To be honest, I had no intention of spending any time at all in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. Labeled as the country’s party-town, hot-spot along the backpacker trail, I actually wanted to avoid it at all costs. I had images of sleepless nights with music pulsating through the town and dorms full of drunk, inconsiderate backpackers (kind of like Caye Caulker, Belize). Since Guatemala, friends had been telling me about San Juan del Sur’s legendary “Sunday Funday” – a popular bar crawl that shuttles attendees to poolside bars and offers an entire afternoon of free drinks. To further add to my distaste, on a daily basis its placid bay is defiled by monstrous cruise ships unloading day-trippers by the hundreds. I wanted no part of that environment.
But, since I was on my way into Costa Rica along the Panamerican Highway, San Juan del Sur offered a final stop for me to stock up on sunblock, bug spray, nuts, and flax seed before crossing into the more expensive neighboring country. And, my primary reason for a layover in San Juan del Sur was to go horseback riding with Rancho Chilamate. Anything for the sake of some horse loving!
An unfortunate incident with bed bugs: Following a very rainy (but delightful) visit to Ometepe Island, I traveled south and stopped for a night at Maderas Beach, an acclaimed surfer’s paradise on the way to San Juan del Sur. From the shuttle stop, it was a long walk up and then down a very steep hill. Of course, my hostel of choice was completely full, and I had to bed down in a neighboring hostel, Cafe Revolution. What followed was a night I would rather erase from my memory: Invasion of the Bed Bugs! I felt them before I saw them. Then, when I turned on the light, my bed looked like someone has thrown a handful of black pepper at me. I wound up sleeping with tall, wool socks tucked into my leggings, a long-sleeved shirt, and a scarf wrapped around my neck in order to block all possible points of entrance. Those little buggers were relentless though! Finally, I remembered that bed bugs hate the smell of tea tree oil so I proceeded to sprinkle almost an entire bottle of TTO all over my bed. It seemed to work for the remainder of the evening, and I quickly packed up and left the following morning for San Juan del Sur city.
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua: San Juan del Sur is one of the most visited towns in Nicaragua. Surfers, backpackers, cruise-shippers, and short-term vacationers visit San Juan del Sur for its diversified tourist offerings. Restaurants, bakeries, five-star spas, and top notch hotels are at a traveler’s fingertips, and travel agents offer surfing, fishing, hiking, ATVing, and whale watching tours. It’s an easy travel destination – thus its popularity.
Finding decent budget accommodation in San Juan del Sur proved to be difficult. I walked around for a good hour, checking out my options, and not many were clean enough or had the laid-back vibe I tend to look for in a hostel atmosphere. Then I remembered hearing that many lavandarias (laundry shops) in San Juan del Sur rent out the extra rooms behind their facilities. Low and behold, I found a simply gorgeous CLEAN room above a lavandaria with a queen size bed, private bathroom, balcony, WIFI, and fan for $10 a night. And I could use the kitchen downstairs. The travel nerd in me loves that I slept in a Nicaraguan lavandaria!
Besides the dozens of available (expensive) tours, there wasn’t a ton to do in San Juan del Sur. I jogged along the bay and crossed SJdS’s “Golden Gate Bridge” into the neighborhood of La Talenguera each morning. The bay also offered perfect sunsets (except for the hulking cruise ships that are impossible to photo shop out).
Another afternoon, I joined a few friends on a walk to the Jesus de la Misericoridia statue, located on the summit of SSJS’s highest hill. We got caught in a rainstorm halfway up and wound up hitchhiking with the family who designed/built the statue in 2008. (a very wealthy family in SJdS) The mirador offered beautiful vantage points of the whole bay, and there was also a small chapel at the top for leisurely mediation or a moment of prayer.
The outskirts of central San Juan del Sur were fun to explore, and the locals were eager for interaction and conversation. I visited my tortilla lady every morning to buy fresh flour tortillas – a perfect accompaniment to the creamy avocados, tomatoes and cilantro I bought at the downtown market. And the fish man was also good fun for an afternoon chat! I didn’t buy any fish from him, but he liked practicing his English and sharing his “secret” recipes for fresh ceviche.
Three days was plenty of time to scope out the scene and rest my saddle sore bum following my full day of horseback riding. Oddly, I thought that SJdS had a rather small-city feel to it instead of the “party” atmosphere that travelers had been raving about. Of course, I could have this lasting impression because I fell asleep to the hum of a lavandaria dryer instead of the typical hostel and dormitory buzz. And I wasn’t visiting the town during a weekend which is when the real “festivities” usually begin. However, it’s suffice to say that I didn’t dislike my time in San Juan del Sur, and I wasn’t in a hurry to leave. Could this be because I’d like to return and drool over the horses at Rancho Chilamate? Maybe. But if one looks past the gaudy tourist shops and ignores the cruise ship day-trippers, San Juan del Sur can have a charming appeal for a certain niche traveler.
With Nicaragua checked off of the list, I am off to Costa Rica and Panama from here and the countdown begins to flying home for Christmas!