Saturday, May 27th, 2017

The Best Things to Do in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua


Adventurous Kate and Alex in Wanderland

I’ve only been walking around the Nicaraguan beach town of San Juan del Sur for 20 minutes, but already three guys have stopped to talk to Alex. Three HOT guys. Hot Canadian surfers with incredible upper arms and ponytailed hair and the perfect smattering of chest hair.

I have one question for my friend: “HOW?!”

I knew this trip to Central America would be a big reset for me, and it certainly has been so far. So much of this trip has called back to my days backpacking through Southeast Asia four years ago. I feel younger, more carefree, less constricted by work, more open to any possibility that comes my way.

I’ve never been a hardcore partier (well, outside Senior Week 2006 at Fairfield University), but my first trip to Southeast Asia in 2010 unleashed a new side of me. Buckets of cocktails wherever I went, jumping into a Thai boxing ring with no preparation, not to mention that one time I made out with a hot Australian guy on one side of a bar and a hot South African guy on the other side of the bar (and kept going back and forth all day! I was insane!). It was a beautiful, chaotic time of my life.

I didn’t feel the same way in Costa Rica, but as soon as I crossed into San Juan del Sur, I felt that familiar Southeast Asian feeling. It had the same open party atmosphere. The same backpacker crowd, though a bit older and more North American overall. And if you want to party every night of the week, you could go ahead and nobody would call you a degenerate. Same if you want to party all night. It reminded me the most of Vang Vieng, Laos, the biggest party destination I’ve ever experienced.

Like Vang Vieng, I stayed in San Juan longer than planned (eight days as opposed to three). I took part in organized partying (Sunday Funday and a booze cruise). I met some guys, though despite all the hot guys in Vang Vieng, I think the guys in San Juan were way hotter overall. (Have I mentioned the surfer bodies?)

That said, even if you’re not a partier, this town allows a variety of indulgences. Here are my favorite things to do in San Juan del Sur!

San Juan del Sur

Chilling in a Colorful Town

Nicaragua is one of the most colorful countries I’ve ever visited, and San Juan del Sur is no exception. Seeing a plain white building was a rarity; it’s more likely that it was painted several bright colors.

You can see my collection of colorful pictures here.

San Juan del Sur Jesus

Hiking to Jesus

One of the world’s largest Jesus statues sits atop a hill overlooking San Juan del Sur. Hiking to the top was a perfect athletic activity for the day!

Hiking to the top requires walking up a very steep but paved road; if you have a car, you could drive most of the way. It’s a wonderful place to view golden hour and the sunset, but you’ll want to return to town before it gets too dark.

Chilled Out

The Zen Life

On my recent health kick, I took part in yoga at Zen Yoga, attached to Buddha’s Garden. I found the 10:00 AM class to be nice and relaxed, easy enough for first-timers but a decent workout for more hardcore yogis.

I usually suck at yoga and have to be the person whom the instructor comes around and helps get into some of the poses (my hips just can’t fit into pigeon pose right!) but I never felt awkward about it at Zen. Best part? Getting a fresh juice afterward and chatting with new friends from class.

Loose Moose

Pub Crawl

Have you ever been to a Canadian bar before? Bugaboo Creek doesn’t count.

Well, with so many Canadians in San Juan del Sur (seriously, I’ve met more people from Saskatchewan in Nicaragua than I’ve met ever), it’s only natural that a Canadian bar would pop up: the Loose Moose, complete with poutine on the menu, hockey on TV, antlers and maple leaves everywhere, and handheld masks of Harry and Lloyd from Dumb & Dumber (not sure why; the latter aren’t Canadian!).

When I talked about traveling solo to a party destination, a pub crawl is the perfect way to get to know new people. While Alex went off and talked to her old friends, I sought out some new friends of my own, asking everyone where they were from, asking guys about their tattoos and complimenting the girls on their style, and it couldn’t have been easier.

Kate and Alex on the Catamaran

Catamaran Ride

This was my favorite activity I did in San Juan. All around town are signs for $75 catamaran rides. I planned to save it as a reward after completing a big work goal, but soon some girls invited us to join them that day!

It’s expensive at $75, which includes the boat ride, all you can drink (the mai tais are nice!), snacks (ceviche made from fish caught during the cruise, as well as chips, guacamole, and salsa), a stop at a beautiful private beach for swimming and beach hanging (complete with a bag of beers that they throw at you, and the cruise ends during sunset.

Also, hilariously, there was a bathroom board, but I’m pretty sure none of us used it.

If you’re traveling on your own and looking to meet new friends, this is yet another way to do so. I can’t imagine not making friends on this booze cruise!

Sunday Funday

Sunday Funday

Every week, San Juan has a legendary party — Sunday Funday! It’s basically a pool party pub crawl that starts at about noon and goes until dawn, if you dare.

This was the most visceral reminder of Vang Vieng — people in San Juan and throughout Nicaragua walk around in Sunday Funday tank tops, just like the In The Tubing tank tops in Laos. We went to four different bars, including the Naked Tiger, which is outside town and perched on a hill overlooking the region. People were covered in body paint; drinking games were rampant; guys cross-dressing in skirts and bras jumped into the pools fully clothed.

Alex, five years younger than me, was out until 3:00 AM. I, the resident “mature” traveler at age 30, was happily home in bed at 10:30 PM.

Buddha's Garden Rasta Pasta

Eat Well

Many people who come to Central America eat nothing but comida tipico (some kind of protein, gallo pinto (rice and beans), plantains, maybe a bit of salad if you’re lucky) everywhere they go, especially if they’re on a tight budget. Frankly, it gets monotonous pretty quickly. San Juan is a great place to indulge in a bit of international cuisine and especially healthy cuisine.

Here are some of my favorite spots, all in the town center:

  • Buddha’s Garden: Raw vegan food! I recommend the rasta pasta (raw zucchini pasta with walnut bolognese) and any of their juices, especially the Drop the Beet.
  • Taco Stop: Great tacos on the main strip. Don’t confuse it with the inferior Taco Spot on the same street.
  • El Gato Negro: Delicious organic food, nice smoothies, and a creative cafe atmosphere. Open until mid-afternoon only.
  • Cerveceria: An actual brewery in San Juan del Sur! Good tacos and salads.
  • Bar Republik: Nice tacos (see a pattern here?) and nightly events at the bar.
  • Casa Oro: This hostel offers a free cooked breakfast every day, which is pretty rare. Breakfast tacos were the best!

Beach near San Juan del Sur

What I Should Have Done…Other Beaches

San Juan’s beach isn’t that great — it’s dark, a bit dirty, and dangerous at night (“YOU WILL GET ROB” read signs throughout town). But the beaches outside town are incredible. Two of the most famous ones and Playa Maderas and Playa Hermosa.

Both Maderas and Hermosa are fantastic places to surf, whether you’re experienced or a first-timer. Lessons are available on both beaches; you can rent board there or through Casa Oro hostel. Shuttle transportation, which can accommodate surfboards, is available through Casa Oro.

I did get to see one lovely little private beach on the catamaran ride, though, and it’s pictured above.

Horseback Riding Rancho Chilamate

Image: Alex in Wanderland

What I Should Have Done…Horseback Riding on the Beach

Alex went horseback riding with Rancho Chilamate and came back raving about how much fun she had. Alex has done a lot of horseback riding around the world — if she raves about something, you know it’s exceptional. I really wish I had joined her. Next time, for sure.

I did, however, happen to hang out with the cowgirls who work on the ranch and hail from around the world. They are fantastic, friendly, down-to-earth ladies and getting to know them was one of the highlights of my time in San Juan.

San Juan del Sur Flor de Cana

And By the End

When I arrived in San Juan, I was struck by the party atmosphere and at first had forgotten how to behave. By the end of the trip, hot guys were stopping me in the street to say hi. Holy crap. This town erased years from my life!

Like Vang Vieng, I wouldn’t count on San Juan being the cultural touchstone of your trip, especially if you stay in the center of town and don’t travel elsewhere in Nicaragua, but you know what? This place is a lot of fun. 10/10, would visit again.

Essential Info: San Juan del Sur is in the south of Nicaragua, near the Costa Rican border. If you’re coming from Costa Rica, it’s most convenient to get a taxi from the border, which should take 30 minutes and cost around $22. From the other direction, there are buses from nearby Rivas. It’s also close to San Jorge, where you get the ferry to Ometepe.

I stayed at Casa Oro and highly recommend it. Alex and I shared a private ensuite (no hot water) with one double bed and one twin bed for $32 per night, which is expensive for Nicaragua but it’s in line with other hostels in pricey San Juan. Dorms are available from $10. Casa Oro is in the perfect location and it’s a great hotspot for tours and activities. You can find other hotels in San Juan del Sur here.

To get to the Jesus statue, cross the red drawbridge on the beach and head upward. It’s a bit twisty — follow the signs for Malibu and you’ll soon see signs for Jesus. Admission is 50 cordobas ($2) per person.

Zen Yoga offers $8 drop-in classes (or less if you buy a package) a few times a day, including 8:30 AM and 10:00 AM. Get yourself a juice afterward for around $4.

You see signs for the catamaran ride everywhere throughout town (if not, Casa Oro will have the information) and the cost is $75, including all-you-can-drink beverages and snacks.

Sunday Funday takes place each Sunday and usually starts at Pachamama hostel; ask around for the details of the week. It costs $30 and includes a t-shirt and transportation, which I think is grossly overpriced (especially since it doesn’t include drinks or food), but since it’s the signature activity of San Juan, I was glad I did it.

Shuttles from Casa Oro to Playa Maderas are available for $5 round-trip and run a few times per day. Shuttles from Casa Oro to Playa Hermosa are available for $10 round-trip and run once per day.

Horseback rides with Rancho Chilamate are available for $69 for a daytime ride and $79 for a sunset ride. Tours last five hours.

Have you ever traveled to your past self? Or a big-time party destination? Share away!


58 Responses to “The Best Things to Do in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua”
  1. Miquel says:

    Sounds like an awesome place. It’s fun to see you reviving some a little bit of solo SEA Kate!

  2. Andrea says:

    I think Munich was the largest “party” destination I’ve been to so far, unless my resort trip to the Dominican counts! This looks like a lot of fun, and I could definitely get used to relaxing and being “zen” aha!
    Andrea |

  3. Nicely done! I wish I’d hit up the other beaches in San Juan del Sur — like you, I was unimpressed with the main one. The yoga class sounds phenomenal.

    P.S. Jim Carrey is Canadian American! 🙂

    P.P.S. Checked out your hot guys of Laos post — nice!! (My husband had a tongue ring when we first met.) Waiting patiently for the hot guys of San Juan edition…

  4. Emily says:

    Looks like a blast!

    I bet they had a typical Canadian cocktail at Loose Moose: the caesar (my favourite!).

  5. I’ve loved your past few posts – I feel like Nicaragua is calling my name! As a lifelong sailor, the catamaran ride sounds amazing. And plus a private beach? It doesn’t get better than that.

  6. elyse says:

    I appreciate all your details. OK…so here’s my question. Is this a place for a solo woman WAY over 30 years old? For example, would I be totally out of place on catamaran cruise? Thanks.

    • There was a couple in their 70s on the catamaran and they were the coolest people on board! They used to run a hip-hop label in NYC! Haha. Seriously, though, our catamaran had lots of 20- and 30-somethings and fewer but still significant people in their 40s and 50s.

  7. jess says:

    I’ve been going to SJDS for past 4 years and love it. Lots of changes tho – used to be much more laid back, a true Nica town w tourists. Now, SJDS can feel like a tourist town w some locals. But! I still love it. Color, heat, beautiful beaches and scenery, wonderful people!
    Elyse, yes, way over 30 is fine. You’ll find many older expats around town, and you lots of things to do whatever your age. I go to Nica for language schools and vacations, and I’m never disapointed.
    Casa Ora is nice, but for a quieter, more chilled vibe w similar pricing, check out Hotel Maracuya, on top of hill directly behind and up from El Gato Negro. Great clean rooms, free breakfast, roof top terraces and views of town and bay. Best of all, out of the busier ‘downtown’ heat and noise, but still only block away.

    • Elyse says:

      Thanks for your info! Do you always go to SJDS or can you suggest other places? I’m really interested in language schools…both learning Spanish and learning to teach English as a second language. I’d really appreciate any info you have on either. I mainly want to know which are the best ones. Location doesn’t matter….anywhere in South or Central America for Spanish. For TESL, I’d go just about anywhere outside of the U.S. As I said, thanks!

  8. Meredith says:

    I just visited SJDS a month ago and the highlight of our trip was DEFINITELY Rancho Chilamate. The tours go out at low tide which allows for amazing photos. Beautiful location, wonderfully fun & energetic people running the ranch, and confident, responsive horses – this tour is a must!

    Loving all your posts on Nicaragua, Kate!

  9. Amanda says:

    This definitely reminds me of some of your SEA posts, Kate! So glad to hear you’re having such a great time!

  10. Britt says:

    This reminds me of Koh PHi Phi.
    I was there last week. Yes the beach sucked, yes it was dirty and gross but it was a great place to party. We also did a booze cruise and I got beyond out of control- my sister could have killed me! Haha

  11. I’m sure the hot surfers dudes with perfect smattering of chest hair were stopping both you AND Alex! You’re both clearly gorgeous, smart, fun-loving women! Can’t wait to visit myself someday.

  12. So glad you girls had fun in SJDS! I had some of my shittiest luck there, but I still loved the little town for what it was…and the parties weren’t bad either 🙂

  13. It looks like this trip is turning out to be an awesome reset – so nice to see you and Alex having fun together! I love how the travel blogging world can be so small like that.

  14. Zascha Friis says:

    I’m 23 and I don’t think I could handle all that partying! 😀

  15. Sally says:

    Sometimes I think ‘I am over partying, I don’t want a hangover tomorrow’. But it only takes a good night out with great people and I am back to the party girl I was a few years ago. I am in Bangkok at the moment for a month and was dreading seedy bars and multiple nights out on Khao San but after meeting some amazing people, I have found a whole new side to Bangkok’s night life! I am glad you had fun!

  16. Arianwen says:

    I went to Playa Maderas twice. I tried surfing then gave up and moved on to a body board, which was so much fun! I wish I’d done the catamaran ride. That looks amazing. The only activity I would add to this list is the trip to see the turtles. Casa Oro is great at educating people on conservation issues with a presentation before they go. On the beach you have the chance to help guide hatchlings into the sea. You can only use dim red lights and they get you to tread slowly and carefully. Your fee also goes towards helping put in measures to protect them.

  17. Sounds exciting!
    I used to be a real party girl back in the day and every now and then I keep my hand in, probably once a year LOL! The best places were an illegal rave somewhere in the English countryside, where I lost my shoes! In Hong Kong where I was invited to party with a bunch of expats who were leaving town the next day. Yeah baby! In Bali, where I invited myself to a beach party and 2 hot Aussies wanted to invite themselves to my hotel. Sadly, I had to say no thanks LOL!
    And of course, Berlin where I live. There’s one particular gay club called “Arena” that has an open air swimming pool on the edge of the river. Let me tell you, a live DJ, hot guys, gorgeous girls, the sun slowly rising, your ears pounding, everyone hugging and smiling, is a fabulous feeling. Yes, it was the old days, but I had a brilliant, fantastic, time.
    Now, it’s midnight and a taxi-ride home, but I can live with that LOL!

    • You know I’ve spent time in Berlin (including with you!) but I’ve never had a crazy Berlin party night. I’ve gone for drinks, but…I need a big night. Like the example I always use: my friend Cheryl who went to 90s night at a club and Haddaway made a surprise appearance, performing What Is Love!!

  18. After reading this I want to go back to Nicaragua ASAP! I’m glad you’re loving Nicaragua, it’s my favorite Central American country.

  19. Alicia says:

    Great post, and I am loving your videos – keep it up! =)

  20. McKenzie Day says:

    Reading this has me googling trips to Central America for this summer! I miss the excitement and romance of Latin America, because while Asia is safe and convenient, it is missing a bit of the spontaneity I felt travelling around Latin America.
    Hope this is ok but I referenced your blog in my most recent blog post about how young female bloggers are labelled a certain way and how that relates to feminism- check it out if you’re interested!

    • McKenzie, it’s beyond okay that you referenced me and I’d love to reference you in my keynote, if that’s all right! I left a comment on your post with my email.

  21. Brooke says:

    Even though I’m not a party girl, I am definitely ready for a change! I tend to be an introvert, but I’m ready to get out and see the world and meet new people. Your honesty about your experiences encourages me to start looking and getting out to experience the world. 🙂

  22. OK, now I totally want to go spend some time in Nicaragua! Wouldn’t mind having a few years erased. lol If I could get hot guys stopping 35-yr-old me I’d consider that a great win. 😛

  23. Joyce says:

    I have yet to go to South America and I can’t wait to plan a trip there! I love all those suggestions and glad that most of them come with a bright, warm sun!

    Characters & Carry-ons

  24. Katie says:

    Glad you had an awesome time Kate. We didn’t spend long in SJDS, we headed over to Playa Maderas instead, so didn’t realise it was such a hot spot for Canadians. I miss poutine so much!

  25. Alyssa says:


    I love the direction your blog is heading back towards. I can sense pure passion in your writing!

  26. Kristina says:

    Two of my favorite bloggers together in one of my favorite countries! I’m dying of FOMO! Thanks for all the great info on your blog, I refer to it all the time, Alex’s as well (I’m in SE Asia currently). Would be amazing to meet up on the road sometime. Safe travels!

  27. Elizabeth says:

    What were the local people like? Were they friendly? Did you even talk to any? San Juan can be a cultural experience. On Thursdays,there is Cultural Night at El Timon which is one of the oldest restaurants in San Juan del Sur as well as a Cultural Night at Pelican Eyes on Wednesdays. There are MANY Spanish schools that will take you around town and explaine the history of San Juan. There are also non-profit organizations such as The Barrio Planta Project that teach classes in English, art, dance, computers fitness, and gardening to the local children for free and there are many volunteer opportunities there and at other organizations. I am from the U.S. but have been living here for over 7 years. People always ask me if I have seen changes and unfortunately I have to say yes. The town is now filled with 20 somethings getting drunk and vomiting on the sidewalk at 11pm and then going to another bar to continue drinking where someone else in the group vomits IN the bar where an employee has to clean it up while the group high fives (I actually witnessed this with my own eyes). They destroy all of the pools on Sunday Funday to the point that Water Aerobics, that has been held every Monday and Friday morning for the local expats since before I ever came here, had to move to Tuesdays because the pool was alway dirty and had broken glass in it and plastic cups floating in it. I know I sound like and old retiree but in fact I am 37. I do not want my daughter (who is half Nicaraguan) to grow up seeing her home turned into a frat party and think that is cool and respectable. I think it is ignorant and disrespectful to go to another country and treat it like that. I like to go out and drink and dance as much as the next person but there are limits and I would say that 70% of the people who pass through here are pushing them. I am sorry that you are taking the brunt of my rant as you are not the only blog I have read like this but you are the only one that didn’t even mention anything Nicaraguan even once except that San Juan is not a cultural experience. Maybe when you come back you can go play football or volleyball with the kids on the beach at sunset (they play every evening at about 5pm) or go to the library and read to some kids.

    • Thanks for sharing, Elizabeth, and yes, I did talk to many Nicaraguans. I’m a bit surprised that you don’t consider hiking to the Jesus statue, exploring the colorful streets, and visiting the beaches as “Nicaraguan” activities. They are just as Nicaraguan as anything else. And I did watch those kids playing soccer, but believe me, I’m the world’s worst athlete and would never join in a game!

  28. This sounds like a really fun town. Thanks for the info. Definitely need to add it to my list.

  29. Britt says:

    I developed a thing for hot Canadians from my time at Koh Phi Phi. One of the only highlights of the whole overdeveloped island 😉 Yummy.

    Actually this whole post reminds me of my trip to Koh Phi Phi. We went on an incredibly messy booze cruise (couldn’t recommend more) and went to a pool party. But clearly this place is a lot more beautiful- I would be really keen to go to the outside beaches as they look wonderful from what my google says anyway.

  30. Nikki says:

    My friend and I always check your blog before we do any travelling! We love you! 🙂
    We are off to Nicaragua in Aug x

  31. Brandon says:

    Yes how great is Zen Yoga? and the attached Buddha’s garden? Yes please! After a few months of Gallo pinto + proteins I was losing my mind ha ha.

    We lived in Maderas for a couple months this spring and just published a guide in case anyone is interested:

    PS I was in Vang Vieng in 2010 and had my share of fun. Nothing quite like it since!

  32. Yoah says:

    I was waiting for you to mention the beaches outside San Juan while reading your post. Luckily, you mentioned it at the end! I have lived in NIcaragua for 8 months and the best beaches to be found (except maybe the Corn Islands) are South of San Juan. Playa Hermosa was one of my favorites because it is easily accesible. However, I would recommend to go to other beaches such as Playa Yankee, Playa Coco and Remanso. All beautifull beaches where you most likely be exploring on your own!

  33. Emily says:

    Finally heading to SJDS next week. I’ll be staying at Casa Oro (thanks for the recommendation! It looks awesome).

    Nicaragua has been in my travel plans for awhile and some other area of the world keeps cutting the line! Finally, here I come!!

  34. Mike says:

    That was a great article. Is it common for people to use other currencies there (dollar, euro, etc)?

    • US dollars are used sometimes in Nicaragua (you can get them from ATMs too), but cordobas are the primary currency, especially for small amounts. No other currencies are used.

  35. CHICABRAVA says:

    Next time you visit Nicaragua, you’ll have to come stay at CHICABRAVA women’s surf retreat! We’d love to have you :]

  36. Katie says:

    I have to agree on Sunday Funday, even at 25 I felt like a bit of a mama bear to the youngin’s. I did, however, fix 2 sets of flip flops, help a brother out as his wingwoman, and catch one of the workers casually wearing my boyfriend’s “lost” sunglasses. Safe to call that a success.

    Super late comment, but wanted to drop a line and say that this post helped in my planning! Thanks to you and Alex for producing such great content!

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