San Juan del Sur, it turns out, is one of those love it or hate it kind of places. And before I arrived, I heard a lot of the hate it side of things. The main complaints lodged against this Pacific Coast beach town were that it was too party oriented, it didn’t feel safe, and it didn’t quite feel like an authentic slice of Nicaragua. It was just a little too established a stop on the Gringo Trail.
But you know what? These days, I find that I care less and less about that last complaint. Yes, I want to explore and discover and be an adventurer and get off the beaten track — occasionally. But most of the time, I want wifi and salads and ideally, a daily dose of the ocean. A yoga studio filled with hot surfers doesn’t hurt either. San Juan del Sur delivered on all fronts, which is probably why I ended up staying more than two weeks — longer than I’ve spent in any other single location in Central America.
San Juan del Sur is the definition of a backpacker beach where surfing and partying are the main draws. Late-night taco stands, cute surf boutiques and lively bars abound. I was reminded vaguely of Montañita, Ecuador, another surf town that feels deliciously frozen in time. San Juan hosts one of the most infamous parties in Central America — more on that later — and attracts toned and tanned backpackers from around the globe, yet you can still peek inside wide open doors in the evening and see a community living simply and more or less unaffected by the tourism around them.
I was feeling a little lonely after my people detox in Granada, and I found the perfect cure in San Juan del Sur. The town is home to a vibrant expat community made up of surfers, NGO workers, bartenders, and more, and I could quickly see how it would be easy to build a life very similar to what I have in Koh Tao right there in Nicaragua. Eat in a restaurant twice and you’ll be greeted like a regular, go for a haircut and it will come with an invitation to go surfing, and after one week just try to walk down the street one block without fielding at least three hugs. I made friends that I have a hunch I’ll keep for life, and had a lot of fun along the way.
As for the claim that San Juan del Sur is too party oriented? Those that say so just didn’t look hard enough, in my opinion. San Juan del Sur has an active contingent more interested in getting up early to catch a wave or a yoga class than staying up late to grab a beer, and plenty to do other than pub crawls.
(Though I must admit it does excel on the nightlife front as well.)
My days in San Juan del Sur fell into a regular pattern. Aside from a few painful mornings preceded by big nights out, I rose early and usually made it to the first yoga class of the morning. Then I’d return to my hostel and work until lunch, when I’d grab my laptop and change locations to one of the several trendy eateries in town that I was more or less ready to move into. Around sunset, I’d head to the beach for a run or a stroll, sometimes accompanied by a workout at one of the town’s two sweatbox gyms. And in the evening, I’d often take advantage of the lively social scene — heading out for drinks with new friends, going on dates — yes, dates! multiple! — and bar hopping from one hotspot to the next.
I also made time for a few adventures and activities — post coming up later this week! — such as trying out one of the area’s infamous surf breaks. Actually, I had hoped surfing would be a pretty regular part of my days in San Juan del Sur but it wasn’t meant to be. There isn’t really surf in San Juan del Sur – all the good breaks are at the neighboring beaches, which travelers shuttle to and from each day. So unless you have your own ride it’s not really workable to just go surf for an hour or two. Alas, I found plenty to keep me busy.
Nicaragua was charming me, hard. Frequent power outages aside, San Juan del Sur received high marks from this digital nomad for liveability. Though frequent power outages left me frustrated, a fling gone wrong left me ego bruised — one of those dates led to eye-rollingly cliché disaster — and some of the prices left me wincing, I didn’t want to leave San Juan del Sur. In fact, I’m already daydreaming about setting aside a few months in 2016 to return and rent an apartment to use as a base camp for exploring the rest of the country.
One evening, early on in my stay, I went for a jog down the beach, my first attempt at running outside since my tumble in Tampa. I took it slow and savored the feel of running along the sand at sunset. I had one cinematic moment where a gust of wind blew loose sand across the dense part of the beach right by the water in a pattern so hypnotizing it stopped me in my tracks. In that moment, I remember thinking, “I’ve got this.” I hoped this would be the trip where I’d finally come to peace with a new way of traveling. One in which I’m not so much backpacking as just living my life somewhere else. Yes, working as much as I might back in the real world. Yet, getting to run on the beach instead of in a gym. Getting to gorge myself on fresh guacamole at every meal, for a steal. Getting to use my “weekends,” whenever I chose them to be, to go surfing or horseback riding on the beach or just swing in a hammock. In both Granada and San Juan del Sur, I found that perfect balance.
There are a lot of places I say I’ll be back to, but San Juan was different. It’s the kind of place I might go back to for good.
Where I stayed: I stayed in a private room at the centrally located Casa Oro, which set me back $32 a night — though luckily for the second week I was in town I shared it with Kate. While the room was windowless and small, it did have a private bathroom and included an indulgent cooked breakfast (think breakfast burritos one morning and french toast and fruit the next).
Where I ate: Taco Stop (as opposed to the inferior Taco Spot) was my go-to for takeaway quesadillas, Buddha’s Garden was my pick for healthy raw vegan meals and smoothies, Gato Negro was struck that perfect chord of artsy cafe, Nacho Libre had creative and fantastic burgers, El Pollito had cheap local food, I indulged in a crepe or a milkshake a few times at San Juan Surf Crepes, and I quickly became a regular at Republika and Cerveceria thanks to their gourmet tacos and salads served in delicious settings.
How I got there: I paid $15 for a shuttle from Granada, which took about two hours.
Bonus tip: I did two things I rarely do in San Juan del Sur — get a haircut and go shopping. Brush offers salon services on par with anything you’d find at home (a rarity while backpacking), while Siempre Surf had me handing over all the cordobas. If you’re in need of a wardrobe refresher or a new look, San Juan del Sur is the spot for you!