red snapper
The previous night I had been talked into waking up at an ungodly time. Six AM when you’re on vacation is almost criminal in my humble opinion. To go fishing. I was waking up early to go fishing.

A.D’s brother is a fishing fanatic. He’s been fishing all over the world, and since it was his last day* in Nicaragua, whatever he wanted to do- we were game. I noticed that this is the kind of place where many people are constantly coming and going. Every single one of those people has a mission when it comes to their last day in paradise. There are almost zero boring days here. I have only been fishing once before. That ill-fated day was at least two decades ago, on banks of the Chattahoochee river behind my Grandpa’s house in south Georgia. I remember being excited about catching a big fish like the game fishers on tv. So when my line got a nibble I over zealously reeled it in. I sent this poor tiny fish high into the tree branches above me. I watched, distraught as the life faded from its eyes, dangling like some sadistic Christmas ornament high in the branches above me. The best thing I can say about the experience is that hopefully, some bird got a free lunch that day. I felt guilty for killing something because of my own stupidity. So while fishing wasn’t exactly my thing, I did enjoy boats and drinking so, of course, I was going to go fishing at 6 am.
A.D knocked on my door half expecting me to still be in be in bed with sleep in my eyes, but I was already up, dressed and armed with sunscreen and a big hat. Our other friend, a Canadian named J met the three of us down on the beach. The four of us watched our little blue boat( which wasn’t more than 25 feet long ) get loaded up with beer, bait, and other fishing accouterments. Two locals were to be our guides and help us with finding the good fishing spots. The engine of our little blue boat jumped to life as we shoved off the beach. We all hopped in and promptly cracked a beer.
Since it was so early the air was still cool, and there was lots of activity in the water. From across the bay, we could see a large gathering of seabirds diving into the water- so that’s where we headed. As we got closer we started seeing pelicans and gulls, all diving in the water. It was incredible to see so many different kinds of birds in a feeding frenzy. Their bodies peppered the sky around us as they performed their breakfast dance. The agility on display was incredible. One bird would dive into the water almost sideways and flap its wings under water to come up moments later with a fish in its mouth. The bird would swim casually away while having its breakfast. We started seeing jumping fins in the water. They belonged to a large pod of spotted dolphins that were also having their breakfast. As we got closer to the action, the dolphins began to swim alongside our little boat. Their spots gave them the illusion that they were made of carved granite. Their sleek bodies powered through the water with an impressive prowess. It seemed as if they could turn on a dime. These were capable hunters, intelligently working together to serve up breakfast. Whatever they were chasing, invisible to us from above was swimming even faster. They were beautiful to watch. Seeing nature on display up close like that is awe-inspiring, to say the least.
It was around this time that we let out one of our trolling lines. It dragged behind us for a while, almost to the point of forgetting about it. We continued drinking. we became distracted admiring the incredible acts of nature happening all around us with the birds and dolphins. We were somewhat surprised when suddenly there was a fish on the line- and the rod was handed to me to reel in! I reeled and reeled as fast as I could. It seemed like the line was impossibly long. It was certainly a workout, and whatever it was seemed surprisingly heavy. As I reeled I had flashbacks to the time on the bank of the river behind my Grandpa’s house. I over zealously reeled in that tiny fish and got it stuck in the branches above me. This experience was the opposite of that.The line strained in my hands. I concentrated on reeling fast but steady- it’s a difficult and unfamiliar act of you’re not used to it. Suddenly I saw a glint of silver dancing in the water. It was about 10 pounds or so of silver tuna struggling at the end of the line. Our guides helped me to get the tuna on board for inspection.
    The tuna I reeled in is one of those fish that might have looked small when in the water by itself- with nothing else to compare it to for scale. On the line, it seemed huge to my novice fisherman-lady eyes. I was struck by how many scars it appeared to have. I admired its tenacity and even thought it kind of beautiful. It might as well have been a great white compared to the tiny fish I caught on the river bank those many years ago. But in actuality, it was a humble tuna, and evidently not the kind people eat. It was thrown back after the excitement of the catch was over. I watched as it swam away, seemingly unfazed. Part of me was sad that it got hurt for no reason. I know if it had been something we could have eaten then it would have ended up on a plate that night. Another part of me was glad to know it had another chance out there at life.
After the excitement of the first fish, the party picked up. We kept drinking, not caring that it couldn’t have been more than 7:30 am. As we motored out further away from our port of origin we began to get a great tour of the Nicaraguan coastline. We headed south of Playa Gigante, heading past Playa La Redonda towards Playa Guacalito. Across the bay, Costa Rica was visible in the distance. Apparently, people take boats from Nicaragua to Costa Rica all the time. The coastline was beautiful from the ocean. Seeing the high cliffs border the ocean reminded me that sometimes a change in perspective is all you need. The beach was sometimes dotted with huts topped by thatched roofs. Cabanas from local resorts on private beaches also popped up, but most of them were deserted at this hour. Occasionally there would be a house that was so magnificent that it became the topic of conversation. By the time cliffside mansions by the sea became the topic of conversation we were all fishing. I wish I had a better camera with me so I could capture the unique aesthetic. Modern architecture juxtaposed against slate gray volcanic rocks peppered with giant cacti brushed against turquoise water is quite striking.

 One of our guides gave me a handline to try my luck with. A handline is like a fishing rod, minus the rod. It’s all line, so at one end are the hooks, and the other end is a plank of wood that you hold to keep the line wound. After I got the hang of it I decided I much prefer this method of fishing. By getting rid of the rod you can feel even the slightest nibble from fish nibbling at the end of your line. I had a lot more luck because your hands are a lot more sensitive to the stimuli at the other end of the line. It must have worked out because all said and done I caught about six or seven fish that day by handline fishing. The biggest fish was a small grouper, but the majority of the fish we took home were red snapper. Another time, a blowfish had been the unlucky individual who took my bait. He was tossed back since they’re poisonous ( unless you’re a very adventurous eater). Like a gambler, I quickly became excited at getting a nibble, then trying to get the fish up as fast as possible to see what my luck had brought me.

Towards the end of our boat ride, I noticed something big and brown, that kind of looked like a tree stump floating in the water. We got a little closer to investigate, and to my delight realized I was looking at a sea turtle in the wild. Watching the brown loggerhead turtle peacefully swimming in the ocean inspired a moment of awe. Even though it was full grown, it seemed so tiny compared to the yawning expanse of ocean around it. The turtle seemed so blissfully at home, happy just swimming. The turtle seemed vulnerable to me, something unseen could just come from underneath and swallow it whole. It seemed a brave existence. I began to think about my own current situation, on a small boat out there. Anything could happen. The engine could die. We could run out of gas or perhaps we would run aground on some rocks- of course, no such thing happened. But it’s the kind of situation that makes you pause and think about your own lot in life. The turtle didn’t seem concerned in the slightest. It just kept on going minding its own business, doing turtle stuff. The turtle’s zen inspired my own.We were back on the beach by noon, and I decided to head back to my hut for a quick nap while the fish were cleaned. I woke up later to A.D’s brother knocking on my door asking me if I wanted to learn to surf. It’s something I’ve always wanted to learn. We drove his little rented car down a road with ruts so deep I was afraid the wheel might get stuck, but somehow as if by magic, we made it unscathed. While bouncing along Jamie (A.D’s brother) promised I would stand up on my first wave trying to surf. I was skeptical but willing to give it a try. We went to Amarillo beach, one cove over from the beach where my hut was, for the evening high tide. I took a long board out to the water, where Jamie gave me some instructions. “Wait until you see the white of the wave to stand up,” he said as he shoved me toward the beach. He kept his promise. I was able to stand up on the board, not on for the first time, but a few times. The ocean did remind me to respect its power, however. The waves were deceptively large. From the beach, they looked peaceful- but once you’re in the water the waves could easily be taller than your head. A few times I had trouble getting past the break in the waves with the board. I got swamped by a crashing wave that took my board from me forcefully. At the same time, it coyly wrapped my legs up in the leash under water. Surfing certainly wasn’t as easy as it looked and I had a new found respect for those I saw out there gracefully darting around.

After surfing it was time to get dinner underway, so we went to pick up the fish from our friend’s where they had been chilling in the refrigerator. We ended up driving down the dirt road while A.D was holding the bunch of fish out of the car window while trying to dodge the odd cow or stray dog. Gigante is the kind of place where there is some kind of party or get together almost every night of the week. All day we had been bumping into people inviting people to this fish fry. But when we looked at the fish we realized they hadn’t been scaled! Instead of trying to scale them and cook them ourselves we decided to try our luck taking our catch to a local restaurant to see if they would cook them for us. We went to a small open patio in the center of Gigante where a smiling older lady wearing long skirts was sitting. A.D’s wife Eve, who is by far the best at Spanish, acted as our humble translator to ask if she would cook our fish for us. Kechita, our hostess smiled and welcomed all of us to her home and restaurant, calling us “mi amore” as she patted us on the back and invited us in. I was stunned at the openness and kind generosity that was granted to us. I was a complete stranger, yet here I was being generously welcomed into her home. No questions asked and ushered to a long picnic table with about 6-8 other people in our party. The memory of that moment still blows me away. The warmth and simple kindness of a sincere smile served with a side of fresh fish. It made me embarrassed to think of how she might be treated in my country, and I did my best to have manners and humility. I certainly think the people of Nicaragua could teach the average American a thing or two about hospitality.

We brought our own beverages with us for that dinner, some people drinking the other Nica beer Victoria, or having mixed rum drinks. Fleur de Cana seems like the only rum allowed in the country so that mixed with “mixto” jugo or mixed juice.
Kechita brought out a jar of what they call salsa, to go with our fish. But it’s not salsa the way we think of salsa- this is something special. Everyone makes it at home. I suspect every home cook has their own recipe. It’s a bunch of grated up vegetables in a vinegar sauce and they eat it with every meal. Most common is grated carrots, onion, cabbage and peppers in vinegar.

     Our fish came out plate by plate as it was ready. A simple meal of pan seared fish with plantains and salsa- but man talk about an adventure. Everyone at the table that night had a hot plate. I walked home back to my hut with a full belly under the stars having had a once in a lifetime incredible adventure. That’s Nicaragua. I was immediately made to feel at home. Everyone had an open home and an open heart.

Nicaraguan Inspired House Salsa
Like I mentioned earlier, I suspect that every home cook in Nicaragua has their own personal recipe for this- so I put together the most common ingredients that I came across in the house salsa.  The process is simple- grate and chop all your ingredients. Put in a sealable jar, and cover with vinegar. I suspect that people also add a little bit of something new as the jar runs low so if you keep it going it becomes a living thing. You give it a little of this and it mingles with that which already lives in there- giving it an entirely new and deeply complex flavor profile.
Purple Onions
Various Peppers
White Vinegar

mixed chopped peppers
finished salsa

Leave a Reply