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Catch the premiere of Survivor Nicaragua? Geezers vs. punks -- advantage: punks. Jimmy Johnson gets winded, whoop-de-do; a goofy water-bucket challenge -- and OMG, poor Wendy! Yep, looks like we're in for another action-packed season of hijinks, namecalling, and bungles in the jungle -- this time shot around the beach town of San Juan del Sur, on Nicaragua's Pacific Coast. We didn't really see the actual town in the first episode (the tribal council setting is just a set, I'm told), and who knows what glimpses we many get in the coming weeks (the show's PR flack kept stonewalling me -- jeez, sorry I'm not bloody Entertainment Weekly). But in late August, as the crew of more than 200 was winding down several months on a highly secretive shoot, I headed down to San Juan for a look-see. So in case watching the show peaks your interest in coming down for a visit (and the tourism board here really, really hopes it does, the tourism minister admitted to me), here's a taste of what you can expect.
A Look at the Town
After settling in at the lush 'n' lovely hillside resort whimsically called Pelican Eyes (aka Piedras y Olas), I strolled down into town, and I've gotta say, as much as I love Nicaragua, I found this ramshackle beach town (pop. 18,000) on the country's south Pacific coast a pretty unlikely candidate for hot up-and-coming Central America destination. After passing a church square with kids kicking a ball around, pretty much immediately I started spotting the hostels, guesthouses, inns, restaurants, and shops that've grown thick on the ground in recent years here, catering to a growing cadre of international backpackers and surfers, attracted by the town's cheap sleeps and eats, barefoot vibe, and kick-butt beaches nearby like Playa Maderas. Down on the calle costera (beachfront street), I passed a gaggle of blond dudes and dudettes hauling a couple of surfboards into a two-story bar called Iguana, right around the corner from Big Wave Daves bar and Gato Negro, which somebody told me is one of Nicaragua's best English-language bookstores. Above it all loomed a Rio-de-Janeiro-like Christ statue (below), perched way out on a headland off to my right.
As for the beach itself, there was no shortage of activity -- people having sunset drinks at Iguana, Viviana's, and other palapa-roofed eateries; couples and families hanging out; several guys riding some moderately tame surf; and groups of boys dashing around in pickup soccer games. Over the course of that evening and the following day, I sampled some excellent cuisine at restaurants El Colibrí (muy romántico), El Pozo (muy moderno), and Bambú Beach Club (ditto), followed by sizzling live music and dancing at the Crazy Crab at the north end of the beachfront street. Besides Pelican Eyes (rates from US$180 per night), I popped into some more good to downright charming digs at the nicely restored Hotel Victoriano (building from 1902, rates from $115 with breakfast), La Posada Azul (from $90) downtown, as well as Tripatini member Casa del Soul (from $79), a great three-bedroom guesthouse tucked away from the honky tonk yet within easy walking distance (it's on the other side of the hill with the big Christ statue, pool and top-of-the-line amenities and impressive views over Nacasolo Bay).
But having said all that, I can't say I found SJDS itself overly compelling, even by the standards of funky Central American beach towns (Costa Rica's Puerto Viejo, Bocas del Toro in Panama, and Coxen Hole on the Honduran island of Roatan come to mind). Here in San Juan I found the sand kinda grimy looking, littered with seaweed and debris, and the water looked equally unappetizing -- surferos notwithstanding.
A Look At the Neighborhood
What the town does have is a heckuva setting and neighborhood, starting with beach after beach, such as the aforementioned Playa Maderas, plus others such as Marsella to the north and beaches to the south including Playa Hermosa and Playa Escameca, where some of the Survivor beach scenes were shot. And besides surfing, there's soft adventure (horseback riding and Da Flying Frog zipline, for example) and ecotourism (7,000 Olive Ridley turtles came ashore to lay eggs a few days ago at La Flor Wildlife Reserve), Spanish schools and yoga retreats. A few miles from town down a rough unpaved road you'll find one of Central America's finest eco-lodges, Morgan's Rock, where the Survivor teams were taken for a hike and a traditional farm tour, including milking a cow, getting fresh hen's eggs, and sitting down to eat them in an old-timey Nica breakfast (you can come and do the same).
You can also use it as a base for visiting some other great stuff. Volcanoes are big down here, and nearby you can experience the pungent fumaroles of Masaya; bucollic Ometepe Island, formed by two volcanoes; and Cerro Negro, a relatively young caldera where you hike 2,214 feet (675 meters) to the top, then sled or snowboard down the black volcanic sandy slope. Granada and to a certain extent León offer some wonderful colonial architecture and animated street life. A little farther afield you can tour coffee plantations up in Matagalpa and Estelí, and get an even more barefoot vibe in Bluefields and Corn Island, home to English-speaking descendants of Caribbean blacks. (I've heard you'll probably be seeing Granada and Ometepe, at the very least, on upcoming episodes of Survivor.)
A Look at the Future
And by the way, the Nicaraguan government has high hopes that San Juan del Sur will loom large in the future of the country's tourism industry also because of the cruise industry. Over the longer term -- within the next two to three years -- the government's also planning to turn San Juan into Central America's newest cruise destination. It and Corinto, a town farther up the coast, already get just over 60 cruise ships per year, but ships can't dock directly in town and local facilities are limited. So the plan is to build a dock and beef up the infrastructure to bring ships directly in and increase shore excursions.
Tourism to Nicaragua has been growing in recent years, but it's still barely a million per year -- no doubt at least partly because of the country's longstanding image of war and political extremism. The current régime of Daniel Ortega is a sorta socialist Cuba/Venezuela/Abkhazia pal that's nobody's idea of a Jeffersonian democracy, yet thousands of Americans and other gringos live unmolested down here and the security/crime situation is a damn sight better than in some other Central American countries. Yes, there have been bumps here and there -- such as the time in 2006 when Californian Eric Volz was railroaded into a jail term for the murder of his local ex-girlfriend in San Juan del Sur (he was released on appeal a year later), but I and the expats I spoke to find the Nicas to be by and large friendly, helpful, and tolerant. So everybody down here has high hopes that this weekly demonstration on prime time U.S. TV will turn into a real medallion of power -- or at least an immunity idol -- for them.
For more info on San Juan del Sur and Nicaragua in general, see the "experts & info" section of Tripatini's Nicaragua group.
photos: D.P. Appell