Palm trees beside an old crumbling building on the beach

Las Penitas: A Ticking Tourism Time Bomb

Mark Stewart Destinations 6 Comments

There’s nobody here.

This beach stretches on as far as you can see in both directions, yet there might be ten people in view at any given time; maybe up to the mid-twenties later in the afternoon to catch the sunset.

And this is peak season.

It has nothing to do with being some well-kept secret, the “hidden gem” aspect has been lost many years ago. However, being only thirty short minutes by bus from downtown León, the strip of coast around Las Peñitas seems to cater more to day-trippers from the city than long-term visitors. And based on our experience anyway, we can see why; though we didn’t quite understand the reason until recently.

Given the stunning beaches, perfect surf breaks, seemingly endless fresh seafood, and friendly people; the whole area had a slightly gloomy undertone to it. Accommodation and food options weren’t overwhelming, aside from the sporadically spread hostel-bar-restaurant combos you’d find along the beach road itself. That being said, some of the most amazing food we’d eaten in weeks was at a few of the often unnamed little three-table spots along the road; from full traditional Nicaraguan breakfasts, to whole fried fish or grilled chicken platters, all for only a few dollars.

It Doesn’t Add Up

Unfortunately, aside from the beach itself, the most obvious sights were the multitude of often half-built and crumbling buildings, and seemingly abandoned vacant properties – all for sale. With such outstanding potential and nearly instant access to the gringo trail, we couldn’t understand the physical ambience of the town and immediate surroundings. While a lack of tourist hordes isn’t something we’d ever complain about, it just didn’t seem to add up.

It turns out that back in 1992, following a magnitude 7.7 earthquake directly west of Nicaragua, a tsunami reaching up to nine metres high struck most of the country, devastating the communities along the coastline. Las Peñitas was one of the villages that took some of the worst damage. Happening long before the recent discovery of Nicaragua on the backpacker radar, the area was mostly left as it was following the disaster.

A common sight around Las Peñitas
Now We Wait

The properties sit vacant for now. Occasionally you’ll pass one with a security guard holding post near some makeshift gate, others have no gate at all. The odd spot has been purchased and transformed into a hostel, but the majority still sit empty. Asking around we’ve learned that many people have tried to purchase the vacant lots with no luck, the owners seemingly unwilling to sell – for now at least. It seems as though the landowners are just sitting, waiting for the time when the big players move in to buy up every inch of beachfront property, catering to the inevitable snowbirds and cruise ship tourists.

Visit Nicaragua soon. Skip the tourist scene, spend time in these smaller towns, stay in some quiet hostel. Enjoy the brilliant surf and deserted beaches. Eat incredible food at the little bamboo and palm-leaf restaurants that double as corner stores, while supporting the local community. A time will soon arrive when a place like this no longer exists.

It Won’t stay like this for long…
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Comments 6

    1. Post

      I’m not sure if we felt sad as much as unease, seeing so many crumbling properties left abandoned. But it’s definitely on it’s way back, and it’ll be big.

  1. I lived in Nicaragua from 2006-2007 and taught school there, and a representative from a land developing company came and tried to sell all of us teachers a plot of land near a beach that would “one day” be a town, with paved streets, fiber optic cable, and electricity. The prices were low, maybe $10,000 for the land (but at that time I had basically no money). I always wonder what would have happened if I had bought one- would I be on a beach right now, retired? Or would I be fighting with some other person who had also purchased that same plot of land?

    1. Post

      Haha, yeah the “what-if” question haunts me all the time! Although you’re possibly right about fighting with people, I’ve heard many stories of land disputes in certain areas of Nicaragua. I think it’s much simpler (and safer) to do such things now, unfortunately the word is out and prices have gone up considerably!

  2. Reading this made me feel dread once a world superpower finally decides to “invest” in “developing” Nicaragua only to turn into another Sihanoukville or Phu Quoc which has been gone cases.

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