It was my first surf trip to Nicaragua. And it was to be a true surf adventure.
We landed in Liberia, Costa Rica. The plan was to meet a driver for the trip to the border at Penas Blancas, walk across the frontier with our gear, then meet another driver on the Nicaraguan side for the one and a half hour drive to Playa Santana.
The trip was going smoothly. Too smoothly in fact since we landed an hour before expected and, therefore, had no driver. In fact this turned out to be a bit of luck. Without any communication to the Nicaragua team, probably out surfing or something, we just decided to hop in a cab instead of waiting around for our driver to show up or someone to pick up the phone.
We didn’t know it at the time, and I was a bit surprised that no one (either our guide or the numerous blogs that I read on crossing the border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua) mentioned that the border closes at 6pm. With our hour-early arrival, cab ride, and not just hanging around, we arrived at the frontier at about five.
Let’s be clear. There’s no where to stay at the border on either side. If there’s one thing I noticed, it was how the land and just general vibe deteriorated as we approached the border, even on the Costa Rican side. There’s nothing there, yet the road becomes increasingly littered with garbage.
Even Costa Rica isn’t immune from the general shabbiness that accompanies borders around the world. I was glad not to be stuck there overnight.
Another coincidence that helped us ease through the border crossing was that it was the final weekend of Semana Santa, the Holy Week leading up to Easter. While there were some Nicaraguan laborers and immigrants heading back across the border to visit families, there was a general lack of commercial traffic clogging up the border.
Of course, any time you add two trips through customs in one day of your itinerary, you have to be ready for delays, and delayed we got.
The Nicaraguan authorities picked out this pair of surfboard-laden gringos for the extra-special treatment. Our passports disappeared into back offices as officials went in and out making urgent looking phone calls. All the while everyone else around us freely flowed through the border crossing as it approached closing time.
At this point, I felt confident that we would make it through. Eventually, work shifts over, the border security would just want to go home and we would get our stamps. However, the head nodding and clustered discussions continued. Until some forms were filled out in triplicate, carbon copy sightings like an endangered species in the forest.
Walking Into Nicaragua
Unlike the missing driver at the Liberia Airport, our driver was waiting for us on the Nicaraguan side of the border for the next leg of the trip.
The delay had set us back beyond the chance of getting in the water before the sun set, so we just settled in to the drive.
What I didn’t realize was that the road from the border at Penas Blancas almost all the way to the town of Rivas would hug the coast of Lake Nicaragua, or Colcibolca, so closely.
I had seen the lake from the air on previous surf trips to and from Costa Rica, but it was amazing to see up close with its active volcanos puffing away in the distance.
Part of the fascination with the lake is due to its sheer size and beauty, but also because it is part of the reason for the epic offshore winds that this part of Nicaragua’s coast enjoys. These offshore winds that blow all day account for the amazing surf conditions that last all day.
The lake is part of the reason why we were here, and it wouldn’t disappoint.
I loved that this was my first entry into Nicaragua, walking across the border with my surfboard and driving along the shores of the lake. While I look forward to taking the flight right into Managua sometime, this was pretty amazing.
As the sun began to set, we leaned left at Rivas and headed towards the coast. The roads to this point were surprisingly good and the drive smooth. Eleven total hours into the trip, the gaze out the window was starting to become a zone out.
It’s always fun to see the locals heading out on a Friday night, the same as around the world as we all celebrate the weekend, getting together with friends and family for dinner and maybe a few drinks and dancing.
This was no different, with the addition of it being a big holiday as well. The Friday night crowds were walking along the side of the road, cleaned up dressed nicely, heading into the towns of Rivas and Tola as well as little cantinas and restaurants between the towns along the way.
It always takes you a bit of getting used to when you arrive in Central America from the states to see the people, whole families, walking down the sidewalkless highway in the darkness, emerging only right when the headlights shine on them.
But the life and energy of the holiday was unmistakable. We were all on holiday, and there was an easy feeling as we passed by.
We finally arrived at Mar Adento (formerly Buena Onda), the place we would be staying at in Playa Santana. Despite being only four hours or so of flight time, the trip would take twelve hours in total. We were pretty worn out but felt the relief of arrival. You never really know what will happen on one of these trips, or where you’ll get hung up.
Already we had been held up at a border, yet were lucky just to get across before it closed. Travel karma was already in play.
We were ready for dinner and a jump in the pool.
Mar Adento – The Package
We were on The Package. The Package is Mar Adento’s premium surf offering – all inclusive room and food plus a guide for the week to drive to various surf breaks in the area, a couple of boat trips and a photographer.
I hadn’t been on a real guided surf trip before, I generally travel solo if not with the family. So this trip with the boys and everything taken care of was pretty sweet. Nothing for me to do but get physically prepared for the beating I was going to take each day in the surf.
The thing with Playa Santana Nicaragua is that, while it has a great wave right there at the south end of the beach, there are so many other amazing places to surf within a reasonable drive each day.
My trips to Costa Rica have generally involved locking down at one beach for a stretch and just surfing there – not roaming up and down the coast each day.
So this set up was a bit different for me.
I was soon to learn that the guide was a huge advantage for someone stepping right off a plane, and that the all-you-can-eat part of The Package was a great deal as well.
Mar Adento turned out to be an amazing place to have as a home base for the week. We ate well every day. The crew even loaded us up with some sandwiches and fruit for our day trips.
Every evening we would feast on ceviche and amazing seafood plates after a refreshing dip in the pool.
It really couldn’t have been better.
My friends told me that there were trips where they just surfed right out front of Mar Adento in Playa Santana every day. Due to the swell direction, tides, and lack of sandbars in the peak of the dry season, this wouldn’t be the case for us.
Ironically, we never even surfed at Playa Santana. After full day surf sessions on the road every day, I was fried. My sunset sessions included zoning out while rehydrating with a smoothie at the Happy Coconut, just trying to stay awake until a reasonable hour so I wouldn’t wake up in the middle of the night.
Play Grounds and Lance’s Left
Included in The Package were a couple of days on a boat. While there were plenty of places to surf without it, the boat got us to two popular and well known surf breaks in the area – Playgrounds and Lance’s Left.
Just north of the beach at Playa Astillero (and across a river mouth in the rainy season), a rocky outcropping that juts out into the sea produces a point that peels left for many yards when the swell connects.
While there were a few other boats out each day, both Lance’s Left and Playgrounds can handle the crowd.
Lance’s peeled with such frequency that everyone was getting rides. Plus it was possible to catch the inside section when the swell swung a bit wide of the point. You didn’t necessarily have to be deep in the one take-off zone like some point breaks.
Playgrounds is so aptly named.
It is one of the most fun places to surf I have ever experienced. Swells popped up in a couple of different spots, shifting just enough to bring waves to a wide area in the lineup.
Both rights and lefts are there for the taking.
While we took a boat in, it is possible to stay right at the Playgrounds Surf Camp and have this amazing wave close by all day. However, if you stay out here, you are pretty committed to this area. It’s a haul to go anywhere else or even out to any town.
Sunset Surf at Gigante
Just to switch it up we headed south to Gigante one evening for a real sunset session.
Gigane is a cool little town full of hostels and has some amazing looking places overlooking the beach high up on the point.
Astillero on the right swell, with the right tide, is one of the most beautiful places to surf you will find.
El Astillero is a true fishing village that happens to have great surf down the beach. This is where we grabbed boats to head north to Lance’s Left and Playgrounds each day.
There is a place where you can pay a few bucks to park your car to keep it safe, which I recommend. While Astillero is an amazing place, it is also the one place where our guide felt the need to keep an extra eye on our stuff.
Even with the precautions, a few of our meager belongings disappeared from the beach.
There are a few locals getting on the surf bandwagon and adding restaurants and rooms for rent to their homes. There is also the Hotel Hamacas which, as you can guess, has hammocks for rent.
There were a couple of French dudes staying there that we spoke with. But you’re really going local if you decide to stay in El Astillero.
But it is also where you will find the Cold Beer Lady, our daily stop after long, hot surf sessions on the way back to the Mar Adento.
A True Surf Adventure
My first trip to Nicaragua was the first real surf adventure I have been on in a while. Challenging surf every day plus getting our car stuck on the beach, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake, walking across the border from Costa Rica and back, and just that feeling of being a bit out on the fringe.
The Nicaragua surf trip is an amazing experience I can’t wait to have again.