Scores of backpacking gringos are being ferried around town on the back of trucks. Persistent sunglasses salesman await their drop-off, hoping to make some quick bucks off a few tipsy tourists. The calls of bus drivers – “Managua, Managua, Managua, Rivas, Rivas, Rivas” ring out through the busy streets. Retirees hop between beachfront bars and restaurants, serenaded by cheesy 80’s music and cheap cocktails as fisherman deliver their daily catch to these establishments. As the day turns to night, the streets fill up once more with the same characters, albeit with drunker, seedier versions of their daytime selves. All the while, a massive statue of Jesus Christ, sits on the hill at the northern side of town, watching over the good and bad that unfolds.
Somehow, this has become the norm over recent years in Nicaragua’s most popular beachfront town. Life is what it is here; raw, unashamedly touristy and for the most part, hedonistic. But, as anybody who has spent some time here will know – it sucks you in like a black hole – chewing you up and finally spitting you out once your time to leave finally arrives.
This endless cycle of pleasure and pain in San Juan del Sur is what seems to attract all of the lost souls who venture to the southern Pacific Coast of the country. There are those who spend only a couple of nights and depart before they get too caught up in the madness. There are those who plan to spend several days, but end up spending several weeks or months without realising. There are those who are attracted to its more rustic, hippy vibe and dedicate their time to yoga, surfing and hiking in the beautiful surrounding countryside. And then there are the people who live in and around town – an eclectic mix of locals and ex-pats who survive largely on tourism. There really is something for everybody.
For me, the people in San Juan, make the place what it is. At times they astound you with their generosity and laid-back attitude, yet they can disappoint in the same action. Walking around town and getting familiar with the faces, places and atmosphere in only a few short days, I found myself slipping into a strange sense of timelessness. Or it could have been my bottomless cup of straight rum. Either way.
You find young, North American and European businessman who own and run the tourist bars and restaurants. There are the vehicles with attached loudspeakers, doing the rounds of town, blaring out pre-recorded advertisements over salsa music. The coconut salesman sits on the same corner every day, peddling his wares. At the surf beaches, only 20 minutes drive from town, 16 year old Nicaraguans put other surfers to shame with their skill. A Scandinavian woman sells pumpkin and coconut empanadas with her naked toddler swinging from her toga (or bed sheets – I couldn’t quite tell) while stoned surfers practice their balance on a slackline. What you see is what you get – and honestly, its a beautiful thing.
The most memorable character I came across (and the one I felt sorriest for) was a 14 year old boy, who by day, runs errands around the Mercado (market) with bags of water, milk and rice. By night, he blends into the shadows and tried to sell my friends and I, no less than the following items over several nights:
– A grasshopper woven entirely from reeds
– And a large, sluggish crab named Pepito, who as it turned out, was an expert photo-bomber. We bought Pepito for $3, walked him down to the beach and set him free.
Unfortunately, due to the massive boom in tourism over the last 2 years, everybody has something to sell in San Juan del Sur. There is most definitely money to be made and while it is still cheap, backpackers will continue to flood here.
But its not all doom and gloom. The people that I got to know, locals and travellers, were some of the most down to earth that I’ve ever come across – open to new ideas, full of energy and in search of something more in life. Even if they don’t quite know what it is they’re searching for, San Juan seems to give them the answers.
Some of the best seafood I’ve ever tasted can be found in the family-run comedors and eateries in town. And some of my fondest memories (or lack thereof) came from the nights out in town, dancing to grungy, live reggae music with new friends from around the world, as we wandered barefoot through the streets, drinks in hand.
San Juan del Sur is exactly what you decide to make of it.
The town attracts people from all over the world with its laid-back local vibe that blends seamlessly with a developing tourism sector that has placed it well and truly at the heart of Central America’s “Gringo Trail”.
But be careful – you may get sucked into the Black Hole. I began to feel at home, staying at the beautiful Casa de Olas with an incredible bunch of people. My travel plans changed and I found myself staying longer than I should have. Two Sunday Fundays later and I dragged my sorry ass out of town towards greener, healthier pastures. They say that everybody loses something in San Juan – whether possessions, dignity or time. Thankfully though, most people learn a lesson or two along the way.
Flying into Managua Airport, there are two main ways to get to San Juan del Sur, which is around 120kms away:
– taking a taxi/shuttle directly (quicker, easier, starting from about $55 USD and taking two hours, depending on the recklessness of your driver)
– taking a chicken bus (from Mercado Huembes bus station in Managua, heading directly to San Juan or changing in Rivas, all up not more than $5 or $6 USD and taking 3-5 hours depending on traffic).
San Juan is also easily accessible from Costa Rica, where you will need to get a bus from the border at Penas Blancas.
Stay tuned for more stories and photographs of Nicaragua and Central America – coming soon!