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New Year’s in Nicaragua: Giant Surfboards, Baby Turtles, and Mom and Pop Fireworks

After spending so much time and seeing so many things in North and South America, I realized recently that I had somehow overlooked the massive land bridge (full of unique and interesting countries) that connect these two phenomenal continents. I have always wanted to learn to surf. Riding on the top of waves and coasting at top speed, is an adrenaline rush that I have placed high upon the life to-do list.

There’s nothing like traveling in good company

When I found out that one of my main comrades, Ex Australian military diver Billy Barnetson, would be in this neck of the woods, we quickly concocted this Nicaragua exploring/surfing adventure.  I met Billy on the first day of our world trip in 2007 in Buenos Aires. Together with the legendary Benny Vears we traveled through Argentina into Patagonia, spent months in Bolivia and Peru together, did some serious Amazon trekking,  skied in Canada (Fernie) for a month, and have connected multiple times in NYC. Billy traveled for three years, which included a 15 month stint as the dive master on a giant yacht owned by one of the richest Russian Oligarchs on the planet. He sailed through the Mediterranean, was attacked by pirates in the Suez Canal, and surfed in the Maldives for three months. He has also done some overland touring in Jamaica and Cuba (embedding with locals), climbed Mt. Aconcagua (the highest mountain in South America), and four of Bolivia’s highest mountains and has done all kinds of craziness through South East Asia. In short, Billy is as interesting, and as solid of a human being as they get—and an advanced overland traveler. He is also the lightest packer in the entire world (not verified by Guinness just yet), traveling with a 10 pound backpack “max”. I didn’t check but I think he only brought two pairs of shorts and 2 shirts for the entire trip.

Starting out in Granada (and a bit on Nicaragua)

I rolled into Granada, a colonial town in SW Nicaragua, solo and without accommodation. I stumbled into a historic, beautiful colonial hotel called the Hotel Spa Granada run by an American named Mitch from upstate New York. He had bought the 15-room house 12 years earlier after the Sandinistas were ousted from power. It was built in the 1889 by one of the presidents of Nicaragua–and was nothing short of spectacular. I shot a quick little video.

Hanging with Mitch, and wandering through the narrow streets of Granada I downloaded a lot of information about Nicaragua’s history into my brain. For example, do you remember when Ronald Regan and the CIA sold arms to the Iranians to fund the contras (guerrillas fighting the socialist Sandinistas) in Nicaragua?

Yeah, well I kind of forgot about all this until my foray through Nicaragua.  It’s amazing how much you learn and retain when you travel overland through different countries.

The 80’s were a different time and back then I did not have an understanding of the Cold War, as I was 6 when all of this was going on. But the Russians were behind the rulers of Nicaragua–and we were doing everything we could to get any Russian backed governments out of power. Hence all of that nonsense, and the devastation that Nicaraguans have endured to their infrastructure, economy, and way of life.

Fast forward to present day and tourism has been a huge force in Nicaragua’s recovery. Despite this, Nicaragua is still very poor, and developing slowly. Everything is mega cheap. More so than most Latin American countries I have visited, with the exception of Bolivia. It is encouraging to see how many tourists are flocking here. It is touted as the safest country in Central America–even safer than Costa Rica.

San Juan Del Sur 

San Juan Del Sur, a oversized surfing village on the southern Pacific coast, was overflowing with tourists and locals in town. For the first few days we were there, there were rolling blackouts. The lights would die every couple of hours for 3 minutes, and then turn back on. I guess the power grid could not handle the power of this NYE tourist wave. The town was quaint, but the real thrill was the surrounding beaches.

Enter Baby Turtles and Giant Surf Boards

We had the opportunity to go out on a tour to the beach one night to see tiny, little, baby Olive Ridley turtles hatch, dig there way out of the sand, and run to the sea. Only 1 out of 100 survive. Billy and I watched these little guys race for their lives, although once they get into the sea is where it gets super scary for them; enter sharks and fish and other things that will feast on them.

I am proud to announce that I also learned to surf…. kind of. If surfing means getting up on the surfboard, then I was definitely surfing. If surfing means staying on that said surfboard for long periods of time then I have a long way to go. My surfboard was easily 30 feet long; it was the size of station-wagon, and god speed to anyone that might have found themselves in the way of my long-board from hell. I know a few things now about surfing that I didn’t know before (although I had been out a few times unsuccessfully in Mancora, Peru and the Galapagos).

1. Surfing is completely exhausting: Seriously, I would be in the water for 20 minutes and just trying to catch three waves is exhausting.

2. Surfing is for compact people, not 6  foot 4’ people with enormous wingspans.

Nonetheless, getting smashed by Nicaraguan waves and occasionally getting up to ride on one was glorious. I especially liked it when I didn’t eat sand at the end of my ride.

New Year’s Eve in San Juan Del Sur proved to be charming. While there was no major celebration or central fireworks, there must have been 30mini (or personal) fireworks displays surrounding the beach.

Nicaragua was a blur of sunsets, Tonia beers, rolling blackouts, and very loud Reggaeton and the people we met were warm and friendly. They love life and have a zest for it. The food, especially in Granada, was much better than I thought it would be. It was great to be back in a country that loves tourists so much. It reminded me of Colombia in a big way. Countries that are on the newer side of tourism and seeing their economy boost as a result really do have a different attitude towards tourists. The appreciation is refreshing.

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