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Posted by Jessica on Jul 14, 2010
The Beach at Las Penitas

It was the rich history of Nicaragua, particularly the false fairy tale of the Sandinista movement and the subsequent Contra war, that initially drew us there. Actually its history and its jungle-covered mountains, both of which are intertwined, had a strong pull over us. And so we quickly realized that at least a portion of our time would need to be spent in the northern highlands.

But before we made our way north, we were eager to see Leon, a city that was often at the very center of the Sandinista revolution. And, for the purposes of this story, a city very near the sea.

During the revolution, the Pacific Ocean's proximity to Leon didn't go unnoticed by the Sandinistas. In his autobiographical book (Fire From the Mountain) about life as a Sandinista, Omar Cabezas mentions heading to the nearby beach of Las Peñitas to watch girls with his friends. (Even a revolutionary needs time for the ocean. Or, perhaps, girls in bikinis.)

'A typical street snapshot of the Subtiava neighborhood of LeonAnd so it was for us (less the bikinis, more the ocean, that is) that on a Tuesday morning we made our way by foot from our hotel in the center of town to the Subtiava barrio on the west side of town. Rich in its own history, Subtiava is the first neighborhood of Leon and it's also where the buses to the beaches depart. (Traveling throughout Nicaragua is made easy by the extensive public bus system, a trip to the ocean being no exception.) We weren't entirely sure where the buses would be, but we knew they were near the church in Subtiava. And after walking for about an hour through the streets of Leon, we saw the church peeking over other buildings in the distance.

'Nicaragua inherited old American school buses which are sometimes left a familiar yellow and other times painted all sorts of colorsWalking a bit past the church, we saw soon enough the familiar looking buses lined along a side street, behind a horse with a cart no less. Grabbing some water from a nearby vendor, we confirmed the bus was heading to Las Peñitas and hopped on just as the driver closed the front door. Although the bus was already full, we managed to find two seats relatively close to one another.

The beach of Las Peñitas is only about 20 kilometers away from Leon, but the bus ride takes around an hour after all the starting and stopping for passengers. As the bus started moving slowly down the newly paved road (paid for, it turns out, thanks to a recent grant from the US government), we settled in to watch the surrounding countryside and our fellow passengers. (An adorable six month old girl with huge eyes and an even bigger smile was sitting in front of my seat with her Mom. She periodically bopped her Mom and other passengers with her small fists, including the head of the woman sleeping next to me, but no one seemed to notice or mind.)

As we neared Las Peñitas, the bus started heading in the opposite direction, driving instead toward the town of Poneloya. Perhaps sensing my concern, my seatmate who had since woken up (on her own accord, not due to any bopping from six month olds) explained in raspy Spanish that the bus would turn around again in a few minutes. I thanked her as she scooted past to get off at the next stop and, sure enough, the bus turned around shortly thereafter.

By now there were only a handful of people on our bus, most of whom were school children. (Perhaps aptly so considering buses in Nicaragua are hand-me-down American school buses.) As they chatted animatedly, I noticed the road the bus took next was narrower than the ones before. And to my right, in-between the tiny houses, I caught glimpses of blue ocean.

After a few minutes, the road took a sharp left turn, drove forward another 100 meters or so, and then came to a dead end. This, it seemed, was our stop. Hopping out the emergency exit in the back, it didn't take long for our breath to be taken away.

'In this photo the ocean is actually behind us, but it gives a good feel for what the village looked likeThe little road had dead ended at the very end of Las Peñitas. And it was here that our eyes were met with the startling blue ocean, vast expanses of sandy beach, and an endlessly bright blue sky. Brightly colored buildings and fishing boats dotted the landscape, along with palm fronds and thatched roofs. Everywhere we turned our eyes were met with picture perfect tranquility.

It was just past noontime when we arrived and so we made our way to an open-air restaurant right on the beach. Life was still and we had the place to ourselves, so we opted to sit up high on a raised second story platform that afforded us the best views of the village. From there, while eating our gallo pinto and sipping freshly squeezed orange juice, we watched village life pass us by.

'We saw more fishing boats than people during our time in Las PeñitasOn the sand dunes in the distance, fishermen were carefully laying out their nets, untangling the masses of cord and drying them in the sun. We kept count of the number of pick-up trucks (two) versus the number of schoolgirls on bikes (three). In the distance we could see a little boy around four years old having a delightful time wrestling with his dog. (For what it's worth, the dog seemed pretty delighted too.) Below our platform, we watched as several pairs of pigeons fluffed up their tail feathers and strutted in what could only be a mating dance. We watched the village dogs explore the sand dunes, racing across at top speeds toward some unknown destination. We saw them snooze too, in the small shadows afforded to them by some of the fishing boats. And we were amused after watching a toddler wander down the street in his diaper, clearly on a mission, only to return ten minutes later carrying a sack of something that was bigger than him.

It would have been easy to spend hours on the platform, just the two of us, watching life all around the village. But we were eager to dip our toes in the ocean and so we said goodbye to our perch in the sky and headed out to the beach. But we weren't alone anymore.

'To get to the ocean, first we had to cross a river in three placesLike any respectable fishing village, Las Peñitas had its share of dogs who are more than happy to be your guide for the day. Our guide, whom we named Roscoe, waited patiently for us while we ate lunch. Once we had paid the bill and started getting up from the table, though, he quickly sprung into action and started leading the way.

To get to the ocean from where we were, we had to cross in three places a river that led to the sea. Roscoe was clearly excited to get us on our way, and we had to walk quickly to keep up with him as he jumped through the first (and most shallow) crossing. The second waterway found the warm water climbing up to our knees. Roscoe, meanwhile, was already approaching the third pass.

'Roscoe doing the doggy paddle to the other sideWe watched as he glanced back over his shoulder at us, and then quickly plunged into what had now turned into a respectable river. The tide must have been going out because, although he was doggy paddling with all his might, Roscoe ended up a good twenty meters further down river than where he started. Hoisting our day bag over our head, we plunged in ourselves as the water came up to our chests. Luckily the tide didn't throw us nearly as off-course.

On the bank of the river, we could spy neither the ocean nor Roscoe from where we were standing. Climbing to the top of the sand dune, though, we quickly found both. The ocean, its white caps breaking onto black rocks, beckoned us while Roscoe played in the tide.

'Sea, surf, sky, sand dunes...and dogs!The beach at Las Peñitas is like the beach you dream about when you think of faraway lands. Its white sand stretched for miles. The dunes obscured any sign of village life. And there was not another soul around as far as the eye could see. It was only us, our doggy guide Roscoe, and the sea.

We spent several hours walking along the beach with Roscoe. He'd race ahead of us and run into the waves while we dug our toes in the sand, watching the tide whisk away our footprints. The waves came in all directions, clearly indicating there were rocks underwater just off shore, moving the water every which way. As we walked south, the ocean was on our right, the sand dunes were on our left, and the whitest clouds we have ever seen towered over us everywhere.

'Las Peñitas is known for it's great surfing, and thus it's undertow. But the rocks in this photo were perfect to float around as they sheltered us from the ocean's pull.We felt ourselves baking a bit in the sun, and realized that a dip in the ocean was long overdue. Following Roscoe back down the beach a bit, we came to the confluence of the ocean and the river we had crossed. Here the black rocks broke the undertow, making it safer to swim. And so it was here we floated in the sea, feeling the pull of the ocean rush around us as a few seagulls soared above.

While we floated, Roscoe frolicked on the beach. Eventually another person passed by, jogging south, and Roscoe joined him. We watched as his tail went wagging down the beach with his new charge. We floated in the ocean for quite some time, enjoying the solitude again. But the minutes were quickly passing and soon enough it was time for us to leave. No sooner had we walked back onto the beach to dry off, then we found Roscoe by our side again, giving us a few kisses and cute whines goodbye.

'Our guide for the day, Roscoe, living life to the fullestGrabbing our day bag, we made our way back up the sand dune and back across the three river crossings again. The sound of the ocean grew softer. And Roscoe had already ran on ahead of us, perhaps to find a new friend with whom to share the beach.

We were sorely tempted to return to our hotel in Leon, pack up our belongings, and make our way back to Las Peñitas so we could stay for the rest of the week. Life in a little fishing village suits us. Not only does it remind us of our time in Punta del Diablo in Uruguay, but it's very much our life at home in our sleepy little village on the shores of Cape Cod.

'Two happy hedgehogs, ready for their next adventure in NicaraguaAnd so it was perhaps for that reason that we allowed the call of the northern highlands to finally lure us away from the beach that day, away from the ocean and Las Peñitas, back along the well-paved road, and into Leon once again.

We knew the ocean would be waiting for us back home, but we had yet to discover what would be waiting for us in the mountains of Nicaragua.

July 14, 2010 at 12:23pm
I love the wise dog-guide. It sounds like a blissful passage of time. <3
July 14, 2010 at 12:34pm
Yeah, he was pretty cute. He was just so eager for us to follow him! :)

It was really a brilliant place to spend an afternoon. If we ever head back to Nicaragua (which I imagine we will!), I'm eager to return there again or check out the more remote beaches too.

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