Our recent visit to San Juan del Sur was our first taste of Nicaragua. Located a short 3 hr drive (including border crossing), from where we are currently based in Costa Rica, San Juan del Sur felt like a perfect getaway to relax, unwind, and spend a few extra days with our friends from Canada who came to Costa Rica for our wedding. Little did we know that this little town would quickly become one of our favourite destinations!
We arrived in San Juan del Sur on a late afternoon, sun glimmering through the taxi window as we made our way from the Nicaragua/Costa Rica border. It was a Wednesday night, not the busiest party night of the week, but we still expected it to be rowdy. After all, party town is exactly what we expected San Juan del Sur to be.
San Juan del Sur first popped onto our travel radar in December of last year when some fellow travelers that we met in Costa Rica couldn’t stop raving about the Naked Tiger Hostel and their massive Sunday Funday Pool Crawl, an afternoon/night of heavy drinking, dancing, and debauchery around hostels and bars in San Juan del Sur. They even mentioned something about a Wednesday Funday… Needless to say, we were expecting San Juan del Sur to be buzzing every night of the week.
We quickly dropped off our possessions off at the Surfing Donkey Hostel (as much as we loved the sound of Naked Tiger Hostel as a destination for a pool crawl, we had no desire to stay in their crowded dorms) and set off to explore the town. It felt surprisingly quiet and laid back. Locals were sprawled out on the chairs outside of their homes gossipping away with their neighbours. Latin tunes echoed from inside the little shops and restaurants. Within 20 minutes of being there, we felt a familiar vibe.
“It feels like we are back to S.E.A. again, doesn’t it” – I asked Max as we passed by a food vendor grilling meat skewers on the side of the street.
“Should we expect to see some buckets?” Max nodded with a smirk.
Later that evening, we met up with our friends for dinner and a few drinks and ended up wrapping up the night watching a local dance show in the middle of the street just along the beach. San Juan wasn’t bumping that night. There were no bucket cocktails, no drunken tourists stumbling around the streets, and no vendors peddling souvenirs on every corner. It had all of the good we remember from S.E.A. and none of the bad.
The next morning we were off to enjoy the best of San Juan del Sur’s day-time activities. As it turned out, there was no shortage of them.
Without a doubt, the thing to do in San Juan del Sur is to spend a day (or a few days) checking out the beaches just outside of town. Don’t be fooled by the beauty of Playa San Juan del Sur, that’s not the best of it.
Daily shuttles run between the town centre and some of 10+ beaches sprawling North and South of San Juan del Sur town central. Playa Hermosa and Playa Maderas are by far the most popular ones, followed by Playa Majagual and Playa Marsella.
Return tickets to and from those beaches will set you back by $5-10 per person, but, of course, the flexibility to come and go as you please isn’t quite there when you rely on shuttle busses. We considered it, but opted for a different option.
Renting an ATV/Scooter
It wasn’t hard to find ATVs for rent in San Juan del Sur and at $75 for the day, they offered a pricey, but a much more fun alternative to shuttle service. We couldn’t justify paying that much, but with a little bit of searching, we found a pair of scooters to rent for the day, each one at $35/day or $5/hour. (Note the savings: shuttle service to 3 beaches would’ve cost us $5+$5+$7= $17/pp or $34 per couple. By renting the scooter for 5 hours ($25 total), we managed to see all 3 beaches and save $10 on our day of beach hopping)
Armed with a dinky map that we picked up at the Tourist Info Centre, we were off on our day of beach hopping. Riding around on scooters wasn’t just a cheaper more fun alternative, it gave us the flexibility to visit whatever beaches we wanted and stay at each one for as long as we wanted! We left at 11am and got back around 4pm having seen 3 out of the 4 most popular beaches.
Playa Hermosa (Beautiful Beach) is a private beach (you have to pay $3/pp entry fee to get in) but it boasts a beautiful long shore, white sand and lots of shady areas. There is a bar on the beach where you can get drinks, food, and a place to sit down. Hermosa looked like a great place to learn how to surf, proven by a number of surfing lessons going on at the beach during our visit.
Playa Maderas is the surfing hot spot that features the country’s most well-known and consistent surf break. The beach was also good for swimming (watch out for those surfers though) and excellent for relaxing, playing beach volleyball, bocce ball, or just chilling at the restaurant people watching with a 2 for 1 passionfruit daiquiris in hand.
Playa Majagual was the most off the beaten path of the 3 beaches. There was hardly anyone there, but the little restaurant at the end of the beach serve cold beers, snacks, and offered a great view of the ocean. It was a great place for swimming (quick drop off, we love those), but had absolutely no surf. That was ok by us.
Hike to the Christ of Mercy Statue
We got back from the beaches just in time to hike up to the Christ of Mercy Statue for sunset. I wasn’t in the mood for a proper hike (to be honest we were all a bit burned out after a day of beaching), but luckily “the hike” was a rather manageable ascent up a fully paved road that took no longer than 20 mins. No hiking shoes required! (That’s my kind of hike!)
The view from the top was spectacular! The statue overlooked the entire Playa San Juan del Sur, the marina, and the nearby hills.
Unfortunately, the sun set right behind the statue, on the opposite side of the beautiful view of the town, so while it was still lovely, it kind of missed the mark for us. We think it would have been better to head back to town and watch sunset from the beach.
Entrance fee = $2
Exploring the Town
We spent a few hours every morning exploring the colourful town of San Juan del Sur. Every street was lined with cool wall art, restaurants and shops were decorated in bright designs, splashing the town with a zest of life.
There is a small but interesting Municipal Market tucked away behind a line of small shops just off Avenida Gaspar Garcia Laviana. It’s a good place to find some fresh produce along with some trinkets and cheap souvenirs. It was opened until 4pm daily, so we managed to pop in for a look before one of our beach days. Nothing overly exciting, but a great place to grab some cheap local breakfast.
There are also a couple of cool little boutiques with unique clothing, jewelry designs, and lots of surf gear. Apparently, Chelo 28 Surf was the first surf shop in town, but now there are tons of others. Check out ChicaBrava, and my personal favourite Auric.
The Party Scene
Despite our first impression, we quickly learned that there was no shortage of parties going on in San Juan del Sur throughout the week. Whether you prefer day drinking or night time affairs, there is something here to suit everyone’s taste.
5 years ago a booze cruise would’ve been the first thing on our to-do list, but this time, we hesitated. The Canadian owned, Loose Moose bar offered a daily booze cruise at $55/pp for 6 hours of drinking, sun, and a visit to Playa Blanca (another good beach just south of San Juan del Sur). It sounded like fun, but we wanted a bit more than free beers and fellow drunken backpackers. Upon further investigation we found out that the booze cruise doesn’t stop at any other beaches, offer any snorkeling, fishing, or other activities. It really was all about the drinking, so we didn’t jump at the opportunity.
Nica Sail & Surf offered another alternative for a fun day in San Juan del Sur with their $75/pp Playa Blanca Beach Cruise. This cruise did offer fishing and snorkeling, and, supposedly, has been known to serve delicious ceviche on board.
On top of that, there were a ton of little 4-8 person private boats to be hired for a private 2 hour fishing, sailing and sunset cruise with prices starting at just from $25 pp. They may be BYOB, but offered a great budget alternative.
We toyed around with so many of these party cruise options, but, in the end decided to trade in partying for another day on San Juan del Sur’s amazing beaches. The younger versions of us probably rolled their eyes at how “boring” we were, but we loved our time in San Juan sans booze cruise. Maybe next time.
Sunday Funday and the Alternative
Sunday Funday Pool Crawl is why so many people come to San Juan del Sur to start with. An early morning (we hear you have to line up at 9am to get on the list) and $15 ticket will get you into one of the best parties in all of Nicaragua.
The alternative is a day outing that we learned about from O’Shop Surf Shop. The party, promoted by O’Shop along with the Surfing Donkey Hostel, takes you to another secluded beach during the day where drinks are served, fish is caught, and a beach bonfire keeps the party going well into the night. A great option for those who may not fancy the idea of getting smashed drunk.
On top of the booze cruise, the Loose Moose also puts on a few great pub crawls in San Juan del Sur. The biggest ones happen on Tuesdays and Thursday around 9pm and take you to a variety of bars all over town.
Live Music and Trivia
And if that’s not enough or if you, like us, happen to be in town on odd nights, pop into La Carreta Bar y Restaurante on Monday nights, check out “Trivia Night” at Republika or Poker Night at Big Wave Daves on Tuesdays, “Name That Tune Trivia” on Fridays at Republika, or listen to some live tunes by the local band, Los Pobrecitos, frequently spotted at Big Wave Dave’s, Black Whale and Popoyo.
Eat, Drink (the good stuff), and Be Healthy
If San Juan del Sur feels like too much of a party town for you, don’t worry, there is plenty to do here for those looking for a more healthy way to spend their days in San Juan.
We ate at a variety of fantastic restaurants. Highly recommended are:
- El Gato Negro for tea, smoothies, coffee and a great atmosphere (a bit pricey). Store hours are 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Cash only
- The Loose Moose Canadian Pub for Canadian poutine and Caesars
- La Lancha for great fresh seafood (try their lobster and seafood soup) that won’t break the bank
- Margarita for delicious traditional Nicaraguan food. Note the place now has a new name and new management, but all the locals still know it as Margarita. Ask around for directions.
In addition, there was another great spot that we didn’t get to, called Buddha’s Garden, open 9-4:30 Monday through Saturday. They serve up good vegetarian fair and smoothies that local expats rave about. We anticipate that vegan/vegetarian foodies will love this new space. Find it inside Zen Yoga.
Speaking of yoga, Zen Yoga is another spot that we are putting on the to-do list for our next visit to San Juan del Sur. The studio offers 2-3 drop-in classes per day (schedule here) for just $10/class (packages are also available). There are supposedly a few other yoga spaces in the area, including Nosara Yoga Institute, and Maderas Village.
If you are planning to be in town for a while, or like us planning to definitely come back and do more, there are lots of other activities to stay occupied in San Juan del Sur. Horseback riding, fishing, mountain biking, zip lining, and turtle watching are just some of the activities advertised in town.
We spent 3 days in San Juan del Sur but that didn’t seem nearly enough time to experience all that this little town has to offer. The truth is we barely did anything, but relax on the beaches and enjoy cheap Toña beers, cocktails, delicious meals, and awesome sunsets.
Luckily for us, San Juan del Sur is just 3 hours away from our home base in Costa Rica and makes for a great destination for those pesky visa runs. We can’t wait to return!
Essential Travel Info:
Getting in: Most travelers arrive in San Juan del Sur by bus. It’s about 45 mins ride to San Juan from Rivas and about 2-3 hrs from Granada. Taxi is another option for those looking for a more comfortable ride. Expect to pay around $10-15 from Rivas and $50-60 from Granada. A lot of travelers, us included, also arrive in San Juan del Sur form Costa Rica by crossing the border at Peñas Blancas. It’s a quick 30 min ride form the border by car or by bus.
Getting around: Once in San Juan del Sur, you can easily get around town on foot. There are shuttles running from the centre of town to the surrounding beaches every few hours with prices ranging from $5-15 for a return trip. If you do want to venture out a bit further and explore, we highly recommend renting a scooter or an ATV. We found the vehicles in descent condition, but none of them came with any sort of insurance. For a peace of mind, double check your travel insurance coverage before you go. Our Budget Direct Travel Insurance covered us for scooter rentals, but not policies do.
Where to stay: We suggest staying in town to take advantage of being able to explore on foot. San Juan del Sur doesn’t have a lot of 4-5 star accommodation options right in town, as it is still more of a backpacker destination, but there are lots of great hostels (that offer private rooms), and bed & breakfast accommodation options to choose from. We recommend starting your search on booking.com