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WAVOS RANCHEROS

Learning to surf on the west coast of Nicaragua.

Story by Whitney James June 17th, 2015

Like all good stories, this one started after a couple rounds of margaritas. I was peering over my salted rim at my friend, and I had an idea. “Hey, would it be cool if I joined you on your surf trip?” I don’t think he exactly answered the question, but two months later, we found ourselves running through the Houston airport as they called our names over the loudspeaker. We’d been sipping $14 mimosas in the airport lounge, and were apparently casual enough to be the last people to board the plane to Nicaragua. I mean, we’d already committed $400 to check my friend’s surfboard. They weren’t leaving without us.

The next ten days would be a whirlwind along the west coast of Nicaragua, jam-packed with two-a-day surf sessions and an array of activities from yoga to deep-sea fishing. We kicked off where all tourists tend to kick off—in the gentle waters of Playa Maderas. It would not only be my first time surfing, but also my first time swimming in the ocean. Needless to say, there was no amount of mental and physical training I could have put myself through before we departed to prepare for the salt-water deluge I was about to undergo. I’d watched Point Break, I’d swum laps in a pool (in my new bikini), and I’d gone tanning. I was ready.

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After arriving at our jungle bungalow at Buena Vista Surf Club and sleeping for about four hours, we jumped through the mosquito netting the next morning to greet paradise. The plan was for me to hang on the beach, studying the swell or whatever, but really just waiting for my friend to get in a few rides before he was tasked with the nearly impossible job of teaching me to stand up on a moving hump of water. While he was checking his wax, a gigantic pig, well over 100-pounds, came ambling out of the jungle towards us at a ferocious jog. It made straight for the surfboard, and when that disappeared into the waves (along with my friend) it tried to snatch the flip-flops he’d left behind. I smacked the offending animal in the face to save our shoes and ran away like a five-year-old girl, shrieking slightly and terrified that a Nicaraguan bandit was going to come after me with a machete for attacking his pet.

Playa Maderas is a great spot to mingle with the local culture and color.
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Buena Vista Surf Club has the coolest deck in the country.

After several days of learning that at least half of surfing is bobbing around in the backline and realizing my bikini was best suited for tanning on the beach, it was time to move on to our next destination. We dragged our bags to our new digs—Maderas Village. The residents and guests had just finished up a weekend trip on Ayahuasca, and they looked the part. Scantily clad, the boys’ hair was as long as the girls, stiff with salt water and bleached blonde. Everyone had a cigarette hanging from his or her fingertips, and was palming a Toña dripping wet with condensation. They told of the midnight surf party they’d partaken in during the high, and how really no one ended up surfing, but as we all know, that’s not really the point of surfing anyway. It would take me a while to warm up to our new compadres, but I was embracing the second hand smoke in no time, quietly envisioning myself the next morning, hanging ten with the calm cockiness of the Ayahuasca gang—piggy be damned.

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Make sure you enjoy the scene at Maderas Village.

All too soon, we found ourselves heading north, bumping along Nica’s unpaved roads to our final destination—Rancho Santana. The 2,700-acre, self-sustaining utopia was founded by American expats in 1997. Nestled into the coastline between well-known Panga Drops and Popoyo, the ranch is home to five unique playas, each with their own delightful characteristics; from sky-high sand dunes to famous breaks. Rancho Santana is lovingly referred to by all who speak it’s name—including the 700 employees who enjoy its perks, such as an on-site school, farm, housing development, and the neighboring community center, FunLimón, where members pay $2 every month to play on baseball teams, use the fully stocked gym, and attend English and computer classes. For the well-paying guest, there’s even more to do.

Designed as a luxury vacation rental property, Rancho Santana is not without its share of adventure. Like the day we went deep-sea fishing and I got stung by a jellyfish while trying to discretely relieve myself off the side of the boat, right before we pulled into a secluded cove, rumored to have been created by a giants’ footprint. Or the day we went horseback riding through town to see “real Nicaragua”, the side the tourists don’t usually experience. Or like on our last night of our trip, when we drank pint-sized margaritas from a half-star restaurant and had stomach cramps for the next five days. Ah, adventure. There is simply nothing like it.

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The proposed canal is supposed to cut through Rancho Santana's property.
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One thing was clear everywhere we went in Nicaragua. People come to this country from all over the world, and they never go home. It’s a place that has a way of pulling you in. Maybe it’s the rich culture full of color, or maybe it’s the friendly locals and the easy access to good waves. But whatever it is, you’re going to want to get there before it goes. Because Nicaragua won’t be this way forever, once the secret gets out. Vaya con Dios. They’re calling your name over the airport intercom.

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Footnote: Photos by Whitney James. Photos of me by Bryan Rowe.
Nicaragua