••• The International Writers Magazine: Central America Travel
San Juan del Sur, Gateway to Nicaragua
The hangover from Nicaragua’s protracted civil war persists. Dire warnings from our Costa Rican neighbours about the danger I would face made me nervous about visiting there on my own with my two little girls. As a veteran traveler with strong Spanish speaking skills, I should have had more confidence. Travel guides and backpackers’ forums contradicted what ticos were telling me about the Central American country.
A border run to renew our visas was scheduled for a Friday afternoon. My husband dropped us at the border and turned around to go back to work; we continued uncertainly on our estrogen journey, just me and my girls. The rip-off-artist-cum-border-guide threw us for a loop, wanting to charge us $50.00 for running us through customs. I offered him $5.00 on board the departing bus, take it or leave it. We jostled in negotiations while the girls dripped ice cream down their t-shirts.
We lumbered our way down the highway, admiring the sight of Ometepe Island’s twin volcanoes, Concepción and Maderas, rising ominously from Lake Nicaragua. Abandoned cars pockmarked the landscape. Cinderblock dwellings, with dark interiors and corrugated metal roofs withstood blowing sand. Tumbleweed rolled in front of the bus. The little expat village of San Juan del Sur, located on the south-western coast of Nicaragua, materialized out of the dust.
We took a short walking tour of the town to pick up supplies for supper. Hand in hand, we strolled the streets, passing horses and buggies, clopping around town, then threaded through fresh fruit juice squeezers and taxistas. The clapboard buildings, painted in pastel colours, fronted the cobblestone streets. Inside the gated colonial homes we saw older folks moving rhythmically on mahogany rocking chairs. They waved at the girls as we passed by.
I fretted constantly amid worries of being assaulted by a slasher—the “cut and rip” style pickpocket. After a tour of the market, we walked back to the hostel where I announced to the girls, “I’ve been robbed.” My fanny pack was unzipped and wide open. I rifled through it and realized with relief that I had simply left it open after paying for groceries. I silently chastised myself for internalizing the fear-based advice of well-meaning friends.
In fact, the locals were lovely and warm. At the market, a grandmotherly merchant stopped in mid-transaction, gasped and called to her husband, “Just look at these princessas!” Her husband nodded in agreement. “And two of them!”
|Two blocks from the hostel, lay the grand church. In its front yard, an empty park looked lonely, children finding it too hot to enjoy under brazen tropical rays. La Biblioteca de San Juan del Sur proved to be an oasis. An excellent library and children’s resource centre, the biblioteca was conceived by an American expat, who founded it as one of Central America’s only lending libraries.
The girls joined local children in the afternoon, after school let out, playing games, colouring, and doing crafts. I waited for them, reading, for there was a decent collection of English language material there.
We went for a bite at El Gato Negro café, at the opposite end of town. An extravaganza of reading materials assaulted us. The owners, also US expats, told me they lugged down boxes and boxes of books by plane each time they went home to visit family. The girls and I jockeyed back and forth between the two locations—in the morning, reading in hammocks at the coffee shop, enjoying a sandwich or smoothie—in the afternoon, joining the schoolchildren at the resource centre.
||The village curved around the Pacific Ocean, like God took a giant bite out of the land. We walked to a resort, high on a hilltop, and viewed the bay from the hotel’s swimming pool. Far below me, grizzled old men in fishing boats bobbed on the sea. The land rose sharply. Rocky crusts jutted, topped with a few hotels perched on cliffs, oriented to showcase the panorama.
|Christ of the Mercy, a colossal statue of Jesus Christ, one of the biggest in the world, stood high above the bay, the Lord’s right hand raised in mid-blessing. It was all I could do to supervise the girls with my eyeballs drinking in the sight.
We slept well after so much fresh air. Our skin was on the brink of sunburn but the girls wanted to walk the beach. I lathered shoulders and unpacked hats. We strolled the beach, flat and calm. Surfers paid for transport to neighbouring beaches, San Juan del Sur’s was too placid. The girls went berserk running around in the surf; I sat at a seaside restaurant, watching over them, quenching my thirst, listening to the lilting songs of the Gypsy Kings.
The hostel was overrun by college backpackers, following the “gringo trail”. Some were on the road to San José, in Costa Rica, to fly home. They told me, “The rest of Nicaragua is not like this. The people are wonderful but it is far more depressed than San Juan del Sur.”
I put bowls of spaghetti in front of the girls, mulling the difference in opportunities for children. Mine were at a table, never once giving a second thought to hunger, other than to mention it to me.
Back in Costa Rica, after their father picked us up at the border, I said, “At the end of your contract, we should go home overland, through the rest of Central America.”
He looked over at me briefly. “Oh?”
Lugging our bags over the manicured front lawn of our rental, the landlady hurried out to inspect our well-being. “I was worried about you the entire time!”
After my stupidity in assuming I’d been robbed, I never once thought about danger during our brief sojourn. The young backpackers confirmed suspicions— those who had never been to Nicaragua held outdated views on its safety and assured me the country was well-suited to exploring, even for children.
Five times we crossed the border to satisfy Costa Rica’s immigration laws, trundling over the dusty road to San Juan del Sur, our home away from home on these border runs. At times I glanced up at the statue of Jesus, then out at the bay and looked forward to the day the rest of the country welcomed us.
More about San Juan Del Sur
© Janet LoSole July 2016
lostrin at gmail.com
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