Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Exploring San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua

Tucked away in a half-moon bay on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua is the sleepy fishing village of San Juan del Sur. Located approximately 90 miles south of Managua, this town has become one of the top tourist destinations in the country. Unlike many other popular locations that have become dominated by tourism, this town has successfully managed to hold on to its relaxed atmosphere. Much like long ago, the tranquil bay still includes fishing boats that gently rock against the incoming tide and the narrow streets are lined with rows of colorful houses that double as small stores. But the best aspect about this town is the long beach that seems to beckon every visitor the moment that they arrive. 

The town itself has an interesting history where it once served as a major transit point for prospectors with a thirst for fortune during the 19th-century California Gold Rush. It is unbelievable to imagine that these travelers from the United States once avoided cross-country travel by sailing down the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, up the treacherous Río San Juan, across Lake Nicaragua, and over land to San Juan del Sur where they boarded ships headed to California. But compared to the long trek across the southern desert in the U.S., it was the better of the two evils. The town still serves as a shipping port but tourism has now taken over as its primary source of income.

Travel to San Juan del Sur

Fortunately for travelers today, things are completely different. After arriving at the Managua International Airport, there are many transportation options ranging from direct, air-conditioned shuttles to the "chicken buses." My suggestion is to either rent a car or book a direct shuttle. The choice depends on whether you want to explore everything on foot or by car after you arrive. 

Rental Cars – The Managua International Airport includes the majority of the rental companies that we have come to know and trust: Budget, Hertz, Dollar, Alamo and Avis, in addition to several smaller companies such as Targa. Rental cars can be reserved online and the rates are incredibly reasonable. The only downside is that most of the companies require a deductible that places a "hold" on your credit card. Depending on the company, the hold can be up to US$1,000, so plan accordingly if you are counting on using the same credit card during your stay. In regard to what type of vehicle to reserve, I definitely recommend renting a SUV or 4x4 because the roads can become very bumpy at times. As far as the drive, find your way to the CA-1 (the Pan-American Highway), which is the Carretera a Masaya in Managua. Head south on the CA-1 past the city of Rivas and make a right turn in the town of La Virgen. From there, it is a 10-mile drive straight toward the coast.
For those who just want to just spend their entire time in San Juan del Sur, I recommend taking the Adelante Express ( For US$45, it offers direct travel from the Managua Airport to San Juan del Sur with door-to-door service in air-conditioned vans. It couldn’t be more convenient for traveling to such an out-of-the-way destination.

After arriving in San Juan del Sur, you will quickly realize that all that is required is to just exhale and relax. Yes, there are things to do other than enjoying the beach, but the town’s primary focus is the beach and its spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. The beach can be somewhat addicting. Some expatriates who now live there have been surprised by the town’s initial attraction that made them stay long ago.

Activities in San Juan del Sur

All plans, whether relaxed or active, should begin with a barefoot stroll along the expansive beach. The town is relatively safe and I have found that strolling on the beach can be done at any time during the day. Of course, use common sense when strolling around at night. Make sure to stop by any of the open-air restaurants that are scattered along this stretch of sand, which all provide front-row seats to the spectacular sunsets. One of my favorite places is the Blue Marlin Restaurant. Located right on the beach across from the Hotel Casa Blanca, it is a Mexican restaurant  that offers large portions at great prices. The shrimp quesadillas in particular are delicious and packed with shrimp. Add an ice-cold Toña (my favorite Nicaraguan beer) and a good sunset, and there is nothing better.

(Photo by America Sandoval)
Another great place to enjoy excellent food and cold drinks with spectacular views is the Pelican Eyes Resort. Also known as the Piedras y Las Olas Resort, it is one of the most luxurious resorts in the region. It is located on the hills overlooking the town and it is easy to find since everyone seems to know where it is when asked. The villas and guest rooms can be rented for a night or a week and they include every amenity you could ever imagine. For those who just want to enjoy the view, there is a great happy hour on Wednesdays and Fridays from 5 to 8 p.m. and for an extra US$5, you can even swim in the two Infinity pools.

Although the area is well-known for its surfing, I will leave that topic for another post since there is so much information to share. For activities other than surfing or sitting on the beach, there are plenty of things to do:

Canopy Tour – Located in the hills about five minutes from the town is Da’ Flying Frog (, which offers a zip-line tour through a network of 17 cables. The longest cable is approximately 1,150 feet in length. After some quick safety instruction by their trained staff, the ride offers amazing views down the hill. It is open from Monday through Saturday and it costs a reasonable US$30 per person. 

Horseback Riding – For those who have ever imagined riding a horse down an open stretch of beach, Rancho Chilamate Horseback Tours ( makes it a reality. It provides beautiful horses and half- or full-day guided tours for up to six people. Led by Jamie Lake and Blue Van Doorninck, they customize the tours for a very personal and memorable experience.

Mercado Central – Located in the center of town, this open market is a great experience. Much like other markets in the country, it opens early in the morning and closes somewhere around 5 p.m. You will find stall after stall with the best fruit and vegetables in the area as well as prepared food. My favorite is Asados Juanita, who is also known as the "chicken lady" by the locals. For approximately US$3, you will get a large portion of delicious barbecued chicken. Best of all, the locals also enjoy it, which is always a good thing. If you come to the market for breakfast, you will find everything from eggs to delicious gallo pinto (rice and beans). The market also sells clothes and everyday household items in addition to souvenirs.

Spanish Language Schools – For travel in any country with a foreign language, learning the basics of the language can enhance one's overall experience. Best of all, you can immediately practice what you have learned just minutes after the class ends. Classes are offered both privately and in groups (depending on your need and budget) and they even provide a chance to stay with a local family in San Juan del Sur. My two recommendations are: The Nica-Spanish Language School ( that is located next to Baloy’s Surf Shop or La Casa Escuela Rosa Silva (, which is located just west of the Mercado Central.

Statue of Christ: Finally, this relatively new attraction is located on a hilltop overlooking the town. This 130-foot statue is the second largest in the world, behind the well-known Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Taxis can take you there, but if you are driving, then head back as if you were leaving San Juan del Sur. Take the road on the left just past the Pali grocery store. Near the top of the hill, you will enter the upscale Pacific Marlin community, which is gated community lined with million-dollar homes. Let the security guard know that you want to see the statue. From the small parking lot, you will have no choice but to take the very steep walk up to the site. The admission is a reasonable US$1. From the viewpoint, you will see the entire half-moon bay, the town, the surrounding hills, and miles down the coastline. An amazing end for any visit to this memorable town.

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