Written and photographed by Max Rudy
When a trip to Nicaragua was first proposed to me, thoughts of AK-47s and Oliver North with his right hand raised popped into my head. But hey, that was the 1980s, and if Madonna can continually be reborn, then so can a Latin American country, right? Right!
For the past few years I have heard of Nicaragua being “the Costa Rica of 20 years ago” with an unspoiled wealth of nature, beaches, and jungles with safe, friendly locals who are glad to see you. And upon my return from a week’s venture into the country, I can safely and proudly announce Nicaragua’s new slogan: “Think sandy beaches, not Sandinistas!”
With the largest land mass and smallest population in Central America, Nicaragua is a true escape. We ventured to the Rancho Santana, a gorgeous development with five distinct beaches in the southwest corner of the Rivas region. The geography, produced by volcanic activity, is rocky and mountainous with the flora and fauna of a desert, but the climate is definitely tropical. To get there, you must forgo paved roads, ATMs, and most symbols of modern life and trade them for dirt roads (or mud, depending on the season) that lead to absolute paradise.
In the true paradox that is the third world, even though we were in one of the most untouched outposts of a poor country, our group of five managed to score a $250 per night (total!) guest house at a fully-amenitied mansion on a hill overlooking a pristine, world-class surfing beach.
Although we did have staff, they did not cook for us, and the local ex-pats quickly filled us in on the places we just had to try. On our quest for the best food experience, we found passionate people operating simply, where life is not what material possessions you own but how you spend your time living. All of a sudden, my big HDTV seemed meek to the concept of a slower pace of life, co-existing with nature and animals and restoring the art of conversation, family and appreciation of life. Food helped lead our journey that week, and our memorable meals encompassed this feeling.
Word of mouth got to us quick to try Yolanda’s place in El Limòn, where the demure grandma cooks and serves in an open-air patio with chickens, children, and various other livestock running around. The scene is surreal. The menu is simple but magnificent: fresh mackerel in garlic adobo sauce, ceviche, beef tenderloin with jalapeno sauce, and langusta—countless garlic-topped spiny lobster tails arranged neatly on a plate for your devouring purposes. The pace is slow and the food is made with love. At the conclusion of the meal, Yolanda comes out and shows her appreciation for your patronage, and you feel like you just gained a new grandmother.
Later on in the week, our property manger, Tom, clued us into Rana Roja, a Naples-style pizza and pasta joint by way of an Italian man and his Argentinean wife. To get there, the directions were very ambiguous, and at one point led us down into a salt refinery (wrong turn!). Once we found the elusive correct turn, we were taken to pizza that wasnt just good for the area, it was good for any area, and damn improbable in this little corner of the world. Delicious wood-fired Naples pie with fresh meats and homemade mozzarella, along with local Nica beer and a international crowd who are all hoping the secret of Nicaragua does not escape!
Las Plumerias Lodge and Surf
We met up with an amazing young couple of ex-pats who invited us to have dinner with Etienne, the owner of the eco-lodge and surf camp Las Plumerias. Etienne—a Frenchman with a passion for surfing and, of course, food—will hold a sushi night on Wednesdays if a) he can catch the right fish that morning, and b) if he can get Enri, his sushi chef, to show up! We jumped on the opportunity a few days before to plan this, and it was the culinary highlight of the week.
As typical with going to dinner at night in Nicaragua, you aren’t quite sure where you are or if you’ve gone too far, made a wrong turn or should keep barreling on. Las Plumerias was no different. We spent a good few minutes in the dark on the road not knowing which direction to keep heading, could it really be a few more miles down this pothole-infested road?
Yes it was, and each pothole was worth the price as we got to Etienne’s warm greeting in his Shangri-La of a surf camp. Bungalows, peaceful candles, dogs, hammocks, and newborn kittens set the ideal mis en scène. But it was a fresh mackerel prepared three ways made the night spectacular. Enri served the mackerel as sashimi, nigiri, and part of a roll, and each one was more flavorful than the next. We all sat, drank spirits, and relaxed in a tropical paradise.
>Max Rudy is a globe-trotting, food-loving good time waiting to happen. When not running the Interwebs for Rubbermaid (not Tupperware), he can be found planning vacations based around food and friends, eating ethnic delicacies, or being woken up by his cats for their food. Max resides in Little Poland—aka Greenpoint, Brooklyn.