Then the boards are loaded up and we head out to one of several beaches located around San Juan del Sur

Surf, Sun and Fun at Chicabrava

A week at Chicabrava, the first all women’s learn to surf camp in Nicaragua, is bound to be on any female adventurers bucket list. Created by American Ashley Blaylock in 2008, an all time Nicaraguan surf champion, Chicabrava’s mission is all about empowering women, one wave at a time, and I can attest it is true.

At the end of February, when the weather was cold and gray in Minnesota I packed my bags and headed south to San Juan del Sur, a tiny fishing and surfing town located near some of the most beautiful, pristine beaches in all of Nicaragua. Fifteen years ago when Ashley first came to San Juan del Sur, there wasn’t even a hotel there but over time the town has grown to become one of the hottest destinations for surfing in the country due to their fabulous year round surf. Today San Juan del Sur hosts an array of good restaurants, nightlife, hotels and shops to keep you entertained after a day in the surf and sun.

After a three hour drive from Managua, I arrived at our casa for the week just in time for sunset.  As the sun dipped below the horizon, the clouds danced in rays of pink, orange and red light. I sipped my wine and pinched myself that I was in such a beautiful place. Our casa  was located about a ten minute drive from town up in the foothills overlooking the bay. The house accommodates six guests, and has a living room, kitchen and dining area where each day we were pampered with home cooked delightful meals of fried plantains, fresh ceviche, and pan-fried fish topped with lime by our lovely cook Katerina. The meals were to die for and the infinity pool at sunset with a drink in hand was heavenly.

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

First sunset with wine at our casa in the hills above San Juan del Sur

If you’d rather stay close to the action, you can stay in town at Chicabrava’s Surf House which is located in the heart of San Juan del Sur or if you really want to experience country living and get away from it all you can stay up at one of the luxurious casas in the Cloud Forest.  At the Surf House, lodging is casual with communal living in rooms with bunk beds. Also, the meals are not included. At the Cloud Farm, you stay in a beautiful house with anywhere from 3-5 bedrooms with double occupancy. All meals are home cooked by the hired chef, and the accommodations are high-end. Either choice, you can’t go wrong. It all depends on the kind of trip you want to experience. 

Lago Cocibolca Granada Nicaragua

A hike into the Cloud Forest of Mombacho Volcano

One thing that never escapes your eyesight in the beautiful colonial town of Granada is Mombacho Volcano. Every cobblestone, colorful street you walk on, Mombacho appears in the distance, jetting majestically into the skies above Granada. The first time I saw Mombacho, I knew I had to climb it. Yet figuring out how to include a climb into an already short time span of only 24 hours in Granada seemed impossible. I would have to instead settle for an organized tour of the volcano with a short hike around the crater.

Lago Cocibolca Granada Nicaragua

A distant view of Mombacho Volcano

I booked the tour with my hotel concierge and rose bright and early the next day for my visit to Mombaoho. I was really looking forward to exploring this magical place and also escaping the scorching heat of Granada. Dressed in shorts and a t-shirt I was ready to go by 8 am. I met my Spanish-speaking driver and road the short twenty minute drive to the entrance of the park where I’d pick up my tour.

I rambled away in broken Spanish asking Carlos about the tour. I realized that I understood roughly half of what he told me and the rest was lost in translation. That should have forewarned me that I was utterly, ill-prepared for the hike. But I just went on and on, talking and thinking excitedly about the fantastic blog post I’d be writing when I finished and all the gorgeous pictures I’d take.

Silly me, it was a lesson in humility. From the moment I arrived at the park, the first thing I noticed is that I was the only one dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. I also made the rookie mistake of not bringing a backpack and carrying layers. As I awaited my transport to the top of Mombaoho the first dreaded rain drop fell on my sun-screaned face. Rain? How on earth could that be possible? It is dry season in Nicaragua and burning hot. Little did I know, I was in for a long, freezing cold and rainy hike on top the volcano with no rain gear or warm clothing to get me through.

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Chicabrava Surf Camp San Juan del Sur Nicaragua

Chicabrava: Empowering young girls through learning to surf

To be a girl in the developing world is an additional hurdle to overcome. Not only will you likely be poor, you will also likely be married young, uneducated, physically and sexually abused and lack the potential to follow your dreams of having a better life.

What if we could change this vicious path and instead give young women an opportunity to thrive, to be inspired and to follow their dreams? 

This is the inspiration behind Chicabrava’s Camp Bella and Chicas Adelante. To break the mold of gender equality by offering young women and girls hope. Hope to dream. Hope to change their destiny and hope for a better future.

Chicabrava Surf Camp San Juan del Sur Nicaragua

The women of Chicabrava Photo credit: Chicabrava

Houston-native Ashley Blaylock moved to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua in 2003 when it was an undiscovered fishing village. She had fallen in love with the country and wanted to follow her dreams of starting up the very first all-women’s surf camp in Nicaragua. At the time, no women surfed yet Ashley persevered. Over time she developed strong ties and acceptance within the local machismo community and opened the doors to Chicabrava in 2008. By working with the community, Ashley helped transform the cultural belief that surfing was only for men and party goers. On the contrary, Chicabrava broke gender roles by demonstrating that surfing is a serious sport that women can enjoy and feel empowered. 

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Lago Cocibolca Granada Nicaragua

A sunset tour of Las Isletas in Granada

Imagine gently gliding through the smooth waters of Lago Cocibolca, Nicaragua’s largest lake, at the magical hour of sunset. As the local fishermen are throwing out their nets for the next morning catch and the school children are paddling home on dinghies from a long day at school. Imagine being the only passenger on a 20-seater boat with a Spanish-speaking fisherman steering the way.

That is where I found myself a few weeks ago at the end of my epic day of touring Granada on foot. In the serendipitous calm of the deep blue waters of Lago Cocibolca freckled in streaks of orange, purple and pink. Just me, my driver and the “Guapotona“, the “handsome tuna

Lago Cocibolca Granada Nicaragua

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Iglesia la Merced Granada Nicaragua

The five most beautiful churches in Granada

Granada is one of those showcase cities whose eternal beauty lies deep within her Spanish colonial roots. Founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, much of the city remains the same as it was hundreds of years ago when the Spanish landed in Granada and conquered the people and their land. Despite being ransacked, destroyed and burnt to the ground, Granada has remained shockingly intact with its glorious cobblestone streets, opulent Catholic churches and vibrantly colored architecture, making it one of the most beautiful cities in Central America.

Catholicism arrived in Nicaragua in the late 16th century during the Spanish conquest of Latin America.  To build their empire, the Spanish constructed grand, elaborate cathedrals throughout the region and Granada received her fair share of beautiful churches. Today roughly 90% of Nicaraguans practice some form of Christian denomination with the majority being Roman Catholics.

The sound of church bells is a constant reminder that you are in a Catholic country where religion still plays an integral role in people’s lives.

There are five main churches that grace Granada’s picturesque streets: The Iglesia la Merced, the Cathedral on Parque Colón, The Iglesia de Xalteva, the Igelesia Guadalupe and the Antiguo Convento San Francisco. All are worth checking out as they are equally beautiful in their own right.

Iglesia la Merced

Built in 1534 (sacked and burned and rebuilt again in 1670),  the views from the bell tower are the most spectacular in the entire city. High on top, you are rewarded with a 360 degree view of Granada’s terra-cotta rooftops, the stunning lake and the volcano.

Iglesia la Merced Granada Nicaragua

Climbing the narrow stairs, you reach the centerpiece of the church: The bell tower. The panoramic views from high above the busy streets of Granada, are sensational and perhaps my favorite view in all Granada.

Iglesia la MercedGranada, Nicaragua

I could have stayed her all afternoon watching the world go by on the streets below but alas I had four more churches to see and it was getting hot.

Iglesia la Merced Granada NicaraguaIglesia la Merced Granada Nicaragua

Here is a beautiful view of the Cathedral on the central plaza, the heart and soul of Granada. You can also see the lake, Lago Cocibolca and Las Isletas where I would go for a sunset cruise later on that day.

Granada, Nicaragua

The Color of Granada

Granada is a magical place. As the oldest city in North America, founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba (a Spanish conquistador), Granada’s charm has been attracting people from all over the world for decades. Her captivating colonial architecture, whimsical colorful streets, and gorgeous culture is enough to make you want to plant yourself at one of many outdoor cafes on the main plaza and watch the world go by for days.

Unfortunately I only had 24 hours in this lovely colonial treasure but I made sure to cram in as much as possible. I spent the morning on foot touring the four main colonial churches and rambunctious streets, ate wonderful meals at Granada’s delightful outdoor restaurants, took an evening sunset tour of Las Islets, and the next morning climbed neighboring volcano Mombacho. It was an awful lot of rushing around in a short amount of time but I’m glad I did it because Granada is amazingly delightful. It is also a photographer’s dream!

Come take a walk with me and see for yourself.

Granada, Nicaragua

The perch at Hotel Plaza Colon is a fantastic place to have a cup of Nicaraguan coffee and watch the world go by.

The first thing I did when I arrived in Granada was check into my lovely hotel, The Hotel Plaza Colon. It was the perfect place to base myself for my visit to Granada, centrally located right on the main plaza with a gorgeous front patio and private balconies offering a spectacular view of the plaza and main cathedral. The staff was warm, friendly and helpful and I specifically enjoyed the delicious cafe shop and wine bar with outdoor seating.

Once I figured out my game plan for the day, I set off on foot in the hot, tropical weather common almost year-round in Nicaragua. I had a guidebook but honestly never read it as I prefer to discover a new place similar to opening up the first page of a new book. I like to slowly unravel it with no preconceived notions and read about it after I’ve seen it.

I left the hotel with only a map and some basic instructions by the concierge on where to go and what to see. Given the relatively small, compact size of Granada, it was very easy to find my way around and see everything over the course of 3-4 hours. There were also plenty of tourists so I never felt uneasy being alone.

My first mission was to visit the main churches of Granada which warrants an entirely separate post (that is coming soon). From the top of the bell tower at the Iglesia La Merced, I got a stunning 360-view of the city. It was the perfect vista to begin my tour of Granada.

Granada, Nicaragua

The best view in Granada can be found from the bell tower at the Iglesia La Merced

Granada, Nicaragua

View of the main plaza

Granada, Nicaragua

Granada, Nicaragua

Volcan Mombacho

Highlights of a week in Nicaragua

On my last day in Nicaragua, I saw this Apache blessing inside the worn cardboard menu at a small, mostly gringo cafe. In a nutshell, it seemed to sum up pretty well how taking a week completely off the grid in a developing country, far away from all the insanity of American life, made me feel.

“May the sun bring you energy by day, May the moon softly restore you at night, May the rain wash away your worries, May the breeze blow new strength into your being, May you walk gently through the world and know its beauty all the days of your life”.

San Juan del Sur Nicaragua

Our sunset view overlooking the small fishing town of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

Traveling to Nicaragua is perhaps not on everyone’s bucket list. However, for me, as long as a destination is reasonably safe I’m always game for seeing someplace new. Over the last five years, I’ve explored most of Central America with my first visit to the most developed and modern country of them all, Costa Rica, followed by travel to Guatemala, Honduras and even a brief trip to Belize. What surprised me the most about Nicaragua is how as the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (after Haiti which I visited last year), it was incredibly lovely and safe.

The people are warm and friendly, welcoming visitors with open arms. The culture and beauty of Nicaragua pulls you in and never leaves your heart. Perhaps this is why Nicaragua’s tourism industry is booming and only going to expand. Nicaragua is a wonderful place and is still a relatively unexplored travel gem.

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