If León is known as one of the hottest cities in Nicaragua, Chinandega is simply notorious for its heat. Imagine my chagrin when I was forced to spend several hours there when the midday bus I tried to catch arrived, then suddenly left, rider-less. I trundled through the streets with my (overpacked) backpack, in desperate search of shade (none—the central park was too sparsely treed), air conditioning (ha!), or a fan (which I finally found in an internet café).
At 3 I returned to the bus station and boarded for Jiquilillo (“Hee-kee-lee-yo,” practically a travalengua, tongue-twister) on the Pacific coast. An Evangelical preacher boomed into his closed-fist “microphone” as the bus lurched out of the station. The air stirred enough for me to register that I was completely soaked in sweat.
Yet a mere hour and a half later and I was in the ocean: rolling breakers, low tide, water stretched out to the horizon, pulled flat like a sheet, water and sand silver grey, soft shallow waves rinsing off all the sweat and stress.
No hotels there, just fisherman and campesinos since the tsunami of 1992 washed away the resorts and beach homes. There are, as of the last decade, a couple of hostels, including the one I stayed in, owned by an American who was a volunteer in the village.
So I spent two relaxing days contemplating space: of sky, water, sound. I watched the fishermen roll their long boats up and down the beach on logs at low tide. I watched their children play with identical boats in the surf, fiberglass painted in bright colors with tiny log rollers made of sticks. One morning a boy in a purple soccer jersey ran up the beach, fingers stuck in the jaw of a huge fish with a parrot mouth. Pelicans skimmed the water as I dipped through the waves and tiny orange crabs excavated their holes.
One day I took a surf lesson from Nate, the owner. He patiently held the board as I awkwardly hurled myself atop it, then yelled for me to paddle and “pop!” when the wave was under me. I managed several rides on one knee and one foot, and felt the excitement and rush of water and speed once the board was under the power of the wave. Thankfully, the water was shallow and warm, so all the tumbling wasn’t too uncomfortable.
The next day I walked north on the beach to the “Fiesta de las Tortugas.” The Pacific coast of Nicaragua is critical mangrove habitat (where it’s not been deforested for hotels, shrimp farms, or luxury homes) and endangered hawksbill turtles are among many animals that nest there. Along the way I was able to see the progression of habitat: from quasi-developed farms and homes where the mangroves were cut back entirely or to the margins of the property, to a 2-km stretch of just mangroves, densely branched and bright green with occasional tunnels to allow people to pass through.
After an hour of walking I reached the estuary, where the sand curved west to border a broad expanse of water. Suddenly I could see Volcan Cosiguina, hazy green in the distance, and islands and peninsulas with no signs of humans. The fiesta was full of young people from the area and Chinandega, some of whom performed traditional dances. There were booths from the government tourism and environment bureaus and local environmental groups. Girls from Jiquilillo and neighboring schools competed in a beauty contest with costumes celebrating the ocean, some made of shells. One girl wore a paper sea turtle suit, awkwardly pushing back the beak headpiece with her flippered hands. “Yo no como huevos de tortugas!” “I don’t eat turtle eggs!” she shouted.
I missed the release of baby turtles from a breeding project but was able to see a beautiful young hawksbill (Tortuga carey in Spanish), rubbery black, white flippers flapping wildly, cradled by a Nicaraguan sailor in blue camouflage fatigues.
The hostel is closing for the season, as October promises endless rain and mosquitoes (which were already ferocious enough to drive me into my netted-bed at 8:30 each night.) Yet the turtles will return to the beaches for the next couple months to lay their eggs by the light of the moon.