This article appears in Volume 23: The Adventure Issue.

The questions are arbitrary, relentless and barked from an unsmiling face, eyes boring into mine, dark and stern. Finally, and with far less ceremony than the inquisition merits, a smudged purple stamp appears on my plane ticket. I’m a verified non-smuggler and on my way.

The largest country in Central America and also one of the safest, most visitors to Nicaragua snap pictures in the colourful colonial city of Granada, Tarzan-swing through the jungle, hike up a volcano and try their hand at surfing. Then it’s off to the beach town of San Juan del Sur for a notorious “Sunday funday” party. Mark and I bypass all this in favour of a rustic foray that takes us from the palms and piracy of the Caribbean to the windswept waters of the Pacific Coast.

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It begins on the Corn Islands, two tiny dots floating 50 miles off Nicaragua’s rugged and little-trodden eastern shore. Unlike many Caribbean holiday destinations, these deified lands are veritable Edens of fresh lobster and coconuts, consecrated in rum-soaked tales of shipwreck and slavery. We spend heat-fogged days circling the island on bikes – my bright-pink number not quite what I had envisaged for a serious adventurer – a ring of aquamarine licking the shore to our left and a frenetic hum of crickets emanating from the interior to our right. Each circuit brings new intrigue – a wild horse drinking from an abandoned fishing boat, a cheerful resident hailing us from a porch-front rocking chair, a garden bursting with sacuanjoche flowers, and a steaming bowl of rondon (a Creole dish of seafood poached in coconut milk).

With salt-matted hair, freckled noses and legs Braille-like from mosquito bites, we leave this tropical nirvana via a 12-seater propeller plane that flies like a piece in a child’s mobile caught in the breeze. The woman next to me rubs her rosary and mutters feverishly throughout. Then it’s a long, bumpy road to the Pacific serenaded by Celine Dion and Tina Turner, our driver happily belting out the lyrics in time but out of tune.

Our destination is El Transito, a beautifully ramshackle village that smells like seaweed and summer dreams. Washed-up surfer boys lounge on an unkempt beach and pigs, cows and chickens roam the parched streets. The sea is snake-green and the waves tumble onto sand that gets so hot in the midday heat that the soles of our feet blister. We wander along the shore picking up pebbles, a curiosity about what is beyond every new corner spurring us on. We clamber over volcanic rocks like mountain goats, faces set in concentration from trying to predict which stones will take our weight and which will lead to a broken ankle. Our efforts are rewarded when we chance upon a natural infinity pool carved out of sea-battered cliffs that is repeatedly filled by the tide. We strip off and slide in, the mineral-rich water warm but fresh. I envisage it seeping into my sun-tightened skin, restorative and hydrating.

On our way back we pass a modest beachfront restaurant where we’re greeted like old friends by Jonio, an olive-skinned sexagenarian with piercingly pale eyes that glitter with tales of bewitching a thousand women. He points to a deep hole in the slate-grey sand, says he’s going to cook a “big fish” in it, invites us to dinner there that evening and sends us on our way.

A travelling circus is in town. We make our way to the sun-bleached tent, pay a dollar for entry and buy popcorn from a young girl with mermaid-blue eyeshadow. It’s only when she gives me my change that I notice she’s crying. Clutching our hot, oily paper bags, we climb up to perch on rickety tiered seating that reminds me of the splintered kindling I would watch my father use to light a fire as a child. A bemused hour ensues, involving a family of clowns, some comical wrestling and a scantily clad dancer. We leave after the first act – having seen several springs lethally fly out of the trampoline as a leotard-clad teenager lands in the splits – keen to be on time for dinner.

The rose-gold-tinged snapper is placed in the centre of the table and we tear at it with our hands. The flesh is crumbly and falls off the bone – it has a smoky, almost earthy taste and we grapple over the tender meat behind the eyes. As the night and our trip draw to a close, Jonio keeps us lubricated with rum mixed with bitters and sweetened by the honey from his own bees, regaling us with stories of his 95-year-old father (still throwing wild parties in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, apparently).

Far from the standard surf and jungle itinerary, the Nicaragua we see is a place of pastel houses, rocking chairs, rum old-fashioneds and power ballads. Sun-washed memories flit through my mind like waves, a collection of vivid yet ethereal remembrances of people, places and things. I want to put them in one of those nostalgia boxes that may not be opened often but will always hold an indefinable power over its owner.

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