Almost 20 years ago, Nicaragua won Jen Murphy’s heart as she rode its waves. And for the Hawaii-based travel writer, there’ll be no better place to celebrate a return to normalcy than a country where resiliency has been ingrained in the local spirit.

Surfing is a freedom I never imagined could be taken away. After all, that’s why many of us fall in love with the sport in the first place. To paddle out into the vast expanse of ocean is freedom in its purest sense. You leave behind your worries and stress, not to mention your iPhone and the inescapable news cycle back on the shore. You’re able to truly disconnect. You find yourself humbled by the power of the ocean as it surges beneath you. You lose yourself in the thrill of riding across the face of a wave. You marvel as a glistening backspray showers down on you as you paddle out over a fresh set.

I’ve watched in disbelief these past few months as the ocean has been deemed off-limits to surfers in Spain, South Africa, Brazil, and beyond. Surfers in Los Angeles are getting $1,000 fines, and one at Playa Hermosa in Costa Rica was shot at by a police officer as he got out of the water. Just as Africa depends on safari-goers to support its conservation efforts, the ocean relies on surfers to be some of its biggest stewards. (See: the Surfrider Foundation’s 2019 victories; the World Surf League’s philanthropic initiative, PURE, which works in conjunction with Columbia University’s Center for Climate and Life to support research on ocean health.)

I’m blessed to live in Maui, where surfing is not just a sport—it’s deeply ingrained in Hawaiian culture, having been brought over from ancient Polynesia and embraced by alii, Hawaiian royalty. Throughout the pandemic-induced lockdown, the Hawaiian government has allowed surfing to continue, and locals are taking full advantage of the lack of foam-top-riding “kooks” (people who have no idea what they’re doing in the water), often tourists, dropping in on their waves. Although, with tourism down 95% in some cases and 1 in 3 workers having filed for jobless claims, leaving little else to do but surf, breaks here feel more crowded than ever—even with social distancing.

For me, surfing has always been about more than a physical thrill. It’s been about the search and sense of discovery in a time when everywhere feels discovered. From the remote icy waters of Easter Island to the barreling waves of the Azores, I’ve angled for writing assignments that have taken me to destinations with still-under-the-radar surf. So as I patiently wait my turn in the lineup, I can’t help but get wistful for Nicaragua, where a dozen people in the ocean is considered a crowd.

Throughout most of the 20th century, Nicaraguans were focused on survival, not surfing. The Somoza dictatorship that began in the 1930s led to almost five decades of revolutions and counterrevolutions, interrupted by a disastrous earthquake in 1972. Violent conflict between the leftist, Communist-backed Sandinista government and American-backed Contra rebels consumed the 1980s.

Unlike in Costa Rica, its politically stable neighbor to the south, Nicaragua’s more than 155 miles of western coast remained largely undiscovered until intrepid surfers started to trickle in following the end of the civil war in 1990. Undaunted by a lack of tourism infrastructure, they were rewarded with a surfer’s paradise: warm water, long golden beaches set against wild jungle, and every imaginable type of wave, from point and reef breaks to sand-bottom barrels.

Nicknamed “the Land of Offshores” by surfers, the country is home to trade winds that blow unobstructed from the Caribbean side across Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua to the Pacific side, making Nicaragua one of the few places on the planet with at least 330 days of offshore winds each year. Those unicorn winds create a consistent swell, which means the surf is up all day, nearly every day. And although it might not have the postcard perfection of Hawaii or Tahiti, that’s part of its charm. There’s a raw beauty that feels refreshingly real and untouched.

Ryley Haskell, a California-born surfer and guide for boutique surf operator Tropicsurf, has worked in bucket-list wave destinations like Fiji and the Maldives. And yet he, like me, would return to Nicaragua in a heartbeat. With peak wave season approaching in June and July, here’s the surf safari I plan to take with my girlfriends once Covid-19 travel restrictions have eased.

Road Trip Down the Coast
No longer a secret, as selfishly as I’d have liked it to remain, Nicaragua now caters to more than just budget-minded surfers. You won’t find luxury chains, but there are plenty of hip boutique hotels, like Tribal in Granada, and amenity-rich eco lodges, such as Morgan’s Rock in San Juan del Sur. In addition to waves, the country shares many of Costa Rica’s other natural wonders—volcanoes, pristine beaches, charming colonial towns, wildlife-rich rainforest. And in Nicaragua they can be experienced for a fraction of the price. 

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