Nicaragua: Mojito coast

During the Nicaraguan war, only sympathisers dared go to San Juan del Sur. Now tourists are back - and not just the 'leftie' lounge lizards, says Philippa Goodrich
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The Independent Travel

The rise and fall of the ocean breakers is a murmuring backdrop to the conversations of those who drop in to enjoy the host's softly spoken and slow Spanish, and the rocking chairs on his verandah. This was our home for the week.

San Juan del Sur lies on Nicaragua's Pacific coast, two hours south of Managua, just where the isthmus of Central America begins to taper towards Panama and not far from the frontier with Costa Rica. South of that border, tourism has been big business for 25 years. Even while Nicaragua was being torn apart by civil war (abetted by Washington's funding of the Contra guerrillas), the Costa Ricans were busily developing their tourism industry. Now Nicaragua is at peace, but is still some way behind its neighbours - but then so are the prices. You can stay for next to nothing in this small and pretty town. Yet San Juan, with its wide, sun-baked streets lined with low wooden houses in green, mustard-yellow, blue and brown, is no stranger to travellers.

In the days before a railway crossed North America, prospectors found that the quickest way to California was on Cornelius Vanderbilt's trans-Isthmian steamboat line. Passengers from New York would disembark on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast and were then transported by steam boat, carriage and even mule, to re-embark in San Juan del Sur on a steamship bound for California.

One passenger reported that the town was "not fit for a dog to stay in", but the Nicaragua route was shorter than the rival Panama route to the south, and quickly became popular. Apparently around 85,000 passengers passed through San Juan del Sur on the way to California in the mid-1800s; 10,000 fewer made the return journey.

You can just make out the traces of the old station, long since abandoned, and if you are feeling adventurous you can follow the course of the railway line that once climbed tortuously from the town up to the continental divide, then over to Lake Nicaragua - the largest body of water in Central America.

The gold rush is just one chapter in the long story of Washington's interest in Nicaragua. When I arrived in the country I had an imperfect recollection of the events of the 1980s. It needed some intensive reading of the guidebook to be reminded that the Sandinista revolution erupted in 1978 after years of the Somoza family dictatorship. The US, alarmed by the popularity of the revolution and the prospect of its heady brew of leftist nationalism spreading through Central America, supported the Contras, an armed opposition force, using the proceeds from illegal arms sales to Iran to do so. The war between the Sandinistas and the Contras lasted for most of the next decade.

There was fighting in the hills around San Juan del Sur, but these days the American involvement here has taken on an entirely different tone. Since peace returned to the country in the 1990s, a network of twinning schemes has sprung up between Nicaragua and towns in North America and Europe.

A key aspect of this new relationship is exchange visits between schools. Through a chain of contacts, I signed up as a volunteer working with a school group from Newton, Massachusetts. Which is how I found myself arriving in the town at midnight on an old school bus with nine 17-year-olds. Neither gold prospectors, nor CIA operatives, these young Americans were part of an entirely well-intentioned force.

Don Carlos is the treasurer of the Newton- San Juan del Sur twinning society and also one of the few residents in possession of a telephone in the town, so his verandah was a natural headquarters for our operations.

San Juan del Sur was once the location where volunteers working with the Sandinistas escaped to recuperate before returning to the coffee plantations. It remains a place for chilling out, with an array of beachside bars with shady straw roofs. Strangely, it is still a destination for volunteers. Even the town's new resort hotel, Pelican Eyes, is a mix of pleasure, profit and good works. Perched on a hillside, it has fantastic views of the bay, which are best admired from one of the reclining chairs by the side of the infinity pool with a glass of mango juice, or something stronger. The pool spills over the cliff into a garden of shocking pink bougainvilleas and palm trees and at sunset you can just see the silhouettes of the hotel's namesakes, the pelicans, throwing themselves into the ruffled waters of the bay as they hunt for fish.

The American partnership that runs Pelican Eyes has linked it to an educational foundation which provides, among other things, school uniforms for local children. The hotel is a magnet for other North Americans on humanitarian missions in Nicaragua. Our big treat of the week (after the students had helped to build a school) was a daytime sail on the Pelican Eyes yacht. Our captain was Laurel and her passengers, as we found out over our three-course lunch on the beach, included us, several American eye doctors, two or three bona fide tourists, and an American couple who were the driving force behind a prosthetics project in the city of León.

As the Pelican Eyes staff stepped around us, topping up our drinks and bringing more food, I asked what motivated all the Americans who come here. Was it guilt at the policies of the Reagan years? That was met with a blank look; I was obviously barking up the wrong tree. "It's an exchange of riches," the wife said. "We have material wealth, and they have spiritual wealth."

At this point I must introduce you to two stalwarts of the twinning society, David and Margaret Gullette. Frequent visitors to Don Carlos's verandah, they succumbed to the enchantment of Nicaragua and its spiritual riches some 20 years ago. He is a poet and a leftie (his description) who loves what is left of the revolutionary impulse of the Sandinista years. Both he and his wife are flying the flag for one of the revolution's best traditions - the drive for universal literacy.

He's been supervising the building of his 17th rural school in a village just outside San Juan del Sur. On a visit there we stood in the scorching mid-morning sun as he explained to me the virtues of the composting toilet versus the traditional latrine. In the background, the master mason and his son, who is also the local Frente (Sandinista) politician, were making brick-laying look easy and the young Newton students were dripping sweat into the drainage ditch they were digging as protection against the rainy season.

Back in town, Margaret Gullette was getting ready for the start of the new academic year at her project: the town's free Saturday school. She invited me along for the first day of term, and I arrived just in time to listen to the birdsong accompanying almost 200 students, all in white and blue, as they sang the national anthem. The birds trilled in agreement as the headmistress addressed the students sternly about the necessity of attending every week. The school is for teenagers who have to work during the week, or for adults who missed out on an education. As Marina, a 35-year-old with a strong, lined face told me: "Between food and education, we had to choose food."

You may be thinking by now that San Juan del Sur is a destination only for the committed activist. Not so. You could come here to surf, dive, snorkel, sail or take a water taxi to one of the tree-lined beaches a little way up the coast, and never know all this was going on. You could even go on the canopy tour, run by another of the master mason's sons, and swing through the tree tops in the hills behind the bay.

Whatever your motive, go soon. These days you could say San Juan del Sur is the last stop on the trans-Isthmian journey. The gold rush is here again. There are developers buying up land, and new villas are appearing all over the coastline. For good or bad, in 10 years this particular breed of prospectors may have changed this quiet town, with its captivating cast of characters, for ever.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

There are no direct flights between the UK and Central America; the usual routes are via Madrid, Miami or Houston. South American Experience (020-7976 5511; www.southamericanexperience.co.uk) quotes a fare for travel in October of £589 from Heathrow or Manchester on Iberia. Philippa Goodrich flew with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.britishairways.com) and American Airlines (0845 778 9789; www.americanairlines.co.uk) via Miami.

GETTING AROUND

A taxi from Managua to San Juan costs $50 (£28) one way. Buses, otherwise known as "collectivos" are infrequent but very cheap.

STAYING THERE

Hotel Piedras y Olas (Pelican Eyes Hotel), San Juan del Sur (00 505 568 2110; www.piedrasyolas.com). Doubles start at $100 (£56), including breakfast.

There are many cheaper places to stay in San Juan del Sur, such as the Encanto del Sur for around $8 (£4.40) per person.

VISITING THERE

Da' Flying Frog (00 505 568 2351; e-mail: tiguacal@ibw. com.ni) offers canopy tours for $25 (£14) and horseriding for $10 (£5.60) per hour.

There is a dive shop in the town, also: visit www.divenicaragua.com.

FURTHER INFORMATION

British citizens no longer need a visa for short visits to Nicaragua.

San Juan Del Sur (www.sanjuandelsur.org.ni).

The Latin American Travel Association (020-8715 2913; www.lata.org).

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