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!
Looks totally delightful to me. And again — colooooors.
Get ready to say that a lot for these Central America posts coming up 🙂
San Juan Del Sur is my first stop when I get back to Nicaragua for sure. From what I heard, it reminds me of Puerto Viejo, with maybe a little less tourism? (Granted, that’s really the only party beach town I hit on my trip.) I’ve heard so many good things about El Gato Negro from Kate and my friend Grace so I can’t wait to check it out myself!
Yeah, there are definitely some similarities! Gato Negro is a great little gem. I loved getting to know the owner, Kelly. Hopefully you get to meet her!
Okay, it’s officially on the “must visit soon” list!
Mine just keeps getting longer….
I’ve heard such varying opinions of San Juan Del Sur, but this post makes it sound like the kind of place I would definitely love! And the fact that it’s pretty easy on the eyes doesn’t hurt, either.
I kind of knew I was going to love it, in spite of the hate 🙂 It’s just my kind of place!
Looks like somewhere I could get used to. I’m dying for a chill week in a surfing town!
I couldn’t seem to get away from them at the beginning of this trip! What can I say, I know what I like. And what I like is the beach.
PRETTY! Major beach lusting right now!
Sigh…. I just can’t get enough sand. So excited to be back on a beach this weekend!
I honestly had no idea travelers had such mixed reviews of SJDS. I was there in 2009 (I think) and I have such fond memories. And it’s one of those places I’ve dreamed about living in too. Yes, it’s touristy and there are lots of expats but it’s a such a great community. Glad to hear you loved it so much 🙂
I know! I was kind of shocked as well. I guess if you just take a quick glance it would be easy to misinterpret the place. Glad I had the time to get to know it a little better 🙂
Admittedly, I didn’t spend as long there as yourself, but I sit in the former category.
I didn’t warm to it… correction, not the place, the people (not the locals).
Truly, the place is beautiful, but it’s the Gringo element that I really didn’t click with (possibly an age thing, or possibly not being a single traveler).
It was the sort of place that felt like I was back in the western world, & not in Nicaragua.
Few of the kids (for that’s really what they were) spoke, or even cared to attempt to speak any Spanish, & most were more interested in who they might bed next…
Still, so so glad your experience was markedly different, can’t wait to read about the alluded to mis-adventures!
More posts to come! I’m glad I got a deeper look at the place, though I can see how on the surface it comes off as pretty party-hardy. Lots of people feel the same way about Koh Tao, which I obviously adore on every level!
So glad you loved it! Despite all the crap that went wrong for me there, I would happily go back to SJDS. I’d avoid the party scene the second time around probably, maybe give some of that exercise you’re going on about a try instead! 😉
Ha… OH NO have I become one of those horrible exercise people who annoys everyone with their workout talk? It was such a focus on this trip for me, what with my getting back in shape obsession, I guess I don’t have much else to say, ha!
Wow! I’ve never heard of this place before, but you’ve totally sold me on it. It looks beautiful!
Add it to the list, Erika! More posts to come…
Looks amazing and so colourful. I’ve never heard of the place either but then I’m an “Asia Forever” type of babe LOL!
I tend to ignore gripes of “don’t go there, it’s full of travellers/tourists.” Don’t people mean, “other” travellers/tourists? So good on you Alex! Quite frankly, if anyone really wants to be the only guy in town, they’re going to have to go to another country or possibly Siberia LOL!
Yeah… and there’s not going to be any wifi there. Ha! I mean, I do love going off the grid but like I said those are the special occasions. For the majority of the time I just have to live my life somewhere! And this is a good place to live it!
These pictures are so colorful, this place looks beautiful! I honestly didn’t know much about Central America but have been loving following your adventures. So many new places have been added to my bucket list!
Well I hope there’s a lot of room on that list… because I have a lot more drool-worthy posts coming up! 🙂
Nothing I heard about SJDS made me want to visit, and the blogs I’ve read since have confirmed that. But it’s always nice to read about people who travel differently, so I’m glad you enjoyed it!
I do love the colours of the buildings, I’m really missing the Central American colours now I’m back home!
It’s not for everyone… but it’s definitely for me 🙂 And yes, all these months in and I still marvel at the colors!
I’m in love. Definitely, definitely need to go to Central America next year after my Africa stint. I really miss the culture, food, music and people.
I’m so grateful I took this time to return to Central America, considering how heavily I debated it. I just want to return over and over again!
It looks beautiful there! I could picture myself lounging on the beach for hours! It really seems like Central America has the perfect balance for you.
It’s one of my happy places! I’ve absolutely cherished these months here.
This looks beautiful! I love hearing about other places that seem so different in so many ways from where I’ve lived, but that others feel at home in. In which others feel at home? You get the gist. It’s nice to know that across the world, that whole “there’s no place like home” thing doesn’t mean you can’t find new homes and new places where you feel comfortable. 🙂
Believe it or not, I know exactly what you are saying 🙂 And yes, yes and yes.
Love this article and the pics! Unfortunately you have to move to find some good surfing spots, but the vibe you describe sure is great!
Yup! And if you have a car (or a friend with one) it really wouldn’t be an issue. Which is a scenario I’d try to angle for if I were ever to stick around longer…
Nice photos! I think I’m crushin’ on this beach town, too! I lived in Costa Rica for a year and never went north:( So now I know where to go (and maybe never return).
SJDS is so close to Costa Rica it’s crazy! I definitely envision some border hopping into Costa Rica when I return 🙂
I have to admit I’ve not heard of SJDS, but I am new to this travelling malarkey so there’s much investigating to do on my part! It looks fab anyway and it sounds like you had a wonderful time despite what others have said. I think it’s always better to make your own mind up about almost anything in life 🙂
Much agreed. I love getting advice from other travelers… but even more so I love making up my mind for myself 🙂
I agree, it’s nice to explore the unexplored, but there’s nothing wrong with a place that marries the comforts of home and the fun of something new. Sounds like you found that and more in SJDS.
Also, I just got wifi in my Brazilian apartment today after 4 weeks. Life changing. I am a new woman!
Wow! I don’t know if I could live that long without. I tip my virtual hat to you 😉
Beautiful, Alex! Looks like you are having a blast. Enjoy your travels!
Thanks Rikki! It’s been one of my best trips yet. Balance is everything!
Your photos are phenomenal! I love the purple/pink and blue dress you’re wearing in front of the pink building.
Actually, that’s my friend Kate! More on her in the next post 🙂
San Juan del Sur looks like a magical place! I love that you and Kate met up – you both are seriously two my favorite travel bloggers and the first two I started following! I have always wondered when people run on the beach, do you wear running shoes or go barefoot?
Hey! I’m in Granada and on my way to San Juan, how did you find a $15.00 shuttle!? Also, did you hear any recommendations for spanish schools there?
Hey Kayla! Just booked the shuttle at my hostel, Entre Amigos. And while I know there are a couple Spanish schools in SJDS, I didn’t hear a recommendation for a specific one. I’d just ask around and look at a few when you arrive. Enjoy!
I can’t wait to get to Nicaragua! I was hoping to go this summer, but I’m not sure if I wanna go over the rainy season, so it looks like I’ll be going next year sometime. Looking forward to taking some amazing photos there as well. : )
For me it was worth the wait! Planning some serious quality time there in 2016!
It’s so colourful!
Glad you managed to find another place where you feel at peace in terms of balance. It’s not often you find one place, yet alone two! xo
Nicaragua was a pretty big all-around hit for me 🙂
Wish I’d gone here when I was in Nicaragua – looks like the perfect beach town.
I fell in love! Can’t wait to return in 2016.
Okie how do you pronounce the name???? (just kidding) SJDS really sounds exciting and I can feel the barely keep my eyes less widened looking at the sea shore, palm tree shadows and the nativity of the place. Good choice of place and surfing, my favorite water sport goes well with the waters here. Thank you for taking me to San Juan Del Sur Alex.
You’re so welcome Manthan! It’s a beautiful little place, I miss it and can’t wait to return.
What doyou think is the best way to get from (MGA) to SJDS
Hey Jessica, I didn’t go from the airport directly to SJDS but I’m sure there are shuttles you can take — I took a shuttle from the airport to Granada. You can look and book online ahead of time if you’re concerned though I just showed up and booked one after passing through baggage claim. If you want to go via public transit you can take a series of cheap chicken buses as well. Good luck!
Thank you so much for your series on Nicaragua! My husband and I will be going there in January, and I was having such a hard time finding any information & images online that really made me EXCITED. I was starting to feel like we’d made a bad location choice! But reading your fabulous entries, and savouring your stunning photos has been such a treat. I am *finally* starting to feel excited about this new adventure and feel like maybe we will enjoy Nicaragua after all.
This comment put a big smile on my face, Tamara! I love Nicaragua and I hope you will too. I can’t wait to return there someday soon!
So I’m going to Nicaragua next month… And I heard there are a lot of sharks. Like Lake Nicaragua is in the top 10 shark infested waters in the world. Did you have any experience seeing sharks or hearing about them? Literally my biggest fear!
I actually did not go to Lake Nicaragua at all, Riquelle! I know there was a blurb in Lonely Planet Nicaragua about them but I recall the conclusion was there aren’t actually that many. I never heard anything about it while I was actually in Nicaragua. Good luck with your research 🙂
My husband, 3 year old daughter and I leave in just a few days for Nicaragua. Our first stop is to stay in a house about 20 minutes north of SJDS. I am hoping we love the area because we will be there for three weeks and then we will be heading to Ometepe and Granada. Since booking our vacation I’ve had people tell me that SJDS is only for party goers but your post has made me excited to be going there! We are yoga and ocean lovers so I’m thinking it will be right up our alley…
Oh, you’ll have an awesome time! Have you seen my other posts as well? So much more to do in San Juan then party. I miss that place!
Hey Alex! I was wondering if there’s anywhere else you would recommend staying for that budget? Thanks so much! x Teressa
Hey Teressa! Unfortunately I didn’t really check out any other guesthouses while I was there, as it was high season I just snapped up the first thing I found. Lots of places aren’t listed online, so you can always do a little bopping around looking for a place once you arrive. Good luck!
Do you know how busy san juan is over the months of aug and sept? Ive heard its the best time to surf but unsure if all the businesses would still be open? Thanks, Emma
Hey Emma! Sadly I’m not sure. I’d perhaps try emailing a hotel or hostel you might be interested in staying at and see what kind of info they can give you. Good luck!
Hi, how did you get a shuttle from Granada to SJDS for $15?
Hey Jen! Just booked at my hostel. Maybe prices have gone up in the last few years?
Hi…thanks, do you remember which hostel that was at? Mine quoted me at $45 and I found a shuttle called Gekko Explorer that is charging $12 but I’m not sure how reliable that one is…
Hey Jen! It would be whatever hostel I wrote about in my Granada posts — I’d have to look back as I can’t remember off the top of my head! Best of luck with your trip 🙂