The missionaries were a conspicuous presence in Nicaragua. There were two different groups, each with their own unifying t-shirt proclaiming their mission, in the immigration lines when I arrived at the airport. High school kids excited to be bringing the revival to a country apprently in need of it. Evangelical groups are doing very well in Nicaragua; several times when I mentioned to someone that I was Australian I was asked if I had ever been to Hillsong, Sydney’s own megarich megachurch. Nicaragua may be the only country on earth that doesn’t immediatly associate Australia with cute marsupials.
Everywhere in Nicaragua I found churches and missionaries, except in San Juan del Sur. San Juan is where Nicaragua comes to forget the missionaries, to forget the broken past that made the country so ready for ‘revival’. San Juan is where the new, or a new Nicaragua is being made. This particular new Nicaragua may be the antithesis of what the missionaries had in mind.
San Juan avoided all the fire of the twentieth century because it was of little military, political or commercial importance. A fishing village down by the Costa Rican border, it could offer great beaches and breaks, but while there is a civil war going on such things don’t garner much attention. Once the war was over though foreigners and locals alike started to realise that San Juan was a pretty damn good place to come to forget about your troubles.
I left San Juan until the end of my trip. I didn’t think I could justify spending time there until I had seen the more important parts of Nicaragua (still ended up leaving plenty of them unexplored). I also didn’t how much it might cost to properly enjoy the town; although it received a lot of traffic from people passing through the country, it didn’t exactly seem like the kind of place for stretching out your shoestring. Nothing about San Juan suggests frugality.
It wasn’t hard to see the appeal in San Juan. It was far prettier and far smaller than I had expected. Used I suppose to Mexican beach towns, I was surprised by how undeveloped San Juan was. Despite the plethora of hotels, bars and real estate agents, the town was still tiny, sleepy and dwarfed by its gorgeous natural surrounds. Despite its growing fame, San Juan still knew how to keep things low-key.
Perhaps a part of this is down to the influence of the foreign influx. Property prices are rising fast in San Juan, but giant parcels of land are still being sold at prices that seem ridiculously low to anyone used to dealing in dollars or euros. Some truly bizarre, some truly elegant dream houses are sprouting in the green hills about town. By and large, though, the people that are moving in seem like the better type of expats. This isn’t like some of the Mexican expat knots, where everyone expects to speak twanging English all the time and to have all the modcons of home. Nicaragua is still a while away from being able to provide such things. Those that are trying to provide themselves with little luxuries are sourcing organic coffee and produce grown in Nicaragua and serving it in cafes very conscious about the amount of waste they produce. Yes it’s a wealthy little enclave, soaked in wifi and drinks that most locals will never be able to afford, but it is still doing a reasonable job of doing more good than harm to its host country.
San Juan is a beach town, but the beach itself was virtually uninhabited while I was there. It was the low, wet season, and the crew that had been filming Survivor had just moved on, so the town was enjoying a lull, but even so, it isn’t the beach that is the main attraction in town. The glamorous Nicas that were strutting about town weren’t looking to swim; they were looking to drink and devour seafood in the bars ranged along the beach. All the serious beaching is done further north or south.
Maderas is a couple of beaches north of San Juan. The surf is big, the beach is long and mostly empty. Hermit crabs crack among the pebbles. Two little places serve food to the serious surfer crowd. This is the place to come, the beach that travellers want to write home about. It’s also a pain in the ass to get to. There are no half days at Maderas. Serious beach dedication is demanded. Get a ride out in the morning, get a ride back at sunset.
Back in San Juan (probably where I belong; I get bored stuck on a beach all day) and I struck off my last days in Nicaragua, frantically consuming rum and coffee to make up for having not having sampled enough of it throughout the trip. The expat-priced, organically-grown, lovingly-prepared coffee really was superb. I got all nostalgic and reconciled myself to gallo pinto (have not missed it since though). San Juan is a weird place to finish a trip; it really is disconnected from the rest of Nicaragua. No monuments, no ruins, no mention of martyrs or revolutions, no connection to the writers I have been invooking in these posts. If this is the new Nica then it is magnificently peaceful, and a whole lot of fun, but it is also shallow, rootless. A place where the best food and hottest people from around the country wash up, but not much else does. A refuge for people who can afford to forget.