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Surf’s Up in Nicaragua

Seeking equal parts waves and adventure, twelve of my close friends and I have made Central America our destination of choice for three years and counting.

This year was no different; in late spring, thirteen of us traded our heavy jackets and ski gear for board shorts and surfboards, and headed south to Nicaragua to celebrate the close of another season with two weeks of surfing and traveling. I took only a carry-on duffel stuffed with minimal gear to greet the warm waves and bid farewell to another winter.

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The art of packing light for a two-week surf vacation.

What brings us back to Nicaragua? The surfing, first of all, is great—you get both fun waves and mellow lineups. I love that going there is such an adventure. If you are looking to leave your comfort zone—culturally or otherwise—there are endless opportunities. If it’s a relaxing resort experience you’re after, you’d be better off in Costa Rica. The biggest challenge personally is the language barrier, but it’s also something I love; it’s incredible how much you can learn from an immersion experience.

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San Juan del Sur—not your typical resort town.

Nicaragua is also definitely an affordable place to travel—it is not as inexpensive as some Indonesian surf spots, but it is still on the lower end pricewise for a surf destination. Lodging generally runs $20-30/night per person with AC, cheaper without. Restaurant meals cost $4-12 for great fresh food and groceries can be had very cheap. Speaking of food, the garlic lobster dish offered at many restaurants is a must-try.

For this trip, we flew into Managua, the country’s capital, and motored to the coast to hit every beach possible between Hermosa and Playgrounds in Nicaragua’s famed but relatively untapped surf breaks. We started out in San Juan Del Sur, where we stayed in a rental house most of the time. But we also stayed a few nights in Hotel Colonial, which is our favorite hostel right in town. Then we went north to Playa Colorado for a few nights. There are some great rentals near the break, but they do not have many vacancies in season so if you’re interested be sure to book in advance. We next went farther north to Popoyo, our final destination. It was our favorite small town, with great waves and a mellow scene—it was easy to kick back and enjoy the local Nica culture.

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View from the porch of our rental on Guasacate beach in Popoyo.

Insider Tips to Surfing Nicaragua

Transportation

Don’t rent a car at the airport. If you are staying long enough you will save some dough by taking a shuttle to the coast and renting a car there. Renting a car is one of the times the language barrier can become a real issue—send your best Spanish speaker! Shuttles are easy to arrange; we used Nicaroads.com to set up many shuttles to and from the airport/coast and they were great.

Keep some cash in reserve

In addition to carrying a valid passport make sure you have cash on hand to pay the $10 fee required to enter the country. It can be a real hassle to have to negotiate an ATM in the customs area, so make sure you have cash on hand to pay this fee. Likewise, make sure that you can pay the $25 fee to leave the country. This is when having an extra surf leash comes in handy (more on that below).

Bring surf leashes

I always bring 2-3 extra surf leashes. They can be hard to come by down there, so not only is it good to have a few on hand in case you or your crew need a replacement, but in a pinch leashes can come in handy for barter with surf shops or locals. I even used once to generate that $25 I needed to exit the country.

To bring a board, or not to bring a board … that is the question

Traveling with your surfboard is expensive, but you should know that most airlines charge per bag and weight, not by board. So as long as you have at least 3-4 boards per bag, it is probably worth it to bring your own. If you’re traveling alone and/or don’t need a quiver, then be sure to make San Juan your first stop. It generally has the best selection of used boards. If you just want to surf a couple days, many of the popular beaches have reasonable rental deals.

Load up on surf supplies

I advise bringing a good supply of surf wax and a repair kit. If you damage your board you could be out a couple days while waiting for a shop to fix your steed, it’s best to have supplies and knowledge on hand so you can return to the surf as quickly as possible. If you do end up with some major damage though, there are some very skilled repair shops in the major surf towns. Surf wax and sunscreen are also expensive down there, so I always bring a few bars and bottles of my own to get me through the trip.

Rent a panga boat

If you truly want to experience Nica’s surfing, you should find an outfit with a panga boat and arrange a day trip. Some of the best waves are tricky to get to by land. These outfits generally offer fishing trips as well, which I also highly recommend. The deliciousness of fresh-caught mahi-mahi and dorado ceviche with freshly chopped onions and lime juice is beyond words.

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Rounding up dinner from a panga.

Speak the lingo, at least a little

I definitely suggest boning up on your Spanish as much as you can. This will help you get the most out of exploring some of the smaller coastal towns. It will also come in handy in an emergency, since many towns have few English speakers. The locals typically appreciate any efforts to communicate in Spanish, so even though we aren’t the most fluent it is a great way to make friends … who may just know where the waves are breaking.

Essential Gear for a Central American Surf Trip

In the end, our goal was simply to have fun exploring the rugged landscape and to catch as many waves as possible. Great times were had; there were a few key items I brought along to make it even better. Below is some of the essential gear I bring along for any surf adventure.

Creatures of Leisure Universal Quad Wheely Surfboard Bag

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Surfboards in transit in the Wheely bag. Don’t forget to bring straps, too!

To carry my boards I chose the Creatures of Leisure Quad Wheely Bag. This bag is very bare-bones, no frills in sight; the clever folks at Creatures of Leisure realized that the lighter your bag, the better. Lighter bags are rumored to suffer less moving through the airline gauntlet—whether or not that is true, less weight makes the rest of the journey significantly more pleasant when you have to lug it around yourself. The light weight of the bag also allows you to cram in more boards (we had four in it), as well as goodies like sunscreen, wax, leashes, towels, etc. without going over the almighty weight limit. The simple design also makes it a great value compared to other options.

Hydro Photon SteriPEN Ultra

Steripen Shotglass - sizedTraveling somewhere you can’t drink the water? Your friends will think you’re the next David Blaine when you bust out a SteriPEN. Instead of hoofing to the local mercado to buy more bottles of water I could just chill out in a hammock with my freshly UV-treated water. It’s not actual magic, but the Steripen is an incredible tool to travel with. The UV light destroys waterborne bacteria, viruses and protozoa—all you require is sediment-free water and a bottle to stay safely hydrated! The SteriPEN eliminates the need to purchase water, helps the environment by eliminating the need for bottles, and in my experience makes all your friends quite envious. Weighing in at just five ounces it doesn’t load you down, nor does it take up much space in your pack. (Shown with a shot glass just for size reference—it actually can purify up to one liter in a single blast.) It’s an absolute essential for traveling in foreign countries.

Hurley Phantom Block Party Board Short

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The coolest shorts in the lineup.

Hurley Phantom board shorts have quite the reputation, deservedly so. With a dialed fit and comfy four-way stretch these are a weapon any surfer should wield. When in Nicaragua in 2013, I traded a pair of Phantoms to a local surfer in exchange for riding with our crew for a full-day tour of remote surfing breaks. I can’t guarantee that sort of return on your Phantom investment, but these board shorts consistently offer the comfort and performance required when you live in them for weeks at a time. The standout characteristic of the Phantoms is their durability—they simply last where other board shorts break down from exposure to constant use, sun and salt. For the record (and the sake of those around you) I suggest at least two pairs to operate in rotation for any trip longer than a week. Hurley offers the Phantom in a plethora of styles and silhouettes so there will undoubtedly be something to suit any surfer.

Reef Rover Flip Flop

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My sturdy, all-terrain Rovers.

Walking barefoot through the sand is wonderful. But the sensation is slightly less relaxing when the sand is peppered with giant thorns and is hot enough to cook an egg. I recommend approaching the surf with humble caution and a quality pair of flip flops. The Reef Rover is not your typical slice of foam with a puny strap. The Rover incorporates an actual midsole and outsole just like a shoe, for logging miles on the beach or exploring local markets. When we discovered that our rental house in San Juan Del Sur was a grueling 45-minute walk from town up a gigantic hill, I was grateful to have the Rovers on my feet. With a quality strap and tons of cushioning I made the trek multiple times in comfort.

Roark Revival Button-Down Shirts

RoarkShirtPavement -3Whether you’re dressing up to hit the town or standing on the bow of a panga boat letting it flap in the wind, a solid button-down is a good thing to have. I brought a couple on my trip from a very cool brand called Roark Revival. It’s apparel is inspired by adventure, so why not bring them along to live out their destiny? I have a handful of their T-shirts and button-downs in my closet that I reach for regularly. Don’t take my word for it, browse the whole selection to see what speaks to you.

If surfing Nicaragua sounds fun, check out a local source like the Nicaragua Surf Report. And enjoy!

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Enjoying a sunset cruise.

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