Visiting San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, is like taking a step back in time. You won’t want to flash forward to modern day when it comes time to board the cruise ship again. This small town on a crescent-shaped bay along the Pacific Ocean invites tourists to explore its cobblestone streets still frequented by ox carts and horses. Of course, you’ll see plenty of 2020 edition Toyota pickups too, but that’s just what makes this cruise destination so special.
This cruiser’s guide to San Juan del Sur offers the best insider tips for making the most of your day in town. You’ll discover the best places to dine like a local, the top tourist sites, the best day trips to uncover the heartbeat of Nicaraguan culture, and so much more. Slather on some sunscreen and grab your camera, because the sunny town of San Juan del Sur is bound to impress.
Eating and Drinking in San Juan del Sur
San Juan del Sur is a Nicaraguan town known for its dining and its drinking too. Visitors can grab freshly-grilled pork atop thin, crispy fried plantains at a street-side stall, or saddle up at a bar with expats who call the town home. The following are the top places to eat and drink in San Juan del Sur.
The bay of San Juan del Sur is loaded with fishing boats, and they’re bringing in fresh catch throughout the day. Dining on local fish, lobster, shrimp, or octopus is an absolute must when visiting this city by the sea. El Timon is known for offering some of the best service and seafood in town. The atmosphere is a bit more refined, the views are unparalleled, and the seafood is always cooked to perfection. Try the fresh grilled octopus or Sopa de Mariscos.
La Lancha is where the locals and expats go when they’re seeking a top-notch seafood dish without the high tourist prices. The atmosphere is a lot simpler than El Timon. You won’t be given cloth napkins here, and the service is often slower. The seafood, however, is just as delicious.
Asados Juanita is the ultimate place to eat classic Nicaraguan dishes in an authentic atmosphere. The chicken and pork are grilled fresh on the street for all to smell, and patrons dine in a modest interior setting, which is a restaurant in front, and the owner’s home in back. Bountiful dishes are served up for less than $5 each.
Drinking like a local in San Juan del Sur means heading to a beach bar and sharing an extra large Tona beer with friends. Walk along the malecon past the beach volleyball court and Eskimo ice cream shop, and you’ll notice the bars get much smaller. You’ll find unbeatable deals on the local beers Tona and Victoria. Forego ordering complicated cocktails here.
You’ll find expats and Nicaraguans alike hanging out at the top level of Henry’s Iguana Beach Bar and Restaurant, taking in the view and unbeatable two-for-one happy hour specials. The cocktails are tasty and Henry’s often offers live music for sunset and well into the night.
Checking Out Town
It’s easy to get caught up eating, drinking, and mingling with the locals at the restaurants and bars above. Although, you’ll want to reserve plenty of time to check out the town’s most iconic sites. San Juan del Sur is home to one of the largest Jesus statues in the world, standing tall above the bay and offering some of the most impressive views in all of Central America. Have a taxi take you to the top of the hill, then walk the steps up to the statue. The view is worth working up a sweat. The entrance fee is roughly $3 for foreigners and water is often available for purchase too.
Walking throughout the town, admiring the brightly-colored buildings and cobbled streets, is enough to fill several hours of your day. Stop by the central market to take in traditional Nicaraguan sights, sounds, and smells, like fresh tortillas, the most colorful pinatas for sale, and vendors offering everything from avocados to pots and pans. This is also the best place to stock up on souvenirs. Fun t-shirts, dresses, shorts, and hats all cost roughly $5 or less here.
Nicaragua is a country that requires far more than a day to explore, but cruisers can experience a lot of culture in a single day trip away from San Juan del Sur. A popular cultural experience is to take one of many available tour buses or shuttles to the colonial town of Granada roughly 2 hours away. This ancient city offers a wealth of culture, from its iconic Cathedral of Granada (dating back to 1583) to its Museo de Chocolate and cigar factory, Dona Elba Cigars.
San Juan del Sur is also famous for the countless postcard-worthy beaches that are within an hour’s drive (or less) of downtown. Take a taxi to Playa Hermosa to lounge in the hammocks, admire the expansive stretch of white sand, snack on fresh ceviche or tostones con queso, or try your hand surfing. The entrance fee is $3 per person, but clean bathrooms, lounge chairs, and outdoor showers make it worthwhile.
Similarly, visitors can venture to the closest surfing beaches to San Juan del Sur — Playa Maderas and Playa Remanso. Both offer a selection of beach bars and restaurants serving up fresh seafood and tourist-friendly dishes, like tacos and burritos. They’re also known for their shops and instructors offering affordable surfboard rentals and lessons. Rent a surfboard for the day and take an hour-long lesson with an expert for $30 total.
Fill Your Suitcases with Souvenirs
The central area of San Juan del Sur offers countless shops to stock up on souvenirs. Tourists often enjoy the trendy clothing available in shops like Auric and San Juan Surf, but much cheaper souvenir clothing can be purchased in the central market. Handmade pottery, woven bracelets, wood work, and volcano-grown coffee are some of the most popular souvenirs to purchase here.
Preparing for a visit to San Juan del Sur means understanding that you’re probably going to fall in love. The welcoming locals, unmatched seafood, and one-of-a-kind Nicaraguan culture are guaranteed to leave a lasting impression, enticing you to come back for more.