CHINANDEGA – Standing with a surfboard in hand, rookie surfers can look out on the waves they are about to test for the first time without feeling sheer terror.
Free from the surf crowds on the popular breaks of the central and southern Pacific coast, and with waves usually reaching only one or two feet high, these beginner-perfect breaks are some of the draws of Monty’s Surf Camp and Hotel, on the northern Pacific coast of Chinandega.
Trusting that this remote stretch of tropical beach would lure tourists seeking to avoid the crowds, Donald Montgomery, a former Canadian teacher, began this enterprising business a year and a half ago.
He first “discovered” the spot in 2006, when a backpacking and surf trip along Nicaragua’s coast led him to Jiquilillo, a 4,000-person community three hours northwest of the capital.
More than a vacation spot, Montgomery was looking for an answer to an existential question that had been bugging him: “What do I want my life to look like?”
Standing on the white sands of Jiquilillo, Montgomery says his heart told him this was the place to find the answers.
Beyond the beauty of the palm-fringed tropics, he found a “still untouched” community of “beautiful people” that he says “felt very safe.”
He returned a year later and began building his hotel from scratch.
“I don’t think tourism had hit yet,” Montgomery said of the fishing village.
What had hit was a tsunami, which destroyed the village in 1992, leaving behind a mostly undeveloped beachfront still scarred with concrete slabs of former buildings sticking out of the sand, and a water tower leaning precariously over the waves.
While the residents re-built, poverty remains a way of life as most depend on selling fish to the international market for their livelihood.
Montgomery’s desire to give back to the community inspired his surf camp project, which is a mix of tourism and humanitarianism.
The goal, he said, is for tourists to “enjoy a paradise, but give back at the same time.” The idea seems to be winning over an increasing number of foreigners looking for that next great destination, plus a unique tourism experience, to boot.
After hearing about the surf camp back in Canada, Todd Gash, a veteran surfer and doctor in injury medicine, was intrigued enough to fly down from Calgary on a “fact-finding mission” to see if his skills in training physicians in regenerative therapy could be of use to the population. He discovered “the community could use help” and hopes to return to train local doctors in the future.
Montgomery’s business partner at the surf camp, Gerardo Caceres, shares the vision for the humanitarian tourism project, which gives 10 percent of its tourism package fees to community projects. They calculate that equals more than 30 percent of the surf camp’s profits.
Cáceres manages the surf camp year round while Montgomery lives in Canada with his two young daughters. But having a presence in both countries works to their advantage. In Canada, Montgomery markets the surf camp through word-of-mouth advertising, drawing a mostly Canadian crowd to his hotel.
With room for 40 people in a variety of lodging options ranging from dorm rooms to private rooms, the surf camp has also started attracting larger humanitarian-tourist groups from Canada.
Cáceres says this year six medical brigades and two dental missions traveled to Jiquilillo to provide services to the community over a series of days.
“Most of our clients are here because they believe in helping others,” Caceres says. But some just come to surf, fish and relax in the sun.
Friends Carlijn Cornelisse, of the Netherlands, and Anthea Jackson, of England, met through surfing in Costa Rica and wanted to explore a new destination. They found Monty’s on the Internet and decided to check it out.
“They make you feel really at home,” Cornelisse says.
The travelers also raved about the chief, Elving, and the bar’s famous cocktails. At set mealtimes, guests eat like a family around one table, chatting about the day’s surf over fresh seafood and salads.
During the day, those who seek to relax read a book in a hammock or work on their perfect sun-kissed tan, from either the rooftop deck or the beach’s clean white sands. For those looking for a little more excitement, the hotel offers surf lessons as well as a variety of tours and activities, including horseback riding, volcano hikes, kayaking in the nearby estuary, and deep-sea fishing.
During a recent weekend, two young Canadian couples decided to try their luck at sport fishing. Brianna Rowan, who had never tried fishing before, soon finds herself in a struggle to reel in the monster fish tugging on the other end of her line.
Cáceres stands over her, trying to instruct her while the others in her group watch and offer advice or commentary.
“It’s a good fight,” one of them jokes. Straining over her rod. Rowan replies, “I’m a lover, not a fighter.”
With the coaching of Caceres and a bit of sweat, Rowan eventually lands a 16-pound barracuda.
Andre King, Rowan’s boyfriend, organized the 10-day adventure for the Canadian university students from Ottawa after seeing a TV program featuring the surf camp.
“I think I was conscious of the fact that it might not meet my expectations,” King says. “We’ve been dreaming of it for a year.”
Instead, he said, the experience, including the “rustic” and “authentic” thatched-roofed rooms with mosquito nets and fans “exceeded” expectations.
“It’s a tropical getaway, but it’s not a five star resort,” King said.
The hotel is getting busier, say its partners, and it’s no doubt in part to happy customers.
With no Internet available in this peaceful isolation, these undergraduates are waiting to return to Canada to post videos on YouTube of their first attempts on a surf board. King says, “We’ve loved it so much that we’re definitely going to come back.” But due to the small breach breaks, Monty’s Surf Camp is best suited for beginner surfers. Guests say experienced surfers might want to look elsewhere, unless they want to pay for a boat to take them to a point break.
Regardless of a surfer’s abilities, everyone can agree that Monty’s is a great place to unwind and enjoy the beach. Each night as dusk descends, guests pick their favorite spot from which to watch the dramatic orangetinged sunset, with a mango or strawberry daiquiri in hand.
Silence never felt more peaceful. And then it’s gone in a flash.
For more information, visit the hotel’s Web site at www.nicaraguasurfbeach.com, or call the hotel manager, Gerry, on his cell phone (505) 8473-3255.