For several years now San Juan del Sur, on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua has been a getaway for savvy travelers looking for inexpensive beach vacations and perfect, gently rolling surf. With lots of things to do and plenty of wildlife to see, the sleepy beach town is quickly turning into a modern thriving tourist destination for more than travel bums and surfers.
Renting a car and driving in Nicaragua
If you plan on renting a car while traveling to San Juan del Sur, or anywhere in Nicaragua for that matter, there are a few important things to keep in mind. Possibly the most important aspect of renting a car in Nicaragua is the sometimes hefty rental deposit ranging anywhere from $250 to $1,000 which often not discussed when making the rental arrangements, especially if they’re made online. Most of the cars for rent in Nicaragua are manual transmissions, and automatics are more difficult to find as well as being slightly more expensive.
If you chose to drive from the airport to San Juan del Sur there is a 99.99% chance you’ll be stopped at some point by a police roadblock. The police in Nicaragua are generally nice to tourists, but if you are belligerent or disrespectful they can make your life very difficult. While it’s not as bad as it used to be, tourists are sometimes taken advantage of by car rental agencies and police in Nicaragua. If you’re going for a few weeks rather than a few days, serious consideration should be given to whether or not a rental is needed.
Finding the right place to stay
You have to be specific about what you’re looking for and what you want from your experience. If you want a shack (literal shack) on the beach that grants you access to the waves and a place to store your surf boards while you’re at lunch, you can easily find that for less than $20 a night. But if you want something with a comfortable bed and a view, you are going to have to spend substantially more. Hotels throughout the city are easy to find and will generally cost less than $50 a night, but with the increasing number of tourists visiting San Juan del Sur each year, the prices are rapidly climbing.
If you’re willing to get a little further from the ocean, there are some extravagant hotels with all the amenities and prices ranging from $50-$100 and up depending on the location and the view. The hills above the city are the place to be if you are a little older, not that into the nightlife, or just want some quiet while you sleep. Staying away from the beach does mean that you will need some form of transportation and this additional cost should be added to your budget.
Dining in San Juan del Sur
Finding something to eat in San Juan del Sur is not an issue regardless of your desires, and there are plenty of places that cater to a more western diet. One important thing to note is that while many of the menu items will sound familiar, absolutely nothing is going to be the same as it is at home. The food that you are most likely to find enjoyable is simple grilled chicken or fish with some rice and fruit.
Like all places catering more and more to tourists, there are some pretty incredible little restaurants popping up throughout San Juan del Sur. Whether your tastes are for wood-fired pizza or Mediterranean fusion, there will be plenty of great places to sit and have a bite. If you want a view of the ocean while you dine, there’s no shortage of little spots along the beach. But, if you’re willing to forgo the moon bouncing off the waves while you drink overpriced cocktails out of buckets, the food will be better, less expensive, and quicker from the kitchen to your table.
Microbreweries are popping up in San Juan del Sur but they still cater almost exclusively to expats and tourists. As a result the beers tend to be hoppy, full bodied, and not the kind of thing you associate with hot summer days and rolling waves. If you’re looking for more of a locals experience your choices are easy, it’s Toña or Victoria, ice cold and right out of the bottle.
The beaches worth visiting cost a little bit of money
All of the beaches that are worth visiting will cost a few dollars. If you want to hang out on the beach in San Juan del Sur proper there are plenty that are free, but they won’t have a place to store your belongings and there is a better than average chance that your things will be stolen if you leave them on the beach.
Most of the paid beaches offer lockers and have bars that serve beer and cocktails as well as food. Paying for the right to sit in a hammock at the beach may seem extravagant, but it will only cost you a few dollars and is well worth the price of admission.
Getting out of San Juan del Sur for a few
Getting out of San Juan del Sur for a day or two is an experience that cannot be recommended too highly. Two of the places between San Juan del Sur and the airport in Managua that should not be overlooked are the San Juan de Oriente and Granada. Both of them have rich histories that are quite different from, and a little more interesting than the little beach town of San Juan del Sur.
Granada is older, much older, and a lot of colonial buildings still grace the city. It is a much bigger city and the prices will be more reflective of city living, but there are some markets where you can buy inexpensive produce and clothing if you’re willing to go out of the way. Like all big cities, Granada has some issues with crime, mostly petty theft, so keep your wits about you while walking, especially if you are in areas where tourists do not normally go. It’s also a good idea to keep your eye on the weather while site-seeing, weather in Granada seems to turn on a dime and in dramatic fashion. It can quickly turn from a hot and sunny day, to overcast with rain that never seems to end.
San Juan de Oriente is something a little different. Founded in 1585, the municipality was originally called San Juan de los Platos because the ceremonial clay plates used throughout the region were made there. San Juan de Oriente has however moved away from making plates to producing more artful pottery that sells to collectors from storefront galleries. A few of the artists in San Juan de Oriente have pieces on display in some of the greatest museums around the world.
Almost all of the pottery here is great, but the really incredible stuff is in the artists shops across from the church on the main drag. This is where you’re going to find artists that sell their small vases for several hundred (or thousand) dollars. Pieces that you may have to pay import taxes on when returning home, but also pieces that are well worth the price if you want some artwork that will make a statement. The artwork in this section of the city is of the quality that’s more likely to be in galleries or museums, and buying it directly from the artist means a much better price for you and a better profit for the artist.
Spanish is more important than you may think
In most of the world it is pretty easy to find someone that speaks a little English and it’s no different in Nicaragua, but as you get to places that are out of the way, it becomes increasingly more difficult to communicate. If you’re going to spend more than a few days in San Juan del Sur, or in any part of Nicaragua, it’s not a bad idea to take a Spanish course. Intensive classes are offered by several schools in the city and it’s a good way to meet others that may be staying for a few weeks or months. Learning a bit of Spanish will also afford you the opportunity to talk with locals and learn things about the city not found in guide books.
There is still some crime but it’s getting better
Ten years ago it was not uncommon for tourists to be robbed by kids with knives, and while crime has been reduced with the increased reliance on tourism, it’s a good idea to be aware of your surroundings, stay away from bad neighborhoods at night, and don’t get involved with anything illicit. It should be noted that there is from time to time political unrest in Nicaragua. This happens for a myriad of reasons but it can turn a little beach trip into a complete loss. It’s never a bad idea to get travel insurance if you are booking your trip months in advance.
San Juan del Sur is worth the visit
If you have been trying to decide if the visit to Nicaragua is worth it, I can assure you that it is. There will be stark differences between what you have seen in guide books, but the people and nature more than make up for it. If you are looking for a romantic, quite beach holiday it might not be the place, but by the time it is it will be too expensive for most of us to visit.