Summary: San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua


No Shirt, No Shoes, No shit, it’s a beach town. -Ad for Big Wave Dave’s

Pros: A small pacific surf town at bargain prices with plenty of land still available, relative safety, locals are accustomed to travelers and transplants and speak some English, array of bar and restaurant options is far larger than the town alone could support, numerous gorgeous beaches along the nearby coast, fresh seafood available for cheap at market, relatively dependable power.

Cons:  The best beaches are out of town and require a car or arranged transportation, litter can be a problem on the town beach (though getting better), said to be the most expensive city in Nicaragua, simple goods and services often require a trip to nearby Rivas, water outages were common and became the norm during high season.

Distortions:  We happen to be in town for the most comfortable weather of the year (November through January); dry, breezy and relatively cool.

If you spend even a few days sipping coffee and/or beers at Big Wave Dave’s you’re likely to meet Costa Rica Gringos killing 3 days in Nicaragua to reset their tourist visa.  And most of them will say something to the effect of “I’ve only been here about 4 hours and I can tell this might be better living than what I’m getting south of the border… and it’s cheap.”  This idea isn’t just occurring to them; many are using the visa reset as an excuse to scout a better home.  Costa Rican has done everything possible to uninvite the gringo hordes they opened themselves to over the last decade or two, and now it’s getting squeezed on both sides; Nicaragua is getting more of their tourists and Panama is getting more of their retirees.

We spent a lot of time in San Juan del Sur (SJDS) and got to know it with the kind of familiarity that makes it hard to summarize.  The local expat scene was well established, active and welcoming, comprised mostly of surfers.  The transitional shock of expatriating to SJDS is getting easier every year, eased by the availability of western imports and other luxuries from home, but for now it’s still a town for the deliberate.  Drop into Gato Negro any given morning to see a healthy mix of travelers and expats in action.  The Nicaraguan crowd was typically friendly and a little less shy than in other areas, having acclimated to the constant gringo flow.  There’s a strong surfer contingent amongst the locals, too, both from SJDS or down for the week(end) from Managua.  The shuffling crack zombies that were a regular sight 5 years back, appropriately coming out around dark, are now nowhere to be seen.

At the local fish market we were able to get mackerel, tuna and other fish fresh for about US$0.60 a pound.  The weight is for whole fish but they’re happy to fillet them for you at no extra charge.  We put together a nice mackerel ceviche using some of the local limes which are orange inside and especially sour.  Produce is limited due to the small size of the town and it’s remoteness (it’s the end of the road, after all) and priced at a premium.  Most of our cooking has been vegetarian on this trip, though neither of us are, so it was similar in SJDS; lots of tomatoes, avocados, rice, beans, pasta, eggs, yogurt and fruit, though now with fish.  Big Wave Dave’s hosts a weekly farmer’s market (Saturday mornings, 10am) where you can get some produce straight from Managua at reasonable prices and an array of specialty goods from local cooks including pot pies, Italian baked goods and slow smoked pork.  The central market has a selection as well, and occasionally you can get produce at good prices right off the pickup trucks bringing it to town.  There’s also a Pali, a Walmart owned Costa Rican grocery chain common in Nicaragua, just at the entrance to town.  Having shopped them in Esteli and Granada the selections are pretty consistent.  Pan de Vida, a local high-end bakery was recommended repeatedly but we never sampled the goods.

Eating out, the Nica fare is typically uninventive, though the market, diners (“Sodas”) and local grills will keep you well fed without going broke.  Good sized market plates run US$2.30 and include chicken or beef with good sauces, rice and beans (or gallo pintos), salad (nica style, similar to cole slaw in the US) and sweet plantains and are served daily until 5pm.  Breakfast is also available.  Outside the market we favored Soda Margarita, the local fritangas (grills) and the bakery across from the corner of the park (passable, not great).  The local pizza (two locations, same owner) rated favorably against anything in Italy, according to visiting guests, and surpassed anything available in their American hometown.  I’m a hand tossed guy myself, depth wise, but I have to admit this thin crust is good, if a bit expensive for the town.  Other upscale recommendations include Bamboo (eclectic fusion), El Colibri’s (Mediterranean), Big Wave Dave’s (Hawaiian shirt style bar and grill menu).  In between we found entirely affordable indulgence in El Gato Negro coffee bar and Cafe Jugosa’s fresh, light and filling Spanish dishes.  See the cost of living spreadsheet for sample prices at most these locations, we averaged US$3.43 per plate for our dinners out over the 30 days.

The power was dependable, with only short, often momentary, interruptions in service, even during the Christmas and New Year “high season” when the local population swelled to many multiples of normal (rooms became almost impossible to come by and this is a town with an abundance of hotels).  Water, on the other hand, was not.  Most people don’t drink the tap, though it’s not dangerous it does have a lot of mineral to it, so bottled water is preferred and, luckily, widely and consistently available.  The tap?  Less so.  It was commonly out and during high season it would be shut off by 6 or 7am and not return until late in the evening.  New reports indicate a project underway to address this by diverting (more?) water from Lake Nicaragua.  Generally I ignore these kind of foreward looking statements, but everyone agreed that the availability of power had improved significantly in the last 2 years so maybe there is hope for the water supply too.  We might not have even noticed the outtages if we had a cistern, which is commonplace around town and offers you a buffer of 10s of gallons when the tap would otherwise run dry.  As it was, we often watched the faucet’s stream narrow and cease while trying to get some dishes clean.  Availability of goods and services is an odd mix of have and have not.  You can get produce, apparel, a pint of draft Guinness (occasionally, customs willing) and multiple daily shuttles to surrounding beaches, but you can’t get a key cut.  For that (and much more) you’re traveling roughly 45 minutes by road to Rivas.  There are 3 ATMs in town and 2 banks.  The ATM at the BDF Bank toward the southern end of the beach does not charge any transaction fees but is regularly out of service.

Surfers in San Juan, and there are plenty of them, will seldom want for activity and neither will anyone else.  Many of the local beaches offer good waves and shuttle services abound (US$5 to US$7, roundtrip).  Numerous local companies offer surf lessons, beach trips, sea turtle nesting tours, trips to the local nature reserve, zip lining and other tourist favorites.  Nearby hotel/restaurants offer a day of good eating, sipping cocktails and lounging by the pool and often arrange events to temp folks into the 20 minute or so drive along the coast; sometimes they even arrange shuttles.  Live music can be found most night’s of the week, and though it’s all fronted by the same guy he has a startlingly wide vocal range and credibly fronts a raggea act, a classic rock band, a blues setup and, by now, probably more.

We had no trouble lining up a range of rental options, even though we did so on the lead up to high season.  We ended up with a US$300 two bedroom one bath second story apartment, about half a block from the beach with an ocean view obstructed by trees, utilities not included.  It’s pictured below.  Villa del Sol offered a little less for the same price, though the view was amazing and maid service was included.  Felix, who owns a large two story white building near Gato Negro, will rent you a room with a private bath, huge cistern and shared kitchen for US$200 including utilities.  The views are good and the common areas are sizable, though while we were there it was quiet aside from the dog.  US$330 will get you a one bedroom next to BDF bank, out on the beachside drag.  This was our second choice, but we wanted more comfortable furniture.  I talked to a guy who rented a unit above the local Irish bar; he was really happy with it, but it ran him US$600/month.

By the numbers, SJDS was a very good value.  We spent US$949.93 for two people for 30 days, all in.  That allowed us to eat out (or carry out) whenever we didn’t feel like cooking and eat in whenever we did.  A bakery breakfast cost us between US$1 and 3 for two, a market breakfast ran a little more.  Lunch from the street vendors cost us US$2.31 for two, eating yucca with pork and salad and/or Nicaraguan enchiladas.  Booze weighed in at US$119, or 13% of our total budget.  It’s a beach town and we were there as the holiday throngs accumulated; booze was central to the lifestyle.  I’m not complaining.  If you take everything we spent at groceries and divide it by the number of meals that we didn’t eat out, you come up with US$1.90, a flawed but reasonable estimate of what eating in cost us per person per meal.

37 Responses to “Summary: San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua”

  1. […] less shy than in other areas, having acclimated to the … Go here to see the original: Summary: San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua « Monday (or something) Share and […]

  2. ryan Says:

    Thanks for all your work on these updates of Nicaragua I am looking at moving there in a year, to live for a year or 2 and your postings are very helpful

  3. Vicky Lavan Says:

    Thanks so much for your efforts, we have found them very helpful. My husband and I think we may want to retire to SJDS. We are planning an exploratory trip in November. There are 2 questions that I have and am hoping you can shed light.
    1. Is there much crime?
    I notice that many establishments do not have a web presence, any idea why? (irts my industry so Im curious).

  4. V Says:

    wow- I am loving your blogs! I’ve been scouring the Internet over the last few months, doing research for my (cross my fingers!) move with my husband to central America next year. I found this yesterday- exactly the level of details someone like me hopes tofind.

    the dates have me puzzled though. the sjds spreadsheet referenced thanksgiving, so I’m not sure what I might have missed.

    and like I said – these are greatreading – I don’t want to miss a thing! can you let me know when your travels took place?

    thanks so much!


    • cgearhart Says:

      Hola V,

      The trip is under way right now, though the updates are delayed by about 3 weeks. We started in Placencia, Belize in July or August of 2010 and arrived in Panama City, Panama about a month ago. This raises an excellent point, though; I should put dates on the summaries.

      If you have any other questions, suggestions or if there’s any way I can help, please don’t hesitate to post.

      • V Says:

        Thanks for the prompt reply!

        I do have a couple more questions:

        Is there a median age range for the expats you’ve run into, in Nicaragua in particular? And,

        How well do you and The Girlfriend speak and understand Spanish?

        Getting to Nicaragua is more than a daydream right now, but less than a plan — I’m working on filling in the details!

        Thanks for your help. And your posts!


      • cgearhart Says:

        There’s a pretty wide range of expat ages, especially in San Juan del Sur and Granada. You run into more than a few people in their 20s, 30s (us), 40s, 50s, 60s and on. An expat friend in Placencia just turned 70 while we’ve been traveling. I’m afraid I don’t have a median for you though.

        The Girlfriend took a few years of Spanish in High School, but she had not practiced much in the last 15 years. She gets along pretty well now, though I’m not sure how her reading comprehension is. Maybe she can post. My Spanish is pretty terrible; I can get a thought across, but usually only in the present tense. Things need to be said pretty slowly for me to follow, and even then they need to be kept simple. I am much better than I was when I started this trip though. Occasionally, for something complex and important, like a landlord dispute, I’ll find someone whose truly bilingual to interpret for me.

        Keep ’em coming.

  5. Danielle Says:

    This is an excellent blog and exactly what I have been looking for when researching Nicaragua! There really is not too much detailed information online, but this is awesome! We are planning our temporary relocation to Nicaragua (twoish months next April-June)
    We are coming to Nicaragua to surf, but are hoping to live within walking distance to the waves. Any places in SJDS or elsewhere in Nicaragua where we can walk to the surf? We also love the idea of being in a town/area where there are bars/restaurants to enjoy 🙂
    Thanks again for all of this info, SO very helpful!


    • cgearhart Says:

      You’ll have to explore the areas around SJDS, as I’m not sure of a spot where you can walk to the surf. Coco beach, maybe? The surf beaches we visited were Maderas, with very limited housing around, and a beach in a national park (I use that term loosely, there are a million subtle distinctions, but it wasn’t private land). Lots of surfers live between SJDS proper and Maderas, but it’s still at least a short car ride to the beach. There were some developments on beaches along the way that advertised surf, but we didn’t visit.

      I’ll elaborate if anything occurs to me after my coffee.

    • cgearhart Says:

      There’s a real estate agent named John Berger in SJDS that was recommended to me by a friend who has lived there for years (off and on). We never got around to talking to him, but I’m told he handles a wide range of rentals. He might be worth talking to. I think his office is right across the street from the central market on the ground floor of the two story commercial buildings (residential upstairs). I can’t seem to find an email address for him.

  6. MARTIN Says:


    • cgearhart Says:

      If you’ve been in CR for years, then you know the drill. I know plenty of nica/gringo couples, so there’s no noticeable taboo or anything. Spanish may be more important in Nicaragua than in CR though. Of the places we visited, I’d say SJDS. Granada and Leon are both worth consideration, but the consensus is that they are too hot. They will, however, have a much larger dating pool (SJDS is a small town).

  7. Thank u for sharing ands info. I have been there a couple of times and didn’t know about the gringo markets..will check it out this jan. though.

  8. […] night I had an epiphany, and it is all because of this blog. There, I found a cost of living breakdown for a month in Nicaragua. Anyone who has dreamed of […]

  9. The cost breakdown was a huge help. I plan on moving to SJDS in a month or so, and your research really eased a lot of fears.

    I mentioned you on my latest blog post. Maybe we will run into each other somewhere down south,




    • cgearhart Says:

      First off, congratulations on making the break. It’s not an easy things to do and I’m glad to be of help, at least in some small way.

      If there are any gaps I can fill in, just let me know.

  10. Jen Says:

    Thank you for all of the info! My husband is thinking about taking a job in Nicaragua. Not sure of where exactly yet, but I do have a question for you. We have three kids, aged 7-12. Depending on where he would be working, what do you think of me and my girls joining him there? I know the safety really depends on the area, but in general, would you go to Nicaragua with kids if you had any?

    • cgearhart Says:

      As my friends with children keep pointing out, it’s hard to imagine what having kids is like. In general, I think I would. I’d be apprehensive about doing so in Managua, but I haven’t spent much time there so my apprehension could be unwarranted. Elsewhere it would fall on two variables; healthcare and education. Those are both going to vary greatly on location, but you should be able to get a solid idea ahead of time by talking to a few ex pats in the local community. I’d be happy to try to put you in touch with any contacts I might have in wherever it is you might end up, just post again to let me know.

      Also, consider searching and/or asking the forums linked above on the right (Nicaragua Living and The Real Nicaragua). They’re probably going to have actual testimonials for you to draw from.

      Now maybe you only mean for an extended visit. In that case, yeah, I don’t see much to worry about. Assumedly your husband will have local contacts that can give him a good idea of which areas are safe and which are not, and in general Nicaragua is not a dangerous place to visit.

  11. Rolando Says:

    Great synopsis. I am also trying to make my way down there within the next 6-8 mo, to explore the possibilities. I am an old school sufer at 45 and my question relates specifically to that area..the age! I have travelled throughout C/S America but it was work on a totally different category (star hotels, embassy reps, etc..). Now I find myself retired from the Navy and ready to return to my 30+ passion head on Surfing. One more question andnitsmin regards to things to do for the locals..you know actually help them out..not handing out money I mean ..you know. Your promp response will be greatly appreciated. Rolando
    Ps. Did I mentioned I was born and raised in Puerto Rico fully bilingual?

    • cgearhart Says:

      Hey Rolando,

      Thanks for the praise. You’ll find plenty of like minded surfers of similar age in SJDS. As far as helping out the locals, the biggest help is often just being there contributing to the Nica owned businesses by spending money (not giving it away). Beyond that the Nicas can be pretty dismissive of outside help, in my expereince. Some of the most bitter peace corp volunteers I’ve ever met were stationed in Nicaragua.

      I’d be shocked if there weren’t some oppurtunities available.

      PS: The girlfriend knows about some volunteer oppurtunities there and says she’ll dig up the info and post it here when she gets a chance.

      • Rolando Says:

        Thank you guys for the reply. I do have a deal breaker question/concern that kept me up all night. Keeping in mind that I’m looking at living at Rivas.
        Like I related before I have travelled the AOR for three solid years, but was a completely different set up. My concern are;
        1. The young ladies that make you feel as if your Tom Cruise, are they all over the place and or only out at night. Give it to me straight brother. I am looking for the opposite..and answer like only in Managua..trust me I know about the Colombian deal!
        2. Is it a Springbreak atmosphere? Again looking for the opposite
        3. How would I live with a budget of 4k per month in Rivas ? If I like it I’m thinking about buying something like a 100 manzanas!


      • cgearhart Says:

        I can’t speak to Rivas specifically because I haven’t spent much time there, but the ladies of which you speak have never been an issue for me in Nicaragua the way they can be in other cities (I’m looking at you, San Jose, Costa Rica). In tourist areas of Granada the panhandlers can be really, really annoying but even there I didn’t get a lot of local girls striking up flirty conversation at the bar.

        Some bars in SJDS have a spring break vibe to them and there’s a lot of backpacker traffic, but the town is never overrun by them. There are just one or two bars along the beach that you don’t want to sleep next to. The vacationing Nicas (of all ages) in December/January are the biggest crowd of the year.

        We lived comfortably for under US$1k/month in SJDS, which should be more expensive than Rivas, though if you have to add a car because you’re outside of town I’m not sure how the numbers will come out. US$4k/month will not be a hardship.

        WRT to your other post, anything you import may be subject to taxes/tarrifs, but I haven’t dealt with it directly. You might email some of the surf hostels/schools in SJDS and see where they get their stuff and how.

        The Girlfriend said she’d try to get some info up this weekend about SJDS volunteer oppurtunities.

        Keep ’em coming, Rolando.

      • Rolando Says:

        I truly appreciate your responses. I will elaborated on a different format my situation..nothing bad, but why. Anyhow, can you expand on comfortably with 1k, and no hardship with 4k per mo? Ro

      • cgearhart Says:

        Take a look here if you haven’t already. That’s what US$950 got us in SJDS over 30 days.

      • Rolando Says:

        GREAT JOB on the spreadsheet! I am getting an idea..I need a place with ac, cable, wireless Internet and of of course electricity and water. A water tank will be the go. I speak the lingo and want to learn more of their ways so when I am out about I can sound like I’ve been there done that. Trying to maximize my ability to speak fluid Spanish and make living on 4k nice, very nice. Possible? Ro

      • cgearhart Says:

        Yeah, US$4k/month is entirely doable.

      • Rolando Says:

        It might help someone else to know that I spoke with some of the bigger surf shops between new Smyrna and Jacksonville, and the ship stuff down there all te time.

      • Rolando Says:

        Hey brother, hope all is well! I was wondering if surfing in playa Colorado (Hacienda Igunana) is restricted to guest..or??

      • cgearhart Says:

        Rest assured, Ro; all is well.

        It looks like it’s only accessible by boat unless you’re a guest. Like many places, in Nicaragua the beach is always public property for so many feet past the high tide mark. But that doesn’t mean you can get there easily and if the trip involves crossing private property they can charge you to use their road/path/whatever. You might be able to arrange something private with someone from the resort, but it seems unlikely. We didn’t take any boat trips, but they can get pricey pretty quick.

        Sometimes some of the tour operators in town will get special permission to access certain beaches by road, so it’s work asking around.

      • cgearhart Says:

        The Girlfriend passes this along:

        Here is a list of contact info that I have for volunteering plus some other good stuff. It is 2 years old, so I can’t guarantee it!
        1. Piedras y Olas (aka Stones & Waves, aka Pelican eyes):

        Kathleen Knight, volunteer project coordinator
        US phones: (781-961-4389, (617)775-3738.
        Nica phone with country code 011-505-8821-6684.
        2. Barrio Planta Project- by far the most organized and my favorite one:

        3. Other volunteer websites worth checking out:

        4. Other sites about SJDS I found useful-

        5. The following is a list of people we met that live there that might be able to give you more up to date info:

        *Natalie Sullivan, realtor-

        *Yasmin & Steve, owners of Las Palmas B&B-

        *Mark Kane- owner of Casa Pelon- also hosts great pig roasts!!

        Hope this all helps!

  12. Rolando Says:

    One more thing brother (for now if u don’t mind), shipping from the US to NIC; hard or just as in the US? Trying to get some boards shipped down there vice taking them with me on the initial trip. I am pretty sure they have a bunch of surf shops down there?


  13. Rolando Says:

    I am getting really worried. After the ISA’s contest in playa Colorado,,there has been a Big Bang in land, houses sales. The prices are right behind Costa. Something up the hill away from the beach in Rivas is ranging from 55k to millions..I Amos frustrated, but think that by going down there and blending in with the natives (I’m Spanish), hope to find something at a bargain price..if not is Adios amigos and go with plan B to purchase some land or a house on the NW or PR In Aguadilla. Hope you guys enjoy your time down in Nicaragua and catch good waves!

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