It feels like just the other day that we were excitedly making our way to Managua to begin our epic adventure in Nicaragua — Tess venturing down from Mexico and Khalan from the northern part of the country in Estelí. Neither of us knew how memorable (by memorable, we mean food-filled, sandy, beach days with the most amazing sunsets, beautiful hotels, crystal pools, great friends, hilarious snap-chat filled moments, family FaceTime sessions and even more amazing food) an experience it was about to be. We were beyond overjoyed at the thought of seeing each other, but little did we know that this trip, and our first Peace Corps reunion, would soon inspire us and cause us to think about our careers and what we want to get out of life.
After reuniting, a.k.a. making a scene with our obscene delightful squeals, at the Augusto Sandino airport, we quickly made our way across the street (ran across highways) to grab a big breakfast (five minutes right before the buffet deal ended) before our trip down to San Juan del Sur, Rivas. I insisted that Tess had to taste the gallo pinto — a mix of rice and beans — which Nicaraguans consider a key staple to their diet. Although, I (Tess) was definitely more impressed with the delicious but ridiculously bright pink beverage, which I later learned as made of dragon fruit and was 100% natural although the pinkness looked blindingly artificial. After snapping some initial “we are finally reunited photos” and catching up over breakfast (which mostly consisted of Tess’ awe in the difference between Nicaraguan and Mexican Spanish), we hopped into one of the Peace Corps taxis (also an “awe” moment because designated PC taxis do not — but should — exist in Mexico) and made our way to Huembes bus terminal. Now, the bus terminals are always bustling with people so one is guaranteed to have some type of experience while venturing through there, but little did we know that Huembes is one of the main terminals frequently traveled by tourists. The moment we stepped out of the taxi to grab our bags we were instantly swarmed (SWARMED) by bus workers, eager to convince us to take their bus. They were trying (and succeeding) to grab our bags and carry them for us (run away with them), however, each was trying to take them in different directions! We quickly composed ourselves (slapped ourselves out of shock) and took control of the situation (just kidding, this was all Enrique, our taxi driver, who used his manly arm muscles to steal our luggage back — he was our savior). Then…all of a sudden we get to our bus and find ourselves in another unique situation…to put our bags beneath the bus or to carry them onboard with us…that was the question. Unfortunately, “they said” the bus was too full for us to carry our stuff and that Tess’ bag was too large so we naively opted to load our bags below causing extreme paranoia that they would not be there when we arrived. It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed as a tourist in these types of situations where you know you are likely being taken advantage of for an extra dollar, but Khalan’s six months in country was evident and she was able to stay cool, calm and collected, making sure we weren’t ripped off entirely.
Our bus ride to the department of Rivas was pretty quick and easy (if you count Tess getting smacked with bags and a rotund butt in her face while people stood next to her) until we had to catch a taxi to San Juan del Sur (SJDS). The taxis there are pretty accustomed to racking up the travel price for tourists, but Khalan, having experienced this before, was wellll prepared and wasn’t having any of that. They initially quoted $10.00 USD a person (which is like $300 cordobas) when it should really be around $2.00 USD ($70.00 cordobas)…mind you, there were four of us since another PCV friend joined us and we picked up a very nice Aussi gentleman along the way. Ready for battle, Khalan gasps at the original quote, yelling “Que barbaridad!” (new favorite phrase for Tess), which is basically saying this is insane, ludicrous and beyond reproach. She then countered with something absurdly low (bargaining on Canal St. in NYC certainly trained her well). They went back and forth for a little bit during which Khalan proceeded to say that this price is for tourists only and that she (proudly, I might add) lives in Nicaragua (and therefore is cooler and not a tourist) and knows what the real price should be (a.k.a. cut the shit). He then lowered the price to S5.00 USD. This, to Tess, is a success. But no, Khalan, the fierce Peace Corps warrior she is, still wasn’t having it — her bargaining skills were in full effect and there was just no calming her. It was clear that he was starting to get upset (I, Tess, thought he was going to leave us on the side of the road with our ass in hand). But surprisingly, some money is better than none, and in the end, she got the price down to C$70.00 (that magical and previously unattainable $2.00 USD) per person. It was quite the show and just exemplifies that no matter where you are traveling in the world, the ability to bargain (like a fierce PC warrior) is critical.
The moment we arrived in SJDS — which appears like a charming surfer town full of shops, restaurants, bars and hostels for its many foreign visitors — it felt like our vacation had officially started. SJDS is one of the most popular destinations in Nicaragua due to its beautiful beaches and crazy waves. The beach town is just a few miles north of the Costa Rican boarder so they also get a ton of surfers traveling from all over the world wanting to try out the waves. A little less developed than some of the other beach towns in Costa Rica, SJDS has the charm of a small beach community with all of the restaurants and touristy options one would want. There are a significant number of expats from the States who have settled there and have created all types of businesses from surf shops, hotels and resorts, restaurants, clothing, eco-tours and more.
We ended up spending our first night in an Air B&B house with a bunch of Khalan’s Peace Corps friends to celebrate a few September birthdays. We spent the majority of the time just hanging out at the house and at the beach, shopping in town at some super cute boutiques and jumping from one restaurant to the next trying out all of the delicious food. We had some of the best pizza ever at La Terraza on the beach. It was so good that we went back for more. To our delight, we also had access to some of the best gelato. Gelato every day? Yep, you bet. And it was sooo good! It was so much fun to start this vacation with other PCVs, who are just some of the best people. To compare notes, the differences in programs, how Mexico compares to Nica…it brought it all into perspective of how unique and amazing it is to be part of the Peace Corps organization and to know that all over the world we are part of a larger family who more or less just “get” you and what you’re experiencing. With all of the vastly different types of individuals and personalities (from recovering frat boy, to the posh-loving fachenta girls, to the comedian and the cutely couples), it was guaranteed to be a good time.
After brunch at La Cervecería (an awesome bar/restaurant, if anyone is interested), we made our way to Buena Vista Surf Club in Playa Maderas for the second leg of our SJDS trip. And boy, oh boy, were we in for quite a surprise. We knew that we were staying at a nice boutique eco-hotel up on a cliff outside of town (with good food because that’s key), but we had no idea that it was going to be one of the most beautiful, rustic locations on our trip. TripAdvisor just didn’t do it justice. When we arrived, we were greeted by two lovely couples who managed the hotel and who made us feel so welcome. They gave us a tour of the property and wow, it was like something you’d see in the movies. The facility was just beautiful. It was all open to the outdoors with an incredible view of the ocean…polished wood floors and furniture with plush, cozy giant pillows to lounge on, tons of little nooks to curl up and read a good book, shaded hammocks, and howler monkeys for neighbors. The kicker was the massive sundeck with a killer view overlooking the trees and ocean. A perfect spot to do some yoga, watch the sunset or star gaze at night.
Our little bungalow was perfection. Referred to as the Treehouse, it was nestled in the trees, and was made of dark, polished wood as well. The moment we started to unpack (Tess was slacking in this regard and opted to enjoy the view instead) Tess saw an unusual movement in the nearby trees below. Drawn to the sight which was then accompanied by a bizarre howl and quick movements that were getting nearer and near to our bungalow, we realized there was a family of howler monkeys passing by. That doesn’t happen every day! Another highlight was dinner — of course because being the foodies that we are we look forward to each meal with excitement, but also because dinner was family style. So all of the guests staying at the hotel sat together at the dinner table which was very sweet. In addition to great conversation, the food was so delicious! The first night we had Mexican (Tex-Mex to clarify) and the second night we had Italian (complete with garlic bread!).
Our full day at Playa Maderas was spent on the beach. Tess was determined to soak up the sun since she hadn’t had any access to the beaches in Mexico (more like, her site is freezing and she wears layers upon layers and was looking pretty pasty in comparison), and she sure did get her dose of sun! It was a clear day and pretty intense, and lo and behold, she ended up sorely burnt despite copious amounts of lotion. Between laying out, eating and swimming, we also went searching for what we call our little treasures, otherwise and more commonly known as seashells. The beaches were just covered with shells — shells of all shapes, sizes and colors. Needless to say, our seashell collections were pretty impressive by the end of the day and worthy of an instapost! We also stayed to watch the sunset. It was so beautiful that words and photos can’t really capture how incredible it was…although we sure did try! In the end, we were so happy that we decided to spend a few days in the outdoors. There’s something to say about vacationing in places that are a bit more rustic and off the beaten path. Being off the grid for awhile did the trick for us and we left feeling very relaxed and ready for the next stop on our trip — Granada!