Playa Maderas, Nicaragua
A surfer's paradise in the southwest corner of the country that's quickly becoming a low-key alternative to nearby San Juan del Sur.
where to stay
We stayed at the completely enchanting Maderas Village and loved every second of it, but the nearby hotels Buena Vista Surf Club and HulaKai are excellent options as well — both are a short walk from the beach and offer sweeping ocean views, yoga classes, and fun, family-style dinners that make for a good chance to bond with fellow travelers. If you're craving a less social experience, rent one of the many secluded villas that dot the valley instead: Casa Tres Peces or the treehouse-like Casa Arbol are particularly lovely.
what to do
The main reason to head to Playa Maderas? The beach. With its signature shark-fin shaped rock formations and protected jungle cove, it's so gorgeous that it can be hard to tear yourself away. And the break is pretty fun, too; Though it can get a little crowded, it has a friendly sand-rock bottom and a consistent swell that's good for all levels. Boards can be rented for about $5 from any of the surf shacks that dot the beach; Grab a lesson from one of those guys, or head a few meters up the road to Rebelde Surf School and ask for Juan Carlos, a local favorite. There are a handful of bars on the beach for ceviche, cold beers, and fish nachos. There's even a "secret" beach just to the north — it's an easy walk at low tide along the sand. (Follow the path until you literally can't go any further.) If you have wheels, Playa Marsella, a wide beach just south of Maderas at the mouth of Quebrada el Baston, is just a few minutes drive away. You can't surf there, but it's usually pretty empty and a nice change of pace.
For those craving a little adventure, Lake Nicaragua and Isla de Ometepe are relatively close and offer surreal views, hiking, and something that sounds a bit crazy but awesome: Volcano Boarding. For a more mellow adrenaline rush, book a sunset catamaran trip with Nica Sail n' Surf — it includes open bar, a ceviche lunch, and swimming at a private white-sand beach that has water so clear and turquoise you'll swear you're in the Caribbean.
Playa Maderas is about a three hour drive from Managua, a twenty minute drive from San Juan del Sur, and about three hours from Liberia, Costa Rica. Though we recommend arranging transportation via 4wd taxi from Managua Airport (about $100 USD) through your hotel, it is possible to take the bus from Managua to San Juan del Sur and then a beach shuttle from Casa Oro to Playa Maderas — if you don't have rolling suitcases or time constraints. If you're entering from Liberia, you'll have to cross the border into Nicaragua. The easiest and most economical way is to take the local bus (about $2) from Liberia bus station to La Frontera (also called Peñas Blancas), then continue through the border checkpoints on foot, and get a taxi on the Nicaragua side. Alternatively, you could take the Tica Bus. It's comfy, air conditioned, and easy — they handle all your customs paperwork at the border. However, it can take some time to get over the border — you'll have to wait for everyone else on the bus to have their paperwork processed as well. If you do decide to take the Tica Bus, don't forget to book your seat 24 hours ahead of time; The bus originates in San Jose and will not stop in Liberia unless you've made a prior reservation.
good to know
As far as crime rates in Central America go, Nicaragua has one of the lowest, second only to Costa Rica. That being said, it's also a lot less developed than its neighbor to the south, and has one of the poorest economies in the region. Use common sense and avoid traveling the roads or using public transit at night.
Nicaragua's currency is the Cordoba; the exchange rate is roughly 27 NIO (Nicaraguan Cordoba Oro) to the US Dollar. The best local beer is Toña — it is cheap and delicious and you will want to bring it home by the case.