Surf San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua: Rediscover your Backpacker Roots

San Juan del Sur Beach and the Statue of ChristAs I was mulling the myriad possibilities of how to begin this blog, I decided that a good way to start may be on the actual backpacker trail, and that’s where I find myself currently, in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, attending a surf camp, while staying in a quaint-but-confused B&B-turned-hostel with majestic views of the sea from high atop a hill.

The journey to arrive here as a standalone destination, a place that the New York Times selected as on of their top “must visit” destinations last year, should be a relatively easy one from the US or Canada. One way is to fly into the capital Managua, then take a bus or taxi, depending on your budget or inclination, for a couple of hours to the town. Another, the way I chose, is to fly into Liberia, Costa Rica, and then take a taxi to the border with Nicaragua (a little over an hour), navigate your way through the dirt border crossing, and then take a taxi on the other side to the town (another 30 minutes). In my case, it wasn’t quite so easy (more below).

Sunset and Statue of Christ, from Casa de Olas
Sunset and Statue of Christ, from Casa de Olas

I arrived Saturday evening, straight into a raging pool party at Casa de Olas, a hostel nestled on a hillside  to the east of the town of San Juan del Sur (SJDS) with an infinity pool that pours directly off its lip into a horizon of awesomeness: sunsets over the bay, and a statue of Jesus, now floating on the edge of the pool instead of on the highest hill in town. The owners, Fred and Carla, transplanted Aussies, have a fascinating story, one left best told by their lips rather than my keyboard, but suffice it to say they are typically warm and affable, and it’s unlikely they are going back Down Under any time soon.

Socializing by the infinity pool at Casa de Olas, Statue of Christ in the distance
Socializing by the infinity pool at Casa de Olas, Statue of Christ in the distance

The hostel had once upon a time opened as a quaint bed and breakfast a few years ago, but another hostel opened on the plot directly next to them and brought a party atmosphere to the area. Unable to function as a quiet retreat any longer, Casa de Olas adapted to the environment and became a hostel in its own right, to great success. The place, as I arrived, is filled to capacity with the usual potpourri of Swedes, Germans, Canadians, Aussies, Brits, etc., young and restless, ready to drink all night and day and have a good time. Most have been traveling in Central America for months already, few surf. One inebriated fellow mentioned to me that he’d been here two months and been to the beach four times. Just when I thought I was going to be a total fish out of water for a week, a few fellow finance types from the States, including a former founding partner of a major hedge fund are thrown in the mix as well, giving me no excuse left not to at least stick a toe in the water, if not dive in with a “Buzz Punch,” named after the resident pet monkey rescued from deforestation.

At sunset the music is pumping from the bar, the drinking games–“Buffalo!” are in full swing, and I realize I am about fifteen drinks behind. I throw my bags in my room (private of course, I do have a few limits at this point in my life), and sneak over to the bar, hoping to slowly blend in without making a fool of myself. Everyone is friendly, though incoherent, and as it turns out, introductions will be repeated the next morning at breakfast: “Hi, I’m Tim!” / “Yes, Tim, we met last night, but nice to meet you again. George.”  After sundown, everyone is herded into the flatbeds of pickup trucks, fitted with benches, for the shuttle into town to one of the other hostels with a large and happening bar, Pacha Mama. I cannot fathom actually staying at that hostel unless you have no interest whatsoever in sleep during your stay in SJDS. The “Drinking Olympics” are on this night, full of various tasks of “athletic” endeavors of the alcoholic variety. Two rum cocktails and two beers sets me back 130 Cordobas, or about $5 US. I can see the appeal to the backpacking community. Life is cheap, and the rum is stiff and free flowing. The bar shuts around midnight, but that’s plenty of time to get wasted, if that’s your thing.

House gates, San Juan del Sur
House gates, San Juan del Sur

The next day is the gold medal game of the Olympic men’s hockey between Sweden and Canada. About 25 of us, perhaps a quarter Canadian, half Swedish, and the rest a hodgepodge of other nationalities (those interested in the Swedish ladies decidedly pro-Tre Kronor, the rest mostly pro-Canada) hook up a laptop to a projector and get a live stream going. This day also happens to be “Sunday Funday,” and the music starts early at the Casa de Olas and the Naked Tiger hostel next door (i.e., 9am). Sunday Funday is a pool party crawl that begins at these two hostels and then heads to the Pelican Eyes, a high end resort costing $300 a night, returns to the Naked Tiger in the evening, then heads back to Pacha Mama to cap the night. For those considering shelling out the big bucks to stay at the Pelican Eyes, do note that Sundays they open up their pool area to everyone, and it’s a Cancun-spring break/Vegas Sunday-style pool party, but with $15 cover for the entire day, including shuttle transportation, and $2 drinks, so you can imagine how that might ruin your hopes for a quiet weekend away if that’s what you were coming down here for. It does, however, look like a nice hotel, with great views from the property.

The Monday after Sunday Funday proves to be an excellent surfing day, as it turns out. The majority of the visiting gringo population is too hung over to make it out to the beaches. On this day, we visit Playa Maderas, one of the “busier” beaches, with $1 shower facilities, a couple of excellent taco bars with frozen cocktails in actual glasses, board rental shops, and beautiful sunset views.  The beach is perhaps a quarter mile long, and has all of fifteen surfers in the water. It seems this is a rare day with so few surfers, but still, “busy” is a loose term in comparison to most spots in the world. The break is a beach break, with both left and right rolling breaks. On this day, it’s 2-3ft, with chest high sets and the rare bigger wave coming through. The wind is always offshore here so no need to ask, and the water temperatures are colder than one might expect on most days due to the Humboldt Current’s effects, and also the winds (70s F / low 20s C). A wetsuit top may be recommended if you tend to get cold. At sunset, floating on the vermillion and rose-hued water, watching the sun dip below the horizon, the pelicans gliding by, and sharing that space with only a half dozen other surfers (more on this later), it requires a huge effort to think about anything else, let alone work or your troubles at home. If you’re done surfing for the day, or aren’t the surfing type, Tacos Locos, home of the self-proclaimed “best fish tacos in Nicaragua”– I must say I cannot verify this claim due to my small sample size of two (easily better than the ones at Playa Hermosa below) and failure to investigate the competition, but they are pretty darn good, very light, healthy yet filling, nothing like most of the greasy tacos one usually finds back in the US–has ice cold beers and pina coladas, cranking CCR classics at just the right volume, and boasts some of the best sunset views around.

Playa Maderas on a busy Friday
Playa Maderas on a busy Friday

Playa Hermosa is another of the many beaches in the area that we visit during the course of our week. The disadvantage of Playa Hermosa is that it is on private property so a toll is required to visit. This is also its greatest advantage if you can afford the $3 per person fee that includes use of showers, any hammock you like, a parking spot, and a couple of miles of empty sand. Here it is never crowded. We surf here for a couple of days and enjoy picking and choosing whatever smallish wave we want (no large ones to speak of while we are here). We return to Playa Maderas on a Friday, when the waves happen to be bigger (3-5 ft), as a new swell approaches. Everyone is out, there is harsh competition for waves from locals and visitors alike. It’s not a good day for beginners or intermediates to be out there. Collisions are frequent, and every nice wave has a local just a tad better than you dropping in and taking your wave because you may not quite be good enough to win your share of paddle battles yet. Tensions occasionally run high. You’ll never have that problem at Playa Hermosa. Fortunately, eventually, even at Playa Maderas, as the sun slowly sinks, the water gets colder, and the arms turn into jello, only a handful of surfers remain in the water. A few rogue sets of waves roll in, the pelicans dive into the water for their early fish dinners, and all is right in the world again.

Wave breaking on Playa Hermosa
Wave breaking on Playa Hermosa- Photo Credit: Michael Reinhardt, Nicaragua Wave School

How to get here:

1) Via Liberia, Costa Rica:

Jet Blue flies direct to Liberia from JFK daily, but beware the land border crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. A taxi from Liberia Airport to “la frontera” (the border) costs about $100. Alternatively, if you’re in no hurry and want to save money, you can take a taxi into Liberia town and then transfer to a coach bus (standard greyhound-type bus–much more civilized than a chicken bus). The coach bus costs around $3. Beware the Nicaraguan border officials. They are looking for ways to extract a little something extra out of the equation. I got stopped for having a tiny, half centimeter tear in one of my passport pages caused by a stapled visa. Apparently, one can be denied entry into Nicaragua if even the smallest of tears is found in your passport. An extra half hour is spent going through additional processing. It becomes very clear very quickly what they want, and the minimum market for it is around $50. Make sure your passport looks pristine before you go. Other than problems such as that one, the actual visa on arrival cost is $13 ($1 processing fee and $12 visa fee) and I do believe they only take US$ (they do have change to give you in USD, so don’t worry is you only have a $20. I wouldn’t recommend carrying larger denominations anyway). The taxi on the Nicaraguan side of the border to San Juan Del Sur costs about $35 and is a pleasant, half hour drive along the shores of Lake Nicaragua, with views of the impressive twin volcanoes on Ometepe Island on the RIGHT side of the car.

On the way back to Liberia, anticipate a long line to cross into Costa Rica. The flow of traffic seems very lopsided towards CR, away from Nica. Budget plenty of extra time. Also, at Liberia Airport, a $29 per person departure tax must be paid. There is only one place to do this and the line is very long. You cannot check in for your flight without all parties in your group doing this FIRST. Budget an extra half hour for this before check-in. If you’re the type who likes to cut it close and spend as little time as possible in an airport, this means getting their 90mins before your departure time at a minimum for you. I left San Juan del Sur at 10:30am for a 3pm flight, and it wasn’t like I barely made my flight (the airport itself is clean, modern, bright, and fast to get through), but I was checking in with only 65 minutes to go until my flight. I was at the border by 11:10, so it took a full three hours to go through Costa Rican immigration, drive to the airport, and purchase my departure tax. I could have easily missed my check-in cut-off time had the CR border clearance taken even longer (which it could have). I would advise leaving at least a full 5 hours before your flight to be safe.

2) Fly to Managua via Miami, Houston, etc., take a two-to-three hour taxi ride from there.

Why go through all the hassle of the land crossing? Liberia Airport is modern, clean, nice. Easy to use, and full of American and Canadian snowbirds at this time of year. From points such as Toronto or NYC, there are convenient direct flights. If you have two or  more in your group, the cost savings become significant. A Jet Blue flight to Liberia from NYC cost around $500 return vs $700 return via Miami and Managua at the time I booked. The cost of a taxi to and from Managua to SJDS is about $80~$100 each way per car vs. about $125~$135 each way to and from Liberia.

Gulls and terns feeding on molluscs at low tide, San Juan del Sur
Gulls and terns feeding on molluscs at low tide, San Juan del Sur

Restaurants

El Colibri along the beachfront in San Juan del Sur is the only restaurant requiring reservations in town. There are a number of beachfront establishments along this strip. Everything is pretty casual. Unfortunately, this trip had a dearth of culinary experiences. The best one I can recommend is La Lancha, a small seafood place a couple of blocks in from the beach. $6 gets you one and a half rock lobster tails grilled (a la plancha, or with garlic cream sauce (a la salsa), rice, and vegetables. They have wine and water there, bring your own beer, however. Aside from these places, Superfrutto is a gelateria in town by the water, which is very popular. A taco stand called “Taco Stand” next to Barrio Cafe makes good, non-greasy tacos and quesadillas. Barrio Cafe offers items such as Nicaraguan “adobo”–it is nothing like the Philipino kind, steaks and pastas. It is nothing to write home about but more than passable. The Gato Negro is a nice place to get a proper, strong coffee, or specialty latte, and has an impressive library of books for sale. Tacos Locos on Playa Maderas offers good, healthy nachos (no queso here) and fish tacos.

 

Christ of the mercy, San Juan del Sur
Christ of the mercy, San Juan del Sur

Top 5 Activities

#4 (#5 is drinking, it goes without saying) “Hike” to the Christ of the Mercy Statue. This isn’t really a hike in the strictest sense of the word.  The way up is all paved, and two hours all in is more than enough time to walk up from town, snap a few photos, take a break, and walk slowly back down. Do wear running shoes at least, instead of flip-flops/sandals. The road is steep enough that you will be cursing your choice of footwear if you don’t have closed toe shoes and ankle support. Definitely bring your sunglasses, hat and water. The road gets very dusty and hot. Admission for foreigners is $2 per person. Do it. The views are worth the price of admission. Christ himself points to the South, and his view is a commanding one over the crescent-shaped bay of San Juan del Sur.

#3 Horseback riding. Various ranches in the area offer rides. No need to book ahead, just turn up. Prices seem to be in the range of ~$15 per hour. Playa Maderas has a conveniently located ranch just across from the parking lot. The beach is nice and long there, making for a nice ride along the beach, before heading up into the hills behind. Bear in mind animal care standards in this part of the world may not quite be up to the bar some may set.

#2 Ometepe Island, the volcanoes, and Lake Nicaragua. Unfortunately, this trip didn’t allow me the free time to visit this magnificent-looking island of the twin volcanoes that seems like it belongs in a Tolkien yarn, rather than reality. Lake Nicaragua, a half hour drive from SJDS, is what helps to cause all those great offshore winds for surfing. The Concepcion Volcano’s peak is the highest point on a freshwater island on this planet, and there are various hikes/day trips available for visits to the island. Boat to the island is the only way to go, and mopeds are available for rent on the other side. On my next visit, I will definitely have to make the time for this, as I heard many good things when the weather is good (and many not so great when it wasn’t. Views and footing appear to be two key components of an enjoyable hike there).

A bystander looks on, Playa Maderas
A bystander looks on, Playa Maderas

#1 Surfing- offshore winds, good waves year round (even when they are small like in the current dry season, they are solid), and surfboard rental shops around at most beaches. There are surf schools around, such as the all-girls operation Chicas Bravas, but I cannot vouch for any of these surf schools. As is often the case with surf schools in foreign countries, the level of knowledge of instructors varies greatly. Nicaragua Wave School, operated by Locals Surf School of Rockaway, New York, offers surf-and-stay packages at Casa de Olas from Jan-March. Ask for Mike.

Where to Stay

I am not here to endorse one place or another. The Pelican Eyes looked like it could be a very nice resort, but I visited it during the Sunday Funday party when it was hard to see what things may be like on a calmer day. Casa de Olas, by hostel standards, is beautiful, and cheap at $12 a night including breakfast for shared dorms and $100 or so extra per week for a private room with ensuite toilet and shower. The infinity pool is cleaned daily, and how many hostels can boast an infinity pool with stunning sunset views? I stayed in Room 1, which is on the end, has a large king-sized bed, and roomy en suite  toilet/shower, and allows a nice breeze to pass through as it is on the corner and has two windows. As a room, I recommend it as the best one on the premises. However, ear plugs are essential as it is the room closest to the Naked Tiger hostel right next door, which is a party spot with music pumping well into the night and all the bar chatter, karaoke, etc., will be right outside your walls. As of this post, Casa de Olas is expanding to include an upstairs section above the main bar/dining area, so some changes are no doubt in store.

 

Useful links

What’s new in SJDS?

Surf and stay packages with American instructors

Where I stayed

A high end alternative

Questions? Comments? Email: [email protected]

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