I wasn’t sold on San Juan del Sur prior to my arrival. Fellow travelers warned me that this beach town was only known for its party scene and didn’t have much else to offer. Always one for a backup plan, I was ready to roll out to Granada early if I really hated what I was seeing. Expecting to be overwhelmed by hordes of party-hard spring breakers, I was pleasantly surprised to find a colorful beach town with a small community feel.
About San Juan del Sur
San Juan del Sur, or SJDS, was our first stop in Nicaragua. The town stretches across a crescent bay amongst a string of surfing beaches on the southwest Pacific coast. Once a quiet fishing town, SJDS has morphed into a hotspot for tourism. And when I say tourism, I’m not meaning industrialized resorts with high-rise hotels. I’m talking about a small downtown that retains its charm with colorful clapboard laden buildings.
Victorian-style inns and bright hostels line the streets throughout downtown. Tourists can dine in one the many trendy restaurants and beach-side bars, or can opt for the mouth-watering street food. The cobblestone streets maintain a consistent flow of taxis and chicken buses that pass by one of the many surf shops and clothing boutiques. The locale consisted of everything from surfers to backpackers, from Nicaraguans to Canadians (seriously, so many Canadians), and from 20-somethings to retirees.
That’s not to say that SJDS didn’t know how to party: it has Sunday Funday, one of the biggest bar crawls in Central America. Beyond the debauchery of this weekly tradition, there are plenty of other activities to keep you busy.
What I Hit
Hang Out at The Surfing Donkey
The Surfing Donkey is one of the many hostels in San Juan del Sur. Steve and I really enjoyed our time here. We found this place to be one of the most welcoming hostels we had ever stayed in (must be all of those Canadians). It was the perfect balance of a social environment without it getting too insane. Things quiet down at around 10 PM: those who wanted to relax stayed in and those who wanted to party went out.
Share a Liter of Toña on the Beach
We promised to reward ourselves with “beer and a view” after a long wait at the border. Upon arrival, we found that the road parallel to the beach had several bars with tables looking over the water. We ordered a liter of Toña, one of the two national beers in Nicaragua, for just 55 córdoba. That’s $1.85, less than $1 each between two people. Grab a drink, soak in the views, and breathe easy.
We also tried Victoria, the other national beer. It has a slightly higher ABV at 4.9%, compared to Toña’s 4.6%, but I was not a huge fan of the taste.
Discover the Wild Wonders of Flor de Caña
Yes, back-to-back activities involve booze, go ahead and judge me. Flor de Caña , founded in 1890, is Nicaragua’s award-winning rum and leading export. The company achieves a negative carbon footprint through recycling incentives and the use of renewable energy sources in the distilling process.
Image by David Sampson
The Gran Reserva, their sipping quality 7-year aged rum, can be found in convenience stores around the country for 350 córdoba ($12). Let’s just say that four bottles made their way back to Costa Rica, and two of these were transported safely to the States. We frequently treated ourselves to a poor man’s mojito with rum, ginger ale, limes, and mint.
Enjoy Cheap and Delicious Ice Cream
We frequently found ourselves at Eskimo, a Nicaraguan ice cream chain. We bought a cono doble (double scoop cone) for 30 córdoba. If you haven’t figured out the 30:1 conversion rate yet, it means that we got two scoops of ice cream for $1. My favorite flavors were coffee and coconut but there are several others to choose from.
Attend Sunday Funday
If you’re a backpacker in Central America, I’m willing to bet that you know about this party. Sunday Funday isn’t exactly a local tradition, but it is a giant pool crawl through 4 of the wildest hostels and bars in the area. Picture a bunch of party-goers in paradise, covered in glitter and paint, getting shuttled around in the back of pick up trucks. Phones, sunglasses, money, and your dignity are likely to be lost.
Admission costs $30 and includes a tank top and wrist band. Drinks are not included and cost 60 córdoba ($2) each throughout the event. I’ve dedicated an entire post to this marathon of a day.
Relax at a Resort with a Beautiful View
We actually did this on a whim at the suggestion of a friend. She had spent the previous day at Pelican Eyes, an upscale resort and spa that is built into the hillside overlooking SJDS. They grabbed a couple rounds of drinks and lounged at one of the three infinity pools with breathtaking views. We weren’t capable of other anything more than a lazy day in the sun due to our Sunday Funday hangovers, so this sounded perfect.
I inquired about spa services upon arrival and was excited to hear that I could get a pedicure for around $25 (taxes included). I booked an appointment and Steve opted for a fancy mojito at a “pricey” $8. We spent the day lazing in the sun with one of the infinity pools to ourselves. Can’t do much better than that.
To get there, go straight past the church, keeping it on the right, and follow the road up to the entrance. We told the guard that we were going to the restaurant and using the spa services in order to be let in. Access to the resort is free, but keep in mind that there are guests paying full price to stay here. It’s not fair to just come in and enjoy the property without using one of their services, whether it is food, drinks, or the spa.
Sip Macuás Over a Sunset
Still hurting from Sunday Funday, I promised myself that I was never going to drink again. Naturally, we found ourselves back on the beach the following evening in order to try the Nicaraguan national drink. A macuá from Iguana’s consists of rum, guava juice, lemon juice, and sugar. The drink was a solid OK in my book, but it sure did taste delicious when paired with a sunset.
Get a Tattoo
Yes, I actually did this! There are a couple of great artists in town. I went with John Maxwell of Dark Love Ink, who has over 10 years of experience between Canada and Nicaragua. Our paths met as he was opening his own shop in SJDS. This experience warrants a separate post, which can be found here.
What I Missed
Sunset Booze Cruise: I had met my match with Sunday Funday and was boozed out for the rest of our time here. I heard great things about the Nica Sail & Surf.
Visit Other Beaches: I missed out on this due to my 4-hour tattoo session. Steve made it out to Playa El Yankee with folks from the hostel for a fun and relaxing day. The group basically had the beach to themselves, where they enjoyed some solid surfing, acro yoga, and slackline.
Image by Steve Rose
Horseback Riding: Something I sorely wanted to do but couldn’t justify with my current budget. Next time. The unanimous consensus was Rancho Chilamate – you even get to dress up like a cowgirl!
Surfing: All of the surfing happens at the beaches outside of town. You can get there for $5-$10 via shuttle but keep in mind that some beaches have an entrance fee. The price for lessons surprised me at $30, exactly what I paid in Hawaii. After all of the added costs, surfing just didn’t rank at the top of my list.
Hike to Christ of Mercy: We missed this because we were lazy, sad but true. The statue is one of the largest Jesus statues in the world at 24 meters tall. The 40-minute uphill trek to Christ of Mercy leads to some amazing views of the moon-shaped bay.
Visit a Natural Turtle Reserve: The white sand beaches of Playa La Flor are a nesting spot for turtles each year.
Go Ziplining: Apparently this is available at Da Flying Frog. I’d save your money and splurge in Costa Rica.
Chicken Lady: Unofficial title of a local that serves amazing comida típica. From Surfing Donkey, go straight across the road and her permanent stand is on the left. (80 córdoba/$2.75, cash only, Spanish only)
El Gato Negro: Bookstore meets café. They serve coffee, smoothies and homemade bagels, which are rare to non-existent in Central America. (180 to 360 córdoba/$6 to $12)
Taco Stop: This was a major letdown. What we thought was a trendy taco and burrito stop turned out to be a chain that is a step above Taco Bell. (150 to 300 córdoba/$5 to $10)
El Mejor Buffet: Comida típica located across from the church. (90 to 120 córdoba/$3 to $4, Spanish only)
El Mercado: Cheapest comida típica in town. We ate at two kitchens, one hit and one miss. (60 to 120 córdoba/$2 to $4, cash only, Spanish only)
Drunken Street Hotdogs: Exactly what it sounds like. I found a couple of these stands on Sunday Funday and they didn’t disappoint. (60 to 80 córdoba/$2 to 2.75, cash only, Spanish only.)
Surfing Donkey: Located one block south of the church, the hostel was only a short walk away from downtown. We stayed in one of the private rooms.
- Dorms (sleeps 10-15, shared bathrooms): $11 per bed
- Semi-Private (sleeps 4, ensuite bathroom): $50 per room
- Private (sleeps 2, ensuite bathroom): $29 per room
To/From Granada :
Shuttle: We took the door-to-door shuttle from The Surfing Donkey between SJDS and Granada: $15 per person
Chicken Bus: Make sure to pay when getting off the bus and not to a “helpful” middleman. Arrive early to ensure that you get a seat: 50 to 80 córdoba ($1.72 to $2.75) per person
- SJDS-Rivas: 20 córdoba OR colectivo taxi: 50 córdoba, Rivas-Granada: 30 córdoba
To/From Peñas Blancas (Costa Rica border):
Taxi: We found another traveler going the same way as us, and all three of us split the fare: $25 total
Chicken Bus: Make sure to pay when getting off the bus and not to a “helpful” middleman. Arrive early to ensure that you get a seat: 40 to 45 córdoba (~$1.50) per person
- La Frontera-Rivas: 20 to 25 córdoba, Rivas-SJDS: 20 córdoba
San Juan del Sur was such a special treat for us. There are so many different types of itineraries possible, from a party-hard bender to a surfing-filled adventure. Have you visited? If so, tell me about it in the comments!
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