Simple beach town, lively party city, artisanal hotspot, San Juan del Sur is a city that means something different to each person who visits. Located at the mouth of a crescent-shaped bay 140km south of Managua, San Juan del Sur is a popular vacation destination for locals and tourists alike.
Getting to San Juan del Sur is almost half the fun. While you could always drive, the richest and most memorable experiences will come from riding one of the so-called "chicken buses." A common sight in many Latin American countries, they get their name from the number of passengers stuffed inside at a time. Forget the concept of personal space and enjoy the ride as you barrel down the highway at top speed in one of these colorfully painted decommissioned school buses.
At the back of the bus resides the ayudante, or helper, whose responsibilities include shouting the bus's destination, collecting the fares, strapping luggage to the roof of the bus, and shoving more and more people into the crowded passenger compartment. They also decide which vendors are allowed to push their way through the central aisle, selling their goods as they prepare to get off at the next stop.
San Juan del Sur lives and breathes off of tourism. As such, it's common to see small business owners at work, making the lives of their guests easier and ensuring a pleasant stay. Whether it's repainting the wooden bench that sits in the lobby or boiling water to launder your bed sheets, they've got you covered.
San Juan del Sur is by far one of the most colorful cities in Nicaragua. This is especially evident in the artwork you find scattered along the streets. It's very common to find enormous spray-painted murals, canvassed portraits, and caricaturists all on the same block.
Arts and crafts play a large role in all of Nicaragua, and San Juan del Sur is no exception. Proximity to the ocean gives artisans a wide variety of materials to choose from. Figurines of animals (chickens, rats, elephants, etc.) covered in colorful seashells are a local specialty and make for great souvenirs.
The veritable armada of boats anchored just offshore reveals that this beach serves more than just a recreational purpose. The restaurants that dot the coast specialize mainly in seafood, and demand for freshly caught fish is extremely high. Every morning, long before the tourists stumble out of their hostels to spread their towels onto the sand, fishermen head out to sea, hoping to haul in a sizeable catch.
Not all of the seafood goes to sit-down restaurants, of course. San Juan del Sur boasts a lively street food scene. Whether it's a bike-mounted ceviche cart or a fried fish stand in the center of the market square, you don't have to go far to get a good meal.
Aside from street food, local vendors specialize in other typical tropical goods. It doesn't matter if you're wearing sunglasses as you walk by, surely you need another pair in case the first gets swept away by a large wave. And how could you leave without buying a plant for your windowsill back home?
Beyond the bright colors, gorgeous beaches, and fresh seafood, what stands out in San Juan del Sur is the warm and hardworking nature of its people. From the grandmother painstakingly checking for rocks in the beans that are to become that night's family dinner to the father pushing around an ice cream cart on a sweltering summer day to cool customers off, everything they do is in the spirit of hospitality.
The homeless in San Juan del Sur are of a unique strain. Their hands and faces may be wrinkled and weathered, but their optimism and good spirit shines through. And what they lack in employment they more than make up for in nationalism, taking pride in demonstrating their love for their city and country. Whether it's encouraging you to take a swig of Flor de Caña or asking for a picture while wearing a Pura Nica t-shirt, it's clear that they want you to feel welcome.
San Juan del Sur is so much more than the sum of its parts. It's a dynamic and welcoming retreat from the dizzying pace of everyday life, a place where both tourist and local can feel at home, and where you'll yearn to return the minute you step onto the departing chicken bus. I may not know when my next trip to Nicaragua will be, but I am 100% certain that San Juan del Sur will be the first stop on my journey back to this amazing country.