input
it depends where you want to go, and if it was raining much. But in many places, you can do it without a rental car, and just take a driver for going from one place to the next. BUT it you’re with a few people to cash in, and just rent on for the whole length of your stay, it would make life more comfortable.
Is there anyone who goes to Nica AND Ecuador? I’d like to know how they compare, thanks!