Why Travel to the Colorful City of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua?
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I absolutely love traveling to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua! I planned on coming for three days; I ended up staying for eight. I haven’t felt such a strong pull to a place in a long time. At times it almost felt like a time warp — traveling back to a time when I was a 26-year-old party girl, only now with modern technology like AirPods and Tinder.
Soon I discovered the best things to do in San Juan Del Sur, from sipping cocktails on a catamaran to hiking up to the Jesus Statue, and of course, enjoying the Sunday Funday pool crawl. This city has it going on!
But if there’s anything that struck me about San Juan immediately, it was that it was just so colorful. Nicaragua stunned me with its bright colors, but San Juan brought it to a new level, both naturally and creatively.
Should you travel to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua? Well, I’ll let you read the post. I warn you, though — soon you’ll be as bewitched by San Juan del Sur as I am.
This post was last updated in February 2020.
Why Travel to San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua?
Nicaragua has long been cited as “the next Costa Rica” or “how Costa Rica used to be 20 years ago.” How true is it? Well, in some ways.
Nicaragua is a country filled with incredibly colorful cities, gorgeous beaches, unusual islands, fun activities, and wonderful people. And it doesn’t have the attention or infrastructure of Costa Rica — thus things are a lot cheaper, it tends to draw more adventurous travelers, and Nicaragua is more of a badge of honor.
Today, people primarily come to San Juan del Sur for two things: the beach scene and the party scene.
San Juan del Sur is a fun, beachside party town surrounded by excellent surfing beaches and mountains that carve out an unforgettable coastal view in Nicaragua.
You can spend your days horseback riding or taking a catamaran ride. You can spend your nights doing trivia, joining a pub crawl, or enjoying cocktails overlooking the sea.
If you’re looking for a happening, low-key beach town that attracts lots of twenty- and thirty-somethingss, San Juan is the place for you!
Is San Juan del Sur safe?
Most people researching San Juan Del Sur want to know if the city is safe. The knee-jerk reaction to telling someone you’re visiting Nicaragua is, “It’s not safe!” And it didn’t help that Nicaragua faced civil unrest starting in April 2018, effectively grinding tourism to a near-halt.
As far as civil unrest goes, San Juan del Sur was never a target for violence, though often there would be blockades on the road there.
Today — I write this in February 2020 — Nicaragua has been becoming more peaceful and welcoming more and more tourism. I personally would not hesitate to visit now, though I would continue researching through my trip.
I encourage you to do research closer to your trip and find out the current situation. Avoid all political demonstrations — that’s good advice for anywhere — and know that the Nicaraguan flag has often been used as a protest symbol, so it would be wise to avoid displaying flags.
I recommend reading up on the UK’s travel advisory for Nicaragua — they tend to be more practical and less alarmist than US travel warnings.
Other than that, Nicaragua is similar to other Central American countries — as long as you do your research, stick to the tourist trail, and watch your belongings, you probably won’t have any safety issues.
The main concern for safety in San Juan Del Sur is petty theft. There are signs all over town that say “DO NOT GO ON BEACH AT NIGHT — YOU WILL GET ROB.” Absolutely avoid the beach at night. As a solo woman, I’m comfortable walking in the main part of the town at night, the part surrounded by restaurants and bars and guesthouses, but I wouldn’t walk alone in the outskirts of San Juan del Sur at night.
When choosing your hotel, I recommend choosing a place in the center of San Juan del Sur so you won’t have to walk into isolated areas at night. You can see my accommodation recommendations for all budgets further down.
Street harassment is insidious in Nicaragua. Unfortunately, I think Nicaragua has the worst street harassment out of the 80+ countries I’ve visited. Expect men to catcall you constantly. This is part of Nicaraguan culture. If you ignore them, though, it rarely escalates. It’s more of an annoyance than anything else.
For what it’s worth, I though the street harassment in San Juan del Sur wasn’t as bad as Granada or Léon.
Finally, San Juan del Sur is a party destination, and some people use this as an excuse to get insanely drunk. When you’re drunk, you’re at your most vulnerable. I recommend drinking far less than you would at home, or sticking to just two drinks over the course of an evening (and watching them like a hawk).
Is San Juan del Sur safe to visit? As long as you take increased precautions — do your research, keep an eye on your belongings, watch your drinking, lock up your valuables — chances are you’ll wonder what you were even worried about.
I think San Juan del Sur, and Nicaragua as a whole, are better suited for experienced travelers rather than newbies. If you haven’t traveled in the developing world yet, get your feet wet in Costa Rica or Belize first.
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Best Things to Do in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
There is no shortage on cool things to do in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. However, there’s one important thing to know — while many people come to San Juan del Sur to surf, you can’t actually surf right in town. The beach here is calm; you couldn’t surf here if you tried.
If you’re looking to surf in San Juan del Sur, you’ll need to travel to one of the nearby surf beaches, like Playa Hermosa. Read on for more information on how to do that.
Hike to the Jesus statue
One of the world’s largest Jesus statues sits atop a hill overlooking San Juan del Sur. Hiking to the top is a perfect athletic activity for the day! And views at the top are spectacular — it’s one of my favorite places to pose for Instagram photos.
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.
Visit the Surfing Beaches
San Juan’s beach isn’t that great — but the beaches outside town are incredible. Two of the most famous ones are 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 boards there or through Casa Oro Eco Hostel. Shuttle transportation, which can accommodate surfboards, is available through Casa Oro.
If you’re a hardcore surfer, you may prefer staying in Playa Maderas or Playa Hermosa. But if you like to experience a variety of things, I’d recommend staying in San Juan del Sur instead and just taking the shuttles when you’re in a surfing mood.
Oh, and that photo above is fro my catamaran ride — you definitely can’t surf there!
Take a Yoga Class
It seems like every Central American beach town has an abundance of yoga classes, and San Juan del Sur is no exception. I took part in yoga at Zen Yoga. I found my all-levels class to be nice and relaxed, easy enough for first-timers but a decent workout for more hardcore yogis.
Before I got into fitness, I was self-conscious about being unable to hit certain poses in yoga — but I never felt awkward about it at Zen. The instructor corrected my posture discreetly and I immediately felt better.
In a party-heavy destination, it’s important to take time to center yourself. That’s why I think a yoga class is one of the best things to do in San Juan del Sur — it reduces stress and makes you feel peaceful.
The best part? Getting a fresh juice afterward and chatting with new friends from class.
San Juan del Sur Pub Crawl
Have you ever been to a Canadian bar before? Bugaboo Creek doesn’t count.
With so many Canadians in San Juan del Sur (seriously, I 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 wrote about traveling solo to a party destination, a pub crawl is the perfect way to get to know new people. The Loose Moose puts on regular pub crawls that visit several spots in town. Other bars have trivia nights, poker nights, and more.
Even if there isn’t a current pub crawl taking place, this is a good spot to have a few drinks and get to know some friendly Canadians.
Go Horseback Riding on the Beach
One of the most special things to do in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, is horseback riding on the beach. Rancho Chilamate offers a variety of horseback riding tours,
My friend Alex in Wanderland did this tour while we were in San Juan Del Sur and she came back gushing 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 wish I had joined her.
The cowgirls who work on the ranch 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.
Take a Catamaran Ride
Of all the things in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, the catamaran ride was my favorite. All around town are signs for 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 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 on 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! Ask your accommodation or look around town for signs; they’ll have the latest information on pricing.
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. Today it’s the most infamous party on the Central American backpacker trail.
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.
You go to four different bars, including the Naked Tiger, which is outside town and perched on a hill overlooking the region. People get covered in body paint; drinking games are rampant; guys cross-dressing in skirts and bras jump into the pools fully clothed.
Was it fun? It was INSANELY fun. But I, the resident 30-year-old traveler among the twenty-somethings, was happily home in bed at 10:30 PM.
Eat Healthy Food
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 del Sur, Nicaragua, 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:
- Taco Stop: Great tacos on the main strip. Don’t confuse it with the inferior Taco Spot on the same street.
- 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!
Where to Stay in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
San Juan del Sur has accommodation for every budget! You get a lot for your money here, especially compared to beach towns in nearby Costa Rica. That might mean taking advantage of the cheapness and staying for longer (like I did!), or that might mean splashing out on a luxury rental you couldn’t afford elsewhere.
The most important consideration in where to stay in San Juan del Sur is the location of your accommodation. This could make or break your trip.
If you’re looking to spend most of your time in the town, and want to be walking distance to restaurants, bars, and shops, you should stay right in town.
But if you’re looking for peace and quiet, incredible views, and want to lounge by the pool, you may prefer staying in a rental further out of town, especially if you have a car.
For that reason, I’m going to recommend properties both in downtown San Juan del Sur and outside the main town. They are two totally different travel experiences.
If you’re looking for a luxury place to stay in San Juan del Sur and want to stay in town, I recommend staying at Hotel Victoriano. This hotel, built to look like a Victorian mansion, is right on the beach with views of the cliffs, has a pool overlooking the sea, and has easy access to all of San Juan del Sur.
If you’re looking for a luxury place to stay in San Juan del Sur and want to stay a bit outside town, I recommend staying at LACASA. This three-bedroom house is perhaps the most Instagrammable property in the region, a gorgeous modern building right in front of a pool and its own stretch of beach north of the city.
Another option is to find a luxury home in San Juan del Sur on Airbnb. They have lots of CRAZY luxury rentals — see them all here.
If you’re looking for a mid-range place to stay in San Juan del Sur and want to stay in town, I recommend staying at Barrio Cafe Hotel. This hotel is right in the heart of downtown with cute, clean and comfortable rooms. They’re well-known for their restaurant and bar.
If you’re looking for a mid-range place to stay in San Juan del Sur and want to stay a bit outside town, I recommend staying at El Jardín. This hotel has a gorgeous pool and views of the mountains leading down to the ocean. Rooms are simple and colorful, and it even has its own private beach.
If you’re looking for a budget place to stay in San Juan del Sur and want to stay in town, I recommend staying at Casa Oro Eco Hostel. I loved staying here — there are private rooms as well as dorms, a gorgeous lounge area with hammocks, shuttles to the surf beaches, an excellent breakfast, and it’s right in the heart of town.
If you’re looking for a budget place to stay in San Juan del Sur and want to stay in town, I recommend staying at Puk’s Palace. This hostel has private rooms as well as dorms, and you can enjoy a swimming pool, views over the mountains to the ocean, communal “family dinners,” and free shuttles to downtown San Juan del Sur.
Best Places to Stay in San Juan del Sur:
How to Get to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
If you look on the map, San Juan del Sur is very close to the Costa Rica border — so close that you might be tempted to fly into Liberia Airport in northwest Costa Rica.
I urge you not to do this. The border crossing from Costa Rica to Nicaragua is a huge hassle — it takes a long time, you have to walk a long way, and there’s little shade. It’s an ordeal and you’re better off avoiding it.
Instead, fly into Managua in Nicaragua. I recommend using Skyscanner to find the best prices on flights to Managua.
From there, you have several different ways to get to San Juan del Sur, a 2.5-hour driving journey.
Rent a Car in Nicaragua
Renting a car can be a good option in Nicaragua, but I think it’s essential if you’re staying in a property far from town. Being able to drive to the grocery store for provisions will make a huge difference in your travels!
If you want to save money on a car rental in Nicaragua, I recommend using RentalCars.com. They compare all the sites so you can find the best rates.
Book a private transfer from Managua Airport to San Juan del Sur
Booking a private transfer for a 2.5-hour journey might seem like a baller move — but in Nicaragua, it can be quite affordable. It’s the easiest way to get to San Juan del Sur — someone is waiting at the airport with your name on a sign, and you leave as soon as you’re ready.
Book a private transfer from Managua Airport to San Juan del Sur here.
You can also just ask a taxi driver at Managua Airport to drive you there. It’s a long journey, but most drivers will do it. (I took a taxi from Managua Airport to Léon, a similar distance from Managua.) You can expect to pay about $100.
Join a group shuttle from Managua Airport to San Juan del Sur
Group shuttles are my preferred way to travel in Central America — they are essentially small group transportation between two major tourism spots, saving you the time and hassle of public transportation.
A group shuttle from Managua Airport to San Juan del Sur will cost you roughly half the price of a private transfer. One company that does this is IskraTravel. Be sure to plan ahead, as most shuttle times are set in advance.
Take public transportation from Managua Airport to San Juan del Sur
I don’t recommend this. This is not a logical or direct route in Nicaragua and you’ll have to change buses multiple times while lugging your bags. Nicaragua is a cheap country; splurge on a group shuttle at least.
Best Time to Visit San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
Most travelers to San Juan del Sur visit during North America’s winter months — from December through March. This is when you have some of the nicest weather in San Juan del Sur. Temperatures tend to range from a low of 76 F (24 C) to a high of 88 F (31 C).
High season in San Juan del Sur can be very crowded, and this is when accommodation is at its most expensive. If you’re planning a trip to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, between December and March, I recommend booking accommodation a few months in advance if you can.
The hottest months of the year in San Juan del Sur are April and May, where temperatures hit highs of around 91 F (33 C). If you don’t do well in heat, I wouldn’t recommend visiting during the spring months.
While the summer months, June through September, tend to be rainy in much of Central America, San Juan del Sur is a fairly dry region. It tends to rain the most during this time of year, but rainstorms tend to be infrequent and short-lived.
Hurricane season in Nicaragua runs from June through November, and you could get hit with hurricanes anytime during that period, but most are from August through November.
I’m a big fan of traveling to Nicaragua during high season — December to March. Even though this is the most crowded and expensive time of year, Nicaragua never gets THAT crowded or THAT expensive. And the weather is absolutely perfect. But overall, you can have a great visit to San Juan del Sur year-round.
Where Else to Go in Nicaragua
Should you limit your time to just San Juan del Sur? Not if you can help it! I adore Nicaragua — it’s my favorite country in Central America — and so many places in Nicaragua are stunning. I spent a full month there, but with a week you can see a cool place or two.
Here are some of my favorite spots in Nicaragua:
Ometepe. This mysterious volcano-topped island in a lake is a short journey from San Juan del Sur (too far to day trip, though. Learn more about what makes Ometepe wonderful here.
Granada. This picture-perfect colonial town is close to Managua, making it a good stop on the way to the airport. If you go, I loved spending a day at nearby Laguna de Apoyo.
Léon. Get a taste of the north with this wild, revolutionary city — not everyone’s taste, but definitely one for more experienced travelers and city lovers. Read more about Léon here.
Little Corn Island. This island in the Caribbean is one of my favorite islands on the planet — it’s tiny, low-key, friendly, and has the greatest vibe. Read more about Little Corn Island here.
Travel Insurance for San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
One last note — it’s absolutely vital to have travel insurance before traveling to Nicaragua. If you get sick or injured on your trip, if you get robbed, or even if you have to be flown home for more care, travel insurance will protect you from financial ruin. I use and recommend World Nomads for trips to Nicaragua.
Travel insurance will help you in your hour of need if you have an accident while surfing; they will help you get medical care if you come down with appendicitis or trip on a patch of uneven sidewalk and break an ankle; and if your flights get canceled due to hurricanes, you can get accommodation and new flights paid for.
HOWEVER — double-check and make sure that they will actually cover Nicaragua. Some policies stopped covering Nicaragua when the civil unrest began in 2018. This is something that changes constantly so you’ll need to check before you buy.
As always, be sure to read your policy carefully and make sure it’s a fit for you. See what World Nomads covers here.
San Juan del Sur is waiting for you!
I absolutely loved my time in San Juan del Sur — and I hope it’s just as memorable a destination for you.
Go to San Juan Del Sur. Enjoy the tacos. Enjoy the hike to Jesus. Enjoy the HELL out of Sunday Funday. Go have the time of your life in Nicaragua — then come back and tell me all about it!
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