Going Places: Tales from the road: Postcards from Central America

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By Jim Gould

July 8: San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

The only wildlife we've seen so far in Nicaragua are clouds of bare-footed boys. The 10-year-olds are the ones who break my heart. I have pockets of boxes of Chiclets and wooden matches (five and two Cordobas, respectively) from guilt purchases. The older boys--teenagers--I snarl at and say "El Norte" and hand them directions to San Diego.

Still, I've been assured by authorities here that Nicaragua is the next last great place for eco-tourism. Whereas Costa Rica has become too uptown, "Nica" is the new downtown, or something like that. Of course, dictators, earthquakes, revolution, trade embargoes, and CIA-sponsored stupidity can undermine even the most photogenic wildlands.

We cross the Nicaraguan border at Penas Blancas, and our bus drops us at the market at Rivas. Smoke, mud, and garbage. Mangy dogs, mangy horses pulling carts. Mangy children pulled by hollow-eyed mothers. This must have been the movie set for Dante's Inferno. Did we read the map right? I thought India had cornered the tourism market for abject poverty.

Out of the chaos, we see a gringo waving his hands. He's wearing shorts, flip-flops, a Dodgers baseball cap, and a T-shirt with Beavis and Butthead, one saying to the other, "Uh, pull my finger."

It's Dale Dagger. Middle-aged surfer dude from San Diego and Maui, now hiding out in San Juan del Sur. He's a one-man tourism gang, taking out small surfing charters in his catamaran, finding the perfect wave by sea instead of by four-by-four. Frankly, Dale frightened us. He has clearly had too many cafe negroes today. Three years living in the sleepy coastal village--500 Nicas and only four gringos--and Dale needs a Yankee fix. Now.

Tanner and I get a cheap room at the La Estrella. We think we see Japan from the window, across the Pacific. Only $7 because the place hasn't seen a lick of paint since the conquistadors marched through town. We are the only customers in the 30-room, century-old relic.

It's magical. Fifteen-foot ceilings, and tiled floors and rocking chairs everywhere. Magical. Just like the neighborhood restaurant Dale takes us to, where he flirts with Juanita, the owner, in perfect Spanish. Magical. Barbecued beef and platanos and a half-dozen Victorias, Nicaragua's finest--and only--cerveza.

As magical is the Bar Timon on the beach, where we tip too many small glasses of Flor de Caña, toasting Mark Twain, who drank here amid his trans-isthmus passage en route to the gold fields of California. The sun sets behind the headlands. Then the cows come out. Yes, vacas. It's not the seven-year rum playing tricks on our eyes. Out of the mist and shadows come the neighborhood vacas, dozens of the tan Brahma bulls and cows hitting the beach to share the surf and sand with egrets, pipers, and high-school lovers. Ah, wild Nicaragua. No wonder Twain stopped here for a drink.

Next: Peering into the eye of the volcano, Nicaragua's dangerous eco-attraction

Other info on travel in Central America

Notes of an accidental eco-tourist
Postcards from Central America. Our correspondent
rambles in search of answers to the eco-tourism myth.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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