San Juan Del Sur, southwestern Nicaragua. Here lies an exquisite pearl; a Central American paradise for many. Loved by all manner of traveller - Nicaraguan to Australian, this Pacific coast surfer's town eagerly awaits an outsider.
A wide bay, forms a semi circle from San Juan's famed cliff top statue of Jesus Christ to the lush, green hills on its opposing side across the water. Small boats, yachts and jet skis potter above the surface in between. Upon the large, sun kissed and autumn coloured beaches (golden, brown sands with streaks of dark orange) an international crowd is to be encountered. Tall, blonde haired German surfers to groups of young, North American tourists, Australian backpackers and even Brazilian yoga enthusiasts patrol this zone. The local Nicaraguan moves humbly amongst them.
San Juan may be laden with all manner of tourist related establishments (restaurants, hotels, bars, clubs etc…) yet it does however gracefully retain the cultural heritage of a Nicaraguan coastal community. From the intriguingly sporadic hanging of pro ‘Sandinista’* flags to corner-spot tacos stands, one finds a charming tranquility within the streets of San Juan Del Sur.
*For anyone unfamiliar, the Sandinistas were Nicaragua’s anti-US armed forces who fought against North American backed Contra rebels during the not so distant and truly catastrophic civil war of the 1980’s. A battle was indeed fought for San Juan.
How to arrive
If arriving at the Costa Rica border via bus, you simply couldn't go wrong as to finding your way to San Juan. On being granted entry into Nicaragua, all one does is cross through the security zones whereupon an onrush of taxi drivers and local ‘chicken buses’ await. Most taxis drive tourists solely to San Juan as it’s no more than a forty minute ride and the main destination amongst travellers. Be prepared to share rides with other backpackers and furthermore to haggle the prices right down.
Buses will take you there from both the border crossing and the Nicaraguan capital Managua. Very economical and always an experience, the chicken buses are to be recommended. I mention the border crossing more so as swarms of North American and European backpackers/surfers enter San Juan this way. There are no nearby airports so the bus systems prove to be the most popular mode of transport.
What to do
The famed statue "Christ of the Mercy" stands high and mighty. Jesus gazes quite majestically upon the town with his position being at the northern end of the bay. El Mirador del Cristo de la Misericordia is one of the tallest Jesus statues in the world. On reaching this sight, either achieved by climbing the hideous hilltop trails (not to be done at midday as I did – for the sheer heat!) or perhaps a taxi ride. Taxis in fact patrol the entire town shouting ‘Jesus!?’ at anyone white skinned or ‘gringo’ looking. No problems are to had getting there. A small museum is to be found up there as well – on the many Jesus statues worldwide.
The beaches of course are a main attraction apart from seeing Jesus. Especially so for the droves of surfers they attract; nationalities as far ranging as Australian to Dutch. There exists the main beach which offers all from the wide range of exotic beach bars/restaurants to the stunning bay view. Other recommended beaches are las playas hermosas and las playas maderas – located outside of the town's centre.
The Black Cat café
What an enchanting place. American ownership, this wonderful spot located in the centre of San Juan is without any doubt the best café I've ever entered. A book lovers paradise, it's inner decoration consists of bookshelf upon bookshelf thus creating a bohemian library cum writer's den. The food and beverage is far flung and utterly exquisite. From "Aztec mochas" to local delicacy dishes, each plate or drink has a quirky, memorable name. "El Gato Negro" is to be hunted down and explored. No doubt.
What not to do
As with all places there are going to be unwise things to do or situations which should be avoided. I witnessed a few young European tourists getting into drug deals with local rogues. These characters patrol the streets in search of (forgive me) - foreign idiots. If the ‘dodgy’ looking individual approaches you and further invites you somewhere to go drink, smoke or worse…don't oblige. In Central America getting involved in drugs is a careless choice to make. Criminals here don't play games, many a tourist has been hurt, robbed or worse through these kind of encounters. The broken-English speaking, swarthy street dweller who wants to know where one comes from and furthermore what one does for fun…is not an amigo to make. Keep your wits about you, if partying is your ‘thing’ San Juan is teething with nightlife. The party hostels for starters! This is a safe town and few of these fellows exist. Don't seek them out. Stay safe!
Adonde quedarse? Where to stay?
Laden with more hotels, resorts and hostels than you could shake a stick at – somewhere is to be found for every visitor. Having stayed at a small yet comfortable hostel for $30 per person in a two bed shared room with bathroom, wifi, pool access yet no hot water - I really couldn't complain. Most hostels/cheap hotels will go for this price per night. A recommendable joint is the Casa Oro where the successful travel blogger Kate McCully has stayed herself. Any internet search done beforehand will buzz endless results of places to stay, ranging from shared accommodation ‘party hostels’ to plush beachside resorts.
San Juan del Sur is the place to visit if travelling through southern Nicaragua. This is a unique coastal town offering all sorts for all kinds of people. From its bars and nightlife to the surfing, nature trails and perhaps even a holy pilgrimage to see Jesus, one can't help but take a great liking to this immensely attractive destination. A hostel owner asked me - ‘vas a tomar una heladita en la piscina verdad? Capturing the laid back style of his town, he wanted to know if I was going to drink a ‘cold one’ up in his swimming pool. Why not? I thought. The clear night sky up above, moon over the ocean and with Jesus peering over at me from the distance – I drunk myself a cool beer in that swimming pool…