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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!

San Juan del Sur, view from the Christ of Mercy Statue. Nicaragua

San Juan del Sur, view from the Christ of Mercy Statue

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.

Sunset in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Sunset on the beach in  San Juan del Sur

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.

Tona, Nicaraguan beer

A few Toñas were consumed that night in San Juan del Sur

Max enjoying our first meal in Nicaragua...perhaps a little too much

Max enjoying our first meal in Nicaragua…perhaps a little too much

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.

Beach Hopping

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.

Playa San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Playa San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

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.

This way to the beach, San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

This way to the beach

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)

ATVs and Motorcycles for rent in San Jun del Sur, Nicaragua

ATVs and Motorcycles for rent in San Jun del Sur

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.

Best 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 Hermosa, considered to be the most beautiful beach near San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Playa Hermosa, considered to be the most beautiful beach near San Juan del Sur

Playa Hermosa, San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Shacks line the beach front at Playa Hermosa

Enjoying Playa Hermosa's beautiful swimming beach. San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Enjoying Playa Hermosa’s beautiful swimming beach

Surf shack. Playa Hermosa. San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Surf shack. Playa Hermosa

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 Maderas, San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Playa Maderas – where all the

Playa Maderas, San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

The restaurant shacks at Playa Maderas

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.

Playa Majagual. San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Playa Majagual

Restaurant Matilda at Playa Majagual. San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Restaurant Matilda at Playa Majagual

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!)

Christ of Mercy Statue on a hill in San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Christ of Mercy Statue on a hill in San Juan del Sur

Road up to Christ of Mercy Statue. San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Road up to Christ of Mercy Statue

The view from the top was spectacular! The statue overlooked the entire Playa San Juan del Sur, the marina, and the nearby hills.

Max & Oksana overlooking San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Overlooking San Juan del Sur

Overlooking the Playa Nacascolo, the next bay over from San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Overlooking the Playa Nacascolo, the next bay over from San Juan del Sur

Max, Oksana and friends at the top of Christ of Mercy Statue. San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Selfie with our favourite travel buddies (see you in Colombia, guys 😉 ? )

Sunset from the top of Christ of Mercy Statue. San Juan del Sur. NIcaragua

Sunset from the top of Christ of Mercy Statue

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.

Main Town Square in San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Main Town Square in San Juan del Sur

Local's depiction of chikungunya, a virus infection common in the area on the street in San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Art on the street of San Juan del Sur, a local’s depiction of chikungunya, a virus infection common in the area.

Colourful houses in San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Colourful houses in San Juan del Sur

Simon Says Smoothie Bar, San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Simon Says Smoothie Bar, San Juan del Sur

Shops line the streets in San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Shops line the streets in San Juan del Sur

Tiki Bar & Grill, San Juan del Sur

Tiki Bar & Grill

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.

Cafe inside the Municipal Market. San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Cafe inside the Municipal Market

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.

Oksana at Playa Maderas, San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Sporting my new Auric top on Playa Maderas,  San Juan del Sur

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.

Booze Cruising

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.

Boats in the harbour in San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

No shortage of yachts and party boats in the harbour in San Juan del Sur

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.

Sunday Funday Pool Crawl at Naked Tiger Hostel. Photo via Sunday Funday Pool Crawl Facebook Page

Sunday Funday Pool Crawl at Naked Tiger Hostel. Photo via Sunday Funday Pool Crawl Facebook Page

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.

Pub Crawls

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.

Big Wave Daves Bar, San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Big Wave Daves Bar

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.
El Gato Negro Cafe, San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

El Gato Negro Cafe, San Juan del Sur

Delicious meal at the Margarita Restaurant in San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Delicious meal at the Margarita Restaurant in San Juan del Sur

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.

Buddha's Garden Dinner. Photo via http://sanjuandelsur.org

Buddha’s Garden Dinner. Photo via Sanjuandelsur.org

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.

Other Activities

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.

Activities offered at O'Shop in San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua

Just a few activities/trips offered at O’Shop

Turtle watching...Turtle laying eggs on Playa Hermosa, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

We lucked out at spotted this turtle laying eggs right on the beach during our visit to Playa Hermosa. No tour needed!

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

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San Juan del Sur - a Backpackers Paradise in Nicaragua

Have you ever been to San Juan del Sur? What is your favourite thing about this little town?