Nicaragua’s Southwest Coast: San Juan del Sur

San Juan del Sur’s crescent-shaped beach washed with the gentle, warm waves of the protected harbor have been attracting travelers for a long time. In the 1850s, this quiet fishing village experienced its first brief boom as a transport hub for gold rush pioneers crossing the peninsula on Cornelius Vanderbilt’s passenger route.

Here, North American travelers boarded the sailing ships to take them up the Pacific coastline to California and onward. This was also where many of William Walker’s glory-seeking soldiers disembarked to join his ill-fated adventure.

Fishing boats are silhouetted against a vibrant orange sky.
The sun disappears behind a scatter of boats off the coast at San Juan Del Sur.
Photo by Bruce Thompson licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

After the gold rush, the town sank into obscurity and tropical lethargy where it remained for a century-and-a-half.

At the turn of the 21st century, San Juan del Sur again grew in international popularity to the steady drumbeat of high-profile international press coverage declaring the area a real estate hot spot. The area attracted a frenzy of property pimps, land sharks, and a flock of checkbook-toting prospectors scouring the coastline for a piece of the pie.

Some of the investment led to progress, new establishments, and healthy relationships between foreign investors determined to make money and a positive impact for their Nicaraguan colleagues and beneficiaries. But the economic growth was not without scuffles.

Meanwhile, sunsets continue to paint the silhouettes of fishing vessels in crimson, and the mood on the southwestern coast is low-key and fun. The noon sun is scorching, so life is languorous and measured, spent swinging in breezy hammocks, enjoying fresh fish and cold beer at seaside, or splashing about in the surf.

San Juan del Sur proper is a relatively small town; you could walk every street in a single morning. Most visitors spend at least two days and a night here, and if you start exploring the surrounding beaches and coves, beach lovers can stretch it into a full week, as can surfers.

At a minimum, count on one full day wandering around town, one trip north to a nearby beach and another trip south to Playa el Coco or La Flor Wildlife Reserve; plan an extra half-day for a canopy or rappelling tour, sportfishing, or sailing excursion.

Map of San Juan del Sur and the Southwest Coast, Nicaragua
San Juan del Sur and the Southwest Coast

Getting to San Juan del Sur

The trip from Managua takes about 2–2.5 hours in your own vehicle or on the express bus, but is nearly 4 hours in an ordinario.

From Managua to San Juan del Sur

The absolute fastest way is by express shuttles that leave from the airport. Adelante Express (505/8850-6070) charges about $45 one-way, cheaper per person for groups. For guaranteed service make your reservation at least 24 hours in advance. Nica Express (505/2552-8461, also has comfortable, scheduled shuttles from San Juan to other cities.

Regular express buses leave from Huembes market ($3–5 pp) about every hour around the middle of the day; the best and last one leaves at 4 p.m. Slow, crowded, ordinario service to Rivas from Huembes market in Managua operates 5 a.m.–5 p.m. The handlers at the Huembes bus terminal are unusually aggressive. They will grab your bags out of the taxi, push you onto a slow Rivas bus, claim it’s an express, and then demand a tip. Read the windshield of the bus and ask the other passengers to verify.

Once in Rivas you can take a colectivo ($1.50 pp) or taxi ($10) the rest of the way to San Juan del Sur. Colectivos don’t run after dark and taxi prices double because not even the most skilled drivers can see the potholes at night. And from Granada there are several shuttle services worth taking, all of which cost more than the bus but more than compensate in saved time and frustration.

To Managua and Rivas

Express buses leave from the corner in front of the market at 5 a.m. (this is the nicer lujo bus), 6 a.m., and 7 a.m. Ordinarios to Rivas and Managua leave every hour 5 a.m.–5 p.m. You can also catch a colectivo taxi to Rivas from 4 a.m. to about 3 or 4 p.m. and then catch any northbound bus toward Managua. The trip to and from Rivas takes about 30 minutes in a car; 45 minutes in a bus ($1).

To and From the Costa Rica Border

From the Costa Rican border at Peñas Blancas, buses for Rivas leave every half hour. Get off at Empalme la Vírgen and flag a bus, taxi, or ride going between Rivas and San Juan del Sur. The beach is 18 kilometers due west of La Vírgen; taxis from the border to San Juan charge $11–20.

To the border at Peñas Blancas, get a ride to La Vírgen in a bus or taxi, then catch a lift south; the first Rivas–Peñas Blancas bus passes at 7:30 a.m. Or book a ticket with TicaBus (505/8877-1407) in Rivas. Also check with the shuttle services.

Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.