“If ever there was an example of a language barrier working to my advantage, this would be it,” Christina commented, as she sipped on her just delivered, very potent rum punch while lying in a hammock in a private beach cabana some time around ten in the morning.
I had just come from the beachside bar where I had requested 2 rum drinks from the Nicaraguan bartender. Between my limited Spanish and his limited English, my order of “2 rum drinks, please” instead came across as “2 double rums, please!” After watching the bartender fill 2 glasses nearly to the brim with straight rum and slide them across the bar to me, he clearly caught my confusion. “Is there any way you could add some kind of fruit to this?” I asked. “Maybe a tropical juice of some kind?” “Ah, si! You would like a smoothie también?” the bartender replied. “No, no, no – can you put the juice in the rum? El jugo en la Flor de Caña, por favor?”
Language barriers aside, Christina and I had a degree of uneasiness prior to visiting Nicaragua. Our travels up to this point had been pretty comfortable – traversing well-established European countries on shiny and ridiculously on-time trains and being able to freely consume tap water or a beverage that contains ice without worry had spoiled us a bit. I’ve always enjoyed the slight discomfort of being in a foreign country; the allure of the unfamiliar tends to draw me in: navigating public transportation, finding the way to our lodging in an unfamiliar city while battling intense jet lag, deciphering a menu in a language in which we aren’t very familiar – these are all part of the draw of travel for me. In the case of Nicaragua, however, the element of the unfamiliar was a bit stronger.
For those that came of age during the 80’s and 90’s, the mention of Nicaragua will usually conjure images of the bloody revolution that took place there. If you were as young as I was during that era of history, you probably didn’t know much more about it than the words “Iran-Contra”, something about communism, and that Nicaragua = dangerous. And chances are, if you’re anything like me, that stigma of danger and war and bloodshed has probably carried over in the back of your mind, at least to some degree, when someone mentions the country. So when people would ask me: “You’re going to Nicaragua? Are you sure you’re going to be safe?”, I understood where they were coming from. A little research goes a long way, however, and just some light internet research and talking to fellow travelers on various online forums, a picture of today’s Nicaragua began to develop. And though it seemed to still be a very developing country not without its share of issues, the Nicaragua of today is not the same one from the turbulent 80s and 90s.
Nicaragua is, some say, much like Costa Rica before the tourists arrived. You won’t find cruise ships pulling into port here, large scale resorts, or packed tour buses. Instead, you’re more likely to encounter the colorful “chicken buses” transporting locals to and from work, and farmers navigating their horse drawn buggies down the middle of the main artery that runs through the country from north to south. Perhaps you’ll find yourself stuck behind a slow moving motorbike pulling a full-sized pig in an attached wagon. Nicaragua still belongs to the locals, and is only just now beginning to emerge as a destination on travelers’ radars. With a direct flight from Houston of only 2 1/2 hours or so – less than it takes to drive into Austin – Nicaragua was a no-brainer for us. And so we found ourselves on a plane into the unfamiliar country to celebrate Christina’s birthday.
Since this was our first time dipping our toes in a developing country, we wanted to make it pretty easy on ourselves, hiring a private driver to transfer us to and from the airport on arrival. We had read some accounts online of tourists being pulled over for allegedly bogus traffic violations and having their licenses or passports confiscated until they went to an ATM to pay a fine directly to the officer. With our destination being an ecolodge in San Juan del Sur, some 3 hours drive south of the Managua Airport, we didn’t want to take any chances.
We were booked at Morgan’s Rock Hacienda and Ecolodge, an off-the-grid resort that sits on 4,000 acres of pristine nature, complete with its own private beach. Our driver Francisco was waiting for us just outside the airport doors to transfer us to our destination, and gave us our first taste of just how warm, friendly, and helpful Nicaraguans can be. Francisco didn’t speak much English, and we spoke hardly any Spanish, but we made conversation work regardless en route to our destination. At one point, unprompted, he pulled off the road to an incredible viewpoint on Lake Nicaragua, the largest in the country, for us to get our first glimpse at the stunning twin volcanic peaks of Isla de Ometepe that sits in the center of the lake.
As we passed through the gorgeous countryside, past farms, volcanoes, rolling hills, sugar cane farms, and kids heading to school in their uniforms, our unfounded worries about safety began to evaporate, and a picture of the real Nicaragua began to take shape.
We arrived at Morgan’s Rock anxious to check out the digs in which we’d be staying for the next few nights. After being warmly received by the concierge and shown around the property, we were taken to our cottage, and were completely blown away with what we saw.
Our room was an open-to-nature bungalow, one of only 15 located on the property, with each one being built of a different type of wood sourced from the property. The owners of Morgan’s Rock are profoundly mindful of sustainability and have an active reforestation project on site to replace all trees that are used in construction projects. The rooms are completely off the grid and receive both their electricity and heated water via solar energy. No air conditioning is necessary here, as you only have 3 walls, with the front of the room being open out to the ocean, just a screen separating the dwellers from the jungle. A pleasant breeze constantly blows from the Pacific, eliminating the need for any A/C. Our room was only 80 steps from the beach, and we were treated to the constant sound of thunderous waves crashing upon the shore just below us.
After putting our bags down, we walked out onto the balcony, where we settled on to a hanging bed to take in the commanding view of the private beach below us.
Being the digital citizen that I am, I asked our host for the wifi password, and was amused by the fact that the network name was “Loving Nature” and the password was disconnectandenjoy. Touché, Morgan’s Rock.
After unwinding from our flight and subsequent long ride in the cramped backseat of a 1997 Kia Optima, we got into our swimsuits and headed down to the pristine, crescent shaped beach for some R&R. One nice thing about this ecolodge was the fact that there were an equal number of cabins and beachfront cabanas, meaning that even if the place was at full capacity (which it was while we were there), you would never have to get up early in the morning to claim a spot on the beach before everyone else awakens. Each beach cabana was equipped with hammocks and lounge chairs and covered with an intricately woven thatched roof.
I could never quite get over the sense of isolation we felt while here. We are very much beach people, and we’re very acclimated to having to share the shoreline with hordes of other people. Throughout our stay, however, we felt as though the beach were ours alone.
We stayed here for a while taking it all in, until the sun started to hang a bit low in the sky, and headed back to the room to put on some clothes for dinner. It was there that I met my new best friend, Ginger, who became a regular presence by our dinner table, patiently waiting for a handout, for the remainder of our stay.
On our second day of our stay at Morgan’s Rock, we decided to take a kayak out into the estuary that begins just off the private, crescent shaped beach. We were accompanied by a Nicaraguan guide who paddled alongside of us, informing us about the flora and fauna of which we were witnessing, and giving us some insight into the country in general. Our guide was another native we encountered who had an incredible amount of knowledge and passion about his country’s rich and diverse history, a common theme among every person we spoke with during our trip. Between spotting black iguanas and several varieties of birds among the mangroves that line the waterway, our guide explained the ecological and economic impacts of a proposed canal being commissioned by the Chinese, the effect the 3 years long and counting drought is having on the crucial agricultural industry, and gave us his take on the controversial president, Daniel Ortega, who’s come back into power after a 20+ year hiatus under dubious circumstances.
After spending some more time lazing on the beach that afternoon, we took in the sunset from our balcony, trying to spot the elusive green flash that occurs the split second after the sun dips below the horizon. And while we never did glimpse the phenomenon, the view was spectacular, and we sat there as we watched sunset shortly give way to moonset.
As we settled into bed for our second night, we marveled at how extraordinary it was to fall asleep to the thunderous sounds of the waves crashing on the beach just meters away from us. It was unlike any experience we had ever encountered.
The following day brought with it more relaxation, but also a bit of adventure. Sitting at breakfast early that morning, another guest we had become acquainted with earlier in the trip called out to us to point out that a howler monkey was swinging through the trees not too far from us. We had heard a lot about the ubiquitous monkeys that are found all over the country, and were starting to ponder if we’d be able to catch a glimpse. That turned out not to be a problem, as they became a very common sight throughout the remainder of our time.
Following breakfast, we enjoyed a leisurely stroll along a trail that winded its way through the dense jungle fauna of the property, feeling very much in our element. Later that morning, we were also taken by 4×4 out to one of the numerous organic farms located on the property, and from which the restaurant gets about 80% of its food.
We enjoyed learning about the workings of the farm here and seeing the sustainable practices of the ecolodge in action. We picked some fresh mint during the visit that we brought back with us to the bar, which was made into a fresh and delicious mojito that we enjoyed while relaxing at the picnic table near the pool.
After dinner that night, we indulged in our nightly ritual of unwinding on the balcony of our bungalow, drinking Toña and Victoria beers to the soundtrack of pounding surf under an impressive canopy of stars, unobstructed by the light pollution of large cities. As we breathed in the fresh ocean air, we were excited, if a bit apprehensive to experience a fuller picture of the country the following morning, as we were venturing into Nicaragua’s most popular city, Granada, for a full day of getting to know the country a bit better. Already, the welcoming nature of the locals we had met up to this point had helped put our minds at ease about being in an unfamiliar country, and we were more than ready to see what the “real” Nicaragua had to offer.by