During the height of the COVID-epidemic in March, I was in Nicaragua. I’d left New York City for Spring Break, and never made it back! With the borders
I traveled around the country for two months before settling down in San Juan del Sur for two more months.
A lot of travelers skip San Juan del Sur, because it’s known as a touristy, party-town, where there isn’t much Nicaraguan culture. For this reason, it wasn’t on my itinerary. But I decided to give it a shot anyway.
A couple Aussies I’d met in Managua were renting a house by the beach and learning to surf, and invited me down. I was able to later find a casita for just $250/month in town, a steal!
The main sight to see is the giant statue of Jesus, which overlooks the bay of San Juan. It’s about an hour walk from town up the hill, which I recommend, because ‘tours’ are $20+ and it’s literally a 7 minute drive. (If you’re there with friends, you’ll probably want to rent a car anyway because that’s the best way to go to the beaches and surf.)
Bring a couple of beers or a picnic and stay for the sunset! It’s a gorgeous view and since you’ve walked or driven all the up, you may as well stick around.
Other than that, there aren’t many tourist attractions in San Juan del Sur but there’s still plenty to do.
There are dozens of shops, from cheesy souvenirs to genuine handicrafts, casual restaurants, surf-shops, and local convenience stores. The fresh $1 loaves of bread from the Hotel Estrella bakery made me feel like I was back in France or Italy! The panaderia also sells locally-made sauces, chocolate, coffee, jams, and pastries.
The real treat though, is how locals sell things out of their home. There are signs on many homes, where friendly abuelas sell cooked beans, horchata, or simply the ice out of their freezers. Without the typically-overwhelming amount of tourists, it wasn’t difficult for me to find the Nica culture in San Juan.
If you can get a good group together, I highly recommend renting a catamaran for the day! We had group of about 30 people and it was $20/pp for the day.
San Juan is located on a bay, which has a long sandy beach.. and while it might not be the prettiest, it’s always a good time. If you decide to rent a car or take a shuttle, you can check Playa Maderas, or Playa Hermosa, two of the nearby beaches which are better for surfing. It’s usually about $40 for a board rental and a lesson, which is a great deal.
In San Juan, bars are typically open all day Tuesday-Saturday. A Canadian-owned place, El Social, is a great place to hang during the day because has a pool, pool tables, mega-Jenga, and a foosball. The pool closes around 5, so after a couple beers (anything else is wickedly overpriced) from there, head down to the beach.
There are a dozen bars all along the beach, and they are the life of San Juan. With crazy happy hour specials and sunset views, start here around 5 and let the good times roll. Generally, the more expensive bars in town, like El Timon, are where older gringos and well-dressed Nica couples go for dinner and drinks. This is a great place to hangout, they’ve got a hammock big enough for 10 people!
The more you drink, the further you wander down the road from town, to the more casual more Nica bars. Follow the music and you’ll find hundreds of friendly locals dancing the night away.
These bars are the greatest, my favorite being El Ancre. There aren’t any chairs or tables inside, the only furniture is the jukebox, which usually has reggaeton blasting. On the patio there are some comfy couches, and liters of beer are same price as pints.
Once the bars start to close, things often spread to the beach, or to Republica, an English-owned pool haul in town. Their fried mac-and-cheese balls are the best drunk snack in town. I had my 23rd birthday party there, which was a blast.
Dining and Groceries
Most restaurants are Nicaraguan/seafood or Mexican, but there’s also a fancy French place, a brunch place, an Indian restaurant and a Chinese restaurant as well. Taco Tuesday at Nacho Libre is a great place to meet people and hangout, and the tacos are 5 for $7, which is one of the better deals in town.
Honestly though, most of the restaurants are kind of overpriced; after a few $6-10 burritos I decided it was time to get cooking.
The in-town market has a large produce section, but if you want to get the best deals, walk just outside of town towards Pali, and there’s a shack where the fruit and veggies are 1/2 price. It’ll take you 30 minutes round-trip, but during pandemic-time, when my paychecks simply stopped coming, it was worth it.
There are Nica restaurants inside the market as well, but after 2 months I’d had my fill of rice and beans.
For more about Nicaraguan food though, click here, because don’t get me wrong, I loved it. https://tristans-expeditions.blog/2020/07/28/nicaraguan-food-for-vegetarians-on-a-budget/
A lot of people like Naked Tiger hostel, which has a pool, an incredible view and throws huge parties. But it’s a long walk from town, and while there are shuttles, having to depend on them or walk is a pain. If you’re traveling alone, I’d recommend Surftown hostel, which is only $6/night and has a pool. It’s also only a 3 minute walk from the center of town. The mega-hostels like Casa Oro, which sleeps 100 people, might be in the center of town, but it’s $10/night doesn’t have a pool, and trust me, you’re going to want one.
There are a ton of hostels, but honestly if you can book in advance I’d recommend staying in an Airbnb. With a group of friends, you can get an entire HOUSE for the same price as a few dorm beds in a hostel.
‘Nuestra Casa’ is where I stayed.. and it was amazing. The service was incredible, the kitchen and pool were great amenities, and the rooftop is easily the best in town. Definitely stay here if it’s available, it’s the perfect lower mid-range accommodation, which I think most travelers could afford. During peak season though, it’s probably marked up considerably. +505 5758 7913
If you need your laundry done, please Whatsapp Ruth, +505 8663 1610, she does a great job and gets it back to you the next day!
If you’re looking to take Spanish lessons, be sure to take them with Fernando and the Nica Spanish Language School. Private lessons are $10/hr, and tailored to your level. +505 8606 1093
Rivas in the closest city to San Juan, which is where you’ll likely transfer on the bus, or go to get a visa-extension. Rivas also has a great market where you can stock up on teas and spices, electronics, inexpensive clothes, and other goods you can’t find in San Juan.
If you’re taking your time in Nicaragua, I definitely recommend hanging out in San Juan del Sur for a couple days just to have some fun. It’s near the Costa Rican border, so if you’re heading south, it’s worth a stop. I stayed for two months, and wish I’d been able to stay longer!
Thanks for reading. I’ll be writing more about Nicaragua soon, as I sit here in rainy Atlanta, USA, reminiscing.
Follow me @tristans_expeditions on Instagram for more photos!