My flight landed under a starry cloudless sky in Managua at 1:30 am on February 14. While waiting nervously for a customs official to look me over, a girl I befriended on the plane pointed at a poster advertising Fleur de Caña rum “You’ll be drinking a lot of that.” she said smiling “Oh?” I had never heard of the beverage, but I stood curiously looking at it until beckoned forward. After paying the $10 dollar fee I was admitted into Nicaragua with a 90-day visa. My driver Agustino was waiting for me with a sign in the arrivals area. He quickly escorted me to his car while introducing himself politely in English as I fumbled to apologize for my poor Spanish. I was tired but too excited to fall asleep in the back of the car. As we drove toward the Pacific coast for the next two hours I stared out of the back window to dimly lit scenes of dogs roaming the streets, motorcyclists everywhere you look, along with the odd horse or oxen thrown in for good measure. A huge smile began to creep across my face in the darkness. I could tell this was like no place I’d ever been to before. This was my first trip to Central America, and it had been years since I’d had a chance to do any traveling outside of the United States.
I had zero expectations of what Nicaragua would be like. I didn’t have any plans other than meeting up with my friend A.D in the morning. A.D and his wife were pioneering enough to build a house in Nicaragua the year before, and after seeing some of their pictures, I was intrigued. I asked if I could visit and ( I don’t know if he took me seriously or not, but I was serious) he was kind enough to say yes. I kind of put it off for a while, until everything in my life seemed to point to needing a fresh perspective and change in outlook. My relationship of three years had petered out, and a week before getting on a plane to Nicaragua I had packed up the house I had shared for two years with my partner and moved. This trip punctuated a new beginning for me. So other than a change, I had zero plans other than getting to a small hut on the beach where my friend would come by and collect me in the morning. His house was a little off the beaten path back in the woody jungles about a mile or so from the beach so it was easier to have my driver take me to one of the few places that cater to gringos in the small town of El Gigante.
All these things were going through my head when Augustino slowed down suddenly, and I began to get nervous. I had heard about American tourists getting scammed by taxi drivers, and the worst kinds of thoughts began to flood my mind. As the car came to a stop Augustino turned around and pointed out of my window in the back seat “That is a Volcano” he said in his best English pointing toward a red glowing mountain I had somehow failed to notice. My moment of panic was met with a feeling of wanting to kick myself for being so uptight and mixed with wonder as the embers floated upwards out of the mouth of the volcano and mixed into the night sky. I seemed to feel my own anxiety beginning to drift away towards the heavens along with those ashes and began to relax. We drove along for another hour or so until Augustino stopped at the gas station. “ Agua o Cerveza?” he asked as he hopped out the car. “ Cerveza, Cerveza por favor!” I answered enthusiastically. My Spanish was dismal, but I make it a point to at least know how to ask for a beer in whatever country I might be in. While filling up with gas, he got out to stretch his legs. He came back with his trademark smile and handed me an icy cold green bottle of beer. “This is Toña!” he said proudly. “Mucho Gracias!”I gratefully accepted the beer that he was kind enough to offer, delighted in the relaxed nature of this place. The simple joy of being able to drink a cold beer in the back seat while being chauffeured around at night in a foreign land while being shown volcanoes was delightfully enchanting.
Toña, I later learned is considered the classier of the native Nica beers, so it was certainly a treat to be offered one. The super cold light pilsner was refreshing in the way it slid down my throat. “Rivas” he called back to me, pointing out what looked like a fairly sizable town, that was sleeping quietly. I nursed my beer as we drove further away from anything that was recognizable as civilization into the quiet of the night. We eventually turned down a paver stone road that looked like it was still under construction. Eventually, the paver stones disappeared and the road turned to dirt beneath us. I was almost dozing when we finally stopped in front of a chain link fence, where someone came to open the gate and allow us inside. I was escorted to my hut on the beach, as Augustino placed my bags in my room I paid him for the ride and thanked him for being such a good tour guide. After 12 hours of traveling, I was finally in Gigante. I quickly fell asleep listening to the sound of waves gently lapping at the sand outside my hut.
I slept the kind of dreamless sleep that’s only possible after an incredibly long day of travel. I woke up to the sound of waves. I woke up and giddily looked outside- to pure blue skies, and palm trees swaying gently in the breeze, and turquoise waters rolling with surf. I wanted to go for a swim as soon as possible. I sprayed my lily white somewhat bloated body with SPF 100 sunscreen and slipped into my bathing suit. The beach was a short casual stroll away from my hut, no more than 500 feet from my front door. The beach sand was impossibly soft and clean- not even in Florida had I seen such a nice wild beach. Off to the side of the cove, there was an outcropping of rocks and a high rocky cliff. Atop the cliff, a small cluster of buildings huddled together overlooking the Pacific ocean. Lower down on the rocks there were some fisherman gathered mending nets, but I seemed invisible if not a nuisance to them as I placed my hat and shoes in a hiding spot in the rocks and made my way toward the water. I could feel my stress being gently washed away by the calm turquoise waters as the sun began to climb in the sky. It was still early, around 8 am. I was more or less alone in a new part of the world. No one knew where I was at that moment. I could have drifted out to sea and never been heard from again, and at that moment that was ok with me. The sand was impossibly soft, like velvet under my feet as I walked back towards my hut. I couldn’t have imagined such a perfect place to wake up and forget to remember all my personal problems.
My friend A.D was coming by with his brother to pick me up and show me around town. When I say town, I mean a short street populated with gringo attractions- small bars and restaurants, hostels, a surf camp, as well as small pulperia (or convenience store). Less than a mile or so from beginning to end, but that’s all it needed. There were chickens and pigs running haphazardly across the road in places, but that added to the overall charm of Gigante. A.D and friends picked me up for lunch and we headed up the same steep cliff I had looked up at in the morning while going for a swim. After a short but steep walk we arrived at Buena Vista, a small family owned restaurant with enchanting views of El Gigante Bay. The heat was pretty intense at lunch time, but the restaurant had open windows that allowed the breeze to come in across the water and the effect was pleasantly cool. The view from the table was jaw dropping- I could see two bays simultaneously from one viewpoint – and they had cold beer. This was also where I was first introduced to ceviche and tostones. I’ve heard of ceviche before, but I haven’t ever been lucky enough to have it so close to where the fish come from. To be in a place of so much natural beauty, and eat incredible food that could only exist because of the natural beauty you- can’t but be inspired to write about it. I think ceviche is the perfect dish to introduce this region of Nicaragua with. Where I was, right next to the beach, watching the local fishermen mend their nets in the morning, so I could have ceviche for lunch- that is the definition of local.
Ceviche e Tostones
I like this recipe because it’s very simple, fresh, flavorful and inexpensive to make at home. Use the freshest fish you can get your little hands on- there’s nowhere to cover up poor flavors with this dish. Everything is necessary here. Of course, there are variations where you could add mango or jalapenos if you’re feeling adventurous- but Nicaraguan food is very simple, and I’ve tried to represent that with the short list of ingredients here.
1 good sized white fish fillet- I like to use grouper, cod-but tilapia will do. ( ½ pound fillet)
¼ purple onion
1 generous handful of cilantro
Salt ( pink Himalayan salt)
Pepper to Taste
Start with your limes -wash and then roll the whole lime around on your counter top pressing firmly. This helps the citrus to release it’s juices more readily. After the lime begins to feel soft and slightly warm in your hand you can cut and juice your limes. Then slice your fish into small, yet generous chunks. Bathe your fish in the lime juice in a small mixing bowl. Cut up about ¼ of fresh large red onion and add to your fish in juice mixture, By now your fish will begin to cure or cook in the acid from the lime juice. Cut up 1 generous handful of cilantro and add to your bowl. Cover with lid or plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator while you work on your tostones.
Are twice fried plantains that get a beating between bouts in the frying pan. These are delicious when served with ceviche instead of chips. Use them as you would a scoop to transport the delicious fishes to your mouth.
Oil ( I like coconut oil but in Nicaragua, they use corn oil)
Salt and pepper
Heat up your skillet with your oil of choice. Use enough oil to coat the inside of your skillet and give a depth of at least ¼ inch.
While the oil is heating up peel your plantain. Then cut the peeled plantain into thick coins- think ½ inch thick to ¾ of an inch. Your oil should be hot enough by now to toss your plantains into the skillet. Space them far enough apart to give them some breathing room. This helps them to brown. While the plantains cook, get out a cooling rack and line it with some paper towels. Flip each plantain coin once in the oil. They should look a little pale in the middle and golden brown on both sides by the time they make it to the cooling rack. Let them cool for a couple of minutes before you take them from the cooling rack back to your cutting board. Smash all your little golden brown nuggets of delicious with the bottom of a soda bottle or a glass. In Nicaragua, they use a coke bottle. At this point, if you want to be prepared for future tostone needs, it’s a great idea to freeze these babies so in the future all you have to do is the last bit of frying. If you’re opting out of the freezer route go ahead and get these guys back into the frying pan for just a couple of minutes. Take out and place back on the drying rack with a paper towel to absorb excess oil. Go ahead and season with pink Himalayan salt or sea salt, and black pepper. Plate with your ceviche as you might crackers, and get ready for a real treat.