If everybody had an ocean
Across the U.S.A.
Then everybody’d be surfin’
You’d seem ‘em wearing their baggies
Huarachi sandals, too
A bushy bushy blond hairdo
– The Beach Boys
RANCHO SANTANA, NICARAGUA – Our life here is taking on a delicious monotony.
We rise at 6. By 6:30, we are on the beach, taking our morning walk from one end to the other and back.
It takes about an hour… a nice start to the day.
Early-morning stroll on Los Perros
This expanse of sand is called Iguana Beach on one end and Los Perros on the other.
The two sides are separated by two seasonal rivers. The one on the Los Perros side, where we are, reaches the ocean only during the rainy season. The other one runs all year round.
In normal times, the surfers are already out on the water at 6:30. About halfway up the beach is a famous surfing break called Panga Drops. (A panga is a local fishing boat.) It attracts surfers from all over the world.
Last year, there were several women from France surfing here. You could spot them because they wore very stylish outfits, a great contrast to the usual t-shirt and “baggies” of the California crowd.
A young surfer
But 2021, like the year before it, is a Plague Year. Getting here is a challenge. Especially if you’re coming from Europe.
“U.S. borders are sealed to foreigners, except for essential travel,” explained a friend. “I don’t know whether they’d consider passing through Miami to go surfing in Nicaragua to be essential travel or not.”
And then, you may get stuck in Miami, as we did, waiting for your onward connection.
Our house is on the Los Perros side of the beach. It was the first house built on the entire beach… Set on a little promontory hard up against a large hill, with a plunging cliff down to the ocean, it marks the northern end of the beach.
With few exceptions, the other houses are built right at the waters’ edge, bungalows and condos… lined up along the shore, awaiting a tsunami.
Playa Los Perros
There were few people on the beach this weekend. We passed a cheerful, middle-aged couple, who said hello.
Other than that, there was a young man with earphones. He goes up and down the beach every day, as we do. We greet him routinely and continue on our way at about the same pace, so we tend to encounter him at almost exactly the same spot every day.
We came here – as we go everywhere – partly on business, but expecting to have a good time.
We have been coming here now for a quarter of a century. We had a hand in starting the resort here – Rancho Santana – as a great escape for readers of our magazine, International Living.
But projects like these take on a life of their own. They go in unexpected directions, like a runaway horse… often tossing off their riders along the way.
Business here has had its ups and downs. Now, the “down” is dangerously low, caused by the coronavirus, the U.S. government’s attitude towards travelers to Nicaragua, and the airlines’ reluctance to bring you here.
So what happens to a tourist resort when the tourists no longer come? We thought we should find out.
In preview, it’s not so bad.
Walking along the beach is always a pleasure. Except at high tide, the sand is flat and packed tight, with a thin layer of water left by the retreating surf. It looks as though we are walking on a sheet of glass. But it gives way softly to each step.
When we first arrived 25 years ago, this beach was in the same state that the first Spanish explorers – working their way up from the port at “Darién” in Panama – would have found it. Breathtakingly beautiful.
Like Eve in the Garden of Eden, there were no houses, wires, tourists, towers, roads, condos – nor any of the garments of modern leisure or civilization.
We had the beach to ourselves… It was as if we owned it… as if we had discovered it… as if our bark had washed up on the sand, leaving us stranded in paradise.
But we weren’t entirely alone.
On a small rise near where our house was built, there was a caretaker. He lived in a wooden shack, with dogs and pigs wandering around the yard, and a blue hammock stretched out on the porch.
From there, the bare-chested man could keep his eye on the whole beach without bestirring himself from his hammock.
This man, short and brown, had no money. He owned no stocks and had no 401(k) retirement nest egg.
But he needed none. He lived on the “fruits of the earth,” as André Gide put it – fish… turtle eggs… papaya… plantains… lobsters.
He could go fishing. He could go for a walk on the beach. He could fall for a local girl and start a family.
Or he could lie in his hammock and contemplate the wonders of nature, of which he was one.
His job was to chase squatters off the property, should any appear. And as none did, his work schedule was extremely relaxed, like a Zoom worker whose electricity has gone off in a storm.
Our life here is not so easy nor so carefree. But it is nothing to complain about.
After our one-hour walk at sunrise, we settle down to read and write, taking time out for meetings, vaguely trying to figure out our next move on our property down here.
What should we do? Are we boldly raising up… or gracefully slipping down? Which way is the tide running?
Today, the caretaker’s shack is gone. It has recently been replaced by a millionaire’s mansion.
Mansion on the beach
About halfway down the beach on our early-morning promenade, we came upon a group of fishermen. They stood still, not even noticing the gringo walking by. They were staring up and down the coast.
They were watching the birds… specifically, the pelicans. They don’t compete with them; they use them as scouts.
The pelicans rest on the surface of the tide, bobbing up and down with the waves. Then, alone or in groups, they take to the wing. Typically, they fly low… skimming right above the crest of a breaking wave, where the uprush of air gives them a lift.
They are looking for fish. When they find the school, they flap their wings, rising in altitude to 25 to 50 feet above the surface. Then, circling, hovering for a minute… they suddenly dive bomb into the water. A second later, they come up like a cork and swallow their prize.
The fishermen are not interested in the small fry. They want the fish that feed on the small fry. At least, that is our hypothesis…
They watch to see where the pelicans are diving. Then, they look for the schools of larger fish that also pursue the pelican’s prey.
While we were walking along, the fishermen – who previously looked as though they were frozen – all of a sudden thawed and started running, led by a young man with a beard.
They dashed by us and continued about a hundred yards up the beach.
There, wasting no time, they jumped into the water up to their waists, swirling their baited hooks above their heads like a gaucho swinging a lasso. They launched their hooks as far as they could… and immediately began gathering them in… wrapping the line around a wooden frame.
Surf fishing, at least the way these men do it, is not the patient activity of old men on Minnesota’s frozen lakes. It is hot and fast.
In less than two minutes, they were hauling in their catch. These they quickly unhooked… and then raced up onto the beach and threw the fish down, just far enough from the water’s edge so the incoming water would not liberate them.
The fish flopped and squirmed… and then gave up. They are good-looking fish, about a foot long and thick, perhaps a variety of Pacific bass.
Having put their fish up on the shore, the fishermen dashed back into the water to repeat the exercise.
But this time, their hooks came back empty. They scanned the water and judged that the school had moved south…
So they ran… and again, they jumped into the waves and slung their hooks. A few more fish came in.
They kept at it for a few minutes. Then, the school must have deserted them… or headed to deeper water.
The fishermen came back up the beach, gathering their fish from the sand as they went along. Each man had caught two or three of them… nine or ten in all.
They looked satisfied.
Coming back to our theme, we find that there are few tourists here.
But there are more locals than usual. More Spanish is spoken than English.
And there are more young families, coming not for a vacation, but to live. The Plague seems to be changing the world – even here.
More to come…
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