San Juan del Sur – what is it like and what is there to do?
San Juan del Sur is a charming, small coastal town on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua. It has a lively and fun vibe, and it is not yet completely overrun by travelers. BUT we weren’t there in peak season and I think there are moments when it’s getting to the point of complete saturation, as San Juan del Sur is well and truly on the “Gringo trail”.
Even though small, the town center has lots of restaurants and shops geared for tourists. Many expats from North America and Europe have made San Juan their home. We also saw one big cruise liner docked in front of the town during our three-week stay, and if that’s a growing trend the town’s going to change quickly as tourist numbers keep growing. Apparently there are plans to build a cruise ship terminal too. So if you’re looking for an authentic Nicaraguan town with very few to no tourists, then San Juan del Sur is not for you.
Having said all that, there are still plenty of locals in San Juan del Sur, especially if you leave the immediate center. The population of the town is about 15,000. There is a nice mixture of local culture and amenities for tourists that provide a great setting for a shorter or longer stay. San Juan del Sur is an easy town to like, with many hotels, restaurants, shops, couple of (basic) gyms and a lovely yoga studio. And there is of course the allure of the beauty of the region. San Juan del Sur and surroundings are simply stunning, with a string of dreamy beaches, jungle, abundant wildlife and endless activities to do at budget prices. You can fill your days with:
- great surfing at nearby beaches
- turtle watching trips
- Spanish lessons at one of the many language schools
- stand-up paddle boarding
- some great walks and hikes around the area
- canopy tours
- lazing in some fabulous hammocks
- etc – please see this comprehensive list on San Juan Live: ‘101 Things to Do in San Juan del Sur (and Counting)’
While not the most spectacular in the region and lacking a surf break, San Juan del Sur beach is pretty and it has stunning sunsets. We made it a bit of ritual to go for a sunset walk on the beach on most evenings. The beachfront in front of town is lined by restaurants and you can enjoy a lazy afternoon and evening sipping on some cocktails watching the beach and the glorious sunset.
Book early if you’re planning to stay over the holidays!
We were in San Juan del Sur in November. The closer we got to Christmas holidays, the busier it seemed to get even though it wasn’t even December yet. Our initial plan was to stay in San Juan del Sur over the Christmas holidays but we missed the boat. We simply didn’t book our accommodation early enough as we wanted to keep our itinerary flexible, and by the time we were looking, everything in our price range was booked out. So we can only assume that over the holiday period the town is a bit crazy and probably not so laid-back.
So if you’re planning to go to San Juan del Sur over Christmas holidays, book early! Same applies for Easter we were told. Also if you don’t like it busy, probably best to avoid staying in San Juan del Sur over the peak holiday periods altogether. In hindsight it was a bit of a blessing in disguise that we weren’t able to book anything over the Christmas period in San Juan del Sur. I think we would have found it too busy for our liking.
How much things cost in San Juan del Sur?
To give you an idea of costs in San Juan del Sur, here is our sample daily budget. As a major tourist destination in Nicaragua, it is more expensive than the rest of the country, but still very budget-friendly.
Sample expenses for a day for 2 in $US (excluding airfare) in San Juan del Sur, as of November 2014:
- Accommodation: $56/night. 1-bedroom apartment with a kitchen and with A/C in a guesthouse right in the center of town.
- Food and drinks for 2: $27. Three meals and a snack included. Breakfast ‘at home’, snack, lunch and dinner out.
- 2-hour surfing lesson for 2: $70. Includes board rental and transportation to the beach. See my post on San Juan del Sur surfing for more info.
Total costs: $153/day for 2 people (about $76.50/person/day)
We didn’t surf every day and sometimes cooked at home so we had many significantly cheaper days than this sample one. This is just to give an idea of how much you can roughly expect to spend staying in comfortable private accommodation, eating well and doing some sort of activity. You can also get by on much much less in San Juan del Sur if you’re on a budget. You can get a nice big plate of gallo pinto for less than $2 at the local market, and sleep in a hostel bed for around $8-$10/night.
Our verdict of San Juan del Sur as a travel destination
We really loved our time in San Juan del Sur and can see the attraction for expats. It would be an easy town to live long-term. The combination of beautiful beaches and nature, restaurants, shops and amenities geared for tourists, its rustic local charm (in some pockets at least) and friendly locals (who speak English) is certainly enticing. However there’s no denying San Juan del Sur is on the ‘Gringo trail’ and I can only imagine how busy it gets at times. So it’s probably not for those who are seeking more authentic experiences in Nicaragua. But especially first-timers to Nicaragua will most likely love San Juan del Sur for its charm, beauty and relaxed vibe, combined with ease of travel.
Some helpful links:
See my post on our Nicaragua Itinerary & Highlights for other great locations in Nicaragua!