After my unforgettable stint in Peñas Blancas I made the trek to Managua to meet my brother Sam as he arrived in Nicaragua. Sam was joining me on my travels through the country for a week during his spring break. The beginning of our travels together marked one of the greatest miscommunications of my trip. Everything was going smoothly until we arrived at the bus station to begin our onward journey to San Juan del Sur.
The Great Miscommunication
You may have heard of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. It has a bit of a reputation. Situated in a beautiful half-moon bay on the Pacific coast, San Juan del Sur is Nicaragua’s hottest location for young travelers to tan, surf, and dance the night away. It’s notorious for beachside clubs, hip international businesses, and thousands of drunk white tourists.
In short, San Juan del Sur is to Nicaragua what Cancún is to Mexico.
For this reason, when two young white backpackers arrive at the Managua bus station looking a little ruffled and turned around, every scam artist in a half mile radius jumps at the chance to “help” them get to San Juan del Sur.
Dozens of people began shouting at us as we opened the door to our cab. “San Juan del Sur? You go to San Juan?” My brother looked around confusedly and nodded.
The nod was a fatal mistake. The man who received this visual confirmation opened the trunk, grabbed our bags, and dragged Sam across the parking lot to a bus before I had time to blink the sun out of my eyes.
The man threw our bags in the back of a bus that was about to leave and hurried us onboard. He then started talking rapidly to Sam in Spanish. Sam speaks Spanish far better than I do, so when he began to look confused I became suspicious.
The bus began moving slowly out of the crowded bus station. I became extremely anxious – we hadn’t even checked any other buses to see where they were going. What was the deal with this guy?
Finally Sam turned to me, looking worried. “Caitlin, he’s saying it costs $25 each to get to San Juan.”
My anxiety and frugality got the better of me. “NO.” I said loudly. “It should only cost three dollars.” I turned to the man, panicking as we pulled onto the road. “¡No, es muy caro! ¡Salimos!” No, it’s very expensive. We get out!
The man looked annoyed, and turned back to Sam. He had no patience for my broken Spanish. He tried to explain something but Sam was overwhelmed and looking to me for help. “NO.” I repeated.
It rapidly escalated to a scene. The man started talking angrily, which did nothing for our comprehension; another man sitting nearby told my brother it should only cost $2.50; I generally lost my mind and began shouting “¡Salimos! ¡SALIMOS! ¡SALIMOS!” We get out! We get out! WE GET OUT!
I grabbed my bag from the back and faced the back door of the now-moving bus. I was ready to leap to save $22. Sam stared at me wide-eyed, completely dumbfounded. The man grabbed my bag out of my hand and shook his head: we could not get off.
Oh no, not me, mister. You will not scam me! “¡SALIMOSSSSS!”
The chaos continued similarly for a few minutes until suddenly it all ended. The man threw his hands in the air and walked to the front of the bus. Sam and I were left in silence, looking at each other in confusion. We agreed to sit down and vowed not to pay a cent over three dollars when they collected the fare.
Soon afterwards the conductor came down the aisle and asked us calmly for three dollars. I handed him exact change, playing it cool. Like everybody else on the bus, he had witnessed the entirety of the ruckus we had caused.
Two hours later, the bus stopped in a town that was most definitely not San Juan del Sur. The conductor told us to get off. He explained that this was Rivas, a city between Managua and San Juan. We could catch a cab from here to San Juan or wait for another bus in half an hour. The cab would cost $25.
Sam and I got off the bus, red-faced and mortified. The miscommunication, though understandable, was all the more embarrassing because we knew everybody on the bus understood exactly what had happened.
Ah well. We waited dutifully for the next bus and were laughingly yelling “SALIMOS!” at each other by mid-afternoon.
San Juan del Sur: It’s Not That Bad
Here’s the thing: I’m one of those hipster travelers who actively avoids touristy places. When I load a page called “Best Places to Visit in…” I immediately scroll past the first few listings. In general these places have been altered into some weird pseudo-culture that is catering to the tourist’s idea of how their vacation should look. For example: if tourists think that Mexico should be all sombreros, burritos, and mariachi bands, then the touristy parts of Mexico will be all sombreros, burritos, and mariachi bands. And those burritos will be far more expensive than the much more authentic and delicious tacos a few towns away.
For this reason I was hesitant to even visit San Juan del Sur. I knew it by reputation to be a town full of piss-drunk white backpackers and spring breakers. I didn’t really feel like spending my time in Nicaragua engaging in the same cultural activities I experienced for four years in college.
But here’s the truth, for all of my fellow hipster travelers out there: it’s not that bad. Yes, there are beach clubs full of white kids bumping every night of the week. And yes, everything is significantly more expensive than anywhere else in Nicaragua. However, there is still real Nicaragua there.
It’s interesting to see where the original culture intersects with the tourist culture. The local seafood is unbeatable and the laid-back beachy vibe is contagious. If you descend deeper into the little town the coffee shops and surf stores transition to local markets and parks and churches. And best yet, San Juan del Sur is also a destination for Nicaraguan partiers. Sam and I eschewed the tourist clubs on Saturday night to dance on the beach to a local band alongside hundreds of Nicaraguan tourists (and their bottles of rum). It was fun to witness a huge Nicaraguan party!
And frankly, it’s popular for good reason: it’s incredibly beautiful area.
The Hike to Jesus
San Juan del Sur is surrounded on three sides by high, stunning cliffs. The night we arrived, Sam and I participated in a quintessential San Juan activity: hiking to Jesus for sunset.
That’s right. One of the great quasi-ironic quirks about San Juan del Sur is that the little party town is overlooked by an enormous statue of Jesus. It’s a steep forty five minute walk to the cliff that plays home to Cristo de la Misericordia, or Christ of Mercy. From the base of the statue you get a great view of San Juan and the rest of Nicaragua’s stunning southwest coastline. Better yet, you have an unobstructed view of the sun setting over the ocean.
Our Own Sunday Funday at Playa Maderas
The next day, Sam and I declined from engaging in the most San Juan del Sur-y of San Juan del Sur activities: Sunday Funday. Sunday Funday is a weekly day-long “pool crawl” where hundreds of drunk young things dance and swim through three different hostel pools. It’s supposed to be crazy, and false rumors abound about the insane events of past Sunday Fundays. SJDS itself is actually startling quiet on Sundays, because most of the town’s ever present tourist population is off getting covered in glitter and pushed into crowded pools.
Some backpackers swear by Sunday Funday. In fact, I met one glitter-coated guy in Granada who was returning to San Juan for his third Sunday Funday in a row. Crazy.
If I had been in town with a group of friends, I may have joined in the festivities. But as it was I was there with my brother and neither of us were particularly interested in getting too loose around each other. Besides, it costs $30 dollars for entrance alone – why spend $30 to drink with some goons in dirty pools when I could drink on the stunning Pacific beaches all day for free?
Instead we spent our Sunday at Playa Maderas, a beach a few miles north of San Juan del Sur. Maderas is a famous surfing spot and a hub for the quieter, more bohemian side of backpacker culture. The beach is backed by startling cliffs and makes for a stunning place to spend a day or two.
After a long day of sand and sun, we sat on a rocky outcropping in the sea and watched our second mind-blowing sunset in two days.
If you’re like me and questioning whether visiting San Juan del Sur is worth your time, know this: the sunsets alone are worth the trip.
Read more about my adventures in Nicaragua by checking out the Nicaragua archive!