Catching a Break

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Political unrest decimated Nicaragua’s burgeoning tourism business. On the brink of recovery, the country took another hit from the coronavirus pandemic. Will surfers be the ones who eventually bring it back?

For a while, it looked like Ernesto Martinez Hellmund’s life as a surf guide was over. Yet here he was on a hot summer day in August 2019 kicking out of a long, hollow, right-handed barrel at Playgrounds, a reef break reachable by boat from the small fishing village of El Astillero on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast. As he landed in a glistening shower of backspray, he turned just in time to watch one of his clients take off on a fast, steep, left-breaking wave. Cheers went up from the rest of the young, surf-obsessed Americans on the boat. Martinez, normally soft-spoken, let out a hoot of his own and then, spotting another set heaving in the distance, paddled quickly to get in position. The 34-year-old was living the dream—a dream he thought might never exist in Nicaragua again after political unrest tore through the country in 2018. And a dream he thought he had left behind when he fled the violence for the United States with his family, not knowing when he would return.

He had surfed on the waves up and down the coast of Popoyo, a laid-back beach town on Nicaragua’s Emerald Coast 30 minutes south of Playgrounds, and by age 30, he was a guide and the general manager at Meson Nadi, a new six-suite boutique hotel in town. Though the area’s world-class waves had been attracting surfers since the ’70s and ’80s, it was only recently that hotels like Meson Nadi began drawing a different clientele: artists, creatives and entrepreneurs.

Ernesto Martinez Hellmund cycles with his surfboard.

Ernesto Martinez Hellmund cycles with his surfboard.

Over the past two decades, Nicaragua had evolved from a war-torn country into a destination featured in the social media feeds of travel-savvy influencers. In 2015, the Commission of Chiefs of Police of Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean and Colombia recognized the country as the safest in Latin America. Glossy travel magazines began touting it as the next hot destination.

The transformation was remarkable, but for globe-trotting surfers, it wasn’t unexpected. Where they go, more conventional tourists tend to follow. In fact, when researchers from the University of Oxford and University of Sydney studied more than 5,000 surf breaks around the world, they found not only that high-quality waves generate a significant economic impact on local communities, but also that by providing a focal point for investment, surf breaks can lead to a broad non-surfing tourism industry as well. It happened in Australia’s Byron Bay and Morocco’s Taghazout, and it seemed to be happening in Nicaragua, too. In 2017, the country saw more than 1.7 million visitors, an 18.8% increase over the year before.

Then on April 18, 2018, protests over social security cuts broke out in Nicaragua’s urban centers, and the country unraveled.

Nicaragua is no stranger to unrest, but these were the largest protests the country had seen since the end of its civil war in 1990. Though the demonstrations began peacefully, the situation escalated quickly. President Daniel Ortega, once heralded as a Sandinista revolutionary icon for his role in overthrowing the Somoza dictatorship in the late 1970s, saw the protests as a threat to his rule. He’d first been elected in 1984, but since he took office again in 2007 for his second five-year term amid allegations of electoral fraud, his government had aggressively dismantled all checks on presidential power. During the 2018 protests, the police and armed pro-government grupos de choque (shock forces) sought to silence the demonstrators with force. At least 25 people were reported killed by pro-government factions in the first four days of the protests.

A shaper at work at Popoyo’s GA Surfboards.

A shaper at work at Popoyo’s GA Surfboards.

The beach towns on the Pacific coast were insulated from the violence, but between surf sessions, Martinez still found himself obsessively grabbing his phone to scan the news, trying to get a grip on the situation. People were dead. Others had simply disappeared. And, as many of his friends started to pack up and head to Costa Rica for safety, the U.S. Department of State issued a Level 3 travel advisory, urging Americans to reconsider travel to the country “due to serious risks to safety and security.” Canada, the United Kingdom and other Western nations soon followed suit.

“Bookings went from 100% to zero overnight,” Martinez says. “We all thought things would calm down after a month but then realized this was the new status quo.”

On April 22, 2018, the day before the State Department issued its advisory, Ortega confirmed the social security cuts were being scrapped, but it was too late. Nicaraguans continued to take to the streets, demanding that the next elections, currently scheduled for 2021, be moved up due to government corruption, violence and censorship.

While the turmoil didn’t reach Popoyo, roadblocks and barricades set up by protesters cut off supplies across the country. Managua’s airport remained open, but airlines started waiving fees for cancellations and route changes for passengers booked through the capital city. By May, Meson Nadi’s owners had had enough. They broke the news to Martinez: They were moving back to Europe and closing the hotel until they could sell it. Most of the staff, all locals, would lose their jobs. They would not be alone. About 80% of the country’s small hotels and about a third of its restaurants would be closed by the end of the summer, according to the president of Nicaragua’s National Tourism Chamber.

And just like that, Nicaragua’s golden age of tourism seemed to be over. As stores in Popoyo started to run low on water, milk, food and other supplies, Martinez decided he and his family needed to leave, too.

Because his mother was German, Martinez had dual citizenship, and in June, he took his pregnant wife and 2-year-old daughter to stay with relatives in New York. His mother and sister refused to flee, so he flew back every six weeks to check on them, vowing to return once things settled down. Nicaragua would always be home, even for his son, who would be born in the U.S.

Two hours south of Popoyo in Playa Maderas, Josh Thomas, 45, a Californian surfer and co-owner of the stylish Arte-Sano Hotel Cafe, sat at a candlelit table at Machete Market Café listing the pros and cons of remaining in the country. Bobby Hottensen, 31, a native New Yorker and one of Thomas’ business partners in the café, placed a hot pizza on the table along with bottles of beer from his 3-year-old craft brewery, San Juan del Sur Cervecería.

It was late August 2018, and Ortega had just expelled United Nations investigators after the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated that since the crackdown began, roughly 300 people had been killed and 2,000 injured.

Just a few months earlier, the two friends had envisioned their café becoming the beach town’s buzzy Friday-night hangout. Now they had postponed its opening indefinitely, and the dusty washboard road winding toward the restaurant was dotted with hostels plastered with FOR SALE signs. The universal mantra “Pray for surf ” had been changed to “Pray for surfers” and graffitied across a boarded-up restaurant.

A taco shop in Playa Maderas.

A taco shop in Playa Maderas.

Located just outside the town of San Juan del Sur, Playa Maderas’ crescent-shaped beach had been ground zero for hip digital nomads looking for the next Tulum, and Arte-Sano was just one of hundreds of luxury hotels, hip hostels and eco-lodges across the country tapping into Nicaragua’s trendy image.

The majority of Nicaraguans were still campesinos, farmers living off less than $2 a day, but as the country adjusted to its new free-market economy following the end of the civil war, investors began taking notes from its politically stable neighbor, Costa Rica, the poster child for ecotourism and a global surf hub. Soon, tourism became a major economic engine, and by 2017, it represented 12.7% of Nicaragua’s GDP, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. Many of those farmers were now working as chefs, tour guides and housekeepers in tourism boomtowns. Some had even opened hostels themselves. Then it all came to a sudden, screeching halt.

“If you were on the ground, it was very clear the violence was aimed at citizens speaking out against the government,” Thomas says. “We heard stories of shock forces actually moving blockades to let tourists pass on the road. But from the outside, as a traveler, it looked scary. It’s easy to understand why you’d think twice about your vacation.”

Which is what brought Thomas and Hottensen to the table. On the one hand, things seemed to be getting worse. Travelers had all but disappeared, and the news continued to be filled with violence. On the other, this was where Thomas and his Nicaraguan wife, Mirna Bravo, another partner in the business, had planned to make their life together. In the end, the couple decided to stay, moving out of their rented home and moving into their hotel to save money.

“There were two weeks where we couldn’t get water or gas,” Thomas says. “It felt like the country was going into a full-blown civil war. We had our threshold for when we would leave. Our plan, if it came to that, was to move to Costa Rica and work until things settled.”

Thomas knew the party crowd wouldn’t return any time soon, but he felt confident that surfers, the area’s original tourists, would. In some cases, they never left. There were still some boarders who were used to traveling to politically unstable countries and drawn to Nicaragua’s magical breaks.

“We know to dig deeper to really assess the risk,” explains one East Coast surfer who asked to remain anonymous because he travels to the country frequently. “In most cases, the danger is centralized, and the waves are safe and yours for the taking.”

Surfers head out for a lesson at Rancho Santana, in Popoyo.

Surfers head out for a lesson at Rancho Santana, in Popoyo.

While hotels in Playa Maderas were shuttering and laying off staff, up the coast in Tola-Rivas, Rancho Santana, a 2,700-acre resort community with a 17-room Spanish Colonial-style hotel, was actively hiring new surf instructors. The waves were the biggest difference. Whereas Playa Maderas has only one truly great break, Popoyo has more than 10, and when Rancho Santana’s American developers scooped up the property in 1997, they saw the sport as their safety net.

Their prediction proved correct. Roughly one-third of the resort’s homeowners and half of all guests are boarders, and while fair-weather surfers may have rerouted to Costa Rica or El Salvador, diehards still came for Popoyo’s unicorn waves. (The region is one of only a few surf spots in the world with at least 330 days of offshore winds each year.) It was enough that the resort, which employs more than 1,000 locals, was one of the few high-end hotels to never close.

Fernando Tapia Sevilla, 37, was among the new hires. When the restaurant he managed in the tourist town of Masaya closed, he was unemployed for six months until he landed as an instructor at Rancho Santana. “My girlfriend did not want to live in a police state anymore, so she moved to Miami,” he says. “She asked me to join her, but I love my country. I am lucky I found a way to stay. I’ve never been so thankful for waves.”

In September 2018, three months after Martinez left Nicaragua, his wife gave birth to their son. A short time later, his old boss from Meson Nadi called to share some unbelievable news. The hotel had a buyer, a former American dinner guest named Jade Chang Sheppard, and she wanted Martinez to manage the property.

Martinez had remained in constant touch with friends and had kept his promise to make frequent trips home to gauge when he could return. Though there had been no reported violence against tourists throughout the unrest, the atmosphere in the capital still felt tense. Demonstrators continued to call for the release of those imprisoned during the protests. The main plaza in the colonial city of Granada, usually lined with vendors, was vacant. The ferries to lush Ometepe Island, once a popular stop on the tourist circuit, were docked.

But there were surfers in the lineup in Popoyo and the roadblocks along the coast were gone, and here was this American woman, who’d been to Nicaragua once or twice, looking for his help. Martinez was skeptical but rang Sheppard anyway, mostly to learn why—at a time when the economy seemed to be collapsing, bleeding an estimated $7 million a day—she’d decided to buy a hotel.

Jade Chang Sheppard

Jade Chang Sheppard, the owner of Malibu Popoyo.

Sheppard, 41, was born in Taiwan and moved to the U.S. as a child. The Harvard Business School alum and mother of three had spent a decade growing a successful construction company based in San Antonio and was ready to pursue a lifelong dream and learn to surf. “I didn’t want to just stand up on a board and call it a day,” she says. “I wanted to really learn to surf. On a longboard and a shortboard. On big waves.”

So Sheppard’s husband booked them a trip to Popoyo in March 2018, just before the unrest began. The surf town’s progression of waves was ideal for a newbie like her, and what locals considered crowded was nothing compared to California, where she’d dabbled in the sport. A surf trip to the Maldives followed, but she found herself dreaming of opening a surf hotel in Nicaragua. So when she learned Meson Nadi was for sale, buying it felt like a no-brainer.

She saw huge potential to remarket the hotel to surfers who’d outgrown the hostel lifestyle. Plus, she was sure the kinds of surfers she’d met on her travels wouldn’t be put off by a Level 3 travel advisory. Martinez wasn’t 100% convinced, but when Sheppard said part of her deal was that he would hire back the old staff, he couldn’t say no.

With his support, Sheppard reimagined Meson Nadi as Malibu Popoyo, a surf-centric luxury stay with board racks outside each casita and all-inclusive rates that included organic and locally sourced meals, yoga classes and surf guiding. Doors opened on December 1, 2018, with double rooms going for only $170 a night.

“It sounded too good to be true,” Martinez says. “Suddenly, I felt hopeful that things could go back to how they were before.”

Malibu Popoyo

Malibu Popoyo leaving a light on.

By the start of 2019, the government and anti-government groups in the capital settled into an uneasy ceasefire, and by August, Canada, the United Kingdom and others had lowered their travel warnings. (The U.S. remains at Level 3.)

The same process that put Nicaragua on the international stage in the first place seemed to be happening again in miniature, with boarders reporting back to their friends of cheap prices and empty beaches. Even with the elections looming in 2021, the new year seemed full of promise. Hotels were seeing an uptick in bookings. By the holiday season of last year, Rancho Santana was at full occupancy, and Malibu Popoyo was adding six rooms. And in Playa Maderas, Thomas booked a large group of non-surfers from Denver who were looking for a place to celebrate New Year’s Eve and had heard about the beach town from a surfer friend.

Earlier this year, Rancho Santana debuted a new spa and 40 minutes north on the Emerald Coast, five-star luxury hotel Mukul was slated to reopen as part of the Auberge Resorts Collection portfolio. Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit. The immediate impact to the tourism industry felt like déjà vu, says Thomas. “It was like reliving 2018 all over again.”

In April, President Ortega announced that there would be no quarantine or economic lockdown, stating that, “We have not stopped working because if we stop working, the country dies, and if the country dies, the people die.” Nicaragua is expected to face its third consecutive year of economic recession, according to the World Bank’s revised economic forecast for 2020.

As of October, Ortega’s socialist government has still “yet to officially impose any domestic travel restrictions or national quarantine policies,” according to the U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua. But with most commercial flights closed or suspended, tourists aren’t coming, says Thomas, who has cut pay for his employees at Arte-Sano and started pizza delivery from Machete Market Café.

Up the coast, Rancho Santana had to close its hotel and clubhouse and laid off 25 percent of its staff, including Tapia, who has been making ends meet by teaching online Spanish and selling marmalades and hot sauces. The hotel recently re-opened and if surf tourism is strong enough this coming Christmas season, there’s a possibility that Tapia will be rehired to teach surf lessons, according to the manager of the surf school.

Malibu Popoyo, which had been booked solid for April, shuttered its doors and laid off its entire team. “Unlike other parts of the world, there wasn’t a sense of panic,” says Sheppard. “I could tell my team had closed a hotel before. The sentiment was kind of like, ‘here we go again.’” Over the past years, Nicaragua has endured Zika, tropical storm Nate, the political unrest and now a pandemic. “We can certainly take a punch but you have to start to wonder, how many?” questions Sheppard.

According to John Hopkins University, Nicaragua has seen more than 5,000 total reported COVID-19 cases and 150 deaths, while across the borders, Costa Rica has reported more than 86,000 cases and 1,000 deaths cases and Panama, more than 118,000 cases and 2,400 deaths.

The fact that Nicaragua hasn’t experienced the same reported caseload volume as neighboring countries, that the country boasts the lowest population density in Central America and it’s a relatively affordable destination makes Sheppard hopeful that when travel restrictions ease, tourism will eventually bounce back. Several airlines have announced their intent to resume commercial service between Nicaragua and the United States this fall, and the Government of Nicaragua requires negative COVID-19 test results for entry to Nicaragua. Both Arte-Sano and Malibu Popoyo plan to welcome guests this November, right in time for peak surf season.

Amid the uncertainty, one thing remains true: The waves still break. And there’s hope the surfers will one day return to surf.

Photos by Chris Churchill

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