As we assembled the jigsaw puzzle of our first cruising season, we started by building around a couple big pieces. We knew we wanted to spend several months in Mexico. We wanted a month in Costa Rica and a month in Panama, both countries being known for their wonderful and compact cruising grounds. We hoped to make a stop in El Salvador to meet up with siblings Jennifer and Chris, who were planning a trip there. And we planned to cap off our season with a trip through the Panama Canal in June.
Initially, Nicaragua was not one of the puzzle pieces. We hadn’t heard much about Nicaragua from the cruising scuttlebutt, and we didn’t know anyone who had spent time there. Anything we had heard was colored with a dark tint, filtered through American media: civil wars, failed governments, poverty, etc. We’re seasoned enough not to believe everything we hear about foreign countries (have you seen the U.S. State Department’s warnings about Mexico?!), but we also weren’t looking to add new stops to an already busy cruising schedule.
But starting in January, while we were still in Mexico, we started hearing reports from other cruisers who were spending time in Nicaragua. And the reports were good! We added Nicaragua to our cruising plan, basically as an afterthought, and ended up spending 12 days there.
In our short visit, we drove through dramatic volcano landscapes to visit a bustling colonial city. We walked empty, beautiful white sand beaches. We explored the countryside in the northwestern corner of the country. We tasted really good local rum. And then we sailed the Nicaraguan coast in the windiest conditions we’ve seen yet. Oh, and as a finale, we managed to show up just in time for Nicaragua’s biggest party of the year!
Our experience in Nicaragua was one of the most challenging so far—emotionally, physically, and intellectually—but also one of the most rewarding. We based our visit around two ports that could not have been more different.
Marina Puesta del Sol
The first was a tiny marina-resort just 50 miles south of the border. We pulled in around noon after an uneventful 115-mile overnight passage from El Salvador. Tucked into an estuary, this marina-resort was a welcome calm, totally protected from the waves and wind that were starting to build along the coast. Only a few other boats, mostly small sport-fishing boats, were tied up there.
As we settled in and started to have a look around, we realized we were the only people on the dock—none of the other boats had anybody on them. We could see the restaurant from the boat, and no one was there either. An inviting pool was just 100 feet from the dock, but no one was swimming. For the first couple days, it was just us and the staff. Normally a marina is buzzing with action, so being the only souls in the entire place was definitely eerie. But after all the commotion in El Salvador, it was actually nice to take a break from anything social for a couple days.
Adding to the feeling of isolation was the marina’s location in a rural part of the country, far from the big cities and popular beaches. So we decided to rent a car for a few days to explore. Let’s not leave this gem to the backpackers, the surfers, and the European tourists who have already “discovered” Nicaragua. Here’s our list of highlights once we left the marina and joined the rest of society.
Weekend in León. We drove 90 minutes from Puesta del Sol to the “big city” of northwestern Nicaragua. The highway was one of the nicest we’ve seen since leaving California, which was good, because every inch of pavement was packed! We shared the road with fancy pick-up trucks, public buses (converted American school buses), bicycle taxis, motorcycles, delivery trucks, and even a few horse-drawn carriages in rural patches. John had a blast driving for the first time in months, behind the wheel of a tiny Suzuki SUV with manual transmission. Once I got over the unnatural feeling of passing in the oncoming traffic lane (normal for two-lane roads but not normal for me!), I enjoyed the ride.
We passed tiny villages, sugar cane farms, roadside fruit stands, and several baseball diamonds. Since baseball is the most popular sport in the country, half the fields already had games in-progress on a Saturday morning. And it’s not just for kids; we saw games with adult teams too.
In brushing up on the history of Nicaragua, we learned León was the intellectual center during the country’s many years of autocracy, civil war, and eventual socialist-oriented government. University buildings dominated the city center. We loved walking around and sightseeing.
We visited the Catedral de León. We’ve seen dozens of Catholic churches by now. But apparently León’s is the largest in Central America! (It was pretty huge, so that might actually be true.) A cool feature is that you can even climb the narrow stairs and walk on the roof. Just as we reached the top, a kid came scrambling up behind us, a few minutes late for his 4 p.m. bell ringing.
It was loud.
The walk on the roof was pretty neat.
Fun fact: My camera decided to stop working when we were up there because it was so hot. Seriously. León has got to be one of the hottest cities in the region. It is neither on the water nor elevated in the mountains like many of the major cities. We roasted. And everyone there, even all the women, were wearing pants. No temperature is too hot for Central American conservative dress.
We stayed overnight in a hostel. Since we were also paying to keep the boat in the marina, I wanted to find cheap accommodations. And thanks to a couple travel blogs I found, we scored! Only $33 per night, including a $6 charge for air conditioning. The hostel was actually nice and quite charming. We shared the place with a bunch of 20-something backpackers, and boy, did we feel old!
The next morning we woke up early so we could make it to our next stop on time. By 7 a.m. we were eating breakfast at the corner cafe when a Palm Sunday parade rolled down the street. Perhaps they scheduled the parade to beat the heat? Or maybe it was just an early start to a festive Semana Santa? (More on that later.)
Flor de Caña Tour. John is a huge fan of aged rum, and some of the world’s best is produced near León. When we realized how close we were to the factory, it became a must-stop. They had space for a Sunday tour, but only at 9 a.m… oh well!
We were the only people on the tour who didn’t speak Spanish, so our awesome tour guide repeated everything in English just for us. We learned about their production and aging processes, which maintain the craft approach that made them successful in the first place. Most of the barrels even had handwritten notes scribbled on them.
Flor de Caña is still family owned after 125 years. They are a major landowner in the area; probably all of the sugar cane farms we drove by were theirs. The tour included generous tastings (good morning!), and even I liked the 18-year aged rum.
Coffee Talk. After returning to the boat to check on the cats, we spent our last day with the rental car driving around the northwestern corner of the country. I had read that Nicaragua has more volcanoes than any other country, and we wanted to see them up close.
On the way back to the boat, we stopped in Chinandega, the closest city to the marina, in search of an afternoon pick-me-up. We stumbled across More Than Coffee as we navigated the maze of one-way streets. (In León, we learned the best way to figure out if a street is one-way or two is to quickly look before you turn. Not too difficult since we’re already keeping our eyes wide open to watch out for pedestrians and motorbikes.)
John was enjoying an affogato (!) and I was drinking a chocolate milk shake (!!) when we heard: “Are you from Milwaukee?” That’s not a question I expected to hear or answer in Nicaragua, but I was wearing my Brewer’s hat and these people do know baseball!
And so began the beginning of a long chat with Augusto, the co-owner of More Than Coffee. He told us a bit of his life story: He was born in Nicaragua, his family fled to the U.S. during the most recent civil war, and he now spends a few months a year back in Chinandega.
Augusto was more than willing to share his thoughts on the state of the country, and it was particularly interesting to view his observations through our shared experience as Americans. Obviously Nicaragua is an extremely poor country. In fact, as we were talking, the electricity went out, which was the catalyst for this discussion. Augusto told us that the lack of wealth in the country, combined with socialist propaganda and policies, has left the country in a difficult position. Having grown up in the U.S., his perspective was that the affluent upper classes were necessary to provide the wealth (via taxes and employment) to raise the standard of living for everyone. That’s not a popular position in Nicaragua. We left with a lot to think about, and we began to understand why Augusto chose the name “More Than Coffee” for his shop.
After eight days in northern Nicaragua, we decided to head south toward one of Nicaragua’s coastal hotspots.
San Juan del Sur
It turned out that getting to San Juan del Sur was not so straightforward. In fact, it became our toughest sailing challenge yet. We’ve written briefly about Central America’s infamous Papagayos, which begin as Caribbean Trade Winds and accelerate through gaps in the narrow isthmus, becoming powerful off-shore winds on the Pacific side.
We planned our passage to San Juan del Sur for a period of somewhat lighter winds. Well… either the forecast was wrong, or we were too anxious to leave, or the Papagayos are just that formidable, because there was nothing “light” about the conditions we saw. Fresh afternoon breezes around 15 knots became 20, then 25, then 30 as the night wore on. The next day dawned with consistent winds in the 30s and higher gusts—our observations topped out at just over 40 knots for one gust.
The winds blasted us from the east—almost directly on the nose of our southeasterly course toward San Juan del Sur. We deeply reefed our mainsail, reducing it to less than half of its normal size. With the headsails tightly furled, we used the diesel engine to chug along to windward, slowly but steadily making progress down the coast. To avoid large, dangerous waves, we stayed close to shore, and the boat remained remarkably comfortable despite the wind. We hunkered down in Pineapple‘s well-protected cockpit and marveled at the constant salt spray drenching the decks.
About 24 hours later, we pulled into the harbor at San Juan del Sur. But the wind didn’t stop! The first night we continued to see gusts into the 30s. Here’s a photo of our anchor track (showing how the boat swung while anchored to the bottom) from the first day. Can you guess how well we slept?! But as you can see, the anchor held fine, and after the first night our nerves calmed a bit.
Maybe because we had someone watching over us? Here was our view of the giant Jesus statue overlooking the bay.
The winds weren’t the only noteworthy thing about San Juan del Sur. Adding to the excitement, we arrived just as Semana Santa (Latin America’s Holy Week, aka Spring Break for all!) was ramping up. Our timing was a complete coincidence. The town is already known as Nicaragua’s party hub, and this is Nicaragua’s biggest celebration. Nearly everyone is on vacation, and they all flock to the coast. In San Juan del Sur, the beach was packed—with everything from DJ stages for the party crowd to rows of makeshift tents for families.
The first morning I woke up early to have a look at the bay at dawn. Here was my view.
A completely packed beach. It was 6 a.m. Yes, 6 a.m.!
Here’s another view on shore, about 10 a.m. I think.
We ventured ashore with our friends (Wags and Paula aboard Gadabout) to check out the town and the Semana Santa scene. (Thankfully, they picked us up in their dinghy, which is much larger and faster than ours. Otherwise we would have had a very wet ride with the wind kicking up lots of choppy waves.) The revelers certainly did not dampen our experience in the town. In fact, the wind howled so loudly I could barely hear the beach club music that was going on all night! We found good food and good coffee, and the hike up to the Jesus statue was a perfect Easter activity, amiright?
The Monday after Easter we checked out of the country, hit up the central market, and were off to Costa Rica.
I loved our time in Nicaragua because it was so incredibly different than any other travel we’ve done. When we were working stiffs, our limited vacation days were spent in international cities like Paris or Berlin, eating fancy food and staying in luxury boutique hotels. When we wanted some beach time, we booked a 5-star resort that had everything we could possibly want. But in Nicaragua, we stayed in a hostel for chrissakes!
From the accommodations to the weather to the sailing to the accidental cultural immersion of Semana Santa, cruising Nicaragua challenged us. Now we’re in Costa Rica with a new set of challenges, and we’re thinking back on how easy it felt to cruise in Mexico. Maybe it really was easy, or maybe we just got used to it. Either way, this cruising adventure has a way of pushing us out of our comfort zone again and again. We look forward to adapting and growing with each new challenge—and we’ll be sure to report back on what we learn.