Playa Gigante was a word-of-mouth discovery for us after meeting a few others who simply raved about the beaches, surf and beauty of the place. For our last week in Nicaragua, this sounded like the ideal location - more our sort of spot than over-cooked San Juan del Sur.
And we weren't disappointed. There are piglets scampering around the dusty roads, herds of cows and wild horses roaming the beaches and memorable sunsets. You can enjoy high quality surf on empty beaches by day and then buy your dinner from the returning fishermen
It was almost perfect, apart from two pivotal things we have to let you know about:
it is the most expensive place in Nicaragua we visited
Oh, Playa Gigante. You could have had it all and yet you decided to charge more than anywhere else in Nicaragua. Yes, ANYWHERE ELSE. That includes Little Corn - an island which has to ship all its food and drink 70 kilometres.
The solitary shop in the middle of town charges whatever the hell it likes and the surly staff will not make you feel welcome. If you have to depend on this place for booze and food, you will pay - on average - 25-30% more per item than an hour down the road. For their Flor de Cana rum, they particularly rip the piss, with a litre of 5 year old costing C$320 instead of C$150 in EVERY OTHER SHOP IN NICARAGUA!
In the bars, the average price for a litre of Tona was C$60. Everywhere else in the country it's C$40-45.
In El Camino - the main backpacker bar - they charge about C$160 for a breakfast of rice, beans and eggs vs. $C50-90 everywhere else.
This extortionate pricing policy - common across the majority of businesses in town - meant that Gigante lost a lot of brownie points from the get-go.
Thankfully, for the budget-savvy amongst us, there is a way around this - although it might involve a few kilometres walk! Determined to be able to enjoy the beautiful location without the need to exist solely on noodles, on our second day we caught the once daily bus to Rivas (leaves at 7.30 a.m.) with two empty backpacks and a comprehensive shopping-list.
Cans of tuna, two bottles of rum, fruit and veg, pasta, eggs, tortillas and other snacks were purchased so we only had to patronise the shop for emergency bottles of beer!
The accommodation is overpriced for what you get
The small town, despite ticking a lot of 'off-the-beaten-track' criteria, actually isn't in some key ways. It certainly has the vibe and setting - you have to put a bit of effort into getting here - but almost every second house has rooms and tourists almost outnumber locals.
Gigante reminded us a lot of Zipolite in Oaxaca state, Mexico - a place we planned on spending a few days and stayed for 3 weeks. A large factor in that was that the cost of our basic double room was £4/night.
In Gigante, we spent an entire morning looking around for the best value double rooms and were shocked to find only two at $20/night (these were small rooms with a private bathroom but no natural light or kitchen). The rate for most other places was closer to $30/night, which left us with no option but to stay at Monkey House for $25.
$25 IS THE MOST WE HAVE PAID FOR A ROOM ON OUR ENTIRE TRIP IN CENTRAL AMERICA!
The only other place we had paid this amount was in La Tortuga Verde, El Salvador where it got us the most beautiful hotel-style room with a pool and free yoga on the beach,
Here, it gave us a very small room and a shared shower with no shower curtain, no wifi, a tiny kitchen that was constantly being used by staff and family members so guests had to sit and wait, an unusable water supply and someone's thrice-weekly yoga class which chucked guests out of the hammock area without notice.
Ok, if we're being honest, it was one of the best settings for a hostel - perched on a cliff with an incredible view over the oceans and beach - but in no way did it justify being the most expensive place on our trip. However, it remained the best budget option we could find.
So, in Mexico at a backpacker beach town, you pay £4/night. In Gigante, you pay £15.
There really aren't that many budget places that you can book online in advance, but if you're visiting in high season, consider reserving with Gigante Bay which has dorm beds from £10, an outdoor pool and wifi (a rarity here!).
how to get there
Unfortunately, as with almost every other backpacker destination in the south of Nicaragua, a trip to Gigante cannot be undertaken without passing through Rivas - a major transit hub we have expressed our extreme displeasure for previously (in summary, every taxi-driver here is out to con you).
From Rivas, you have three options.
#1 - you can catch the direct bus to Playa Gigante. There is one bus a day, leaving at 1.30 p.m., which takes around 90 minutes. Please note, that this does not run on Sundays. This costs between $1-2 depending how much your conductor feels like charging gringos that day.
#2 - take the Las Salinas bus from Rivas ($1-2). Ask to be dropped off at the Gigante turn off, which well-signposted and well-known. Whilst this bus goes quite frequently on weekdays - unlike the above option - it will also require a five kilometre walk once you get off the bus.
It's a pleasant enough route, and you may be able to hitch a ride, but if you've got a large or heavy pack, it's not really ideal.
#3 - this final option involves tangling with some of our least favourite people - Rivas' taxi drivers.
The prices offered to gringos for this relatively short trip varies so much, depending on haggling style, size of group, time of day, day of week, and number of times you say no, so be prepared for a tough and lengthy negotiation.
We actually got quite a good deal, paying $10 for the two of us, but we had sat around refusing offers for about 90 minutes and it was a Sunday, so they were desperate for business. We met one girl however who had paid $35 on here own and another guy who paid $30.
The honest going rate seemed to be around $20 for the journey (for the whole taxi, not per person) - whatever you do, try not to pay much more than this.
surfing around town - what you need to know
- Aside from high quality surf, Gigante is actually a great place to learn. There are a lot of people offering lessons although, unsurprisingly, their rate is quite high at $30-45 for two hours.
- The cheapest board rental is $10 at Monkey House (on top the of the hill) or the shack on Playa Amarillo.
- Playa Amarillo is the most beautiful beach there and has great learner waves. It's a 10 minute walk from the main town, with the quickest way there being a walk up the cliff to enter Monkey House, where you'll then find some 'natural steps' down to the beach. Be careful on here, especially if you're walking with a surfboard. The best place for beginners is near the cliff, with stronger bigger waves at the far end of the beach.
- Playa Colorado has some of the most impressive swells and is the spot for more experienced surfers. Hostels do offer a boat service there for about $7, but this takes almost as long as walking there with your board. To get there, follow the above directions and walk to the end of Amarillo. Here's you'll find a track on the right leading through some some woods - follow this for 10-15 minutes and it will bring you out to the beach (remember shoes though as it's quite an unforgiving path!).
so is it actually worth it?
In short, you'd be mad not to hang out in Gigante for a few days. Despite the above rants, we don't regret staying there at all - in fact, it was our favourite beach town in Nicaragua. The surf was fantastic, it's a beautiful location and there's a good bunch of travellers who decide to visit.
So, no regrets, but quite a bit of resentment at the attitudes we faced. If there was a different attitude towards visitors and how much they can afford to pay, we could easily have stayed here for another two weeks.