After browsing through the enormous selection of recent bestsellers (in English!) at El Gato Negro café and bookstore, Dani and I took a seat at one of the colorful tables by the window and ordered one creatively-named bagel breakfast and splurged on an overpriced but tummy flattening blueberry and spirulina health smoothie. While we waited for our food in the restaurant packed with Americans, we watched out the window as six very built blond surfers loaded up their truck with their boards for a day out on the waves.
With the sounds of surfer talk like ‘gnarly’ and ‘dude’ ringing in our ears, the morning sun could have easily been shining over Santa Monica or Venice, California, but we were actually seated at a restaurant thousands of miles south on the Pacific coast in small beach town called San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. After traveling through the country from Esteli in the north through Leon, Managua, the Corn Islands, Granada and the island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua, it was hard to believe that this surfer town could possibly be in the same country.
Located 45 minutes from the border to Costa Rica, San Juan del Sur combines the laid back surfer culture of Costa Rica with a touch a North American infrastructure and culture, all at Nicaraguan prices. You will find the bright colored houses which are typical for Central America but also a few new modern-style apartment buildings, which are clearly aimed at the North American expats – of which there are plenty. The range of accommodation, from hostels to beach resorts, fits all budgets for surfers and family holidaymakers alike. For visitors who speak no Spanish, there are plenty of ‘gringos’ here to talk to, but many people who come to San Juan del Sur find it to be the perfect place to take Spanish classes in between surf lessons or lying on the beach.
Far from an ‘authentic’ Nicaraguan feeling, San Juan is well-loved by international tourists – a fact which is reflected in the relatively high prices, easily comparable to California, in restaurants and bars throughout the town. However, eating cheap is still possible by eating in the inexpensive sodas, or local eateries. The term ‘soda’ actually describes cheap Costa Rican food spots, and the tradition has crossed the border thanks to the high number of Costa Rican tourists who choose San Juan del Sur as their own beach getaway. Several budget hostals also have kitchens, making it possible to feel right at home in San Juan del Sur – the perfect place to kick back for several days.
The long, sandy beach in town, never very full, is set in a beautiful bay, where the water has nearly no waves at all. There are even better beaches 10 – 20 minutes outside of the town (especially for surfing), and can be reached by one of the surfer shuttles which leave at 10am each day from outside of the countless surf shops, or you can take a taxi for around $10 or rent a bicycle which allows you to explore several of the nearly-deserted beaches up and down the coast. San Juan del Sur has long, wide streets with next to no traffic, safe for both bicycles and pedestrians alike.
No matter how much of that California feeling you may get, San Juan del Sur has managed to maintain its Nicaraguan charm. Front porches are lined with rocking chairs, vendors selling granizados and Chicha push their carts through the streets and the people are open and genuinely friendly. While the store shelves are lined with Pop Tarts and Oreos, the famous Flor de Caña rum is still cheap as chips, so make sure to have at least one good rum night out , or at least take advantage of the countless happy hour 2×1 beer and cocktail specials.
Starting early is a tradition here, so grab a drink at one of the many beach bars and catch a breathtaking sunset in the bay over the Pacific Ocean, a phenomenon which happens like clockwork nearly every day in this relaxed beach town.