Insider Scoop to San Juan Del Sur
I want to introduce you to one of my fave beach cities of Nicaragua, San Juan Del Sur.
San Juan del Sur is the most popular travel and vacation destination on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast and offers a mix of local culture and tourist amenities.
Each article about visiting the coast of Nicaragua that I have read has one opinion or another about why SJDS makes a great (or not so great) vacation spot. But my perspective is that of a digital nomad. I don’t travel to do touristy activities, although I will participate, I travel because I love travel, I can travel as long as I have my laptop with me and I love meeting the people of the city/country I am going to.
For the bloggers that have hate on this town, its because they are prob comparing it to other beach party towns. I equate it to living in Dallas, Texas. Dallas is known for shopping and restaurant-ing as the main activities . . . . but if you go off the beaten path and steer clear of the norm, you will find new experiences, outdoor mountain biking trails, paddling trails on the lake, windsurfing clubs and meditation centers. You make what you want out of a city but you do need to do the hunting. So this is my perspective of San Juan del Sur, just a different place to do my work and a different place to play when I’m done working.
When you first land in any city, your guaranteed to do some of the typical things but if you want to dive deeper there is more under the surface.
A perfect day in SJDS for me, is to be able to work with good coffee and then have a swim at one of my fave beaches. Eat lunch at the market while practicing my Spanish and meeting new people, getting introduced to new fruits. And spending my evening talking to the locals or other travelers while reading a book.
Most likely you will be flying into Managua.
Upon arriving via Managua airport, you may need to spend the night in Managua. You will find that most transportation services have their last run at about 3:30 or 4:00. Since the ride from Managua to San Juan del Sur takes about 2.5 hours and the sun sets around 6:00 it would mean a ride in the dark. Although you can get a driver in the evening its highly unadvisable, the roads are not as good here, herds of cattle could be crossing the road, or pigs or chickens or people could be sleeping on the road. It could lead to an accident and if you hurt anyone, you would be considered a criminal. I’m not one for following the rules and for me, when I arrive I want to get to my destination as quickly as possible but if you look around the forums and start chatting with others, you will find out that this is a piece of advice you really want to consider following.
Best suggestion is to stay the night in Managua. I chose the El Camino Real hotel. For $5 they picked me up straight away from the Managua airport – I just shot them an email after I booked my reso with the time of my flight arrival and estimated time it would take to get through customs. BTW, you need $10 cash to enter Nicaragua. They take US or Cordobas (everywhere, yeah, like pretty much everyfuckingwhere).
The El Camino Real is a beautiful indoor/outdoor type of tropical hotel, the room is your typical hotel room. 2 beds, nice bathroom with walkin shower, gym (aka The Spa), pool, tennis courts, casino. In hindsight, I think if I brought some newcomers to Nica that might be anxious about visiting this country, I would probably book 2 nights here to get them acclimated. Its a nice start.
They have deals that include breakfast but I just booked one night of room only for about $88.
The next morning I had a taxi take me to the bus station at the market where I would take the Chicken Bus which would transport me to the coast on a budget.
You will take 2 buses.
At the Managua market, you will need to find the bus to Rivas. In Rivas, you then transfer to a bus to San Juan del Sur (just follow the people with dreadlocks and surfboards). Your luggage and big backpacks will be tossed on top of the bus which is an old school bus from the US. Keep your valuables in a smaller bag on you. Keep anything you do not want to lose with you on the bus. You MUST pay in cash, someone will come around and collect your money. Please, please have small bills in cordobas. Its about $1 from Managua to Rivas and $2 from Rivas to SJDS. If you are owed change and you do not receive it right away, do not worry. They won’t forget you (99% of the time), they are just working off an all cash system and trying to make everyones transaction perfect. There is a good chance you will be standing up, get over it. You could pay $60 US for a one-way trip but then you would lose out on this awesome experience. And yes, I was partly standing, partly sitting on a 50 pound bag of rice for this part of the journey.
Other transportation options:
You can book a shuttle service, I recommend Lago Azul Express or Iskra Travel for alternative options to the chicken bus. You’ll spend about $45 and I took Lago Azul to the airport on my return trip to the US so I could look and smell decent for the airplane.
One other option is the Express Chicken Bus, it will only cost about $7 and leaves the SJDS market and goes straight to the Managua market (well, there are a few stops, but unlike the typical Chicken Bus that stops every 10 minutes). From the Managua market you will need to grab a taxi to get to the airport. The Express bus is probably what I will take on my return trip next time I am in SJDS. For me, my goal is to travel more often, so if I can save $38+ on transport that money can be spent on hotel or sailing or a week of beach shuttles. There are always options to be smarter with your budget.
Place to Stay:
This hostel/hotel is owned by a family that has recently added on 2 brand new rooms (yes, the construction occurred during my entire stay). The amount of dust and construction noise from morning to night was definitely not welcome for me but what it means for you is that there should be no more construction. Yay! Even though it was a bit of a nuisance at times, I know that the families’ busiest week, Semana Santa would be coming up soon AND if they had the construction completed they would be able to bring in more income. Sooo, sometimes supporting the locals means supporting the locals in good times and bad. For me, it wasn’t that big of a deal so I stayed. Even with all the disruption, this was my favorite place to stay, I felt really safe, I was cool enough at night with just a fan, had a kitchen to cook in and a place to store my food. My private room came at a price of $15 per night (please note: this rate was negotiated based on my long stay and all prices are based on per person). My private room came with a private bathroom, in fact, every room has a private bathroom that comes with one bar of soap. They also provide sheets and towel . . . and your room can be cleaned as often as you would like or you could borrow a broom and sweep it out yourself.
There are 3 common areas – upstairs there is a nice outdoor seating area to catch an amazing breeze while you read your iPad as well as a bar to sit at.
Downstairs there is a swing and a picnic table to sit around with your buddies (hotel guests only).
Foyer – well I guess I would call it the foyer has a nice couch, roof over your head, books and magazines to read or just a good place to crack open the laptop and catch up on emails. Beyond this room, the hallway leads into 2 rows of rocking chairs if you like to sit and watch the passersby.
They lock the doors around 9 or 10pm but you will be given a key to unlock the small side door. This is where a flashlight or flashlight app comes in handy. Trust me. But either way, its nice to know that you are locked in at night.
As far as ambience, this is a more calm, mature hostel that does not attract the 20-something party crowd, if you want a party hostel check out PachaMama.
The location for me was perfect as it was 2 doors down from the bank, caddy corner to the market and Juanita’s chicken. And then 2 blocks inland from the beach.
Down the road from the park, you will find the Hotel Encanto.
Across the street from Hotel Encanto and again down from the park.
Beautiful hotel that overlooks the town. Whats nice about this hotel is that it is in easy walking distance of the main downtown yet up on the hill for spectacular views. After 2 days of walking up and down the hill, it will become easier but the first 2 days might kill ya.
It runs for approximately $35 per night for 2 people (including breakfast) . . . again prices are not set in stone and dependent on time of stay, time of year and number of people.
Within steps to the beach, its about 20 seconds from Barrio Cafe as you walk towards the beach. It is part of Rosita’s. The sign for Joxi hotel is hard to find so just look for Rosita’s. I believe they are one now.
If you must have AC then this is the cheapest place to get it.
AC about $22 per night. AND, they have a GENERATOR. And I’m not thinking that the generator will be good for air conditioning but rather for the router that will provide wifi = how I run my business.
In fact after perusing their website, it would really be a toss up between this place and Chale House. When the construction started at Chale House I should have left but they there was still something more beautiful and open about it . . . I work off of how I feel energetically about a place, hence Chale with the god awful construction. When I return to SJDS I will probably book a few nights here with A/C as I adjust to the climate change and see how I feel. The great thing about this little beach town is the flexibility. If you don’t like a place, you can walk down the street with your stuff and find another. So if you are new to a hotel/hostel just book one or two nights to get that flexibility . . . but try to m ake your decision quickly otherwise you will spend too much time walking around looking for the next best place.
$15 per night (per person, includes breakfast, no kitchen, most rooms have balconies on “Ocean Drive” . . . literally facing the ocean. Another place I wouldn’t mind spending one night at to be able to enjoy that wonderful ocean breeze on my very own balcony.
Places to Eat
The Market Black Coffee 10 Cordobas Black Coffee with Milk 15. A word of caution, I took my coffee to go and they would give me 2 cups, one with the coffee and one with the milk. The coffee will be extremely hot and please don’t expect a sleeve Starbucks style =) Once its in your hands, you must watch out for the biggest danger in 3rd world countries . . . WALKING. The market is somewhat dark and because of this you really need to watch for sudden dips, slippery areas due to water and curbs that suddenly jump out you. There are a lot of dangers in Nicaragua but I find the uneven walking surface to be something to really watch out for. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t see someone completely scratched and scarred up from taking a bad fall. Every day people! Do not take your eyes off the road/sidewalk.
Back to coffee shops . . . .
Coffee here is 40 Cordobas but unlimited refills. Wifi? Pretty much the least dependable in the city. For me I have to have it to work so its really important. After a week I gave up on this cafe plus the owner includes a page long dissertation on humans staring at screens at her cafe. Le sigh. If it weren’t for staring at my computer screen I wouldn’t be able to buy her coffee. Its how I run my biznass. With that being said, great coffee, smoothies, sandwiches and meals. Love the vibe here but do your computer work elsewhere.
For coffee lovers, you will find the best coffee at this quaint cafe. Its one block inland from Barrio Cafe and across the street from the market. The cafe is owned by an Italian couple who can whip up anything from the perfect coffee to a smoothie to a Mochacino.
Food Food . . . like Restaurants
Like any town in any country, the restaurants on the beach or “Ocean Drive” will typically charge more than others. Its plain ol math. I encourage you to check out any places in San Juan Del Sur and you’ll find plenty of reviews on popular restaurants like El Timon, Pizzeria San Juan La Playa, Howler, Iguana, Bambu Beach ($$$), Blue Marlin, Vivian to name a few of the places on Ocean Drive. Below I have provided some insight to a few of the places I enjoyed when not creating my own meals from the market (aka the travel hacker way).
Juanita’s aka the Chicken Lady
A full delicious meal about 5 US dollars
Get a drink for a plate of chicken, plantain chips or cooked plantain (make sure to clarify – I’m a texture person so this is a deal breaker for me), coleslaw.
Its only open for dinner and many days its jam packed with people. Come here hungry and leave with a full belly. 2 thumbs up!
BTW, its just a few doors down from the mercado. Or 1.5 blocks inland from Barrio Cafe.
This place is about 5 doors down from Juanitas, delicious, fresh, cheap seafood. Gets really busy at dinner time.
Yum!! There are a few pizza parlors in SJDS but Mauritzio delivers the Italian yumminess you crave. Stop in here for a slice or a whole pie. Again, this restaurant is only open in the evening and closed on certain days. So before you get your heart set on pizza for dinner, double check the days and hours.
From 4 PM to 7 PM you will find the best Mojitos at half the price. Its 2 for 1 Mojitos that will cost you 50 Cordobas (abt $2 total). I lived in tropical locations for 2/3 of my life, these mojitos are the real effen deal people. They have great food (some German food as the owner is German) and live music on Saturday night.
El Colibri (closed March 2014)
Just fyi, this glorious restaurant closed while I was there after a 10 year+ run. Word on the street is that Mary the owner will be doing a bit of travel then returning and possibly opening up again in a different location. Keep tabs on her because this was hands down the best restaurant and Sangria in town. I truly hope this restaurant comes back to SJDS.
Water Aerobics at Pelican Eyes on Monday and Friday at 10 AM, the hike up the stairs will give you a nice butt workout. Its free and pretty much all expats/retirees from North America.
Between the Market and the steps to Pelican Eyes, you will find the Gimnacio on the right. It is $3 per day. You will want to pop in and ask the desk person that they have going on that day. I think they hold some group classes, they do have a boxing ring and 2 bags (bring your wraps and gloves), and weight machines. I will def bring my wraps and gloves the next time I visit.
Multiple times per day you can find a shuttle offering service to Playa Maderas, Playa Hermosa, Playa Remansa. The roundtrip service to these beaches will cost you about $5 at the Casa de Oro Hostel. This place is a great resource for excursions and getting you there.
Interested in Kite Surfing or Knee Boarding then stop by Good Times Surf near The Iguana (Ocean Drive) and they also offer the classic surf outings.
On Tuesday night Republika bar has Trivia night. You’ll find a lot of expats Tuesday night and they are known to give away full bottles of Flor de Cana.
Each night PachaMama hostel has something going on. This is north of the Barrio Cafe
Yoga. Lots of yoga options but most from North Americans charging North American prices. Not my thing. Feel free to share your yoga spots/retreats if you know of one.
Sailing. I love to sail but had difficulty as a solo traveler finding a boat as many require a minimum. As you walk around you will see signs advertising sailing just about everywhere. Many run from 1:00 – 6:00 and are called sunset booze cruises. Thats really the only sailing option unless you have your own boat. I have been sailing a couple times now with Captain Ken and his dog Taz . . . the dog is so cute! We met at the port at 1:00 (go south bound on Ocean Drive via foot, basically to your left if you are facing the ocean, pass the Hotel Victoriano, and head towards the guards station). You will meet your Captain (whomever it might be just outside). Plan on spending about $45 – $60 bucks in cash to sail and then you will need additional tip for the helpers. Hint: Have exact cash, you will not see your change.
Restrooms: there is a restroom inside the port, use it before you go.
Another tip: You will need to sign your name on a clipboard with your passport number (do not bring your passport, its okay to guess your passport # if you do not have it memorized). The captain will then need to bring the info to the guards, pay them and then you can walk through. You will jump onto a small boat and motor over to your sailboat.
What to bring: small bag that you can easily carry as you transfer from boat to boat. Do not bring a lot of stuff. iPhone (in a ziploc bag), GoPro, camera, goggles, fins, rash guard, sunscreen are a few suggestions. Yes, you can bring sunglasses but know that a sailboat is on water, anything can move or shift at anytime.
The sailboats sail north along the coast of SJDS and pull up to Playa Blanca. A beautiful beach owned by the Pelas family (think the Kennedy’s of Nicaragua); they allow the public to swim on the beach but whatever you do don’t go into their pool or near the home. Oh, and your captain will anchor outside of the beach and you will swim in – its a good 10 minute swim so be careful on how much you drink. You will spend about an hour swimming at the beach or walking the rocks before your captain blows the whistle. This is by far my favorite beach as its clear, warm water and a perfectly sandy beach.
The Park in downtown San Juan del Sur
A beautiful breeze, lots of benches and even a place for some snacks. This park is slightly elevated in relation to the rest of downtown San Juan del Sur. Just a good place to grab the local paper, chill and work on your Spanish.
The banks are typically armed by 1 – 2 guards with very big guns. So no funny business, no joking, just do your business and be done. If you are wearing a baseball cap or hat you will need to take it off or turn it backwards. Don’t pull out your cell phone to pass time, keep cell phone in your bag and stand still otherwise a guard with a huge gun will come and chat with you. Eeks! No matter how long the line, enjoy your time as this is one of the rare air conditioned buildings (waiting in air conditioning when you haven’t felt it for a week is glorious).
Quiet night out?
My fave is to sit at the Barrio Cafe bar facing the street with a book, an iced ted and maybe a chocolatey drink for dessert. You’ll get the best breeze ever right here
The beach at San Juan del Sur
This is not the type of beach where you can leave your beach blanket with your beach bag, iPhone, wallet, books etc while you take a dip in the water. If you want to bring these things to the beach make sure a buddy stays with your belongings. In the section with restaraunts that are elevated, young boys will hide underneath the restaraunts even with the barb wire and take your belongings when they see you pop into the water. Many times they will come to you post-theft and you may be able to strike a deal to buy your belongings back . . . . and at times its sometimes is a good deal.
If I go solo to the beach, I wear my swimsuit, cheap shorts, cheap flip flops and leave my key at my accommodations. Worse case scenario, if my shorts and flip flops get stolen I will just have to walk a few blocks barefoot.
Although, San Juan del Sur has a beach right in its downtown – its not the “go to” beach for most serious surfers and beach lovers. There are a number of beaches to choose from but in general most go to Playa Maderas or Playa Hermosa. Both great choices and both have a slightly different vibe. Please note that as of April 2014 Playa Hermosa is filming the next Survivor show and I believe it is closed for about 4 – 6 months. If you will be there in that time frame, ask around before making any plans.
Playa Hermosa is a bit quiter, has an entrance fee of $3 but includes bathroom usage. A restaurant with delicious fish platters, smoothies and beer are available for purchase. And lots of hammocks to relax in after a full day of surfing.
Playa Maderas has more visitors, no entrance fee, but you will pay a small fee for shower or bathroom usage. It also has 3 cafe choices. General bar food at one, Tacos at another and cafe food like brick oven pizza, egg sandwiches, wine at Cafe Revolucion towards the back. I love Cafe Revolucion for its wines, coffees and brick oven pizza. It has a really mellow vibe and I dig the ambience back here.
Steps from Cafe Revolucion are the restrooms and behind the cafe is where Casa de Oro drops off and picks you up. Be aware of the return trips and put your return ticket in a safe place to show your driver.
Local Newsletter – a GREAT thing to pick up
At many locations around town, there is a local weekly newsletter that provides insight on restaurant specials, festivals, drink specials, events etc. Its a great thing to pick up and peruse to gain insight on whats up around SJDS. Look closely at the pic and you will see they have a website you can check out ahead of time.
So there you have it. My digital nomad insight to some of the things I enjoy in beautiful SJDS, Nicaragua. Of course, there’s a lot more to uncover and may be you have your own tips. Would love to hear your insights in the comments below.
P.S. Here’s where I got my coffee shop wifi fix
P.P.S. Interested in getting started in your digital nomad life? Try my Online Business Jumpstarter – details to my program here
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