Nicaragua has numerous San Juans. So if you want the surf and sun, be sure you head south, to San Juan del Sur on the Pacific coast. This San Juan is a comfortable-sized laid-back beach town, where you can walk anywhere.
SJDS has plenty of foreigners here, but it doesn’t feel overly touristy. There are no big-box hotels or resorts. No high rises. There’s just one main road to connect with the rest of the country — or Costa Rica. Two bumpier offshoots go north and south of town to reach about half a dozen semi-secluded beaches, all worth visiting. Most any block in the downtown area will have signs for shuttles to and from these outlying beach areas.
There are no museums here, but when you have the ocean at your footsteps, and beautiful countryside, lakes and volcanos not far away, there’s no need for museums. Besides, this isn’t really the spot for the museum crowd.
Overall, SJDS seems to scream with surfer and yogi vibes. There are plenty of surf shops in the small main part of town. There’s one yoga studio (Zen), inside a vegetarian restaurant, and a Zumba studio (MUUV) , perched atop a Mediterranean open-air restaurant, offers yoga sessions. Casa Oro hosts donation-based drop-in yoga, both mornings and evenings, that benefit the turtle rescue projects at La Flor Reserve and beach (worth a visit).
For the more adventurous, there are canopy tours, horseback riding and surfing for beginners to pros, on crystalline to rough waters.
If you want to just hang, there are plenty of options. Beyond any of the food and beverage establishments, the malecón is spotted with benches, ledges and steps to take a break, read a book, chat or people watch. The beach itself has plenty of soft dry sand perfect for lazying around. The town square, which they refer to as a parque, but in Mexico would be the zócalo, has plenty of seating areas. Plus, similar Mexico’s trend to place free wifi in public places, SJDS’s park has high-speed wi-fi.
San Juan attracts people from all countries, and of all ages. For the partiers, there’s Sunday Funday, that is like a bar crawl. Any day of the week, there are plenty of restaurants and even sports bars on the beach, or a few blocks away, where you can eat, drink and be happy while feeling the ocean’s breeze, and watching the stars or a sunset. For those that turn in early at night, San Juan is great for strolling through the town or the beach, early morning. That’s also the best time to catch an express bus to Managua, or Rivas, the next town over. While the night scene may not begin until 10 p.m., most of the locals are up when the roosters crow.
WHERE TO STAY
Nicaragua, lately, has attracted travelers that are stretching their money. It’s being billed as the more affordable Costa Rica. Most the visitors stay in hostels which are everywhere in the downtown area. Considering that SJDS is said to be the most expensive place in the country, there are plenty of rooms available for about $10 a night. Full hot breakfasts, if not included, can easily be found around town for a few dollars.
There’s a nice selection of small boutique hotels, apartments or Airbnbs both in SJDS and in the outlying areas headed toward the beaches. $75 can get you a beautiful shared home with pool, freshly made breakfast, a security guard and plenty of other amenities. All options are good values, by most standards. At Casa Andalucia and Nuestra Casa, two B&Bs run by the same owners, you can even hire a massage therapist or yoga instructor to make a house visit.
WHAT TO EAT
Compared to other small beach towns in Latin America, SJDS has good food options. There is your standard supermarket (Palí), traditional market, and smaller stores that stock International favorites including gnocchi, tofu, tahini, and peanut butter.
During the day, right underneath the Daniel and Rosario large poster you can always find a coconut vendor. For about a dollar you can get a freshly cut cold coconut to drink. At night, street vendors come out and sell all sorts of things. One of the most common offerings is tajadas, plantain chips, cut vertically, and served with a vinegar-based cabbage slaw and chilero (hot sauce).
Let’s not forget, we’re in the land of coffee and chocolate. Most the stores sell bags of locally-produced coffee (no decaf), and if you ask around you can find a bag of pure ground cacao. Kitty-corner from the main square is a chocolate shop to die for. Head here in the afternoon (closed mornings) to buy your pleasure and enjoy it at the park rather than the small tables and chairs at the chocolate spot.
For those on a budget, the market has a number of food vendors selling traditional meals at affordable prices. If you want to pay for the view, and find more Mexican or other international dishes, eat beach side.
There are several good, small Peruvian eateries in town, several pizzerias and Mexican style restaurants, and a few fusion spots. Plus, there are plenty of smoothie bars, a donut shop, falafel stand, Thai and sushi places.
Of course, you can’t miss the gallo pinto, traditional Nicaraguan rice and beans, often served with a fried egg and slice of freshly made white cheese.
WHEN TO GO
November/December is idyllic. It’s warm, but not scorching. Nice sun, without getting sun burnt. There are comfortable breezes at night. Rain, but no deluges. Everything is lush green. Summertime is hotter, and much drier.
HOW TO GO
SJDS is less than an hour from the border with Costa Rica. It’s a fairly simple ride from either the Managua (Nicaragua) or Liberia (Costa Rica) airports. There are many shuttle services that go from those airports to San Juan. If you prefer to fly to San Jose, Costa Rica, TransNica and TicaBus offer nice transportation from San Jose to Managua for one flat rate. Passengers can be dropped off at either Rivas, or La Virgen, if they want to go to San Juan which is nearby. Taxis directly from Managua to San Juan charge about $80-$100 for a ride that takes about two and a half hours.