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