Book! Pack! Go Travel! by Robbie Mamo

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

My next stop after 5 days of surfing and relaxing in the beaches of Popoyo was San Juan del Sur which is located about an hour South. This is when I found out that there was another way to access this area and I was told that I had taken the back way and confirmed my assumption that I likely wouldn’t have made it if it was the rainy season. This being said I was told that the easier more direct and better maintained road ran between Popoyo and Rivas which would have meant that I drove an extra 20 minutes past Ochomogo and turned toward the coast from Rivas on the way here. This is the route I will travel the next time I come back which is definitely going to be sooner than later. I made sure I had a full tank of gas on the way there and luckily I had enough to make it out of Popoyo as the only person I could find selling gas had run out and even if they did have some it is around $6 – $8 per gallon or 1.60C – 2.10C per liter. One thing to be careful of when you are buying any kind of fuel from someone off the side of the road in these countries is making sure that it is in fact the proper type of fuel for your engine. It’s also common for both diesel and gasoline to be dyed red which can be deceiving as I’ve only ever seen commercial diesel dyed.

Getting packed up to hit the road with some friends in my rental car.

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After about an hour on the road through partially dirt road and eventually pavement we were in Rivas and after finding a place to fill up the tank I was then on my way to San Juan del Sur on the Panamerican Highway. For those that don’t know the Panamerican highway runs from Alaska to Chile save for a short distance that runs between Panama and Ecuador called the Darien Gap which is one of the most dangerous places in the world which I’m sure I will talk about in a later post. From Rivas it is about an hour drive to San Juan del Sur and from here you can catch many buses to most destination in the country.

San Juan del Sur

Where to stay in San Juan del Sur…

Once I got to San Juan del Sur I went with the suggestion of a friend I had met a few days before and stayed atRosita’s Hotel which is located centrally in the town and a little more than one block from the beach. The budget rooms are on the main floor and they have shared dorms that start for under 250C/$10 per night with private bathrooms, single rooms start at 460C/$18 per night. On the second floor the private rooms start at 560C/$22 per night. All the rooms have AC and some have kitchenettes, refrigerators and other amenities. They also rent apartments long term and the price varies depending on how long you are planning to stay but if you commit to a month or more expect a really good rate. They also have 24 hour security, a really good restaurant, drinks and snacks for sale 24 hours a day as well as decent wi-fi which is hard to find in this town. Another plus is that they have their own lounge area and balcony that is a great place to hang out with friends. Another feature that is good or bad depending how you look at it is that they have a generator to back up the power which if you have been in San Juan del Sur or many other places in Nicaragua the power is constantly going out. The up side to this is that you won’t have to worry about your AC shutting down randomly or your food going bad if you have a room with a fridge. The down side is that the generator is super loud and doesn’t make for the best sleeping conditions when it is running full bore downstairs. It definitely is a mixed blessing.

Rosita’s Hotel and my private room there.

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The upstairs lounge at Rosita’s Hotel

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It’s only a short walk to the beach and is in a good location in town.

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The more popular hostels in town were Case de Olas and The Naked Tiger which were both located high atop a mountainside overlooking the bay with pristine ocean views. These were a few kilometres out of town but they both ran frequent shuttles to and from town every 2 hours and offered food and drinks in house. These shuttles use Barrios cafe as the pick up and drop off point and both hostels are serviced by the same truck for the shuttle service which has The Naked Tiger written on the side.

The Naked Tiger was by far the most lively of the two and despite having a reputation for being fairly chilled out during the day with most people hanging around poolside its probably because they are too hungover to do anything else from the crazy parties that go on there each night. The night I went over there to visit some friends I had met at an earlier point in my travels who were staying there it was an all out raging party. Speakers were stacked up and there was a dj blaring loud beats that I could hear from half way between the mountain it sat upon and the main part of town. It is definitely a party hostel and pretty much anything goes. They only rent shared dorm beds and these are 260C/$10 per night. They also give the option of sleeping on one of their couches or a hammock for 130C/$5 per night. They have a really nice pool and despite the amount of people there at any given time the hostel looked relatively well kept and maintained.

Located next door to Naked Tiger is Casa de Olas which had a really chilled out vibe and one of the nicest infinity pools I’ve seen in a while. They also had a really nice indoor/outdoor bar and patio setup which was like a tropical pub. If I had a choice between the two I would have chosen to stay here. The dorms start at 285C/$11 and private rooms with one queen six and one king size bed that were 905C/$35 if they had something on the spot and 1165C/$45 if booked in advance. Each guest gets a complimentary breakfast each morning which is a huge bonus. Most people that find The Naked Tiger to be too much of a party hostel relocate here and people that want a party tend to do the opposite!

For the higher end traveller and people who want an all inclusive resort there is the famous Pelican Eyes Resort and Spa is the most high end option in the area and their rooms start at just under 5176C/$200 per night. They offer the best ocean front views of any location in San Juan del Sur and also have the best maintained tropical gardens, the nicest pool and also have banquet and conference rooms. It is a common place for those who want to get married down South and if this resort was in any other country it would likely be more than double what they are charging per night. They also have a highly rated restaurant as you would expect from a resort such as this. They offer lots of different packages and these are always being updated so its best to consult their website or call to see what best suits the type of stay you are looking for. They are also the local agent for Dollar Rent-a-Car and this is where I will be returning my rental to when I finish up my stay in Nicaragua.

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The town of San Juan del Sur…

Being a popular place for people to anchor their yachts and sport fish you definitely get the higher end crowd in San Juan del Sur. I have to admit it’s a place where you could bring anyone from any age group and there is a good chance they will like it. There are quite a few upscale hotels that offer ocean views over the crystal clear waters of the bay and calm beach. Compared to other places in Nicaragua this is by far the best swimming beach for those not wanting to get bashed around by waves or worry about undertows or getting caught in a rip current. This makes it a perfect option for families with young children or those who aren’t as confident in the water.

A few shots of the town of San Juan del Sur

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Definitely a hot spot for backpackers passing through between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

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The beach at San Juan del Sur.

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The sunset in San Juan del Sur is usually worth a visit to the bay each night!

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One fun thing to do is visit the Christ the Mercy statue that sits on top of the hill overlooking San Juan del Sur. It is the second highest Jesus statue in the world and is a short hike from town and worth it to see the views! It’s open between 8 am and 5 pm and costs tourists 50C/$2 for entrance.

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San Juan del Sur bay as viewed from the Christ the Mercy statue.

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Some other small bays that are nearby.

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Where to eat…

The food here ranged from very cheap to very expensive. On the low end the best options are at the local market which is only open during the day but serves up some really good food starting for 70C/$2.80 and working its way up from there.

I used to start my day over at the Barrio Cafe which had the best espresso in town, great smoothies and a varied menu. They also had a reliable internet connection and was a fun spot to sit and watch things start to get going in the town each day.

Another popular option was the Taco Stop which was open really late. This was handy after the bar got out and anytime you needed a quick bite to eat. The food here was fast, really tasty and always hot! It was a staple in my diet the few days I was there.

There were a few sports/expat bars on the waterfront and one of these was Dorados Bar and Grill. It had a great view of the bay and sunsets each night and the food and drinks were pretty good too and were reasonably priced for the crowd they cater to. Another thing about Dorados is that they have one of the best internet connections in town and in San Juan del Sur finding a decent connection is easier said than done.

The sunset from Dorados Bar and Grill.

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Another good option I found was this restaurant on a side street that would set up an open pit bbq on the street and cooked up all sorts of meats and had great sides and salad. One night I decided to try a bit of each meat they had which on this night was beef, pork and chicken. This was one of the biggest meals I have had all trip and it was 180C/$7 with a drink. I had a bit of a hard time explaining that I wanted a portion of each meat but only set of sides but it came out exactly how I wanted it and they made sure it was what I had intended. Making sure of this was a local guy who also helped translate for me even tho he later realized that I knew how to order what I wanted but it was the restaurant staff that had a hard time understanding the amount of food I wanted just for myself. I got talking to this guy and he mentioned that he ran a tour agency in the area and from the sound of it has very interesting tours and could pretty much set you up to do anything you wanted in that area of the country and beyond. His name was and this is his website. Based on his friendly attitude and willingness to help me I have no doubt that he would be a good person to book a tour with and would take good care in providing an experience in a country he is very proud to show others.

My meal at the bbq restaurant serving up a mix of grilled meat and good sides!

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For nightlife the best place to hang out was definitely Henry’s Iguana Beach Bar which was a two storey building on the beachfront. There was always a ton of people here, the drinks were cheap and strong, and there was a good vibe. It was also nice because there were lots of area to sit but also a lot of standing room and a dance floor. I had some great times here and it was also a good place to catch a football or UFC pay per view. I got to see both while I was down there and it was always a good crowd on Sunday and Monday for the football games.

The bartender serving up a tall order on a busy night at Iguana Beach Bar.

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Surfing the beaches of San Juan del Sur…

The surf was pretty good in this part of the coast and still having my rental car I was able to explore the surf breaks in the area. One thing I didn’t realize before I got to San Juan del Sur is that there is no surfing walking distance while being in the actual town. There are cheap shuttles running back and forth between the different breaks but that means working around their schedule and as anyone who surfs knows, the good surfing conditions don’t always coincide with public transport. The main break people go to is Playa Maderas which has a hostel right on the beach called Los Tres Hermanos and had I not had a car rented this is where I would have stayed. You don’t have any choice for night life here and there are two restaurants offering good food but because they are on the beachfront expect to pay more. This is definitely the most popular and most easily accessible surf break in the area and is a beach break with rocks.

Playa Mederas

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I also had the opportunity to check out a few smaller, more remote surf spots which were within a half hour of town. One was Playa Remanso and the other was Playa Marsella. They were both decent beach breaks in small bays and were worth checking out if you wanted to beat the crowds. Both of these require a 4×4 to access and depending on the season it could be difficult sometimes depending on how washed out the road is and how slippery the rocks are that make up the majority of the road leading up and down hill.

Playa Remanso

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The newly opened Playa Marsella Beach Front Hotel is a higher end option for those who want a beachfront, tranquil getaway within a reasonable distance from San Juan del Sur. They also offer Zen Yoga classes and have a pool table located near the infinity pool. High end or not in Nicaragua don’t expect hot water to be offered at too many places no matter what you are paying.

Playa Marsella

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For only having seen a small area of Nicaraguas Southern coast I was really impressed with the country. Once you accept that it is probably one of the most undeveloped countries in this part of the world then you start to understand what makes it so appealing to someone like me. After years of going down to Costa Rica and people always comparing the two countries I’ve found Nicaragua to be a great alternative while being quite a bit cheaper. It is less touristy which can be good or bad depending on the type of traveller you are. I’ve always found a way to put things together myself and don’t always need things to run 100% as planned to be happy. For those who are more particular Costa Rica would be a better option and while the surfing here is very good the consistency of the waves and amount of breaks is still second best to Costa Rica. From a price standpoint there is no comparison. Nicaragua is easily one of the cheapest places I’ve been to.

I will definitely be back to Nicaragua soon and when I do I will try and see more inland attraction such as the many volcanoes and inland lakes that make it stand out from the other countries in Central America. I also plan on seeing Ometepe Island which is supposed to be worth the trip in itself.

Gone on a whim…