San Juan del Sur (SJDS) is a mecca for surfers and backpackers. We picked it because it’s one of the larger cities in the south of Nicaragua and a popular tourist destination; we figured it would have enough things to do and restaurants to try to entertain us for a few days. If you’ve done any reading about SJDS, you would have surely noted it’s reputation as a party town – with mention of “Sunday Funday”, and daily pub crawls – which all sounds great if you’re in your 20’s, but not so much if you’re travelling with small kids. Therefore we stayed up on one of the hills overlooking town. Our hotel had a shuttle that would bring us down to town and back, so transportation was relatively easy.
In SJDS there are several great places to eat and we had some good meals while we were there. (Look for my list of recommendations below) There weren’t as many shops to look in as I had imagined, based on how popular SJDS is with tourists and cruise ships. The shops we found were mostly hipster surf apparel, but we did find a few small Nicaraguan souvenir shops as well. There is a small market with mostly fruit and vegetables, a few stands selling t-shirts and a little restaurant. You could easily explore the majority of town in a day, but if you’re taking life at a leisurely pace, spreading your exploring out over a few days (like we did) works too.
For groceries there is one larger grocery store (Pali) on the way into SJDS. It wasn’t as well-stocked as the Pali we went to in Granada, so don’t expect to find everything there. We found that the little pulperias (corner stores) in town actually were pretty fair with their prices and had some things we couldn’t get at Pali (even produce) so definitely worth a browse!
The beach in the town is nothing special – we didn’t spend any time there. If you’re in SJDS and you want to get in some beach time or surfing you have to head either North or South about 30 mins to get to the better beaches. That being said – watching the sunset from the beach in town is pretty great!
We visited Playa Maderas twice. The first time we shared a cab with a couple from our hotel and it cost $20USD each way. The second time we found a driver in town and he brought us for $25USD round trip. Maderas has a few restaurants on the beach and a few hostels nearby. We rented lounge chairs and an umbrella on the beach for $10USD (having shade is key to having the babies on the beach!) The beach has nice sand with some rocks and tide pools at the north-end of the beach. The surf there looked pretty good (but Trev didn’t surf there). We ate at Taco Locos both days we visited. The staff were super-friendly & accommodating for the kids and the food was good. Hannah was happy to have “fish with eyeballs” (whole fried snapper) and I was equally happy with my margarita made from fresh-squeezed lime juice.
We also visited Playa Hermosa for an afternoon. Trev signed up for a surf lesson through Good Times Surf Shop in SJDS for $30USD and his 1 hour lesson included board rental and transportation to and from the beach. They charged us $10USD total for the kids and I to get to the beach and back too. Hermosa is on private land, so there is a fee to access the beach (our driver paid, so I’m not sure how much it was). At the beach there is a restaurant and hostel. Because Hermosa is a private beach club, use of lounge chairs, hammocks, shade palapas, etc. is included. The beach is long and almost deserted and if you look to the south you can see Costa Rica.
So what was our overall impression of SJDS? We liked it and we’re glad we visited, but five nights was probably one or two too many. The town was cute and we liked the mix of exploring/trying restaurants and spending time at the beach. We thought that having to pay to visit other beaches was a downside though. On average it cost $25-30USD just to get to another beach, plus we would likely eat lunch there because once we made it to the beach we wanted to stay for several hours. This was a big contrast to our stay at Hacienda Iguana where a beautiful beach was just a two-minute walk away, and we could go back to our house for lunch, naps or whatever. Maybe this would have been different if our kiddos were a bit older, but with small children this was a bit of a challenge.
Where to eat in San Juan del Sur:
La Lancha: Go here for delicious “fresh off the boat” seafood and a cozy, local atmosphere. We ordered a whole fried snapper and the waiter kept coming back to ask if it was okay that the cost would be a bit more because that day the whole snapper were “mas grande”. Of course we said yes, and I’m glad we did. Our fish (and sides) was about $16USD and sooo delicious!
Barrio Café: Worth a visit at any time of the day. Barrio Café is proudly Nicaraguan owned and the servers there were probably the friendliest and most helpful we came across. We went a few times, so they would start bringing us highchairs as soon as they saw us and they loved playing with the kids. The food was excellent: try the steak for dinner and huevos rancheros for breakfast (and carrot cake anytime).
Nacho Libre: A funky bar and burger joint. Delicious burgers and fries! All sorts of funky combos and deluxe toppings to select from. Make sure you read through the menu, it’s pretty funny.
El Gato Negro: A funky and artistic café. We went for a mid-morning snack and had smoothies and crepes. The environment was very kid-friendly with colouring pages on the tables and a bin of stuffies that the babies loved. The twins were very popular here and went for a little tour through the kitchen, haha.
Superfrutto Gelateria: a little gelato shop worth stopping by for a scoop or two. Good selection of flavours at a reasonable price.
San Juan Surf: half men’s clothing shop half coffee bar. The guys working there were always so friendly and the Vietnamese iced coffee ($2USD) was awesome!
Taco Stop: Not to be confused with nearby Taco Spot (we were warned). A fast-food type atmosphere with a variety of options for quesadillas, burritos and bowls. We grabbed lunch to-go one afternoon on our way back to our hotel and we all enjoyed it.
Stay tuned for one more blog post with tips for travelling with small kids and our packing list!