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.