The heat in Nicaragua was a presence, an overbearing guest who laughed too loud, came on too strong and interrupted each and every private conversation. It was so hot that it was impossible not to personify the thick, humid night. I was sporting a new knee brace courtesy of an oddly painful knee twist on the surfboard, Day 1. It was now Day 6 of the ill-fated surfing safari, and it felt like I had the equator itself wrapped around my leg.
It hadn’t cooled off, remarkably, since the sun had set on our sailing adventure from San Juan del Sur just past Playa Maderas, despite the steady flow of rum punches and the lemon and cilantro spiced Loro, or Parrot Fish, ceviche, prepared by Byron, our helpful and talented First Mate. We’d docked at dusk and hailed a taxi to the coveted hilltop setting of the world-famous Pelican Eyes Resort, hoping to catch the last of Happy Hour and a touch of the First World, Third-World style.
There were 10 of us: the jovial Australian birthday crew, my two friends and I, Jason our surf instructor and his girlfriend Vicki, our yoga teacher, Billy the surfer from San Francisco and Mike, international man of mystery, hailing from Amsterdam, Bakersfield, Houston and Abu Dhabi, respectively, now living and mildly working in Nicaragua. We found a table overlooking the pool and the whole of San Juan, the lights twinkling in the thick night air, the silhouettes of the ships in the harbor illuminated by an ominous statue of Jesus on the hill. I’d watched Him go from daytime white to an eery neon-esque green; when evening fell, He began to glow, a beacon on the hill watching over the bustling night.
We contemplated the view but once again, the heat interrupted, demanding our undivided attention. I kicked off my flip-flops and shimmied out of my beach skirt; no dressing room needed, no need for modesty. Grappling with the elements whittles away at decorum. To cool off was my only goal.
I waded into the bar-side pool and sighed. The still water washed over me, the salt in my hair mixing with chlorine and the feel of cool relief on my skin. 2-for-1 margaritas added up to about $12 U.S., surprisingly steep after a week of Flores de Cana rum, $4 a bottle, and bottles of Vittoria beer, cheaper than water. We savored the pool and the change-up in music for a little while longer: Beyonce and the single ladies had given way to a live Nicaraguan jam band, whose set list was riddled with romantic ballads, all in Spanish and therefore all exotic. But we decided not to risk 2-for-1 dinner items, geared towards tourists such as ourselves, and head somewhere more authentic for dinner.
We contemplated the best way to get back down the steepest driveway in Nicaragua. Our taxi driver had made a few running starts before gunning it to the top and sputtering to a stop at the bellstand; we tried to find a good deal and a good driver for the trek back to town. My caveman Spanish serves me for the basics: more beer, please; can I use your bathroom (do you have a bathroom?), mas agua, por favor. I can get my needs met in Spanish but often feel like I should be waving a club over my head, uttering nouns and verbs in the infinitive, my speech completely devoid of articles or prepositions or conjugation of any sort.
But I managed to negotiate with the driver, convincing him to pile in a few more people than the recommended passenger load, and Silvio rolled us down to town, stopping just south of the church on Avenida del Calvario in front of a dimly-lit sign for El Colibri. It was nearing 10:15 and I feared it might be close to closing, but a refined, elegant woman moved through the garden to greet us with a warm gesture and a welcome smile.
10 people? No problem. Please, follow me. She led us through a courtyard, subtly-lit by lanterns and candles and strewn with artifacts and touches of Morocco, Greece, the imagination and the Greater Mediterranean. Our table was nestled under a huge mango tree, amidst the colorful, fragrant flora and the plentiful fauna of our host country. El Colibri means Hummingbird in Spanish and fittingly, the garden was buzzing with the creatures of the Nicaraguan night. Lizards clicked and scurried along the tiled floor and into the bushes, while frogs buzzed and fireflies whizzed by and always, there was the hum of the national bird, El Mosquito.
Our proprietess was Mary Jane O’Hanlan, hailing from the British Isles via a love for Mediterranean ambiance and cuisine. El Colibri feels like a Souk, or a Casbah, or what you think either of those would resemble, with smoky lighting and mysterious music and and rich fabrics draped around the patio, should a breeze ever decide to blow.
To fully convey the upcoming culinary delights, she thankfully spoke in English. Full menus were placed in front of us but first, Mary-Jane wanted to share the specials. Raw watermelon gaspacho, with cucumber, organic extra-virgin olive oil and seedless watermelon, infused with champagne vinegar. And a touch of fresh avocado. Albondigas, or Spanish Meatballs, a local favorite, served in a spicy tomato sauce of red wine, garlic and onion. She read off one delectable special after another: Traditional Caprese Salad. Southern Indian Chicken Curry. Filet Mignon in a bacon cream sauce. Beef Kabobs over a bed of couscous. And a taste of simple Aegaean cuisine, straight from Kalymnos, Greece: local Parrot Fish, seasoned with onion, salt and pepper and served in a sweetened tomato sauce.
“Loro?” I inquired, remembering the word for Parrot Fish from Byron’s fresh ceviche on the sailboat. “Yes, very good!” Mary-Jane smiled, pleased with my increasing vocabulary. There were about 12 nightly specials in all, leading us to wonder what could be left on the actual printed menu.
Both nightly, and special, is El Colibri’s Rum Sangria. We had each ordered our own bottled water to hydrate but our hostess suggested a few pitchers of House Sangria for the table – to keep that core temperature down. It was sublime, full of plump oranges and tropical fruits, pineapple and papaya and a slice of watermelon, all swimming in red wine and Flor de Cana, Nicaragua’s most popular aged rum. I’d been enjoying my fair share of Flor con hielo (i.e on the rocks) all week long, as surfing safari morphed into sedentary beach vacation; tonight, Flor’s touches of dark chocolate, caramel and spices blended dangerously well in the quickly melting pitcher of Sangria.
My knee brace situation earned me the roomier seat at the head of the table and from there, I contemplated the beauty of our setting: good old friends and interesting new ones, the bright blue lantern casting a mysterious glow at our feet and brightly-colored folk art strewn across the patio. Every 15 minutes or so, our hostess brought out fresh pitchers of ice; not to freshen up our drink, but to refresh our faces, necks and any and all exposed body parts in the relentless humidity. I’d ordered the hot, deliciously spicy Albondigas and it seemed to have reignited my core body temperature. Giving no thought to what the neighbors might think. Mysterious Mike grabbed a cube and placed it on his forehead, groaning in delight as it dripped down the middle of his nose, bounced off his chin and dribbled onto his plate. I followed suit, running a cube around my throat and across my clavicle, rolling my eyes in appreciation at the new sensation.
The heat quieted down, just for a moment, as the sangria danced through our heads and the meal lingered on our palettes. Like the quickly disappearing ice, we melted into the total sensuality of an evening at El Colibri.