I’ve always loved the Spanish term ‘aficionado’ — a person of intense passions, someone who doesn’t just like things but burns for them. A true aficionado knows nothing of the ¯_(ツ)_/¯, they find life too vivid for such passive bemusement.
When I visited Nicaragua, a few months after the death of my dad, I decided to use the word aficionado as my guiding principle. I would travel with a feverish desire to discover the best food, drink, adventure and relaxation options the country had to offer.
The journey began, as so many good things do, with alcohol.
From the outside, the factory where Nicaragua’s famous Flor de Caña rum is distilled looks like a fortress. The walls are tall and imposing and the buildings are nondescript. Inside, the mythos that surrounds the art of spirit-making pulses through the compound. Coopers bang barrels together made with staves imported from Kentucky’s bourbon country, and sugarcane is grown on every open patch of soil.
As we toured a vast warehouse, my guide showed off a pallet of barrels that had been combined and re-combined (to account for evaporation) over the course of decades. This rarest of all vintages is occasionally bottled and presented by Flor de Caña’s owner, Carlos Pellas, to visiting dignitaries and A-list movie stars. Like a true aficiondado — well aware that luck favors the bold — I asked for a taste.
My request was denied. Politely but emphatically.
After the tour, I descended down a stone staircase leading into a cool, dimly lit cellar. There, I was met by one of Flor de Caña’s master rum tasters — aficionados of the highest order who tirelessly test and sample the various rums (cool job if you can get it). The gem of the tasting was the Centenario 25, a new(ish) addition to the brand’s dark rum lineup and its longest-aged retail product (the closest I’d ever get to trying that Pellas family private stock). Though I’m an alcohol-tasting amateur, I picked up flavors of caramel, vanilla and chocolate in the Centenario 25. There was a touch of smokiness too, I think.
Or at least that was my exacting critique before the second glass was poured and my brain went foggy. Aficionados don’t turn down free rum.
Nicaragua isn’t renowned as a food-lovers destination, which is exactly why it was perfect for my trip. Eating through France or Mexico is blissful, but the tracks are well tread. Part of what ignites my aficionado’s fervor for food is the sense of discovery that I felt in Nicaragua. The country’s star dishes are relatively standard fare for Central America, a bean and rice dish called gallopinto, grilled meats, and fried plantains. But when a street vendor elevates her food from mundane to extraordinary with a deft application of technique, those simple ingredients can be transcendent — a phenomenon I tasted in out-of-the-way villages all over the country.
The culinary highlight of the trip came in in Granada — a historic, Caribbean-feeling outpost on the edge of Lake Nicaragua. There, my traveling companions and I took an early morning stroll through a bustling marketplace. The whole crowd seemed to have agreed on launching the day with enthusiasm; everyone was clamoring for something, and my clumsy Spanish didn’t make it easy to figure exactly what. Meat? Cheese? Was that woman selling beef tongue or did she just want to chat? Still, if you can’t be charmed by one of these markets—where cellphone chargers and dried octopi dangle just inches from one another—then you might as well stay home.
In all of this hustle, I saw a woman holding a giant cake pan, occasionally resting it on her head. Being six-foot-one, significantly taller than most Nicaraguan nationals, I was able to see that this giant pan had only three pieces of cake left. By the size of it, I figured there were at least 100 pieces to begin. The very idea that this woman was almost out of cake at 7am thrilled me.
“It might be yesterday’s cake,” one of my friends suggested.
I gave the offending party a withering stare. “But what if it isn’t? What if people wake up early just to get a piece? What if they come from miles around to have one piece?”
During this short exchange one of the last pieces was swooped up. Without further debate, I rushed to buy the last two pieces. The cake was impossibly moist and the frosting was creamy and rich. It was not yesterday’s cake. It was a locally made slice of heaven, an organically arrived upon culinary discovery (and discovery, after all, is why food aficionados obsess to such a degree).
“What do you think?” I asked the aforementioned dubious travel partner.
She was unable to speak—on account of her mouth being full.
Of all the types of terrain, my true passion is for the jungle. Forget pristine mountain views—give me a tangled vine that just might be a pit viper. Give me bugs that can debilitate me for weeks, swollen rivers and the constant cacophony of a world teeming with life.
I found these things near in the southern town of El Castillo. The settlement is built around an 18th century fortress used to turn back sea rovers and scalawags traveling up the Rio San Juan during the age of sail. Though it sees little tourist traffic these days, Mark Twain once visited, mentioning it in glowing terms in his travelogues.
“About noon, we swept gaily around a bend in the beautiful river,” he wrote, “and a stately old adobe castle came into view, a relic of the olden time, of the buccaneering days of Morgan and his merrymen.”
But while Twain left El Castillo in a sternwheeler, my friends and I departed in a rented canoe—off to camp in the jungle. It didn’t take much of a paddle to find the isolation we were looking for, the rainforest encroaches on the town from all sides. Rattan creepers slither out of the jungle and twine along the foundation of any building they find, seeking a hold, acting as the rain forest’s persistent fingers, prying apart stones and wrapping up fence posts. Nicaragua has no shortage of actual flesh-eating plants, but in a certain way, all the jungle plants seem carnivorous.
Near dusk, my traveling companions and I made camp along the banks of the Rio San Juan. Fearing rain, we tied a few tarps up in low-growing trees. Next, we tried to start a fire, but everything we found had the consistency of books that had been dropped in the bathtub. Eventually, we got a small blaze cracking and fed it with coconut husks. As the fire started to spit sparks into the ever-darkening sky, I celebrated this victory with an odd, happy little jig. Seconds later, the dance took a turn for the grotesque when I discovered fire ants crawling up my legs and biting me in places I’d spent my entire life hoping to never get bitten.
“Is anyone else—”
“YES!” came the resounding answer as my friends and I slapped our legs, twirled, spun and futilely tried to apply bug spray mid-onslaught.
“At least we have a fire,” I said, when the first wave of ants finally gave us a moment’s rest.
It was just then that the sky opened and a torrential downpour began. The fire died with little more than a hiss. Our dinner was questionable, our sleep was minimal and when we did manage to get comfortable, the fire ants came back around and reminded us exactly whose jungle it was.
All told, it was hands down, the best night of my trip. I was bit to all hell, but I felt so alive.
Departing from El Castillo, we boarded a ferry, crossed lake Nicaragua and headed to the beaches north of San Juan del Sur. It was finally time to relax, in a world utterly devoid of poison dart frogs and bullet ants (two deadly species that we observed while hiking through the same rainforest we’d camped in). We surfaced first at Maderas Village, a stylized guesthouse and retreat. Matt Dickinson, owner of the property, has such a warm, welcoming vibe that when he greeted our crew with the words “I’m glad you found us” I wondered if we’d perhaps stumbled onto a cult.
After a few days, I realized that if Maderas was a cult, it was the sort of cult that I’d be in grave danger of joining. The place is filled with young, beautiful people playing bocce ball and backgammon. They offer easy smiles over the rims of smoothie cups, practice yoga and watch the sunset while bobbing in the surf. At the end of the day, they dine family-style at long hardwood tables that Dickinson made himself. I would argue that there are few places on the planet better for itching fire ant bites and reminiscing over the wild pleasures of the jungle.
After a few days of languorous lounging, my trip came to a comfortable close. I’d surfed, hiked, swilled rum, eaten the best piece of cake in my life and relaxed on the beach — all with an aficionado’s gusto.
For two weeks, my various passions had burned with red-hot intensity.
Much like the bites from the fire ants.
A drink while you plan your own Aficionado Adventure:
Three Sisters with Flor de Caña Rum
- 2 oz Flor de Caña 7yr Rum
- 1 1/2 oz Pumpkin Mix*
- 1 oz pepita syrup **
- 1/2 oz lemon
- Shake and strain over fresh ice into Tom Collins glass.
- Garnish with sage leaves.
- 4 cups OJ
- 500 gr cut up butternut squash
- 1 vanilla bean split and scraped
- 1/2 tsp ginger powder
- 1/2 tsp cloves (powdered)
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon powder
- 1 tsp graded nutmeg
- Bring to a light boil until the squash becomes soft.
- Remove vanilla beans.
- Blend in Vitamix until fluid
- 1 cup pepitas
- 8 oz water
- 2 oz vodka
- Toast pepitas for 5 min on sheet tray 350F
- Blend in Vitamix with water and vodka
- Let sit over night
- Strain through a chinois
- Add sugar 1:1 warm up until sugar dissolves
Courtesy of Christiaan Rollich
Head Barman — Lucques, a.o.c. & Tavern