In the center of Central America lies Nicaragua, and down several long, rutted, twisty, dusty dirt roads lies a surfer’s paradise called Popoyo. Honk at a few cows wandering through the road, stop to take pictures of the pigs wallowing in the ditch and ask a local how to get to Popoyo.
With almost no street signs, most directions include things like, “Take a left at the green tire shop, then a right at the fruit stand that has colorful hammocks for sale.” It can be unnerving at first, but the people are kind and always happy to help.
You’ll find yourself – literally and figuratively – in a place like Popoyo. Typical creature comforts of high speed internet, ubiquitous air conditioning and the ability to upload selfies quickly, give way to a slower pace of life filled with laissez faire attitudes, self-reflection and untouched nature seldom found in most parts.
It’s a place of azure waters, white sand beaches, bikinis, Sex-Wax surf wax and heavy beach breaks that barrel over shallow reefs. You’ll find salt-knotted dreadlocks and the salutation, “Buenos dias,” and the unspoken sentiment, “How did you find this place?” and “don’t tell anyone else…” Popoyo provides the feeling of stepping back in time to a simpler era, when life’s needs were a little more basic: food, water, shelter and fun. Oh, and fruit smoothies.
The surf at Popoyo is usually best in the morning. Offshore winds blow back the faces of waves on a point break that is overlooked by a small restaurant on a campground called The Ranch.
On a day with particularly epic waves, I find that twelve-time world champion Kelly Slater and bohemian surf master Rob Machado have signed in to The Ranch parking lot before me.
If you’re not a world champ surfer (or even much of an ocean swimmer), there are plenty of hammocks and Adirondacks to watch the waves come in while you have a fresh fruit smoothie or a cold cerveza.
Looking to the eastern horizon from the water, Mombacho rises in the distance. Mombacho is a 1344 meter high stratovolcano near the city of Granada. As the last eruption occurred more than 400 years ago, today the Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve is one of 78 protected areas in Nicaragua, and a great place to hike through rainforest while listening for howler monkeys. Walking in literal clouds, one can peer directly into the crater of the volcano and imagine the lava exploding skywards. Those who reach the top are rewarded with a view that would normally be reserved for those seated on an airplane.
After hiking Mombacho, it’s a sometimes steep, mostly bumpy drive over to Granada where you’ll find a city that seems part Havana, part New Orleans and exactly the kind of place where you’d expect to see Hemingway smoking a cigarillo and writing his next novel. Cafes and restaurants where occupants dine in open-air courtyards among palm trees and vines are hidden behind large wooden doors. Fresh ceviche, wrought iron balconies, and a deep sense of Catholic and familial pride abound in this old, yet unexpectedly cosmopolitan town.
If you can’t get enough of the beach, travel south down the cost to Santa Cruz, where you’ll find a tranquil bay lined with fishing boats and restaurants.
Local men and women stroll by, selling vases with hand-etched sea turtles and brightly painted wooden birds that double as whistling instruments. They’re the kind of beach trinkets that don’t feel like trinkets. The handmade works of art are authentic and inexpensive. You support the artisans and the local economy when you buy a few pieces.
The sun is likely nearing the horizon again and as the air cools, the waves take shape once again. Head over to Magnific Rock where you can get in another surf or simply take in the sunset from the restaurant and lodge overlooking the beach. Play an available board game or swing in a hammock with a Toña, the national beer of choice.
Walking on the beach at night, there are no discotecas, but you’re likely to find ex-pats lounging around candle-lit driftwood tables, eating freshly baked clay oven pizza and listening to other expats practicing their guitars or Ukuleles.
This is a place that few people know of and even fewer dare to go. Those who have been hope it stays that way forever.