On my trip to South America a few months back, they kept showing this ad for Nicaragua on every Avianca flight that I took. Needless to say, the footage of those erupting volcanoes and pristine lakes piqued my interest. The fact that it’s kinda off the beaten path made the country more interesting. Several months back I made the decision to visit the country. After seven months, I was able to set foot in Nicaragua.
I felt somewhat amused as I looked out the window from the plane. I’ve been to a lot of developing countries, and their capital cities are all crowded urban jungles filled with skyscrapers, saddled with heavy traffic. Managua, the capital, can’t be described as such. I’ve passed through the city several times while in transit and I never found a single skyscraper. I think the tallest building I saw was only 6 stories high. It actually felt more like a small town instead of a capital city.
Everyone who has been to Nicaragua has been saying that there’s nothing to see in Managua so why bother staying there. Also, the crime rate is very high, so why should anyone risk it. Who am I to argue then? Now the decision was where to head first. There are several places that i wanted to visit, and sadly they are far from each other. If I followed one of those backpacker trails and crossed the border from Costa Rica, I would have been able to travel on a single path along the gringo trail. But Managua is right smack in the middle of that path, so I had to decide if i wanted to head north or head south first. Now this is quite embarrassing, but one of the reasons why I wanted to visit Nicaragua is not a natural attraction. It’s not even a part of Nicaraguan Culture. There’s this thing called Sunday Funday, a pool crawl catered to tourists and visitors. it looked like any other beach party, but it looked like a lot of fun too. And after getting swamped with work for a couple of months I was ready for some fun. I arrived on a Saturday, so I figured I might as well head straight to San Juan Del Sur and get it over with.
Apparently a lot of travelers visit Nicaragua just for Sunday Funday. A lot of them even leave the country the day after. This is something local entrepreneurs have been quick to take advantage of. Traveling to San Juan Del Sur from Managua takes about 4-6 hours. Outside the airport, a lot of shuttles are waiting, ready to take tourists directly to San Juan Del Sur for 50 bucks a pop. And that’s just one way. That’s a really outrageous amount, considering i was able to get to San Juan for less than 4 bucks. Here’s how.
As soon as you exit the airport, you’ll be hounded by drivers offering shuttle rides to popular destinations. Ignore them. If you’re not quite ready for your first chicken bus experience, there are authorized taxis that can take you to Mercado Huembes Market. This is where you’ll find buses to San Juan del Sur or Rivas. Taxis charge 20-25 US dollars to Mercado Huembes. They usually start at 25, but you can bring it down to 20 bucks. I don’t think anyone would charge lower than that since the taxi drivers seem to have agreed on a certain rate. You can try waiting for a cab on the highway and try to find a better deal, but I haven’t heard of anyone who had any luck this way. Even if you can’t find some people to share the cab, the trip to San Juan would still be way cheaper than paying 50 bucks for a shuttle. Now if you’re on a really tight budget, ignore the taxi drivers as well. Head straight to the highway and wait for a bus that says Huembes or Tipitapa. Any of those buses would stop at the market, and it would only set you back 3 cordobas— that’s only about 10 US cents!
Now if you’re carrying large suitcases or a very large backpack, i wouldn’t recommend this. Why? Try looking for pictures of a chicken bus online. Those buses get really cramped, and I’m not sure if they ever set a limit on the number of people who can get in. You could get away with big bags on buses heading to other towns since they can place your bags on those compartments below. Buses within Managua don’t seem to have those so if you are carrying huge bags with you, save yourself from all the trouble and take a cab instead.
Mercado Huembes is easily recognizable. It’s a huge market will lots of buses parked outside, and any bus to Tipitapa or Huembes would have their last stop there. Just to be sure, ask a favor from your fellow passengers. Nicaraguans are really friendly to visitors. Just brush up on basic Spanish cause most of them don’t know a word of English. Say “Me puede decir cuando llegamos al Mercado Huembes, por Favor?“, and they will be happy to tell you when it’s time to get off the bus.
I hope my Spanish wasn’t too bad. lol.
Now from Mercado Huembes, there are two options. There are express buses that would take you directly to San Juan Del Sur. However, they only run once or twice a day, and I just missed the express bus by 30 minutes. The next option would be to take two bus rides. From Huembes Market, there are buses going to Rivas that leave every 30 minutes or so. Look for the express bus that would take you directly to Rivas, they have signs that clearly say express on the front. You can take the cheaper ordinario buses, but those buses have several stops in between. Who knows what time you’ll arrive in Rivas. Keep in mind that you might be standing the whole time inside the bus, so taking the ordinary bus might be too tiring especially after a long flight. The express bus to Rivas only costs 60 Cordobas— that’s only 2 USD. That’s not much even for a traveler on a very tight budget. i managed to find a seat near the back. They kept letting people in until the aisles were packed. It’s funny how several vendors selling food and drinks could still find their way from the front to the back even if the aisle was packed with people lol.
Now once you get to Rivas, you might get a little lost. One thing i didn’t like about Nicaragua was the fact that there are no single bus terminals in a certain location. Some towns don’t even have bus terminals, buses just park on the street. Passengers could even be dropped at different locations. When i arrived in Rivas, everyone got off on one street corner so i followed suit. There was no bus terminal in sight. Good thing i saw a couple of travelers with surfboards— those guys are definitely heading to San Juan. We walked straight, turned right at the end of the street and there it was. A bus terminal with buses heading to San Juan Del Sur. As you approach the bus terminal, you’ll again be hounded by shuttle and cab drivers asking if you want to take a cab instead. Just say “No, gracias” and move along. But in case you realize that taking a chicken bus is not for you, the prices that the drivers were asking for ranged from 160-200 cordobas for a private taxi. If it’s okay with you to share a cab with a couple of strangers, you can take a colectivo taxi for 50 cordobas. But you’ve already gone this far, why stop now???
If you take a chicken bus, it only takes about an hour to reach San Juan Del Sur. And it only costs 30 cordobas! So all in all, I only spent 93 cordobas, which is only a little more than 3 US dollars. Why would anyone spend 50 bucks when getting to San Juan is so easy? I was standing the whole time inside the chicken bus from Rivas to San Juan, but it only took an hour so I didn’t mind. I just kept thinking of how much money i was able to save lol. You’re also going to need the money you saved because San Juan Del Sur is far from being cheap. Nicaragua in general is a very cheap country to visit. You can practically live off your savings indefinitely as long as you avoid San Juan Del Sur. That’s to be expected though. The town is known for gringo parties and a lot of visitors also come here to surf. When there’s a constant huge influx of tourists, prices of basic commodities would naturally increase. It took me a long time to find a cheap place to eat.
Enough with the foreplay. Let’s move on to the main reason why I went to San Juan Del Sur: Sunday Funday! As I’ve said it’s not a cultural event. I’m not even sure if the locals are fond of the shenanigans that happen in this once sleepy town every Sunday. You’ve heard of pub crawls right? Well, Sunday Funday is quite different because it’s a pool crawl. They start selling wristbands at 10AM on Sunday, but a line typically starts to form outside Pacha Mama Hostel before 9:30 AM. They sell wrist bands to ladies first, to make sure there are more girls than guys I guess. Someone told me that they only sell a certain number of wrist bands, but everyone was able to buy one when i went there. A wrist band costs 30 USD, and it gives you access to all the stops, a round trip transfer to and from Naked Tiger Hostel at the top of the hill, and yeah they also give you one of those pretty cool Sunday Funday tank tops. What about drinks you say? They do give you a shot of some watered down concoction on some locations, but that’s pretty much it. And yeah, it is pretty pricey for 30 bucks. It would be easy to say “i’d just go get drunk elsewhere” and save money. But once you see that practically every traveler less than the age of 40 goes to Sunday Funday, you wouldn’t think that’s such a great idea unless you like drinking alone. I’m not kidding. The whole beach and every street in San Juan was practically deserted. It’s great for those wanting some alone time meditating, or for couples or a group of friends searching for some peace and quite. But if you want to party and make a lot of friends, sad to say, Sunday Funday is the only game in town.
It starts at 12 noon at Pacha Mama Hostel. A lot of the people at the hostel I was staying at were pregaming, and when I got to Pacha Mama, it was easy to see why. The cheapest drinks cost 50 cordobas. That’s not much in the US, but that’s quite expensive in Nicaragua. Around 1 PM the place started to get packed when a lot of those who were pregaming decided it was time to show up. It’s not a huge place, so eventually we were packed like sardines. That made it more fun though, but a quite a few people got claustrophobic I guess so they just stood outside in the street. At around 2:30 PM we all walked to the next venue, Hotel Ana Mar. I loved this place. For one thing, it’s way bigger so everyone wasn’t breathing down each other’s necks. And it’s right on the beach front, with a great view of the beach. It was here that I saw the glaring disparity though. When i looked toward the beach, I saw a number of locals, trying to sell stuff like balloons and lifesavers to those who were partying. Looking further away from the vendors who were only about a few feet away from the hotel, i saw locals, mostly kids, who were standing there just looking at us. Some had a blank expression, while some had an amused look on their faces. I wondered what they were thinking as I looked back toward the hotel at the revelers by the pool dancing and drinking their hearts out.
Around sunset we were all hauled inside a number of pick up trucks and they took us to Naked Tiger Hostel which was on top of a hill. It gave us an amazing view of the sunset, thought it grew dark fairly quickly. I guess most people took this as a sign to throw all inhibitions aside lol. I saw lots of people making out, one girl took off her bikini top, lots of wild dancing going on— I was perfectly content just watching people, especially since i was already pretty buzzed around this time. haha. They sold burgers and salad at this place, which was greatly needed after non stop drinking all afternoon. I don’t remember how much those burgers were, but i’m pretty sure they were overpriced as well. At this hostel you have to buy tickets/ stubs first to be able to buy anything, which was kind of an added hassle. I think it was about 9PM when they started to haul us to Arribas Bar which is located at the town center, near Pacha Mama. Most of the people didn’t bother going inside though, a lot just walked back to their hostels/ hotels as soon as they got off the pick up trucks .I did check out the bar and saw that a beer costs 100 cordobas. I barely had cash left, so rather than trying to find the nearest ATM i just decided to go back to the hostel and get some rest. When i got back I saw that a lot of people made the same decision as well. I have no idea how long the party lasted at Arribas. I’m guessing it didn’t last very long. heh.
To be honest, it’s just like any other beach party– nothing really sets it apart. They say a party is only as good as the crowd, the venue doesn’t matter. I completely agree with that, and I’m glad that I went with a pretty cool bunch so I did have fun. I do think it’s overpriced, but every 20 something who has been to Nicaragua seemed to have gone to Sunday Funday at least once. I don’t want to feel left out so I do not regret that I went. Every traveler I encountered afterward in Nicaragua asked me if I’ve been to Sunday Funday yet. And every time i gave a huge smile as i said yes. It seems that to a lot of backpackers and young travelers in general, a trip to Nicaragua wouldn’t be complete if you don’t get to experience Sunday Funday.
When i woke up on Monday morning, I tried asking for other stuff to do in San Juan Del Sur. From the main beach, you can see a statue of Jesus Christ on top of a hill. That’s the Cristo de la Misericordia /Christ of the Mercy statue, and it was only built in 2009. It’s only a short walk from the town center and it’s only a short hike up, and you’ll be rewarded with a view overlooking the town. If you’ve been to Cristo Redentor in Brazil though, the statue would be underwhelming. Still, doing the short hike up is a good way to sweat off all the alcohol from the day before. Keep in mind that it costs 2 USD to get in.
I remembered seeing a lot of travelers with surfboard walking around town, so I figured I’d look for a good surfing spot. Apparently the most popular one is Playa Maderas. They say it’s only 20 minutes away, but it’s actually closer to an hour. You can take a taxi or arrange a private transport from the locals, and they charge about 10 USD per person one way. So i was like, screw that lol. For backpackers, the cheapest and most convenient option would be to take a shuttle from Casa Oro Hostel, and they only charge 5 USD for a round trip to and from Maderas. The shuttle leaves the hostel at 7:30 AM, 10:00 AM, 12:30 PM, 2;30 PM, and 4 PM. From Maderas the shuttle leaves at 8:15 AM, 10:45 AM, 1:00 PM, 3:30 PM (only on peak season), and 5:00 PM. They also offer a lot of day trips and they have shuttles to other places in the country, some even crossing the border so it’s pretty convenient if you have extra cash and you are already tired of taking chicken buses.
The waves were quite erratic when i went so i didn’t get to surf much, but Playa Maderas is such a relaxing place, i did not regret spending a day there. As for places to eat there isn’t much so yeah it’s even more overpriced than San Juan Del Sur itself. Those travelers with a bit of foresight were wise enough to bring packed meals.
Heading back to the town center is easy, just wait for the shuttle at the place where they dropped you off. In case you didn’t take the shuttle to Maderas it may be a bit hard to find, but it’s right at the side of the main dirt road, before the path to the beach. You can pay the driver directly in case you have no round trip ticket, just make sure you have the exact amount because sometimes they do not carry enough change with them.
So is San Juan Del Sur a must visit place in Nicaragua? It depends on what you’re looking for. For me, it’s the least beautiful place that I’ve visited in the country. Also, having been to beaches in other countries, I did not find the beaches around San Juan spectacular at all. If you’re into surfing though, then it’s a must visit due to its proximity to a number of great surf breaks. And if you’re looking to party? No other place in Nicaragua comes close. If that’s what you’re looking for, then you must pass by San Juan Del Sur one weekend and take part in Sunday Funday.