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“For the record, I don’t intend to die in a tsunami in Nicaragua.”
Those were my words as I tried to think logically in the face of a loud siren blaring in Spanish, “alerta de tsunami evacua inmediatamente” which translates to “Tsunami alert, evacuate immediately.” We were hunkered down in a little thatched roof ocean side beach hut at Monty’s Beach Lodge in Nicaragua. A tropical storm with pounding rain, blasting winds, sheet lightening and thunder was all around us. When that siren went off at 4am, the sheer terror and ominous situation had put us into flight mode. Since the power was out, my roommate and I grabbed a headlamp, glasses, got dressed and hastily tossed together a bag, which could well have been the sole contents of what we would then escape the country with – assuming we would actually outrun the anticipated wave.
While we had signed up for an adventure holiday, this we figured, had taken it to a whole new level. We were in Nicaragua on a surfing and community service vacation. The holiday promised our group of mostly 50-something Moms who all played for the Stanley Cupcakes hockey team back in North Vancouver, a mix of learning to surf, and helping out with some community projects in disadvantaged communities. It was to be a soulful blend of volunteerism mixed with adventure in the company of a group of crazy fun loving gals, well versed in international travel, and up for a little risk and discomfort that a third world country might deliver.
On route to the airport, a foretelling message on a t-shirt had read, “Bad decisions make for great stories.” One of our group members snapped a photo of it to share, but little did we know it would become a great underlying theme for the events that would unfold.
The decision to go was a good one. Let me be clear. Nicaragua was an amazing experience that I wouldn’t trade in a heartbeat, but to say we experienced utter highs and lows during our stay would be an understatement. The tsunami warning was a low. Fortunately the highs more then made up for it.
The siren in the end proved to be a false alarm, triggered in our isolated coastal region by a lightening strike to the tower. Shaken, we put the experience to good use, reflecting on our beach walk the next morning how we would now be much better prepared in the face of an earthquake back home in Vancouver. And of course the discussion about what we each had hastily placed in our evacuation bag, made for some fun musings. It’s safe to say, my roommate likely didn’t need her bikini bag, and the deck of cards, book and make-up brought by another wouldn’t have been nearly as useful as running shoes, a passport and American cash.
Having experienced over a decade of relative stability for a Central American country, our trip to Nicaragua had been threatened the week before departure with political uprising and rioting in Managua and Leon against the increasingly oppressive Oretega government. With the American consulate closed, the UK warning against travel in Nicaragua, but Canada only advising extreme caution, we monitored the situation with people on the ground and made an informed decision in the end to go. We figured once the international community had intervened following the killing of protesting students, there would be a safe window to enter and exit the country while negotiations started. We were right.
Nicaragua is not for everybody. But if you have an adventuresome spirit, there are many treasures to be found.
Owning a Surf Lodge was the dream of Don Montgomery, a then 40-year old PE teacher from Kamloops, BC. In 2007 he saw opportunity not only in building a destination resort in Jiquilillo, an undeveloped coastal area several hours north of the popular San Juan del Sur, but also a chance to give back to the nearby communities by supporting education and health, as well as building housing as part of the guest experience. Witnessing first hand rising sea levels, and the economic impact of unsustainable environmental practices, Don became convinced that setting up programs to help through volunteerism combined with a surf holiday would be a unique offering. The model has since held appeal for student groups, faith based organizations, families looking for an experience with impact, teachers, nurses and firemen, in addition to yoga group retreats, and eclectic groups such as ours; a group of women celebrating 10 years of playing hockey together. The target persona for Monty’s defies demographic classification, in favour of a behaviour and values based profile.
Accommodations offered private ocean side cabins, good beds and washroom facilities. Having said that, it was unapologetically rustic in nature more camp then Club Med, right down to open air windows, ceiling fans, mosquito nets, and basic toilet and shower facilities with the odd bat lurking above with ample gaps between the thatched roof and open air walls to allow other tropical critters passage if they fancied a tour. We understood all this at sign up, and combined with the promise of daily activities in addition to learning to surf, some history and cultural experiences, the ease of prepared group meals, and the opportunity to relax with friends in addition leaving a lasting impact on local communities through volunteering, made for an appealing combination. Monty’s has committed to supporting the soup kitchen in Chinandega, and community housing and education in Jiquilillo as well as being active in sea turtle conservation, so important for the sustainability of the ocean ecosystem, pivotal to the local fishing village economy.
Nicaragua is the largest and second least populated country in Central America. It has lagged behind Costa Rica in eco-sensitive travel, mostly due to political instability until the early 2000s’s. Unfortunately Ortega’s reelection in 2011 with increasing autocratic rule has meant the sense of stability and economic recovery after years of civil war, may be coming to a close. Recent political protests and civil unrest will take a toll on tourism. Since returning to Canada, we’ve all felt for our Nicaraguan friends, witnessing the continued threat of order, that no doubt will have an impact on jobs and the welfare of communities we visited.
We travelled to Nicaragua on the cusp of dry season April 28 – May 7, and we were fortunate to have mostly sunny, hot and humid weather, although the tropical thunderstorm that rolled through towards the end of our stay no doubt signaled the beginning of wet season. Our group flew into Managua, then drove 3.5 hrs north past Leon, through Chinandega to Jiquilillo on the Pacific coast. We have since joked that our time there was a bi-polar mix of extreme highs and lows, which pushed personal comfort levels in the face of challenge, along with offering up a bevy of tales that our group will always share.
The beaches of Jiquilillo are expansive and uncrowded. You can walk for miles in relative safety, although we were warned against venturing out in the evening or at night. The water is beautifully clean and warm. Waves are consistent and you pretty much have the surf to yourself, providing perfect conditions for learning. Monty’s arranged for lessons early in our stay, and we had free run of the boards to indulge our new found passion daily.
The people of Nicaragua are best described as uncommonly beautiful. With striking features, and unbelievably straight teeth for a society with little dental care, their physical beauty is only further complimented by a gentle, engaged and friendly outlook. Plus a rhythm for salsa must run in their DNA, as evidenced not only in the nightclubs, but also with the talents of the local young school children performing traditional dance during a show for us.
While accommodations were rustic, there was magic in the simplicity of sleeping beneath a thatched roof hut, or being lulled to sleep in a hammock, against the constant beat of ocean waves on shore.
Jiquilillo is a small fishing town. Residents make their living from the sea, actively launching boats early morning to retrieve the days catch. Homes are modest, often no more then glorified forts by North American standards, made of local trees, palm leaf roofs, and dirt floors, although satellite dishes and TVs often cast a glow from within. At first glance these appeared primitive, but we came to appreciate the community and support knit together by their proximity and openness. Our tour of the local houses, sanitation facilities and school, built and supported by visitors to Monty’s helped us appreciate the impact that his efforts have had on the people of Nicaragua. Monty is a giver. And his attitude has fueled a beautiful ebb and flow of visiting tourist traffic that continues to support the local community.
We came to appreciate first hand the impact of global warming during our stay. In the relative short time since building the surf lodge in 2007, Monty’s has had to be shored up with a storm break of substantial boulders to prevent the waves pounded the shoreline at high tide. The acceptance of the possible impermanence seems unfathomable by Vancouver real estate standards, but that is the reality of a low-lying sea level existence in Central America. We also learned how rising salt water levels were flooding the estuary further, resulting in lost species and threatening the mangrove trees, immensely important in 24hr oxygen production, and support of wildlife critical to the ecosystem in the area. We had the opportunity to spend time in the estuary on several different days, kayaking and paddle boarding at sunrise, touring by motorboat and swimming, allowing us to appreciate how the community depends on it flourishing.
Being an active group of ladies, we enjoyed hiking to the top of Cosiguina Volcano where we could see not only Nicaragua, but also the neighbouring El Salvador and Honduras. Learning how Nicaragua is linked by a string of volcanoes helped us appreciate further both the beauty and threat that citizens live with daily in the region.
Touring the local medical clinic to understand how nurses work with women and children in the area, and are supported by Monty’s extended community also had meaningful impact. We returned several days later to present the clinic with two fans and a fresh water dispenser after seeing those items were noticeably absent. Being able to leave something with lasting impact allowed us to further experience the contribution component of our stay.
Girlfriend time is precious, and our group grew much closer through conversations as we processed our experiences. Just when we thought we knew each other well after 10 years on the ice, we realized there was so much more that held us together. And what group of fun loving women don’t like to dance? While we may not be great salsa dancers just yet, it wasn’t for the lack of trying and excellent instruction. Tyra, our activity coordinator for the week was a dancing queen, and his enthusiasm rubbed off during our nights at the nightclub in Azul as well as the local bar in Jililillo a couple nights later.
We had hoped to participate in a sea turtle release, but we knew that being there in early May, the likelihood was remote. However, we lucked out with the late season hatching of 14 turtles, and were able to release them at sunset into the ocean. Monty’s buys the turtle eggs collected by those that would sell or eat them. They pay market price, then allow the eggs to incubate protected, and release them back to the ocean. There were a few tears from our group of Moms as we registered the symbolism of setting our little ones off to forge for a life in that big ocean. I’m not sure that we’ll make it back to see their return 20 years from now to the exact same location, but that will be their circle of life.
Our group had collected donated softball gear back home and delivered it to a local team there, but the joy of presenting it was a little scarred by the realization that some items had gone missing. Such is the cycle in a country of poverty.
Learning the colonial history and civil war disputes of Nicaragua helped us frame the current conflict but also helped us feel gratitude for what we have in Canada. Our tour of Leon on the final day before returning to the airport also helped us understand how intensely political the city was. Leon is drop dead gorgeous in a crumbling colonial kind of way that only a Spanish influenced city of culture, revolution, conflict and artistic architectural beauty could hold. It was remarkable to walk the streets, the scene of deadly conflict as recent as the previous week, where we could see broken windows, and graffiti in the central square opposite Central America’s largest cathedral, the Basillica de la Asuncion.
Our day volunteering at the soup kitchen just outside Chinandega in El Limonal was humbling, and for most of us troubling. But in the end after some heavy mental processing, it became a net positive, since we couldn’t help be touched emotionally by the devastating living conditions of the people in this shanty town, and our opportunity to prepare and serve a meal to over 300 people living there. El Limonal was to have been a temporary shelter for families after Hurricane Mitch swept through Central America in 1998. Hastily constructed shelters were set up between a garbage dump and a sewage collection area, and years later more then 2000 people are still living there in health crisis and poverty.
Nicaragua has no recycling. Streets are disturbingly littered with plastic bottles and garbage, and the only apparent system for managing this waste is to rake it into piles and burn it, a frequent occurrence, even at local estuary beaches, with questionable resulting fumes constantly released into the atmosphere.
While we felt safe at Monty’s, it was under 24hr surveillance with young men sporting riffles walking the resort area, on guard against intruders. On one occasion we heard gunshots in the early morning hours, presumably to scare off an intruder or an animal. Although we enjoyed the 35+ Celsius heat during the day when playing in the ocean, several of our girls really struggled with it sleeping at night in open air huts.
My roommate was bitten by a scorpion, but fortunately escaped with just an irritated big toe and a shot of Benadryl. The funny thing is, we only found it was a scorpion later, when she removed the shoe after our day at the soup kitchen to reveal it dead – having been trapped in the tongue of the shoe. Discovering a resting bat in our sink after returning from the local dance club one night put her over the edge though, and her calling in the armed guard to remove it was amusing. We’re uncertain if the bat poop discovered each morning at the edge of her mosquito net was from a relative, but we definitely had nocturnal company. And despite being incredibly durable around mosquitoes in Canada, I fell victim to sand flea bites and learned quickly the importance of showering away residual sand on arms and ankles. I will now be much more sympathetic to guests who fall host at our cabin.
While the threatening tropical storm that lit up the skies with sheet lightening one evening was beautiful in its own way, the actual storm and the resulting tsunami warning alert was definitely the terrifying low of the trip. But a close second was the next evening returning from the bar in the early morning hours, when it became apparent that the first rain of the season had brought out fist sized walking crabs. Somewhat Edward Scissor Hands like in battle, a few of the girls had a dual with one that seemed determined to have a go at clothing left out in their cabin that night. Although laughable now, it was pretty crazy at the time.
In the end though, the highs far exceeded the lows, creating an experience that we will all cherish forever. Travel is far more then visiting different parts of the world and experiencing new things. It can be life changing and intense, vibrant and sublime. Travel, especially to third world countries, puts things in perspective, making you both brave and humble, allowing you to discover who you are while illuminating your priorities, and being deeply appreciative for what you have.
Author note: I was recently interviewed by Kit Parks for her Active Travel Adventures podcast about our trip to Nicaragua. She was doing a segment on travel advisories and travel safety tips, especially in third world countries. Since left for Nicaragua about 10 days after the recent political unrest began, and obviously returned safely, she was keen to learn about our experience. We also had some laughs about the other misadventures mentioned in this post, along of course with many of the highlights. I’m saddened by what has taken place in Nicaragua since we were there, and I’m sure that tourism has taken a massive hit, and that will have even greater impact on the local economy, which is already struggling. Let’s hope the situation improves soon. But if you’d like to live vicariously through the verbal telling of the tales, and a few more back stories not included in their article, have a listen at this link! http://activetraveladventures.com/travel-advisories-travel-safety/
Pack light, experience more TIPS for this trip: Nicaragua is hot a humid. Just know that whatever you take will likely come back at least 5lbs heavier with all the moisture your items will absorb from the air! That said, I did this trip quite easily as a carry on only. Here’s what we took: expandable light weight MEC purse/backpack combo (great as a personal item on the plane and purse while travelling, but also doubled as a backpack for day hikes, runners (for hiking), sundress and sandals (flat sporty for casual and wedge heel for dress – there was really only one night where we dressed up at a nightclub, and we could have easily done with just flat sandals), 4 shorts, 4 tops – all sleeveless except one, and I only wore that one on the plane, sunhat, wool cardigan sweater – lightweight but warm for the plane, stretch jeans, crop pants, undies, socks, bikini x 2 so there is a dry one, cover up, sarong, water proof cell phone carrier for water activities, micro towel, beach towel, money belt, small sunscreen, bug spray, toiletries – using small liquid containers, basic first aid such as Aspirin, Benadryl, band-aids, and minimal make up – some mascara and lipstick for hitting civilization again upon return, but other then that, why bother when you’re in and out of the ocean or sweating all the time? The key with all items was to take colours that coordinated and for everything to be wrinkle free and quick dry for washing. And I always roll, not fold items – fewer wrinkles and items fit in spaces in a suitcase more easily. No space goes unused – that includes inside shoes. Shoes take up a lot of space generally, so we always try to anticipate what will be needed for where we plan to go. On this trip I got it down to Sole sandals, wedge heel dressier sandals and running shoes. I could have left to wedge sandals at home.
Link here for my PACKING LIGHT downloadable tips sheet and check list, that includes travel documents, essentials, clothing and general tips on other important things like insurance and data SIM cards.