There are probably three reasons why you will make your way to San Juan del Sur (SJDS):
1) You want to surf
2) You want to get pissed
3) You want to surf, then get pissed.
And, for a price, you will be able to achieve all of the above with distinction. SJDS has morphed into a backpacker town par excellence – cool coffee shops, western-centric restaurants with names usually involving puns, 'I visited this town' surf clothes shops and a street lined with late-night bars. It also hosts three of the most notorious party hostels in the country which, every Sunday, combine for a balls-out crazy 24 hour travelling pool-party.
The town itself is charming with brightly coloured wooden one-story houses lining most of the streets and, despite its popularity, retains the sense of a small-town community.
Surfing really is the main reason to come, whether it is to learn or find the next hit on a bigger wave. Unfortunately, the beach here is not the idyllic and secluded place that the town deserves, but rather a busy stretch of water with a medium-sized port. So, to get the best surf and beaches, you really have to make your way out of SJDS. The most common options are:
Hermosa: As the name suggests, it's pretty damn pretty.
Remanso: Less crowded than Maderas and the #1 place to pop your surfing cherry.
Maderas: A popular option with everyone and a more lively beach scene.
More specific surfing information on each beach can be found here.
And this is where the costs can start to mount up. Shuttles to/from the five main breaks cost around $5-8 per person (and $3 entry to Hermosa) and – with public transport only bringing you within a few kilometres of a couple – you are left with no other choice but to pay. There are a few accommodation options on these beaches (most quite pricey), so it may be worth finding one with the right break for you and staying a few days there.
For those learning to surf, it is actually one of the more expensive places in Nicaragua. The going-rate for a lesson (including board rental and necessary shuttle) is $25-30USD, whereas in other places we found lessons for as little as $10-15.
So, if you're heading to SJDS, yes, you will find great surf but it might cost you a little more than expected.
If you haven't already heard of it, then very quickly into your trip you'll start to see the signs – the promotional vests sported by those who survived, the competitive story-telling of who had the more crazy time and maybe even some scars. Essentially, it's an all-day and all-night pool party that visits three hostels around SJDS.
As we're in a couple and have a combined age of 58, we 'ummed' and 'aaahed' for a long time about whether we fit the demographic for this huge frat-house style party. Our reluctance was exacerbated by the fact that we were also hungover from the previous drunken evening of singing karaoke extremely badly (Billy Joel - Piano Man, since you ask).
But, at our Sunday morning breakfast, where we overheard tables full of hormonal and excited backpackers talking about how 'epic' it was going to be, their tangible fervour rubbed off on us.
We eventually succumbed – if not now, when!? We made our way to Paccha Mama to get the tickets (get there early if you want to secure a spot) and then found out that it costs $30USD PER PERSON!!! And that is only for the transport between the hostels. Your drinks are not included (and we heard later that they are pretty over-priced AND that some bar-staff will give you very weak measures unless you tip them throughout the day).
Ok, you do get a free t-shirt and most people pre-game with bells on prior to departure, but on our budget, we couldn't justify such an expense. So, we bought a bottle of rum, a carton of pineapple juice and had our own Sunday Funday at the beach.
If we weren't on a budget, were single and a few years younger then there would be NO QUESTION that Sunday Funday would be an unmissable event. But, at that cost and for that little in return, we felt quite happy to miss it. It certainly appears that it is one hell of a money-maker for whoever runs it.
There are plenty of budget options in town, ranging from the crap and cramped to the very good. We spent our first night in a bit of a dive for $18USD for a dingy double with shared bathroom and spent the next morning traipsing from hostel to hostel to find a better option. By far and away, Casa Romano was it.
There are also lots of stand-alone surf retreats or camps outside town.
The three hostels involved in Sunday Funday - Paccha Mama, Naked Tiger and Pelican Eyes - are where you want to head for a party, although they are not budget options. But it is worth considering as those staying at Paccha Mama gain access to Sunday Funday for a much reduced rate.
There are a lot of really good options, but not too many for a tight budget. We treated ourselves a few times to huge burritos at the Taco Stop which were how we like 'em and was one of the few places which suited our daily spend.
El Gato Negro is also a cool bookshop/coffee house where they have amazing bagels (imported bacon!) and lots of veggie options. It's an indulgent taste of home, but you also pay a very similar price. The menu (more like a manifesto) is an amusing and informative read too.
All roads lead to Rivas. There will be taxi drivers in Rivas station trying to deceive you by saying that the last bus has just gone or there are no buses today. Each time we passed through this station, they tried the same trick but don't believe them.
There are regular buses to SJDS from Rivas. These depart from the terminal (which is also a market) around every 30 minutes. One-way, it costs 25C ($1) per person and takes around 45 - 60 minutes.
To escape to either Ometepe or elsewhere, catch the same bus back and find your connection there. We've written this guide on how to reach Ometepe and avoid getting ripped off in Rivas.
budget-breaker or maker?
Unfortunately, we've got to put it as a breaker. Given that you're going to come here to party or surf, and this isn't the cheapest town for either, a few days spent here will rack up. You'll have a great time at Sunday Funday but, if on a budget, you'll probably be counting the cost for the following weeks.
Without many budget food options in town and only extortionate mini-markets, a kitchen is a necessity. To save some money, walk to the bigger supermarket on the outskirts or town (about 15 minutes from the centre) to stock up on food.