Ten kilometers west of Rivas  is the agricultural community of Tola, gateway to the steadily improving shore road and a string of lonely, beautiful beaches that make up thirty kilometers of Pacific shoreline.
The word is out and land prices are rising but the beaches west of Tola are still far less developed than San Juan del Sur  and retain some of their fishing village character.
Tola is famous in Nicaragua as the subject of a common expression: “Te dejó esperando como la novia de Tola” (“He left you waiting like the bride of Tola”), which recalls the real-life soap opera of a young woman named Hillary, who, on the day of her wedding, was left at the altar at Belén while the groom, Salvador Cruz, married his former lover, Juanita.
In Tola proper, many travelers have stayed and worked with Doña Loida (an influential Sandinista leader, elected Mayor in 2004) of Esperanza del Futuro (tel. 505/2563-0482), who can help arrange cheap room and board from a week to six months.
Her foundation provides education to local campesinos and provides a library, sewing co-op, and gardens; classes in guitar, agriculture, herbal medicine, and computers are offered. Find them on the road that leads from the park to the baseball field/basketball court, about 100 meters past the baseball field.
There are a few decent eateries in Tola, the most popular of which is Lumby’s.
North up the coast from San Juan del Sur , and an hour outside Rivas , Gigante is the first beach you come to after Tola and is named after the Punta Pie de Gigante (The Giant’s Foot), the rock formation you’ll see on the left side of the beach. The community of Gigante consists of a beautiful crescent beach, a few dozen poor homes occupied by about 500 locals—mostly fishermen—several restaurants and a few surf camps.
Avoid this beach during Semana Santa, when it gets crowded with locals who camp out on the beach, get phenomenally drunk, and run cockfights.
Las Salinas is a humble fishing community whose lovely beach is popular among surfers. La Tica is its restaurant and hospedaje where spartan rooms cost about $4 per person. Nearby hot springs are worth exploring if you get sick of the beach (ask at La Tica for directions) but are also used by local families to wash clothing, so they’re not exactly pristine.
The Surf Sanctuary (tel. 505/8894-6260, www.thesurfsanctuary.com ) is a surf camp with restaurant, bar, TV, Internet, movies, and the works. For $60 per day, guests enjoy a private house with four beds, bath, hot water, air-conditioning, private porches, and pool; weeklong all-inclusive packages cost about $1,250 per person.
Options for drop-in accommodations in and near Playa Gigante are sparse. Hotel Brio (tel. 505/8433-9737, www.hotelbrio.com , $20–30 with fan and private bath) sits atop a hill 300 meters back from the beach, with ocean views, a fresh paint job, and Wi-Fi. They also offer bunks for $14 a night with air-conditioning; this is your best bet for staying in a moderately priced room near Playa Gigante. They also have two 25-foot pangas for surfing and fishing tours. Hotel Blue Sol ($8 with fan) rents out a few rooms right at the beach but should be your last resort unless you like bedbugs. The restaurant is said to have the best tacos in town.
Giant’s Foot Surf Lodge (tel. 505/606-9071, www.giantsfoot.com ) rents out two adjacent beachfront lodges with air-conditioning, fan, and private bathroom; full capacity is 12 guests. Amenities include table tennis, a fire pit, hammocks, DVDs, books, and board games. Weeklong packages cost about $1,300, everything included except your airfare; discounts are available in the off-season.
At Dale Dagger’s Surf Lodge (Playa Gigante, tel. 505-8921-8694, Dale [at] NicaSurf [dot] com, www.nicasurf.com ), $1,450 a week gets you cushy digs, a ride from the airport, all meals, and unlimited trips to some of the best and least-known breaks in Nicaragua, returning to the luxury of air-conditioning, wireless Internet, and running hot water. Save a few bucks by staying in the dorm called El Acopio for about $60 per night. Dagger was the first foreign surfer to come to Nicaragua and scout the waves (he shipwrecked here in the 1990s and never left), and his knowledge of the coastline is unparalleled.
Momo’s Camp (tel. 505/8990-1531, www.surfcamp-nicaragua.com ), run by Vincent and Theresa, has all-inclusive packages for $750–1,500 per week with two daily boat trips to the best waves between Popoyo to the north and Manzanillo to the south.
Two big, airy ranchos sit right on the beach: La Gaviota is famous for its plato típico de Gigante featuring seasonal seafood ($4–11). El Mirador prepares popular breaded fish nuggets (deditos de pescado). Buy fresh seafood in the mornings from three local acopios (storage houses) and buy everything else from Pulpería Mena.
It’s really best to have your own vehicle to reach Gigante. Otherwise, take the Las Salinas bus from Tola or Rivas  and get off at the first entrance to Gigante. You’ll have to walk or hitch about four kilometers to reach the beach. Taxis are few and far between, but anyone driving a pickup will probably let you hop in back.
Only one bus a day goes all the way to Gigante; on the way home, a school bus departs in the morning for Rivas at around 5:30 a.m. ($1).