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mangroves

You'll feel like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now as you make your way through the mangroves. Watch out for alligators. Though rare, they've been spotted in the area. Photo by Graham Ulmer -

sea turtle

Holding a baby sea turtle in the palm of your hand is well worth the two-hour paddle into the slow-moving current. Photo by Graham Ulmer -

surfers

Local Nica Surfers - Catch two or three times as many waves in a kayak.
photo courtesy Christina Klas -

photo

Paddling gives you a view of the landscape that most travelers won't get to enjoy.

white cross

White Cross - Head just past the white cross into Poneloya Bay.
photo: Graham Ulmer


Las Peñitas, A Town Where the Paddling "Rocks"


By Graham Ulmer

I find winter unbearable. Despite the beauty and serenity that paddling in my home waters of the Puget Sound has to offer in spring, summer and early fall, winter can be harsh. I love the solitude and tranquility of long early morning paddles around Harstine, Herron, Stretch, and Reach Islands. I usually go hours there without seeing another soul except the occasional seal or eagle. I just have a difficult time finding the motivation to get in a kayak in the cold, gray dead of winter.

So each year I wimp out and seek warmer waters to get my paddling fix. This year I took my paddling ambitions to Las Peñitas, Nicaragua, a sleepy little fishing town of under 1,000 people.

Located twenty kilometers west of the densely populated college town of Leon, Las Peñitas (meaning "little rocks") is a quaint, coastal town in the northwest part of the country. It’s becoming an increasingly popular surfing destination for Nicaraguans and tourists alike.

coastline

The area has miles of undeveloped coastline, with plenty of heart-pumping waves.

The kayaking, though far less popular, is an optimal blend of peaceful exploration through the nearby turtle reserve, and adventurous wave-riding off the two-and-a-half-kilometer-wide beach.

Where to Paddle

Morning: Isla Juan Venado -- Begin the day as early as possible by heading south two kilometers to the turtle reserve (entry fee about $4), paddle through the tunnels of mangroves and possibly catch the occasional sea turtle lazily making its way along the beach.

Stop at one of the numerous ranches to see the hatchlings, which are well worth the approximately eight-kilometer paddle through the mangroves. The ranches also offer a great place to get out and take a quick dip in the ocean.

Work your way back through the mangroves and back into Las Peñitas Bay for a quick beverage and a bite to eat at the Lazy Turtle, a Canadian-owned restaurant and hotel where the conversation is always lively and the hearty burgers, burritos, and tacos will help replenish your energy.

Afternoon: Surf the Break -- A nearby surf-school sign reads, "You came here to surf, didn't you?" You can catch several times more waves in a kayak than on a board, and you'll surely catch some attention as you enjoy this rarely observed activity. Enjoy the calmer rolling waves near the shore in front of Playa Roca, or venture 100 meters off the shore for some thrilling and hard-breaking waves that will certainly help you work off the burger and beer you had for lunch.

Evening: Poneloya -- After playing in the waves, and perhaps relaxing with a few drinks at Playa Roca, paddle north about two and a half kilometers to Poneloya (in the direction of the large white cross). At high tide, paddle right up to one of the half-dozen or so restaurants on the water, where you can enjoy fresh fish and the prized local Flor de Caña rum. Bring a healthy thirst because the bottle is yours to keep. Position yourself on an upper deck to take in the magnificent view of the setting sun.

How to Get There

From Managua, head to the UGA bus station and find a bus traveling to Leon. They leave when full, and the sixty-minute ride should cost about $1. Once in Leon, take a taxi or bicycle cart (about $1) to the local bus station. The bus to Las Peñitas also leaves when full, and the twenty-minute ride costs about 50 cents. Tell the attendants in the back the name of your hotel, and they'll drop you off at the front door.

Where to Stay

Budget --
Oasis ($8 for a dorm/ $25 for a private).

Mid-Range --
The Lazy Turtle, Barca de Oro, or Playa Roca ($25 to $45 for a private).
High-End --
Hotel Supaya ($60 for a single in high season, $80 for a double).

If staying long-term, you can also find a house right on the beach for a very reasonable rate. "Se alquila" means for rent, and you can call the number on the sign to inquire, or ask around at one of the local bars or restaurants.

Where to Get Your Gear

Hotel Barca de Oro is currently the only place in town that rents boats and paddles. They are the typical sit-on-top variety, which are not great for covering much ground, but make quite nice surfers. A full-day rental costs $12. You can also transport gear from Managua if you’re renting a suitable vehicle.

Watch Out For:

Rocks - The town is not called "little rocks" for nothing. If surfing, make sure to ask a surf shop, "Donde esta limpio" (where is it clean) or "Donde hay rocas" (where are there rocks).

Tide - The waves are aggressive and so is the undertow. Wear a life jacket if surfing; a leash is a good idea, too.

sunset

The sunsets in Poneloya are sublime.

Nightlife

While there are plenty of bars to enjoy in Las Peñitas throughout the day, the town pretty much falls asleep when the sun does. But don't worry, that's when the college town of Leon wakes up.

Head into town on the last bus (6:30 p.m.) or rent a cab and enjoy world-class drinks at Bar-Baro, soak in Nicaraguan college atmosphere at the Gecko Bar, or enjoy dancing and live music at Villa Villa.

There are countless other ways to have some late-night thrills in Leon, so sometimes it's best to just walk around and see what opportunities present themselves. For some late-night munchies, try a Deliburger, one of the $2 monstrosities from any of so-named food carts scattered throughout the city.

Other Activities

panorama

Surfing - Spend at least one day learning to surf. The local economy thrives on it, and a one-hour lesson is just $10. The instructor will swim out with you, hold onto your board, teach you to duck waves, and show you what you need to know to venture out and try on your own.

seaFishing - Numerous companies offer deep-sea fishing tours, where you can expect to catch snappers, tuna, roosterfish, marlin, and more. A half-day trip will cost around $200, with all gear provided. Haggling can help with the price, especially if functional in Spanish.

Volcanoes - climb up one of the numerous volcanoes that frame the area for a majestic view of the northern Nicaragua countryside. If feeling more adventurous, go up with a volcano boarding company and surf your way down the mountain (yes, seriously). How many times in your life can you say you've surfed down a volcano?

Leon - Spend time getting to know Leon. The bustling college town boasts the oldest and largest cathedral in Central America as well as several other remnants of its colonial roots. There are also museums, art galleries, and a major university to explore. Central Park (Centro Parque, located in the heart of the city) is a great place to have a beverage and people-watch.

Baseball - Baseball is popular in Nicaragua, and the professional league is competitive. Twelve US major leaguers have come from Nicaragua, and there is some serious talent here. The sport is seasonal in Leon, but runs practically year-round throughout the country. Take a bus over to Chinandega if you don't catch the Leon season.

Spanish Lessons - If you're staying awhile and want to converse with the locals other than "Una cerveza" and "Donde esta el baño," consider taking Spanish lessons at one of the dozens of schools in Leon. Private lessons range from $4.50-6.00 an hour, and the schedule is designed around your needs. Within a week you'll be conversational, and a month should have you a highly functional Spanish speaker. There will be homework.

Graham UlmerAbout the author: Graham is a writer, coach, and paddler. One of his greatest joys in life is paddling long distances in his home waters of the Puget Sound. He also enjoys traveling and scoping out new and undiscovered paddling locations around the world.
Graham is a member of The Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Race Team.

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