The coast north and south of San Juan del Sur is undeveloped, wild and beautiful. Tiny villages spread out from the beaches, with cattle, pigs and chickens roaming the dirt roads. The town of San Juan del Sur has grown up from a small fishing village to ground zero for Nicaraguan surfing. It is has Victorian clapboard houses, a few decent restaurants and a steady stream of young international visitors. A cruise port is getting built on the edge of the crescent beach here so who knows what this place will look like in five years. We stopped for lunch at a newly opened Cervesaria (good craft brewery - John was so excited) and sat at the bar next to a fit, older, deeply tan and clearly local, gringo. His long gray hair was tied neatly in the back and his manner was a mixture mysterious and knowing. He said he's been here for 20 years. I think he is former CIA...and I bet I am right.
Streets of San Juan del Sur town
There is a good bakery here so we provisioned with fresh bread, found a few bottles of drinkable wine, and headed to the northern beaches to find a place to camp. There is very little development along the rocky dirt road, with a few houses every couple of miles. We heard there was camping 10 km north at Playa Maderas. This is the best surf break in the area, and so it is the most crowded as well. We rolled up to this small beach hangout and saw a restaurant, a hostel and lots of vehicles. We were told we could camp, but there are no facilities and a night in a busy parking lot full of surfer dudes is not appealing to me.
Maderas Beach: Taco Loco restaurant and a hostel, and not much else.
We downed a couple beers and a taco at the Taco Loco restaurant, and headed back up out a steep, 4-wheel drive road to a hostel/hotel place I read about called Maderas Village. This is a hostel environment but definitely more upscale and populated by people a step or two beyond backpacker travel. It is billed as collaborative space - a summer camp for adults and a retirement community for young people. It has shared dorm space and simple but nicely designed private rooms in bungalows with open airy shared living space. It also has a penthouse and recording studio that apparently attracts music industry types in tank tops & flip flops.
Our request to camp on the property came back with an offer to knock $30 off the room rate (which got us to $65 a night) and we jumped on it. We spent time with the owners, Dave Grossman, a former Manhattan lawyer, and Toronto transplant Matt “Dickie” Dickinson. Both guys are in their 30’s and decided their corporate work was sucking the life out of them so after meeting here on a surf trip, decided to stay and build the business. They are involved in all kinds of pursuits down here; from making furniture to residential development and even sea cucumber farming on the Caribbean side. (In China, sea cucumbers are an expensive and highly sought-after delicacy, sold for up to $200 a kilogram. Wild populations in the ocean have been decimated, and since they are important to the ocean's ecosystem farming them is now big business.) We joined them, along with Dave's mom, sister and nephew who were in town, for the nightly communal meal (with mint tea rum drinks. go figure). We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. In fact, the stories of ex pats who have reinvented their lives are probably the most intriguing to us right now. Part of this trip for is for us to discover what the next chapter of our life looks like. Spending time with people who have found a way to do what they love in places that make them happy, is very interesting conversation. We are enjoying the process of exploring options.
We walked down to the beach the next day. John is persistently and valiantly still trying to master the surf board. I have traded frustration for enjoyment, and moved on to the boogie board. Maybe permanently. We met up with our hostel dwellers from Finca Magdalena, Rachel and Junior. Our friends Janice and Gregor made it here, too. Over cold Toña beers, we watched the sun turn into a glowing ball of orange as it disappeared behind a rock into the ocean. Dave and his family were at the beach with their dogs. Reggae music was playing in the background. It was one of those warm nights at the beach you remember for a long time. I looked around, tired, smiling, and soaked in the events and people that led us to this spot.
$13 lobster dinner on the beach. And a cold Toña. Janice and I chowed.
Sunset at Maderas Beach. Hangin' with Rachel and Junior
This stretch of coastline has had a pull on us from even before trip. There is an Eco boutique hotel called Morgan's Rock that opened back in 2005, with15 bungalows scattered in the rain forest overlooking a deserted beach. It was the first upscale coastal hotel in Nicaragua. The property sits on 4,000 acres with an organic farm, huge reforestation project, and sustainable energy practices. At one point early on they were selling lots and building "Eco homes" for sale. John and I fantasized about buying one, and over the years talked about coming here to check it out but never did. A friend and former colleague worked for hotel, and then I met the owner of the property at a conference in Costa Rica a few years ago. We had to finally check this place out.
So we rented a house on the property for the week. Twelve privately owned eco bungalows are built up in the hills on a rocky, rough 4-wheel drive road. With no real walls or windows, only screens, it felt like we were sleeping in the jungle. It was steamy hot during the day but we had a little plunge pool, and the fans cooled us at night. A giant fruit tree hung over the pool, and in the mornings a family of howler monkeys announced their arrival with loud, guttural barking sounds. They broke off small branches that sailed down to our deck and discarded berries went "ker plunk" in the pool. One morning I opened my eyes and a howler was the first thing I saw. Their calls got me up early, and most mornings I had my coffee with them.
Morning coffee at the house.
View to the ocean and the monkey's tree over the pool.
And the baby...
We hiked up around the hills and down to our white sand beach called Playa Majagual. Two beautiful crescents of sand make up this beach, with a giant shark fin shaped rock in the middle out in the water. Only a few people at a time were ever on this beach, and only one small hostel called Matilda's existed there. We could hike down to this beach from our house and at low tide walk over to Playa Maderas to surf so it was a perfect location. Janice and Gregor joined us at the house for a few nights and we lived like regular folk for a few days. We satisfied our curiosity about this place...and haven't ruled it out.
Playa Majagual. Muy Tranquilo
Shark fin rock separating Playa Majagual beach
Big gap in the rocks. No way around so we hucked the backpack (with our wallets and camera!) across and jumped in.
I swam hard and had to hold on to the rocks to keep from getting sucked back out to the ocean. Catching the backpack was the scariest part.
Blogging with a view . No one around.
Having come all this way, a day at Morgan's Rock was on our list of things to do so we scheduled a tour & breakfast on the farm. We milked a cow that provided milk for our coffee, met the chickens who laid our breakfast eggs, and made our own tortillas. We sat down with Herlon, our excellent guide, for the freshest breakfast we've ever had. He talked about his country's future, and his plans to go into business management to some day run a property like this.
Why you takin' my baby's milk?!?
Cooked up the local way...firewood stove.
Freshest breakfast we have ever had - right from the farm.
Exploring the Morgan's Rock property
We kayaked the mangroves and hung out at the pool too. It was a great day.
We also ended up exploring the southern beaches in the area. We were headed out of town, not sure where to spend the night, when on a whim I emailed a horse ranch. I have wanted to get on a horse since we left home but didn't want the typical sad trail ride on old tired local horses, plodding along with a bunch of people in a single file to a beach and back. Then I found a place called Rancho Chilamate. The owner is Canadian, the horses looked loved and taken care of, and the rides sounded more like a day out with friends than a canned tour. We emailed the owner, Blue van Doorninck, and she got back to us fast enough to make a detour possible. The ranch is 10 Km south of San Juan del Sur, and this stretch felt even more remote and wild. Dense jungle gives way to pasture lands with tiny houses, and then back to jungle. The four room guest house used to be her home, and it is inviting and comfortable in a sort of eclectic western design (Blue lived in Vietnam prior to coming to Nicaragua). She's got horses, dogs, pigs...even a pet turkey named Tom. We got to know the staff right away and felt like we were guests in their home. The first night we all sat down to dinner, and Blue shared her story of starting over here. She has a genuine commitment to the land, this community, and to creating a positive impact here.
John and Joel, Lenny's husband. One of the managers and master chef.
Tom the turkey. Fights with the men on staff, flirts with the girls and yes, has his own Facebook page. Blue got him as a little chick and now he follows her all over the place. I had breakfast with him prancing around the house our last morning. Her dogs hate him but, he is part of her pack.
The next day we went out for our ride. We were the only guests and our wranglers, Heather, Lenny and Kat took us out for an incredible day. We rode through farms and forest, passing through fences and over valleys to the beach. We stopped at Playa Escamequita, took a rest break and then got back on our horses to walk in the water and then for a run. John had never really been on a horse before and I hadn't ridden since I was a kid. Kat and Lenny gave us a few pointers and then let us loose. I could feel my horse, Colorado, hopping underneath me with anticipation. A little nudge in his side and he was galloping hard across the sand. Then, in a burst of energy he was sprinting, going even faster and I could feel all 1000 pounds of him flying, breathing hard. It was exhilarating. I looked over at John and he was grinning and laughing, riding hard like a rodeo cowboy. We ran back and forth along the wide stretch of beach few more times before heading back to the ranch. In the morning we were both sore and a little stiff, but John wanted to ride again. I told him I didn't think he would take to horseback riding so quickly and his response was, "Well, I think I'm a natural". Hilarious.
So we went out again, this time to Yankee Beach (where the reality show Survivor was filmed) and had that whole beach to ourselves too. We were both on the same horses so we felt a little more confident and I have to say, a little bonded with these beautiful animals. Our time at Rancho Chilamate, with Blue, her staff and all the animals, was definitely a highlight of our time in Nicaragua.
John's boy, Pegasus
Me and Colorado. The boy could run.
"Horsing" around before our ride.
And after our ride...Kat, Lenny and Heather. Thanks so much you guys!
Blue and her flirty turkey, Tom.
We met so many people down here who left their homes to reinvent themselves in Nicaragua, and they figured it out as they went along. There seem to be many ways to do so in this still wild country. As we drove away from the property on our last morning there, John said, "So, are we suppose to buy a horse ranch down here...?" I'm just glad he didn't suggest sea cucumber farming.