After nearly four years of perpetual traveler, I know what I like, and what I like are beach towns. San Juan del Sur charmed me to my core, and I might still be found swinging in one of its hammocks had a much-anticipated festival in El Salvador not nudged me to move on after more than two weeks there. While the town is known primarily for its party scene, I found there was so much more on offer. Here’s what kept me entertained in my favorite corner of Nicaragua.
Zen is San Juan del Sur’s one and only yoga studio, and I found myself there almost every single day for a class, a massage, or a smoothie from Buddha’s Garden, the onsite raw vegan restaurant. The open-air, second-story sala reminded me how grateful I was to be somewhere I could take an outdoor yoga class, and I found myself springing out of bed for the 8:30am class often. Drop-in classes are pricey at $8, but packages are available. Massages are similarly expensive at $40 per hour, but I didn’t regret the one I splurged on in the slightest. The third Wednesday of every month, Zen does something called Vinyasa Vino, which I’m gutted didn’t overlap with my stay — an evening Vinyasa practice with live music followed by, you guessed it, wine!
For the non-yoga inclined, San Juan del Sur does have two simple no-frills gyms (both that women will feel comfortable in) and the beach and the road to Maderas are ideal for running.
The beach in San Juan del Sur is nice for a sunset stroll or watching a local volleyball game, but it’s not the best for swimming. For that, catch a shuttle to nearby Hermosa or Maderas or beyond.
While I meant to check out Hermosa, Maderas kept calling me back. It’s a classic Pacific coast beach in all its wild, untamed beauty. Maderas has a scene all its own with accommodation, yoga classes, board rentals, and a few beach front restaurants.
always time for a beach dog selfie
The best thing about Maderas? The sunsets — the perfect setting for a bit of spontaneous acro-yoga practice.
I gasped when I saw posters for $75 catamaran cruises around town — one of the most expensive activities on offer in Central America. But when I was spontaneously invited along with a group of new friends, I couldn’t help but say yes. And by the time I disembarked that evening, I was buzzing, and not just from the unlimited rum punches. It was one of my favorite memories from San Juan del Sur, and well worth every cordoba! So good, in fact that it deserves a post of its own.
Photo courtesy of Adventurous Kate
As I previously mentioned, I had hoped surfing would be a much more regular part of my routine before I realized that no surfing actually takes place in the peaceful bay of San Juan del Sur. Rather, surfers are shuttled out to neighboring beaches to catch a wave and spend the day by the sea. Because of my work schedule, this unfortunately meant I only got up on a board twice in two weeks. Because it had been a while since I surfed, I decided to kick things off with a refresher lesson.
There are several surf schools in town and so I based my decision on what really matters – how good looking the instructors were. I ended up at Arena Caliente, where I paid $30 for a lesson which included instruction, a board, and transport to Maderas Beach and back. The waves were small and manageable and the class had a totally different feel to lessons I’ve taken in Hawaii – much less organized, no posed photo ops, and very chill vibes. But the instructor did recognize that I had some experience and so took me out again in the afternoon for a one-on-one session, which ended up being one of my favorite parts of the day.
Yes, San Juan del Sur is home to Central America’s most notorious party. Sunday Funday is a weekly pool crawl that takes backpackers from one cerveza-soaked beautiful setting to another, and it does indeed get wild. This, I remember thinking, is Central America’s answer to Southeast Asia’s Full Moon Party. How brave of them to do it weekly. And how brave of me to do it twice! (Really, once would have been enough, but when Kate arrived it was my duty to accompany her, no?)
Some complain that Sunday Funday is overpriced, and spoiler: it is. A $30 admission fee gets you a t-shirt and transport and nothing else. You can cut the admission in half by staying at one of the participating hostels, or perhaps happening upon Superbowl Sunday like I did, when the party promoters nixed the final bar and therefore slashed the price. But otherwise, just prepare to pony up. For debaucherous fun in the sun with your fellow travelers, it can’t be beat.
Like the catamaran cruise, this was an experience so special I’m going to have to dedicate an entire post to its awesomeness. But here’s a preview. I’ve been riding all over Central America, and all over the world — my day with Rancho Chilamate was the most exhilarating adventure I’ve ever had on horseback. Not only did we dress up like cowgirls and snack on fresh guacamole and rum (fear not, the alcohol was post-dismount) we galloped down the beach! I get chills just thinking about it.
Partying (Non Sunday Funday Category)
Sunday Funday is a damn good time — but it’s not the only game in town. In fact, some of the most fun I had out in San Juan del Sur was elsewhere. When fellow blogger Kate arrived, we celebrated finally meeting in person with a wild night out on a Pub Crawl starting at the Loose Moose (nights of the week change, but they hold one at least once a week). Yes, the Loose Moose — San Juan del Sur has it’s very own Canadian bar. Have I mentioned San Juan del Sur is straight up full of Canadians? I was seriously like, who is watching your country up there? I’ve never seen so many concentrated in one place in my life, outside, you know, Canada. But, um, what were we talking about again? Oh right.
Nacho Libre was another small-but-mighty fun bar in which to start the night, and Arribas and Howler were fun beachside dance clubs to end the night, but Cerveceria was my hands-down favorite hotspot. The brewery is a local expat favorite where I found myself more often that anywhere else. Beer fans, mark your calendars — they offer tours and tastings every Friday.
Looking for a bite to eat before you kick off? Check out my list of restaurant suggestions at the end of this post.
Photo courtesy of Adventurous Kate
Lonely Planet Nicaragua lists several hikes around town. When Kate and I were itching for a laptop break one day, we went for the most convenient — the forty minute uphill trek to the lookout at the omnipresent Christ of Mercy statue. The 25 meter tall statue of Jesus is quite impressive — he’s supposedly one of the tallest in the world! — but the views over the town are even more so.
We went just before sunset and loved the soft light cast over the bay. From up above, you can appreciate how untouched the surrounding area is. I couldn’t help but wonder how long it will stay that way.
Let he who has not selfied with Jesus cast the first stone
Supposedly, diving is possible in San Juan del Sur. I put my name down at Neptune Diving, the town’s one and only “dive shop” on the day of my arrival (frankly, it looks more like a t-shirt shop with a PADI sign in the corner), but I was warned that they would only take a boat out with two customers. And to my disappointment, in two weeks, no one else ever showed. I’ll certainly try again when I return though!
Other possibilities include Spanish lessons, mountain biking, ziplining, fishing trips, and, in season, turtle watching.
Clearly, despite its diminutive size, there’s no getting bored in San Juan del Sur! And while the town does live up to its party-hardy reputation, there’s plenty on the docket for those more interested in seeing the sunrise from the start of a day than the end of it. For me, it was the perfect balance of both.
Which would be your first pick for a day in San Juan del Sur?