From the top, the bakery between the park and bus stop has typical Central American bakery fare, perhaps above average. I think they sold me one of those small loaves in the left (your left) half of the case for ~ US$0.60. Next up is a plate of shrimp in garlic sauce from La Lancha, across from Elizabeth’s or a block East of the bus stop. It’s a great deal at US$5.88/plate. And last is a ~14″ pie from Mauricio’s San Juan Pizzeria. He has a second location on the beach, about 2 blocks away.
Price of beer in a bar: US$1 happy hour specials abound, some of them will only end up costing you US$1.
Song currently stuck in my head:
So my place is a US$350/month (all in with periodic cleaning, laundry, internet and all other utils, which are not dependable in this town) 1 bedroom with no real living room. My kitchen has an oven, which is kind of rare and unlikely to see use this month, a microwave (I used the one in the shared kitchen once and the owner insisted I take it to my apartment), a medium sized fridge… all and all I rented it for the location, amenities and kitchen. The “indufoam” mattress and the wonderful onsite landlord are unexpected bonuses. Living in a vacation destination is like living in Manhattan; you overpay for tiny amounts of square footage and abridged facilities with the intention of enjoying your time out; a capsule hotel with a nice courtyard would probably suffice, or the Nicaraguan equivalent, a hammock with a locker. Still, this would be a tight fit for the The Girlfriend and I together. I looked at a 2 bedroom sublease for $350 and they were willing, impromptu like, to throw in water and electric at that price so it shouldn’t add to much. That would have been plenty of space; enough to accommodate a visiting guest or two. There was no view to speak of, but a bit of yard and a porch big enough for 2 hammocks and some chairs. Adding internet would be the biggest additional expense. The place we used to rent has increased in cost by 33%, from US$300/month to $400 (+ all utils).
There used to be ramshackle buildings in town, often in the process of falling down, where you could get a liter of cold beer for US$1.65 and similarly economically priced food. One in particular was caddy corner to Casa de Oro and was a wonderful place to enjoy a couple of plates of fresh grilled tipica and a bottle or two of icy beer on the streetside porch; no music, no traffic, just cool evening air and the sound of surf if it was particularly stirred up that night. I loved it; it had a distinctly Caribbean vibe. It’s the one place that I really miss this time around, but it certainly seems like anything even resembling it is gone. I haven’t re-explored the area along the river, over by The Crazy Crab Disco, but it seems like in-town SJDS is no longer a place for your average Nica to hang. The only remaining economical beach bar from our last time around has been overhauled and now has tablecloths (though the seasonal vendors in tents that pop up along the beach during holiday weeks/weekends still cater to Nica crowds).
Property in-town is at a premium; geographically it’s bordered by an Ocean, 2 steep hillsides and a river, so there’s only so much town to fill. The wide open (though sloped) area over the hill to the South is beginning to developed; roads are carved, some power lines run, a small handful of nice homes are in place. The views are terrific, especially if you can angle a line of sight down the Southern coast towards Costa Rica. I’ve heard lots go for about US$40k. Survivor is in town, filming another Nicaragua season or two, and confounds any conclusions I could draw about how tight the rental scene is since they tend to eat up quite a chunk of the local availability.
This is the in-town beach here in San Juan Del Sur. When I first saw it in 2005 (or something) it was disgusting. There was an oil sheen patina covering the sand up to the high tide line, which is also where the trash that washed in collected. No one got in the water. In 2007 the situation was much improved and now it’s nicer (and more populated) every time I visit.
I think I cropped the unconscious Nica and rum bottles out of the last one effectively, but if you’re brightness is cranked you might see something I missed.
Also notice that one of the trees in the first picture is growing through the roof.
Price of a beer in a bar: US$1.57 in a beach bar
Song currently stuck in my head: Stay On The Outside (Whitey)
There are about a billion gringo owned bars/restaurants/cafes in this town (if you ignore the name on the legal paperwork, of course). This works out to several hundred million per block, because this town is tiny. The old joke is “If you want to have a million dollars in [name of Central American Country], arrive with two million” and you’d have to be out of your fucking mind to dive into the local business pool. Today I was sitting next to a guy who probably just lost US$60k to the ether. In today’s retelling of this well worn beach side parable “The Ether” is being played by a Nica property owner who entered into a contract to lease his beach adjacent lot to a couple of investors who intended to build a bar there. The guy next to me was half of these investors. They made their deposits and payments (as far as I know), and the owner simply says “no, you didn’t”. The contract allows him to dissolve the agreement if these payments weren’t made, so he walks aways with all the cash. He’s politically connected, so the consensus (and history) is the police won’t do anything about it. The bilked investor still thinks things are going to go his way, but all of the old hands are rolling their eyes and recounting previous rotations of this well established cycle. Dave, of Big Wave Dave’s, long time business owner here in town, said “I make everyone who wants to start a business down here a great deal: Give me 10% of what you want to invest and I’ll make sure you never start a business. It’s the best deal you could make, you’ll come out far better.”
But what do I know? This is all basically hearsay and I’ve never run a successful business anywhere, much less here. Our old neighbors seem to doing well for themselves; three years ago they had a shed sized restaurant. Now they have a new, larger shed sized restaurant with outdoor seating and it sits in front of the beach front hostel they run (own?). The place they operate is right in front of the balcony we used to share. Maybe they got tired of walking 3 tiny blocks to work. Plenty of businesses that were just opening 4 years ago are still kicking in 2014 and by all accounts these have been lean years; the global economic downturn hit global tourism hard. So maybe your odds are better than I think…
Eh, I hear more heartbreak than jubilee. Republica, which has for years been billed to me as “The Expat Bar” where everyone hangs out, recently changed hands. Maybe it was doing swimmingly and the owners just decided to move on. But a lot of people decide to move on, divesting themselves of whatever local business interests they had. Someone was telling me about a microbrewery going in near the market. US$150,000 in equipment going into a space they won’t own; it’s going to take a lot of $4 pints to make that back. The guy who told me about it put it well when he said “I hope they have fun.” Other acquaintances speculate that people come down with a savings and try to use it to make a go. Then they overspend their income (or lack thereof), empty the war chest and head back home. Some come down with family funding and this is great place to stretch those dollars. There’s something particularly attractive about buying a bar when you’re spending someone else’s money. That’s not specific to SJDS, either. I’ve scene that scenario play out all over the place.
I’m sitting in the garden here at Barrio and they just cut the music so some competent-to-good musicians could start playing afro-latin tracks. Unusually for me, I prefer the piped in music. It’s especially good here and part of the draw.
The shit I put up with.
Last night I had a couple of beers while sitting in the beach chairs at El Dorado and watching the sunset. A bar a few doors down had a band playing subdued Santana and Dire Straights covers. It was idyllic. Sure, some Nica was passed out on the sand when I arrived, about halfway between me and the waterline, and occasionally well intentioned tourists would try to rouse him while confused Nicaraguans tried to explain that he was drunk. The gringos would attempt to convey that they understood this (there were, after all, multiple empty bottles of high octane rum propped up in the sand) and the Nicas would shrug their shoulders as if to say “Then what are you trying to do? Sober him up by shouting greetings at him in broken Spanish?”. I ignored him until the tide crawled up the sand and hinted at overtaking him. I tried to rouse him, after all he’d been there for hours at that point, semi-conscious and no longer drinking, so I thought he might be a little more responsive. Naw. He had one eye kind of half open and he’d occasionally roll halfway over, but never in response to any external stimuli. I remembered the best advise any developing world traveler can ever receive: Occasionally you may find opportunities to help and you should take them, but YOU WILL NEVER BE THE SOLUTION. Clearly plenty of Nicas were aware of this guy’s situation, let them handle it. They’re far better equipped.
A timely and amusing sign for Blues Night at Big Wave Dave’s. I had just noticed a couple of tranny hookers working a corner by the beach a nights prior. Odd.
The second photos is a good example of what you might mistake for a sidewalk. Walking in Central America is like being an novice urban cyclist in The States; you’re never really sure if you’re supposed to be making your way on the sidewalk or in the street.
There’s far more variety in town that there was the last time I visited. I kept reading blogs mentioing restaurants I’d never heard of and all of the names where in English. That’s not a good sign. Turned out the only major difference I found when I got here was more restaurants with English names. The center menu is Barrio Cafe (the location in town), as promised.
Price of a beer in a bar: US$1.20-1.40 is reasonable, especially on the beach, but anything higher for 12 ounces of domestic beer and you should move on
Song currently stuck in my head: I Want Your Sex (George Micheal)
It’s 9am and “I Want Your Sex” is playing at Gato Negro… nope, looks like someone just realized what it was, based solely on the opening instrumentation, and hit “next”. I was enjoying that, but the customer seldom comes first around here. A cup of their coffee costs 40 Cords (US$1.60), which is kind of a lot, but you get 2 refills and they grow and roast the beans themselves so it’s a uniquely good cup. I don’t really care “who” grew or roasted it, I’m not planning on tracking them down and suggesting we hang out or anything, but the local roasts tend toward medium. I like a cup (or three) of dark and Gato goes dark(ish).
It always takes me a few days to click into a new town; the disorientation of travel clouds my head and leaves me wary of the whole situation. What am I doing here? I know there are several things to accomplish at the onset, but without a clear understanding of my goals it’s hard to prioritize. Are there warning signs that I should heed before committing to 30 days of rent in a given town? Shouldn’t I be in The Caribbean? I’m in SJDS, a Pacific beach town with a growing resemblance to Montanita (Ecuador). The Girlfriend and I lived here for 3 months (or something) about 3 years ago, but it was a town on the make whose momentum was only temporarily dulled by the recent global economic woes so change was, as always, inevitable. I’ve kept tabs from afar and every blog entry and trip advisor review mentioned restaurants I’d never heard of and all of their names were in English. This village is, more or less, 9 square blocks with some fringe on either side, so these developments seemed significant. What did I find? It’s about the same, except with a handful of new restaurants, most of which have English names (or Gringo-friendly Spanish names like “Taco Loco” or “Nacho Libre”). The cafe/bar/restaurants are slowly pushing from the beach toward the steep hill in the back of town; that’s a total of 3 blocks and they’re about 2/3 of the way there. You can see the property value recede as you travel those 3 blocks, but in that 3rd block you can actually see gentrification on a micro scale.
So yesterday, after about 6 days, I clicked into SJDS. It’s always a welcome relief to finally gain that clarity of thought, especially when there’s so much to explore. I’d left the fish market with a little over a pound of barracuda and intentions of ceviche. As I walked the waterfront the tide was up and the waves were whitecapping, scribbling jagged concentric arcs of glare that echoed the curve of the beach. I’d had my apartment for 4 days and was starting to get a feel for the rhythm of the place. I wasn’t sure what to expect during this visit and I’m just starting to understand what I’ve found. I ran into a familiar face back in Leon, a gringo I’d met a few times in SJDS back in ’10. This is always tricky down here; there are plenty of people that don’t want to be recognized for one reason or another and I respect that. It can make them uneasy when someone they don’t quite remember starts asking what they’ve been up to. We pieced together enough “yeah, I was there some of the time then, yeah, Blues Night at Big Wave Dave’s, sure” style overlap to get conversationally comfortable and he gave me his take on SJDS: “It’s over. Nicaragua overall is going the way of Costa Rica fast.” I see what he means. Other long time expats echo this observation. Someone in /r/solotravel or /r/iwantout was recommending SJDS as a destination, putting it between Rio and Thailand in their top 3. Wut? That’s bizarre company and I can’t quite understand what justifies it. There’s a whole new demographic here, kind of a Cancun crowd shoving itself somewhere between the backpackers and the well heeled vacationers. I haven’t figured out who they are; North American 3 week vacationers hitting the hot spots in Nicaragua? Aussie surf vacationers? There are backpackers, but they seem slightly… off. Too much makeup and their clothes are too pristine. I’m not criticizing the look (I can if you like, but I’m not at the moment), it’s just indicative of an easier ride than most backpackers experience; cheap shirts don’t come off a concrete washboard and line dry in good shape. I’m intrigued but also easily annoyed. The best way I can summarize it now, based on my superficial observance, is that the whole thing looks more like vacation than travel. Sunday Funday alone motivates an astounding number of visitors, basing several days of their travel around arriving in time for this and this alone. It’s not easy to find a shuttle from Leon to SJDS, but the one running the most dependably right now runs a dedicated shuttle on Sunday just for this event.
Menus from around town; The second is Gato Negro, generally surley staff but otherwise a great scene with great offerings. Sorry about the image quality. In Bocas Del Toro you have to sell beer out the front of your bookstore if you want it to survive, here you can do it with coffee. Barrio Cafe (not pictured, menu in next post) also does a hell of a cappuccino. Nacho Libre is especially popular in town. They’re really stretching to make their entree names lascivious, but they take their craft seriously.
Market comedor (diner) prices then and now. These are very price sensitive, competitive places that are not catering to tourists (though they attract plenty). Cordoba prices have risen roughly 20% since 2010 when the first picture was taken, but the Cordoba has also devalued by almost exactly that much, so the prices now, valued in US$, are basically the same (around US$1.57/breakfast of eggs, gallo pinto and some trimmings and US$2.35/lunch of chicken in garlic sauce, rice, beans, slaw and some trimmings, for example). This alignment is no coincidence; the Cordoba is on a consistent, scheduled devaluation against the dollar. During our stay in late 2010 we were exchanging at 21.6 Cords/US$1. Now I get 25.5. This number climbs every week or so, but for math purposes I stick with one number for my records over a given visit.