It’s true what they say, San Juan del Sur is a bit of a party town (and home to the infamous “Sunday Funday”), but there is so much more to it than that. We stayed an extortionate amount of time in San Juan and were able to find many favourites that we continue to remember long after we have left. It wasn’t just the people that made this place, it was also the hidden gems that were all around us, including day excursions, great food and drink, and random finds that ended up being a lot of fun.
Despite Rach having a scare with a torn intercostal muscle (leading to a very strong pain medication needle), we got around town quite a bit. We managed to hike our way around, swim, surf, drink the night away, and generally have fun! Without further ado, here were some of our absolute favourites in town that we believe you too should experience.
Christ of the Mercy
Overlooking the main beach in town (Playa San Juan del Sur) is a massive statue of Christ which also provides a fantastic view over the town. You can easily hike up to the statue in order to take in the view, with a walk to the edge of town followed by a short uphill hike to reach the destination.
Be aware that the bridge that once allowed people to cross the river and begin to make their way up to Christ of the Mercy is no more, having been ripped away in a recent hurricane. However, you can easily cross via the beach, giving you a great walk along the beach front followed by a 20-30 minute uphill walk.
The entry fee to get in is US$2 for foreigners (or the cordoba equivalent), which is money well spent for the fantastic view.
Sunday Funday has fast become one of the biggest parties in Central America, and one that is coveted by backpackers everywhere. It is not uncommon to see a “Sunday Funday” singlet as far north as Mexico, and as far south as Argentina and Brazil!
Sunday Funday is a party (on Sunday of course) created and run by Naked Tiger Hostel and Pachamama Hostel (or Naked Mama Productions). Each Sunday they take revelers to 4 or 5 different pools around town (including at Pachamama and Naked Tiger) and put on DJ’s. If you’re lucky they may also pass around some free shots at each location.
This is certainly not a party to be missed, from the initial packed-in crowd at Pachamama, to the amazing pool (above) at Hotel Anamar, to the even more fantastic sunset that you see when you arrive at Naked Tiger. Aside from the pools and views, you will most likely have a great time drinking the day and night away.
The only problem with the Funday is the price… it costs US$30 which only gives you a free singlet and transportation between locations. They also advertise some free shots but you really have to be in the right place at the right time to get one. With a serious case of FOMO, I indulged in the event and had a great time. If you truly want to save a bit of money and do it as a true backpacker, buy some Ron Plata (the cheapest rum in town at around US$2 for a small bottle) before the day kicks off and pre-drink to your hearts content!
Playa San Juan del Sur
The main beach in town offers up a generally calm swimming experience within a bay, and one with a fantastic view to boot. Being right in town makes this such a convenient place to come for a day just to relax and have a swim, and then read a book by the water. Unfortunately you cannot surf here as the bay protects the water meaning little to no waves, but it is still a great beach nonetheless.
There are also many fantastic restaurants (with happy hours) surrounding the beach, and if you’re lucky you might even be able to join in a game of beach volleyball.
We would advise people to be very careful here at night, as we have heard past reports of people getting robbed on the beach!
Playa Maderas is a short 20 minute drive away from San Juan del Sur, and provides another option for those looking for a day-trip out of town. Of course there are other options for beaches up and down the coast, but Maderas is well placed for a nice day trip without going too far and without spending too much money.
You can also stay out here, as there are a few options for accommodation including a hostel offering cheap-ish beds.
Casa Oro offers the most economical method of getting out to Playa Maderas, as a 4WD is required to get up and down the steep dirt roads. for US$5 you can get a return ticket with many departures a day. Check out the schedule here.
Playa Maderas also offers a great surf break, something that Rachel was able to take advantage of whilst we stayed in town. For US$30 she got a lesson for a few hours, including transport out to the beach and the use of the board after her lesson for as long as she wanted.
Once again Casa Oro was able to supply this service for us (despite us not staying there), with the return of the board being as easy as hopping back onto their own transport and bringing the board along for the ride. Information on their surf school can be found here.
Rach had a great time catching waves at this beach (and I also stole the board for a quick session!), and afterwards we got a true taste of just how good the break was by watching some professionals (or what looked like the pro’s!) out on the big waves whilst we relaxed in the sun.
Sunset in San Juan
The sunsets we experienced in San Juan del Sur were some of the best of our entire trip, and you have so many choices as to where you can see one!
The below for example is what you can experience most evenings on Playa San Juan del Sur, making it such a great spot to sit and have a drink and take in the slowly disappearing sun. It is especially great at low tide as the light bounces off the sand to create amazing colours with the boats and bay in the distance.
Other great options for seeing the sunset include from Christ of the Mercy (but probably take a taxi down if going up as the area may not be safe at night), and from up at one of the hostels on the hill leading out of San Juan such as Naked Tiger.
We were lucky enough to see the sunset from these places, as well as others such as out near Playa Maderas overlooking the beach at HulaKai Hotel, which we would also recommend.
Taco Tuesday at HulaKai Hotel
As mentioned, HulaKai Hotel is a great spot to take in the sunset whilst sipping on a beer or a rum and iced tea. In addition to an amazing swimming pool that overlooks the ocean, HulaKai also offers a synthetic putting green (and why not!), and on Tuesday nights puts on its infamous Taco Tuesday.
US$10 entry gets you in giving you access to the pool and putting green, as well as to the view! The tacos begin selling in the late afternoon and cost only $US1 per taco, with many options including pork, chicken, vegetarian, and even fish. They also usually have some drink specials on.
It’s nice to sit here and socialise with fellow travelers whilst enjoying some cheap tacos, and usually they also have a live band playing to set the mood for a fantastic evening.
Trivia Night at Republika
Every Tuesday night at about 8pm, Republika hosts a trivia night for one and all to come along. We have become obsessed with trivia nights over our time in Central America, and have won a few prizes which generally consist of rum or some other form of alcohol.
Free entry guarantees a good time, and you can generally join a team if you cannot form one yourself. Check out the Republika Facebook page to get more information.
Visit Naked Tiger
The Naked Tiger hostel has become a very popular destination for party-goers, not just for its legendary Sunday Funday pool party but also just because they pretty much have an event going on every single day of the week.
Their vantage point up on the hill overlooking San Juan del Sur would seem like a disadvantage for its location, but the view is unbeatable, and they also offer regular shuttles from in town for free, allowing guests and non-guests the chance to enjoy the fiesta. Do not forget to leave though if you are not staying at the hostel – the last shuttle back to town is at 2am.
We were fortunate enough to be in San Juan del Sur for Australia Day, and luckily the great folks at Naked Tiger put on a great party (as you can see from the poster) involving many injuries on the mechanical bull and the Australian taste of a cheese and vegemite toasted sandwich!
Farmers Markets at Big Wave Dave’s
On Saturday’s between 9am and 12noon, Big Wave Dave’s offers up space in their restaurant for some farmers markets to come in and offer the public some great products and produce to purchase from the locals.
You can pretty much get anything here that might take your interest including smoked meats, pastries, vegan food, breads, chocolate, and of course Nicaraguan nacatamales! Even if you aren’t interested in the markets themselves, you can sit back in the restaurant or bar and have a drink and some food.
More information on the market can be found here.
Donuts at Dia de los Donuts
When we found out that there might be a donut shop in San Juan del Sur we weren’t sure what to think… could it be true? A shop in Nicaragua that is dedicated to solely selling donuts?!
We set ourselves out on a mission to find this place, and eventually after a long search we found it – Dia de los Donuts (or Day of the Donuts). This was the day for us to have a donut or two, and we sat down for our morning tea and devoured a banana cream, and a salted caramel in one sitting. Donuts here are an absolute bargain, with regular flavours (such as chocolate or plain) being priced at 25 cordobas (or around US$1), and exotic flavours like banana cream and salted caramel being 50 cordobas (or around US$2).
Burritos Near the Donuts
After we finished our donut at Dia de los Donuts, we walked down the street and both stopped in our tracks. We could smell something cooking and it smelled fantastic! We stopped in at this little burrito restaurant and promised ourselves that we would return for dinner.
When we came back that night they had a barbecue out the front grilling chicken, and the lovely ladies cooking food ushered us in. We both ordered a chicken burrito and waited for what would be one of the best meals we have experienced whilst in Central America. The burritos here were fantastic, and rivaled the ones we found whilst in Tulum in Mexico (read about that here).
They were so good that we forced a friend of ours to come back with us the next night so we could try another – this time having the pork option! They also offer other food here such as a traditional plate of chicken, rice, beans, and plantains alongside quesadillas, but we only had eyes for the succulent burritos on offer!
No post on a town would be complete without mentioning the local market. Yes, most towns in Nicaragua and indeed Central America have a market, and San Juan del Sur was no different. This very central market right in the middle of town may be small, but it makes up for it with what was on offer here.
You can easily come here for all of your groceries, with local grocery shops selling exactly what you need. Alongside this you could get some great local fruit and vegetables, seafood or meat, and even many clothing and souvenir shops offering great prices on “San Juan del Sur” branded options.
The best part about the market though, in our opinion, are the restaurants or local kitchens. For around US$3, you can have breakfast or lunch here at one of around 4 or 5 restaurants that are right next to each other. They all offer basically the same menu, so pick whichever takes your fancy and settle yourself in for a great meal at a great price. It’s just too bad that they do not stay open for dinner here or we might never have left!
Overall, San Juan offers so much for a backpacker, so much so that we did not want to leave and had to be pried away to make the trip south towards Costa Rica. There are of course many more things to be found in San Juan, these are just some of favourites that we came across – let us know yours in the comments below!