We spent an entire month in this awesome little place. Let me take your hand and introduce you to San Juan del Sur with Eight Fun Things to do in San Juan del Sur Nicaragua.
I’ve wanted to visit Nicaragua for a long time. But since 2018 there has been a lot of bad juju here, and so I patiently waited to see what would happen. Well, it was worth the wait. Particularly since we wanted to visit the smaller coastal towns, and not the larger cities, where more of the recent trouble has been. Statistically both Costa Rica and Mexico have a lot more random acts of violence than Nicaragua. But Nicaragua continues to be misunderstood.
Americans flock to Mexico and Costa Rica but continue to fear visiting Nicaragua. We felt very safe during our visit to both Granada and the tiny fishing village of San Juan del Sur. We did not spend anytime in Managua. Yes we are so glad we came. And if we visit again we would also consider the popular Corn Islands in the Caribbean side and Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. But for this visit we spent most our time in San Juan del Sur. And now our recommendations – Eight Fun Things to do in San Juan del Sur Nicaragua.
More than Surf and Parties
San Juan del Sur is home to lots of American and Canadian expats, as well as a destination for the younger surfing and partying crowd. We chose to stay about a ten minute walk outside of town, which proved to be a good decision because it was quieter on the weekend nights. We don’t party all night (those days are long over) nor are we surfers. Both activities are really popular here, although it never seemed to be super busy or loud. But, luckily, we found a lot of great stuff we could do beyond the surf and nightlife.
San Juan del Sur, being a casual beach town, is pretty laid back. While in other parts of the country wearing shorts or swimwear around town would be frowned on, here it is accepted. On our daily runs here we also felt safe, and many local people frequently gave me a thumbs up and a cheer as I ran by “bueno bueno!”.
The area around San Juan del Sur has both poverty and wealth. Nicaragua is, unfortunately, the poorest country in Central America and the average person lives very simply. The average income is about $300 USD a month. A teacher earns about $500 and a doctor around $2000. However, there are also big mansions and construction on large secluded resorts. These are for the expats that come here due to the incredibly inexpensive property values and cost of living. An American could comfortably live here for about $1200 – 1500 per month. You would give up some creature comforts like bagged salad from the grocery store, a Starbucks frappuccino or Target bi-weekly shopping trips but you know, $1200, so…
The weather is nice and warm in February, averaging about 85f everyday. But the wind was obnoxious. Apparently, and unbeknownst to us, February is the windiest month. But that said the locals all claimed this wind was “not normal” gusting in the 25-35 mph nearly every day. Generally the dry season is November to April and there is much more rain from May – October. But the difference in temperature between the hottest month of April and the coolest month of January is only about 5 degrees Fahrenheit
We did not wander far from the San Juan del Sur area, and when we did it was usually on foot. From our condo we could get to the town by either wading across the ankle-deep river, or when the river is low enough there was an enterprising young lady who would set up a bridge. For about fifteen cents you could cross her bridge. Otherwise the longer way to the town was about a mile and a half. However, at times the high tide makes the crossing impossible. There is a boat that operates, but only when someone wants to make some money so you never know. There are buses, which are old USA school buses (we did not use), and lots of taxis. We also used a hired driver from Southwind Travel and rented a side by side ATV for two days.
When possible we tried to use local tour companies, guides, taxis, shops and restaurants in support of the local people. And along the way we discovered Eight Fun Things to do in San Juan del Sur Nicaragua.
Like in most places we visit, we did not have a car, although we did rent a “side by side” ATV for two days. But we headed out on foot to hike to two local beaches. To the north we did a ten mile round trip to Marsella Beach. To the south we did a six mile round trip to Playa Pena Rota. These long dusty hikes aren’t for everyone, but we enjoyed our hiking days. It makes sense not too stray too far from civilization for safety reasons, but we enjoyed these two separate beautiful beaches in the area. The geology at sea level is both rocky and sandy and made up of sedimentary rock that forms beautiful shelves along the coast, as well as interesting formations.
Another hike we did was to the giant Jesus, officially known as Cristo de la Misericordia. This short but very steep hike not only gets you up close and personal with the iconic landmark, it also gives you the best view of San Juan del Sur town and beach. On the days we rented the side by side, we did some more amazing hikes…see more below.
2. Cooking Class
Since cooking (and eating) the local food is always high on my list, we signed up with Pacific Adventuras for a cooking class in a tiny town about 20 minutes from San Juan del Sur. The class was only $30 per person and was one of our favorite eight things to do in San Juan del Sur Nicaragua. We requested to learn two of the regions most popular dishes; vigoron and tostone. We enjoyed the class with Chef July of Rancho Tere and our guide Cesar so much we signed up for a second class as well. At the second class we learned to make another popular local seafood stew dish and it was fantastic.
3. Rent a Side by Side ATV
We decided to splurge for two days and rent a side by side vehicle. These are the vehicles of choice here to get out onto the rough terrain. Expensive by Nicaragua standards at $130 USD per day, it was totally worth it for the adventures we had. We booked our side by side through Southwind Travel, the same company we used to transport us from the airport and back. The side by side is an open vehicle cross between an ATV and a Jeep. We loved our time and packed a lot into our two-day rental.
4. Up to the Canopy
With the Side by Side we wandered up into the canopy to a place called Parque Adventuras Las Nubes. Here there are many options including zipline, but we decided to just do some mountain hiking around the canopy in hopes of seeing animals and birds. The visit was $18 per person and we went on a guided hike through the beautiful area. Before the hike started our guide drove us up to the top of the canopy over the most intense road I have ever been on. Our side by side would not have had the power to make it up this mountain, over boulders and through deep crevices…but his vehicle did.
Once on the hike, we had stunning view back down to San Juan del Sur to the west, and to Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua to the east. We saw lots of birds, hundreds of butterflies, one sleepy sloth, one shy tarantula, monkeys and learned about flora. It was a great learning opportunity.
5. Lunch with a Local Family and Mountain Pool
Possibly the best thing we did in all of Nicaragua was on the second day of our side by side rental. Again through Pacific Adventuras and with our same favorite guide Cesar, we drove an hour and a half south, nearly to the Costa Rica border. Most of this drive was on long, dusty, rocky terrain, through rivers and dry creek beds.
Eventually we arrived at our destination, the home of a local family in a very remote area. Robin, the owner of the land, took us on a hike up to a waterfall (not much water this time of year), but the natural pool was not dry and we took a refreshing dip. The hike was a bit challenging, but since we hike a lot we didn’t have any trouble. Only once my husband had to give me a hind side push to get me up a rock. It was really remarkable to be out in the middle of nowhere and see the geology, nature and way of life.
After our hike we returned to Robin’s home where his wife had prepared a simple yet delicious lunch for us made 100% from staples they grow or make on their beautiful property. Their farm includes cows, goats, pigs, chickens, and turkeys, as well as rice, beans, vegetables, fruit and more. What a wonderful day that was.
This part of Nicaragua has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The beach in San Juan del Sur itself is nice, but the prettiest beaches are north and south of the town. As mentioned above we hiked to two beaches. Then the days we had the side by side we set out to visit several more that are too far to walk to from SJDS. Over the two days we visited the surfer beach of Playa Maderas, where we watched the amateur and first-time surfers give it a go.
We also spent several hours at Playa Hermosa, one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. You might recognize it because Survivor Nicaragua 2010 was filmed right here. At that time it was just an empty gorgeous beach, close enough to SJDS town for the crew’s needs. Today though, Playa Hermosa has a lovely restaurant and some hotel rooms too. It’s $3 to enter and the relaxing hammocks and beach chairs made it a favorite of mine.
On day two of our vehicle rental and after our waterfall hike we stopped to check out two more astonishing beaches in the far south part of the region. Ostional Beach is a local fishing village beach and Playa Coco is a beautiful beach that is also home to a turtle hatchery. I recommend both of these.
Through social media we met a woman from Washington State who connected with us. She lives here half of the year (like many Americans and tons of Canadians). She was so kind to pick us up and take us to some more beaches we would not have seen without her assistance. We had beers and also went out to dinner. Gracias to our new friend!
We also spent one day at Hush Resort located at Playa Maderas. We decided to take a class at Hush in the morning (a holistic tapping class) and then spent the day enjoying the pool and restaurant at this beautiful resort overlooking this stunning beach.
7. Shops with the Locals
To get our food supplies we had to shop a couple times a week. We found a favorite produce vendor, a favorite fishmonger, a favorite bakery and a favorite carneceria (butcher). On shopping days we would head out with our backpack and reusable shopping bags and gather what we needed. There is one store (Pali) that could be defined as a “super” market, but it wasn’t very super and I didn’t love it. Not to mention the fact that it’s not locally owned (owned by Walmart). So, we were much more inclined to make the effort to visit the small businesses in town to get our supplies. Plus it’s fun, when you aren’t in any hurry why not?
There is also a small mercado. We did get some produce here as well, and went in search of a colander when we discovered there was not one in our condo. We found exactly what we needed.
On two occasions we visited one of several tiny pharmacies in the town for sunscreen, Benadryl, and a new hairbrush. I was hoping to find a hair dryer, as surprisingly our condo did not have one. But apparently we would need to go to the bigger city of Rivas for that kind of thing. I managed four weeks without a hair dryer.
8. Excellent Restaurants
We did not eat out very often, using the kitchen in our condo most days. But we did discover some delicious little gems in this town over the four-plus weeks we were here and they certainly fall into Eight Fun Things to do in San Juan del Sur Nicaragua. There are many more but here are our recommendations;
IKAL – we watched the Super Bowl here and enjoyed a giant burger
Rockys Dough – found this delicious little donut shop and I had to give it a try
Dale Pues – a favorite local spot is kind of hidden but we enjoyed a good meal here
El Timon – we had Valentine’s Day dinner here and ordered the giant seafood platter for two
The Beach House – right on the beach, the top restaurant in SJDS, the sushi was our favorite
Rancho Tere – the restaurant where we took our cooking classes is a very popular local spot with excellent local food.
And still more restaurants…
The Art Warehouse – natural foods restaurant; I had a vegan bowl that was one of the best I’ve ever had.
Sabores de mi Patio – this brand new hidden little neighborhood joint was super delicious and inexpensive. We really enjoyed the food and the service.
Pizza House SJDS – located in the building where our condo is, this tiny place serves a delicious pie.
Nachos – this is were we ate with our new friend from Washington. It was cheap and delicious.
Tuanis – not in downtown but an easy walk out at the port this very popular spot for food and nightlife has the most amazing BBQ plate on Sundays. So glad we got here on our final night. Delicious.
Gastro Garden – a fun hidden garden that is a food court. Perfect for groups or if you want to taste some international options. Pizza, Thai, BBQ, sushi and more.
Pico’s Po’Boy – this tiny shop opened in our building while we were here and it has delicious sandwiches
Mammamia – We probably never would have eaten here if we hadn’t gotten a recommendation. Teeny little hole in the wall with pasta and pizza but the bread was incredible!! Order the bruschetta.
Indio del Sur – popular breakfast and lunch spot we enjoyed the Nica Tipico $4
Hush Maderas where we took the Tapping class had a really good menu and we ate delicious Dorado (Mahi Mahi) This beautiful plate was only $11.
Simon Says – we only had coffee here one morning but the menu looked really good and the garden is a lovely hidden gem.
The Hip – A little taste of Canada (for all the Canadian expats) and we had a wonderful fresh salad here.
We stumbled on the Nicaragua Craft Beer Co. so of course we had to visit there too. Outstanding beer! We did the tasting menu and had some appetizers too.
Things to Know Before You Go
What’sApp is the way to communicate here, like many countries. Although What’sApp is not that popular in the USA, when you travel you should definitely have it on your phone. It’s used for reservations, taxis and general communication.
The local currency is the Cordoba, and we try to operate in the local currency but US dollars are widely accepted and also available at the ATM. Credit cards are also accepted at many places.
We don’t recommend renting a car because there are often police stops to check insurance etc. If you don’t speak fluent Spanish that can be a problem. When we rented the Side by Side we were ready for this possibility but it didn’t happen. Taxis and tourism transport vehicles are abundant. Also, on the rural roads people drive really fast, but on the city streets and highways they seem to keep the speed down. But they love to pass!!
Neither of us are fluent in Spanish but we know enough to get by. There is less English spoken here than in many places we have been. After almost three months in Central America (with another month to go) our Espanol has improved tremendously. Agradecida por la oportunidad. Muy Bien.
Don’t drink the water. Filtered water is widely available.
Know your ability as far as the surf. It is strong. Don’t go in if you don’t know what you’re doing. There are lots of surfing classes for beginners. Check out Casa Oro. And don’t swim in the river. Crocodiles. ‘Nuf said.
While in SJDS I had my teeth cleaned. Nicaragua has a lot of dental tourism, though not as much as Costa Rica. I had an implant done in Costa Rica (read about it here) several years ago and so I had no fear in having a cleaning here. They did a wonderful job at Forever Smiles and it was only $50.
Why You Should Consider San Juan del Sur
Although I sound like a broken record, I am surprised how many Americans flock to Mexico and Costa Rica but avoid Nicaragua and Guatemala. Mexico and Costa Rica have vastly more violence, including against tourists. Nicaragua’s issues are primarily political, and a tourist sees little of this. The main issue for visitors is petty crimes, crimes of opportunity when you don’t protect your belongings, and theft which occasionally involves weapons.
I am writing this on the day the shootings occurred at Michigan State University back in the USA. These random acts of gun violence have become so common place in the USA, and yet we are conditioned to think Nicaragua is more violent! You can travel safely and inexpensively in San Juan del Sur, with caution and preparation just as you would for any other destination. And you will love it. I personally would even consider living here.
Eight Fun Things to do in San Juan del Sur Nicaragua
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We have not yet made it to Nicaragua. And the violence reports might have moved it low on my list. But it was interesting to read about all you found to see and do in San Juan del Sur. A beach town would be a draw for us too. Although we would want to be away from the party area. I love that you often find a great cooking class when you travel.March 10, 2023 at 12:41 pm
Thanks LindaMarch 11, 2023 at 3:25 am
The hike to the waterfalls looks very beautiful. Not to mention the food from the cooking class. What a lovely experience it must have been.March 10, 2023 at 6:36 pm
It was so much fun.March 11, 2023 at 3:26 am
The enterprising young woman who built a bridge and the cooking class, those two were my favorite things.March 10, 2023 at 6:43 pm
Loved that girl!March 11, 2023 at 3:26 am
You always have so much fun exploring these places!March 10, 2023 at 7:55 pm
yes. I sure do!March 11, 2023 at 3:26 am
Thanks for telling about this wonderful place. Such an overlooked travel destination!March 10, 2023 at 10:23 pm
Its so trueMarch 11, 2023 at 3:27 am
We visited Nicaragua in 2016 on a whim after reading a brief article about it in a travel magazine. We absolutely loved it so reading your article was great to bring back many happy memories! I completely agree with your comments about how safe you felt and how welcome people made you. Thankyou for a great trip down memory lane!March 11, 2023 at 12:19 am
I’m so glad to hear you have visited. It is remarkable.March 11, 2023 at 3:27 am
It’s so great to hear about places that people have preconceived ideas about and love to hear about your experience first hand! That pool at Hush resort looks perfect after a day of exploring 🙂March 11, 2023 at 4:19 am
Thank you Hannah.March 11, 2023 at 4:27 am
I have heard such great things about Nicaragua lately! The beaches look absolutely stunning. Thanks for sharing all these awesome things to do in this gorgeous destination.March 11, 2023 at 6:27 am
I hope it will get more tourism in the future. The people are wonderful.March 11, 2023 at 11:42 am
Nicaragua has never really been on my list but this post definitely made me think of changing that! It looks like you had an absolutely wonderful time there 🙂March 11, 2023 at 7:37 am
It’s a surprising destination. I’m so glad we went.March 11, 2023 at 11:42 am
I think a cooking class is a great way to experience the local culture plus you get to eat dinner for free!March 11, 2023 at 7:40 am
Exactly! Always fun.March 11, 2023 at 11:41 am
I could never pass on the opportunity to take a local cooking class. Always a worthwhile experience. The rest of the food eaten certainly shows the variety available. Looks like a great choice of location and things to do.March 11, 2023 at 8:34 am
Thanks. We sure had fun.March 11, 2023 at 11:41 am
The hike to the waterfalls looks like something I would love! I think Nicaragua is so underrated and beautiful. I would love to go back and visit San Juan del Sur!March 11, 2023 at 8:44 am
I hope to go back as well.March 11, 2023 at 11:40 am
Nicaragua looks fabulous, particularly the food. And I love your commonsense comments regarding crime and violence in this part of the world compared to America.March 11, 2023 at 2:35 pm
My gosh, how much San Juan del Sur has changed! It appears the foreign / expat influence has quite impacted the local culture.
(It has long been a popular beach town with Nicaraguans and foreigners alike. During my first visit to that country in 1988 — during the Contra war and shortly after Hurricane Juana, a Nicaraguan friend highly recommended San Juan for its chill factor.)March 12, 2023 at 4:28 am
I would love to have seen it back then. We really enjoyed.March 12, 2023 at 4:57 am
I am interested in medical/dental tourism so it’s great to hear stories of it working out.March 18, 2023 at 5:35 pm