A surfing trip is the ideal solution to forget all this mess

Nicaragua’s magical coast is where this travel writer plans to gather friends and clear her head post-pandemic

By JEN MURPHY

SURFING is a freedom I never imagined could be taken away. After all, that’s why many of us fall in love with the sport in the first place. To paddle out into the vast expanse of ocean is freedom in its purest sense.

You leave behind your worries and stress, not to mention your iPhone and the inescapable news cycle back on the shore. You’re able to truly disconnect. You find yourself humbled by the power of the ocean as it surges beneath you. You lose yourself in the thrill of riding across the face of a wave. You marvel as a glistening backspray showers down on you as you paddle out over a fresh set.

I’ve watched in disbelief these past few months as the ocean has been deemed off-limits to surfers in Spain, South Africa, Brazil and beyond. Surfers in Los Angeles are getting US$1,000 (RM4,369) fines and one at Playa Hermosa in Costa Rica was shot at by a police officer as he got out of the water.

Just as Africa depends on safari-goers to support its conservation efforts, the ocean relies on surfers to be some of its biggest stewards. (Eg the Surfrider Foundation’s 2019 victories; the World Surf League’s philanthropic initiative, PURE, which works in conjunction with Columbia University’s Centre for Climate and Life to support research on ocean health.)

I’m blessed to live in Maui, where surfing is not just a sport — it’s deeply ingrained in Hawaiian culture, having been brought over from ancient Polynesia and embraced by ali`i, Hawaiian royalty. Throughout the pandemic-induced lockdown, the Hawaiian government has allowed surfing to continue and locals are taking full advantage of the lack of foam-top-riding “kooks” (people who have no idea what they’re doing in the water), often tourists, dropping in on their waves.

Although, with tourism down 95% in some cases and one in three workers having filed for jobless claims, leaving little else to do but surf, breaks here feel more crowded than ever — even with social distancing.

For me, surfing has always been about more than a physical thrill. It’s been about the search and sense of discovery in a time when everywhere feels discovered.

From the remote icy waters of Easter Island to the barrelling waves of the Azores, I’ve angled for writing assignments that have taken me to destinations with still-under-the- radar surf. So, as I patiently wait my turn in the lineup, I can’t help but get wistful for Nicaragua, where a dozen people in the ocean is considered a crowd.

A pool at El Coyol, a stunning 4-bedroom villa just off the shores of Granada (Source: El Coyol)

Throughout most of the 20th century, Nicaraguans were focused on survival, not surfing. The Somoza dictatorship that began in the 1930s led to almost five decades of revolutions and counterrevolutions, interrupted by a disastrous earthquake in 1972. Violent conflict between the leftist, Communist-backed Sandinista government and American-backed Contra rebels consumed the 1980s.

Unlike in Costa Rica, its politically stable neighbour to the south, Nicaragua’s more than 155 miles (249km) of western coast remained largely undiscovered until intrepid surfers started to trickle in following the end of the civil war in 1990. Undaunted by a lack of tourism infrastructure, they were rewarded with a surfer’s paradise: Warm water, long golden beaches set against wild jungle and every imaginable type of wave, from point and reef breaks to sand-bottom barrels.

Nicknamed “the Land of Offshores” by surfers, the country is home to trade winds that blow unobstructed from the Caribbean side across Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua to the Pacific side, making Nicaragua one of the few places on the planet with at least 330 days of offshore winds each year. Those unicorn winds create a consistent swell, which means the surf is up all day, nearly every day.

And although it might not have the postcard perfection of Hawaii or Tahiti, that’s part of its charm. There’s a raw beauty that feels refreshingly real and untouched.

Ryley Haskell, a California-born surfer and guide for boutique surf operator Tropic- surf, has worked in bucket-list wave destinations like Fiji and the Maldives. And yet he, like me, would return to Nicaragua in a heartbeat.

With peak wave season approaching in June and July, here’s the surf safari I plan to take with my girlfriends once Covid-19 travel restrictions have eased.

Road Trip Down the Coast

Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa is Nicaragua’s 1st luxury boutique resort and spa (Source: Tropicsurf)

No longer a secret, as selfishly as I’d have liked it to remain, Nicaragua now caters to more than just budget-minded surfers. You won’t find luxury chains, but there are plenty of hip boutique hotels, like Tribal in Granada, and amenity-rich eco-lodges, such as Morgan’s Rock in San Juan del Sur.

In addition to waves, the country shares many of Costa Rica’s other natural wonders — volcanoes, pristine beaches, charming colonial towns, wildlife-rich rainforest. And in Nicaragua, they can be experienced for a fraction of the price.

I’d fly into Augusto C Sandino International Airport in Managua; international and domestic flights are currently suspended, but American Airlines and TACA typically fly direct from Miami, and United Airlines from New York via Houston. Once there, I’d head right out of the congested capital and drive northwest on Highway 3 toward Chinandega. En route, I’d stop in the colonial town of León, with its pastel-hued churches. Behind the main cathedral, you can’t go wrong at any of the fritangas — simple street-side barbecues where abuelitas fry everything from chorizo to plantains — and I always detour for a double scoop of tres leches gelato served in a handmade cone at artisanal ice cream shop Kiss Me.

When I first visited Chinandega nearly 20 years ago, there were two hotels and every- one was on horseback. The locals were fishermen and subsistence farmers. Gringos toting boards on mopeds came through to surf the Boom — Nicaragua’s most famous wave, just a short drive away in the village of Aserradores. The fast and heavy A-Frame is not for the inexperienced, but the area has plenty of mellow surf, too.

Former pro surfer Holly Beck chose this area to launch her pioneering women’s surf camp, Surf With Amigas in 2010.

“When I’d surf in Mexico, I always ended up with diarrhoea and had to worry about gang violence,” says the California native. “Nicaragua was cleaner, safer and more affordable. I never saw guns. The waves were always good. The people were super friendly.”

I’d finally check off my wish of spending a week at one of Beck’s retreats (from US$1,800 per person).

My friends and I would then make our way south, connecting on Highway 1 until we reached the Emerald Coast, just over a four- hour drive. (You can also fly private straight into Costa Esmeralda Airport, which remains open).

On that first trip, I fell hard for the sleepy fishing villages of Gigante and Popoyo and even harder for the 10 world-class breaks — from longboard peelers to deep, hollow reef breaks — in a span of 30 miles.

The waves remain as epic as ever, but a true surf community has emerged thanks to cool hoteliers such as Jade Sheppard, local surfboard shaper Giezi Amador and a youth surf team. My friends and I would stay at Malibu Popoyo, Sheppard’s two-year-old, 12-casita hotel, where the price includes board rentals and surf guiding.

We’d wake up and take a boat trip to Lance’s Left, a seemingly never-ending rock reef break of amazing consistency and beauty. Then we’d recharge by the hotel’s pool with fish tacos and locally brewed kombucha. A sunset surf at Playa Santana, a wedgy beach break a short walk from the hotel, would cap off the action.

We’d share highlights from the day’s rides around the hotel’s fire pit, while listening to live music and sipping Toña, Nica’s ubiquitous lager. By the third day, our shoulders would be paddle-weary, so we’d indulge our- selves with massages at Rancho Santana’s new 6,000 sq ft (557.42 sq m) spa, located just down the beach.

The final leg of our trip would take us 90 minutes south to San Juan del Sur. I remember visiting this laid-back port town in late 2017 and fretting that it was on the verge of becoming sceney Tulum. But in April 2018 political unrest, once again, sent the country’s tourism industry reeling, pushing pause on some of the less salubrious developments.

I was there again last September and I must admit I quite prefer the area without the Insta influencers. Instead, there’s a Bohemian-cool clan that gathers for happy hour by the infinity pool of Arte-Sano Hotel & Cafe.

Here, tucked away on a cliff above popular, rippable beach break Playa Maderas, would be my base of choice. The owners, along with the couple behind craft brewery San Juan del Sur Cervecería, also run nearby Machete Market Café, where we’d gather on Fridays for pizza night, a rowdy get-together of live jams, brick-oven pies, and artisanal brews.

Non-Surf Days

Hawaii’s Paige Alms performs at the Jaws Big Wave competition off Maui on Dec 12, 2019 (Pic: AFP)

At some point, even the most die-hard surfer’s muscles need a rest from paddling. You won’t regret taking a break from the coast to explore the colonial town of Gra- nada, a 90-minute drive north of Popoyo. (You could also head straight here from Managua, skipping the more raw north, which is definitely for the hardier surfer.)

Enlist Granada-based Brit Dominic Allen, founder of travel company Real Latin America, to help with your planning. On my last visit, he steered me to Garden Café, where I’d return for the spicy curries and superfood smoothies, but also to shop at Thousand Cranes, its well-curated shop dedicated to local artisans, designers and impactful groups including UPNicaragua.

If you’re a chocolate snob like I am, pop into Argencove, an impressive bean-to-bar operation in town. And if there’s one souvenir you must take home, it’s a hammock, which should be purchased from nowhere but Tio Antonio Hamaca, a store that provides jobs to at-risk youth.

In Nicaragua, a private island experience is also within reach for more than the One Per- cent. When the Mombacho volcano erupted hundreds of years ago, it scattered its top into Lake Nicaragua, creating 360-some islets.

My friends and I would either splurge and rent El Coyol, a stunning four-bedroom villa just off the shores of Granada, or we’d book a handful of the nine treehouse-style casitas at Jicaro, an ecolodge operated by the Cayuga Collection, one of my favourite sustainably-minded hotel brands. Just a 10-minute boat ride from town, the lodge helps guests disconnect with yoga, wildlife viewing, stand-up paddle-boarding sessions and hammocks strung from the decks of every room so you can sleep beneath the stars, dreaming of still better days ahead.

Every surfer has experienced the moment when they think they’ve made the drop down a face of a wave, only to be unforgivingly pummelled, or sucked over the falls into a washing-machine spin drive of a beating. Many countries have faced wipeouts from political and natural disasters, but few have taken the licks and popped back up, ready for another set, like Nicaragua. After war, Zika virus, Tropical Storm Nate and the political upheaval that all but shut down tourism the last two years, the country has been on a roller coaster of highs and lows — and now a pandemic.

I like to think the resilience it’s shown over the decades will kick in as the world slowly reemerges from lockdown. And when it does, although most surfers dream of having the ocean as their own private playground, I’ll be more than happy to share its perfect waves.

To help ensure Nicaragua’s people and environment remain strong for many more visits to come, the following charities are doing essential work. Waves of Hope, a non- profit created in 2009 by the founders of Coco Loco Eco Resort in northern Nicaragua, is dedicated to education, infrastructure and sustainability.

Casa Congo, a non-governmental organisation in Tola, focuses on conservation projects including beach cleanups, night monitoring during turtle hatching season and assisting with tree planting in Chacocente Wildlife Refuge. If you feel inspired, I highly recommend supporting them, too. — Bloomberg

  • Almost 20 years ago, Nicaragua won Jen Murphy’s heart as she rode its waves. And for the Hawaii-based travel writer, there’ll be no better place to celebrate a return to normalcy than a country where resiliency has been ingrained in the local spirit.