Put me near a beach, no matter where, and I’m happy. So the idea of spending over a week in the beach town of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua was just what I needed. Months prior, I’d booked a spot on a creative retreat that let me focus on writing my book. I’ll talk about that later, but I was glad to have a few days on my own after an intense week of work.
I’d heard about the debauchery-filled town from friends, but thought I would either love or hate it. I liked Koh Tao in Thailand but skipped party island of Koh Phangan. I went on my fair share of pub crawls in Europe and Australia, but didn’t always seek it out. I’ve been to Vegas twice but never to a nightclub there. Thankfully, I found the expat-friendly town to be a good balance. I walked around in its entirety within a half hour and only spent one day partying (that may have gone late into the night…).
Like Antigua and another dozen places in Central America, San Juan has plenty of gringa friendly businesses, namely vegan restaurants, yoga studios, and tattoo parlors (I got one at Dark Love!), as well as a thriving expat community. In fact, I ran into two friends I made in the Dominican Republic while waiting in line for tacos. Cue It’s a Small World theme. And I spent most of my days hanging out with a group of Quebecois girls from my hostel.
I’m sure that San Juan del Sur isn’t for everybody, but it seems like a nice stopover for those traveling from Managua. I could picture myself returning and staying closer to the beach, spending my days reading and relaxing, occasionally coming to town for a meal. So if you want to know what all of the fuss is about, here’s what I did in SJDS.
There are a few ways to get to San Juan del Sur. The town is located on the Pacific Ocean two and a half hours south of Managua, around two hours from Ometepe, and less than two hours from Grenada. It’s also not far from the northern Costa Rica towns of Tamarindo and Liberia.
Well tread on the backpacker route, many hostels have shuttles or ones they recommend between the cities. You can also book these shared shuttles at travel agencies in just about every tourist town. The “chicken bus” also runs everywhere you need to go for very cheap. Destinations are marked on the outside of the bus. And if you’re looking for a more comfortable ride, I traveled there from Managua with Gaby Transport, a company which I recommend.
Where to Stay
There’s something to fit just about every style of traveler in San Juan del Sur. For my first week in town, I stayed about 20 minutes out at Mango Rosa Resort, which had a restaurant, private cottages, and a pool. When I moved closer to town, I stayed at Casa Oro Eco Hostel, an environmentally-friendly hostel in the center of everything, for $10-15 USD per night. I picked it because it was near restaurants, but wasn’t one of the loud party hostels, of which there are plenty in SJDS, and it had free breakfast, fast WiFi, and drinking water. Guesthouses and budget hotels are also popular, which you can get for $50-100 USD per night. El Coco Azul, Barrio Cafe Hotel, and TreeCasa Resort were all recommended. Surf Ranch Hotel & Resort is just one of many surf camps located in San Juan’s beaches, ideal if you’ve come to town to hit the waves. And you can also take advantage of rentals, especially if you’re traveling with a group.
Eating and Drinking
San Juan del Sur has a number of Western-friendly eateries, especially those for fussy diets like mine. Here are a few of my favorites from my time there.
TacoStop– This cheap and fast eatery is a late night favorite. The crispy tacos filled with chicken and fish reminded me of a place I worked in college (ironically named Taco Spot, of which there is a place of the same name in SJDS, but not as good).
The Beach House Nicaragua– I saw this one on Instagram and it lived up to the hype. I had a tamarind cocktail and shared apps of avocado shrimp and fried plantains. Their offerings were both local and healthy! The cute decor and swings, as well as beachfront location, didn’t hurt either.
Buddha’s Garden– My friend Sky recommended this place and I was glad to have something light. I opted for a vegan ravioli made with thinly sliced butternut squash and cashew cheese, something I was surprised to find in Nicaragua.
falafel– Like in Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, San Juan has a surprising Jewish community. So at their Chabad, there’s a small falafel stand where you can get an authentic and cheap meal. The tahini wasn’t on par with what I ate in Israel, but you work with what you have.
Café Las Flores San Juan del Sur– I didn’t make it here, but I heard good things about this restaurant and coffee shop for one of Nicaragua’s craft coffee brands. They’re Rainforest Alliance certified so you can be sure that your morning jolt was grown sustainably.
San Juan del Sur Cervecería– After the long walk to the Cristo, I cooled off with a local craft beer. I opted for the Popoyo, a passion fruit ale. They also have a full menu and live music on weekends, but I didn’t stay for either.
Sunday Funday– What would a post about San Juan be without mentioning Sunday Funday? I feel mixed about this wild pool crawl. I wasn’t sure about going until my roommates decided to go. It’s certainly expensive and some people had their wrist bands taken away for no reason. But if you want to know what the fuss is about, spend the $30, get the t-shirt, and see for yourself.
The Loose Moose Canadian Bar– I didn’t make it to this Canadian bar, but when people say the town is full of Canucks, they mean it. Stop by for pints and poutine. They also have their own pub crawl.
Things to Do
There’s not much “to do” in the traditional sense, but if you are looking for something to do beyond partying, you’re in luck.
Choco Museo– There’s a small chocolate museum with limited hours, but they offer workshops and sales of local chocolate products.
Cristo de La Misericordia– The Cristo welcomes visitors from the top of the hill. You can take a taxi, tour, or walk the 45 minutes uphill to see it. There’s a $2 USD entry fee and a small museum inside detailing the history and notable visitors.
The Art Warehouse– Browse the small gallery of work and purchase a unique souvenir to take home. They also have a small coffee shop inside.
There’s also plenty of activities you can do in San Juan del Sur. Casa Oro has donation-based yoga classes and there’s a studio next to Buddha’s Garden. Surfers will prefer to stay outside of town for maximum beach time, but you can rent boards both in SJDS and at surf resorts. Speaking of beaches, there are at least half a dozen within a 45-minute drive, but I went to San Juan (in town), Marsella, and Hermosa. You can also go horseback riding or take a catamaran trip, which will cost you $50-75 USD for an all day outing with food and drink.