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Nicaragua's unexpected treasures

Many Nicaraguan buildings reflect the country's Spanish-Colonial heritage.

Chris Brigandi grew up riding the waves in Newport Beach and has traveled the world to surf in places such as Tahiti, Hawaii’s North Shore and Fiji’s Tavarua Island. But there’s something about the waves in Nicaragua that keeps the Newport Beach real estate agent coming back for more. He says it’s the awesome conditions, created by offshore winds and temperate waters. But it’s also a genuine affection for the small Central American nation, a place where you can explore colonial-era cities, climb a volcano or swing from a hammock on a beach.

Why Nicaragua?
It’s a country with a rich history and culture and isn’t overdeveloped like so many other destinations. It feels authentic and its beauty is unspoiled. With the second-largest rainforest in the Americas, Nicaragua is considered an emerging eco-destination. It’s also safe and easy to reach from Southern California. For me, though, the main reason to visit Nicaragua is to surf. I stay in Playa Colorado, which has some of the best waves the country has to offer, with three breaks within walking distance, and more a short drive or boat ride away.

Time is Right
I like to visit Nicaragua just as the rainy season is ending. I typically go in late November or early December when it is less crowded, the tropical weather is perfect and the surf is always epic. You can’t go wrong traveling to Nicaragua from November to April.

Must Do
When I’m not surfing, a day trip to see Lake Nicaragua (the ninth-largest lake in the world) is awesome. It’s stunningly beautiful with two large volcanic islands rising out of the lake. Other things to do: Follow the volcano trail (there are more than a dozen volcanic peaks, some of which are relatively easy to climb and explore); visit the cloud forest at Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve, a rainforest that has howler monkeys and more than 150 types of birds; and explore colonial cities such as Granada, where you’ll find horse-drawn carriages and take a step back in time. And don’t forget to visit the nation’s undeveloped beaches and sleepy surf towns.

Best Bite
When I’m in Nicaragua, I stay at Mark & Dave’s in Playa Colorado, where you can usually find me and my friends eating under a huge, thatched palapa on the beach. Chef and surf instructor Zac Hyland whips up amazing, four-course gourmet dinners – in addition to all other meals and tasty snacks all day – using fresh local ingredients. If you’re looking for something a little less rustic, you might try El Zaguan, behind the cathedral in Granada, an open-air steak house that is considered the city’s best traditional churrasco-style restaurant; Pelican Eyes Resort & Spa, on a hilltop in the beach city of San Juan del Sur; and Mukul Beach Golf & Spa, Carretera, a high-end resort on an undeveloped stretch of private beach. Both resorts have excellent restaurants.

Buy In
If you’re shopping for memories, not souvenirs, there’s no better place than the surf town of Playa Colorado: the scenery, the laid-back vibe, the waves, hanging with friends. But if you’re looking for Nicaraguan crafts, visit Masaya, outside Granada, which is the nation’s crafts center. You’ll find excellent pottery and other ceramics, in addition to baskets, embroidered clothing and other locally made crafts.

After Dark
The nights are quiet on the coast of Nicaragua, unless you are lighting off some of the over-the-top local fireworks on the beach. Otherwise, it’s about relaxing with friends, watching the sunset and talking about another great day of surfing. While it’s not my thing, I’ve heard Granada’s upscale bars and nightclubs can be found west of the central plaza. 

Secret Tip
Plan to visit Nicaragua with family and/or friends. It’s an experience you will want to share. The opportunity to be in such a pristine, authentic and unspoiled setting with special people is an unbeatable combination. Even if your friends/family don’t know how to surf, they can learn here with great instructors.

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