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Gato Negro Cafe, San Juan Del Sur, Pacific Coast of Nicaragua

08.04.14

Price of a beer in a bar: US$1.20-1.40 is reasonable, especially on the beach, but anything higher for 12 ounces of domestic beer and you should move on

Song currently stuck in my head: I Want Your Sex (George Micheal)

It’s 9am and “I Want Your Sex” is playing at Gato Negro… nope, looks like someone just realized what it was, based solely on the opening instrumentation, and hit “next”. I was enjoying that, but the customer seldom comes first around here. A cup of their coffee costs 40 Cords (US$1.60), which is kind of a lot, but you get 2 refills and they grow and roast the beans themselves so it’s a uniquely good cup. I don’t really care “who” grew or roasted it, I’m not planning on tracking them down and suggesting we hang out or anything, but the local roasts tend toward medium. I like a cup (or three) of dark and Gato goes dark(ish).

It always takes me a few days to click into a new town; the disorientation of travel clouds my head and leaves me wary of the whole situation. What am I doing here? I know there are several things to accomplish at the onset, but without a clear understanding of my goals it’s hard to prioritize. Are there warning signs that I should heed before committing to 30 days of rent in a given town? Shouldn’t I be in The Caribbean? I’m in SJDS, a Pacific beach town with a growing resemblance to Montanita (Ecuador). The Girlfriend and I lived here for 3 months (or something) about 3 years ago, but it was a town on the make whose momentum was only temporarily dulled by the recent global economic woes so change was, as always, inevitable. I’ve kept tabs from afar and every blog entry and trip advisor review mentioned restaurants I’d never heard of and all of their names were in English. This village is, more or less, 9 square blocks with some fringe on either side, so these developments seemed significant. What did I find? It’s about the same, except with a handful of new restaurants, most of which have English names (or Gringo-friendly Spanish names like “Taco Loco” or “Nacho Libre”). The cafe/bar/restaurants are slowly pushing from the beach toward the steep hill in the back of town; that’s a total of 3 blocks and they’re about 2/3 of the way there. You can see the property value recede as you travel those 3 blocks, but in that 3rd block you can actually see gentrification on a micro scale.

So yesterday, after about 6 days, I clicked into SJDS. It’s always a welcome relief to finally gain that clarity of thought, especially when there’s so much to explore. I’d left the fish market with a little over a pound of barracuda and intentions of ceviche. As I walked the waterfront the tide was up and the waves were whitecapping, scribbling jagged concentric arcs of glare that echoed the curve of the beach. I’d had my apartment for 4 days and was starting to get a feel for the rhythm of the place. I wasn’t sure what to expect during this visit and I’m just starting to understand what I’ve found. I ran into a familiar face back in Leon, a gringo I’d met a few times in SJDS back in ’10. This is always tricky down here; there are plenty of people that don’t want to be recognized for one reason or another and I respect that. It can make them uneasy when someone they don’t quite remember starts asking what they’ve been up to. We pieced together enough “yeah, I was there some of the time then, yeah, Blues Night at Big Wave Dave’s, sure” style overlap to get conversationally comfortable and he gave me his take on SJDS: “It’s over. Nicaragua overall is going the way of Costa Rica fast.” I see what he means. Other long time expats echo this observation. Someone in /r/solotravel or /r/iwantout was recommending SJDS as a destination, putting it between Rio and Thailand in their top 3. Wut? That’s bizarre company and I can’t quite understand what justifies it. There’s a whole new demographic here, kind of a Cancun crowd shoving itself somewhere between the backpackers and the well heeled vacationers. I haven’t figured out who they are; North American 3 week vacationers hitting the hot spots in Nicaragua? Aussie surf vacationers? There are backpackers, but they seem slightly… off. Too much makeup and their clothes are too pristine. I’m not criticizing the look (I can if you like, but I’m not at the moment), it’s just indicative of an easier ride than most backpackers experience; cheap shirts don’t come off a concrete washboard and line dry in good shape. I’m intrigued but also easily annoyed. The best way I can summarize it now, based on my superficial observance, is that the whole thing looks more like vacation than travel. Sunday Funday alone motivates an astounding number of visitors, basing several days of their travel around arriving in time for this and this alone. It’s not easy to find a shuttle from Leon to SJDS, but the one running the most dependably right now runs a dedicated shuttle on Sunday just for this event.

2 Responses to “Gato Negro Cafe, San Juan Del Sur, Pacific Coast of Nicaragua”

  1. Wade K. Says:

    But are the locals benefitting?

    • cgearhart Says:

      Hard to say without access to the numbers, and even then we’d be talking about comparing shares of the benefit. I’m probably going to get some of this wrong, but it gives you an idea of the *kind* of situation:

      The landlords are probably Nica, so they’re making rent and usually enjoying improvements to the property that the tenants pay for. It’s hard to say if that rent money then gets spent in town, but it’s likely it gets spent in Nicaragua.

      The jobs (kitchen, bartenders, etc) are filled by Nicas and foreigners alike, but mostly Nicas. So there’s local benefit there.

      Local attorneys, accountants and tax coffers are certainly getting their cut, as are Nica providers of meat, produce, beer, liquor, construction, equipment and more. There was plenty of building and remodeling going on and that was all money flowing directly into Nica hands.

      Well connected Nicas always have the business advantage over transplants and average citizens. Barrio Cafe, a longstanding tourist restaurant and attached hotel, is owned by a prominent Nica family and appears to be raking money in hand over fist. I’m told one of the beach bars is owned and run by a previous mayor’s wife. I don’t think the guy who was running it at the time even put up a fight when he was told he was getting “gringo-ed” and to move on.


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