PLAYA GUASACATE – Removed from the crowds of San Juan del Sur and home to some of the best surfing in the country, this remote stretch of Pacific shoreline is quietly becoming a trendy hotspot for adventurous tourists looking for an “authentic” Nicaraguan beach experience.
Here there are no paved roads, no neon lights, no ATMs and no sounds louder than the wind. When the sun goes down, the stars and moon light up the night and cold Toñas pop open as surfers swap stories about the day’s waves, heard crashing in the darkness beyond.
Guasacate may not have the same name recognition as other beaches in the area (in fact it doesn’t even appear on many tourist maps), but its main attraction, the Popoyo wave, is already world famous among surfers.
In 2006, Popoyo was rated by CNN as one of the Top Five surf waves in the world. And it hasn’t changed since.
What has changed is Guasacate’s tourism offering, which has risen from the sands to meet the new demand put on the area by the steady influx of surfers. In just three years, Playa Guasacate has gone from being a rustic tent-on-the-beach experience to a budding beach destination with comfortable lodging and great food options.
The secret to Guasacate’s success, according to local business owners, is that the beach has grown modestly, without changing the flavor of the area. On a shoreline where many developers, lured by inexpensive land prices and investment opportunities, have dreamed of large gated communities with their own entertainment included, Guasacate has kept it simple.
The beach’s modest development has been driven by existing market demand, not in anticipation of future growth. And in today’s market, simple is golden.
“We are not trying to invent anything here; we give tourists a quality bed and good food and the rest of the adventure is up to them,” said Paloma Andres, the Spanish coowner of Hotel Popoyo (formerly known as El Toro).
Andres and her husband Diego Blatt, of Argentina, have set the pace for development in this nascent tourism destination.
The couple originally wanted to build a simple “bohemian-style” surf lodge to rent dorm rooms or tents to backpacking surfers.
They knew the Popoyo wave would provide a continuous trickle of surfers, but they were nervous about the idea of trying to build something on such a savage piece of lowland wedged between the ocean and the salt flats.
“The land is hostile, very hostile,” Blatt said with a laugh.
But after discussing their plans with family members back home, Andres and Blatt were talked into doing something more ambitious and given some financial help to make it happen. The result was “El Toro Surf,” a solid three-story structure designed by Spanish architects to withstand a tsunami, earthquake or missile attack.
“Our families told us to do it well, or don’t do it,” Blatt said.
Fortuitously, by the time the hotel was ready to open, Popoyo had already become a debutante on CNN and in international surf magazines. No sooner did the hotel open its doors than the rooms were full, mostly with surfers investigating reports of the famous outer reef.
The international buzz about Popoyo also attracted a wealthier crowd of surfers – adventurous travelers who started showing up in rental cars, rather than on the bus.
“Most of the surfers were young professionals on vacation with a group of friends. They had money to spend, but they didn’t have anywhere to go,” Andres said.
So Andres and Blatt worked to improve their hotel offering and give tourists what they wanted. They added a pool, wireless Internet and expanded the hotel by building five colonial-style luxury rooms with airconditioning, big beds, powerful showers and satellite TV.
They also worked hard to make their restaurant one of the tastiest eateries around, luring tourists and guests from other beaches nearby.
The young hoteliers also remodeled their private rooms and the dorm.
To reflect their new status as a landmark hotel, Andres and Blatt recently changed the name from El Toro to Hotel Popoyo and Restaurante El Toro. But they haven’t changed the concept of rustic comfort in a gritty natural setting.
“You have to sell what there is and go with the rhythm of the area,” Blatt said. “Rustic is the fashion, and that’s what we have.”
Rustic also means that the people who come here must have a sense of adventure to get out and see everything the area has to offer. Though the waves are the main lure there non-surfers have discovered other natural attractions in the area, including hot springs and natural tidal pools – a great place to cool off from the afternoon sun and watch the ocean waves pound the protective barrier of rocks.
But it’s the surfers who continue to fuel the tourism push. And surfers make great tourists, the locals are finding. Not only do they have the adventurous spirit of backpackers – which is needed to find Guasacate in the first place – but they also have money to spend in the community, helping to spur other local business growth.
There are now half a dozen modest lodging options in town and a French-owned surfboard ding repair shop that does swift business on the weekends.
The quality of the tourism offering is also improving. On Saturday nights, it’s not uncommon for everyone from Hotel Popoyo – including the owners – to walk down the street to the Rana Roja, a trendy Argentinerun pizza restaurant and bar that’s so classy and lively it’s easy to forget it’s in the middle of nowhere.
Andres said the friendly community feel of Guasacate is what attracted them to the area in the first place.
“We didn’t come here to invest, we came and stayed because we want to live here,” she said. “So we get along with all the neighbors and we often send people to other restaurants to eat because we’ve been eating in these restaurants for years. It’s part of what we love about this area.”
For more information about how to get to Guasacate and about the hotel, visit www.hotelpopoyo.com, or call (505) 8885-3334.