ChicaBrava review: It’s five am and I’m shivering out behind the backline, watching the green waves peel into a thunder of white water. The sun is casting her first glance across the surface, there are five of us in the ocean, all girls, and not another soul in sight. Suddenly someone is yelling at me to paddle, ‘don’t look behind, don’t look behind’. I desperately cling to the mantra knowing if I turn my head I will lose the courage building inside of me. Someone gives me that last little shove I need to make the wave and suddenly I am flying, I feel my first drop down and the salt spray kiss my skin. A wild sense of joy fills me right up, causing every second of worry and anxiety I ever had about anything to momentarily be washed away. The world becomes brighter, everything simpler, and I am barely even aware of the girls cheering and whooping with joy back in the water. I have never felt so strong.
Many years ago I found my happy place, I first discovered it one rainy autumnal afternoon in Wales, a day when the wind howled and the sea lashed. This happy place I discovered was me stood on top of a surfboard, dancing on white water and feeling every ounce of life soaring through my veins. For a time, I surfed every weekend but then life got in the way.
Fast forward I find myself on an all-girls surf retreat in the slip of a country called Nicaragua. I’ve been here a day and I am in love. This is a country puckered with cone shaped volcanoes, their tips shrouded in mist, awash with golden corn fields and wild white horses galloping across pretty prairies. This is a place where tangled vines grab hold of trees, where the coo of howler monkeys echoes through the jungle, and where there is no better way to spend an afternoon than swinging in a hammock with an ice cold Tona in hand.
I was to stay with ChicaBrava for a few days, not down in the lively backpacker town of San Juan del Sur, but up in the midst of the hills with impeccable views across the bay. I was already in love with the idea of all girl’s surf camp – it was to combine my two favorite things in the whole world- surfing, and the camaraderie of female friendships. Ashley Blaylock, a Texan gal with six surf championships beneath her belt had started the camp many years ago, before the first smoothie bar hit San Juan and brought with it the small droves of tanned surfers and barefoot travelers. I loved Ashley right away, there was a fire in her eyes and she commandeered nothing but respect when she spoke about wanting to set up something that gave a hell of a lot more than it took from the local community.
ChicaBrava has given a ton back, not only to all the women that pass through the camp, but also in a much wider sense. The lead instructor Elsi was and is one of the first Nicaraguan women to surf, making her a pioneer in the sport considering that the culture still sees a woman’s place as in the kitchen with her babies tied to her apron strings. They also invite the local girls for sleepovers at their surf house in town and take them surfing, offering them a glimpse into a different way of life, one riddled with potential and possibilities through Camp Bella. Camp Bella focuses on ending gender oppression, helps to tackle human trafficking, and reaches out to the local community. All these things just add to the sheer wonder and beauty of ChicaBrava helping to empower women.
But anyway, back to the trip. We were whisked away to the satellite property perched on top of a hill. The sunset every night was an oil painting flaming with orange and gold and flecked with silver streaks and lavender fingers. We would sprawl out on the lounge beds beside the shimmering pool with wine glasses in hand, watching the last light go out and chatting as the stars started to graze the skies. This was a place where the beds were groan-in-delight soft, where bougainvillea framed the charming verandah, and where air conditioning and hot water (both rarities in Nicaragua) welcomed you in for an easy sleep. Our surf camp package veered towards the luxury side with three home cooked meals a day, yoga to start the morning, and even a horseback ride through the glorious cloud farm. Aside from this, there was of course a ton of surfing to be done too.
You may think a surf camp would attract those blonde haired blue eyed Californian girls who are pros out on the water and know all the right terminology when talking about cutbacks and swell size. I’m sure those girls rock up at ChicaBrava from time to time but this is a camp that seems to attract women from a thousand different stories. ‘Often women come here to be healed’ one of our instructors Sarah explains ‘perhaps they have gone through a divorce, lost their job, or simply want to steal some time back to find themselves, we get women as young as 18 and even as old as 60’. I feel a flutter inside when I think about all these women being inspired by ChicaBrava.
Our three instructors are perhaps some of the most inspirational people I have ever met, all with their own story of leaving a tired life behind to find serenity and joy within the waves. I gawp at the girls with their sun-bleached locks, their golden skin, their quick and easy nature to invite a smile, and their utter fearlessness and grace both in and out the water. These girls were lawyers and accountants and now they are living life in a bikini, surfing every day, and helping women across the world to become a more empowered version of themselves. Yet, it’s not all one sided, as Steffi, our other instructor notes ‘The women who come here to ChicaBrava also empower us, we are inspired by them and their stories, their bravery and their inner beauty’. It’s a beautiful balancing act of give and take that we are all involved in and this only adds to my strength.
My goal for the week had been to gain my courage back in the water and each and every girl gifted me a little more strength with each and every passing day. They saved me from churning white water, they pushed me into waves, they called to me like sirens to paddle out with them, they cheered like crazy when I caught a wave, they laughed with me when I wiped out, and they seemed to have some deep inbuilt intuition to know every flicker of anxiety that passed through my mind and how to soothe it. Not only were they awesome friends in the water but out of the water too, we ate ice cream together, uncorked wine, hiked around town, and even fed the monkeys that liked to hang in the trees close to the beach.
Back up at the house when we weren’t surfing we were dipping in the Azul hues of the pool, passing out at 9pm with surfer’s exhaustion or eating another feast that Catalina the house mama had whipped up for us. Catalina is a woman who knows how to cook; mornings are all about hot coffee, banana pancakes, fried plantains and pineapple jam. Lunches are grilled chicken tacos smothered in fresh guac, and dinners are a heavenly concoction of barbequed meats, freshly caught fish, colorful salads and gallos pintos. Surfing burns a lot of calories, and Catalina knows how to make sure you don’t go hungry. In typical house mama fashion, she is also wonderful at giving affectionate squeezes and storming into the shower and removing the tiny spider when you have run naked from it screaming about a tarantula. Yes, that happened.
Many people use throw away terms like ‘the best time of my life’ but I genuinely mean it when I say that my time with ChicaBrava was one of the best experiences in my thirty-one years on the planet. The effortless ease of living around women and girls, the gorgeous house with the amazing Catalina making our coffee each day, the fun bumpy rides to the beach in the back of the surf truck, the ecstatic elevation you feel when you watch another of your camp friends catch an awesome wave, and the unrivalled splash of pure inspiration and joy you feel from having accomplished something as cool as surfing – this is what great living is all about. I feel like I found myself out there in those waves again, or at least I found who I want to be, I’m going home and buying a surfboard. I’m going home with those whoops and cheers in my ears. I’m going home having rediscovered my happy place. And I’m going home a ChicaBrava.