Traveling to San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua

As our Boeing 737 began the final descent toward the runway, the customary “Thank you for flying with us, we will be landing in Nicaragua shortly” routine had concluded. But what they should have said was “The runway will be too short to handle any normal landing of this large aircraft.” Forewarned about this important fact before the trip, I naturally re-tightened my seat belt. After the rear wheels hit the runway, I waited anxiously for touchdown of the front landing gear. As the front wheels made contact with the ground, I was thrust forward with such a force that I wondered if we had just landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier instead of Managua. Amidst the noise from the screaming turbines, I quickly said a thankful prayer. Following the appreciative applause for the pilot, I caught my breath and looked out the window at a recovering world that was still steeped in its past. Scattered along the runway were reminders of its former turbulent times: Russian Sikorsky military helicopters and boxy-looking Lada automobiles. In the distance, a steaming volcano beckoned me and I realized that the country’s title of  “The Land of Lakes and Volcanoes” did live up to its name. This was the land of many and much more.

It was the first time I headed to San Juan del Sur with my wife and it felt like we took the wrong road.  Well, it was the right road, but at the time it seemed completely wrong. Taking our rental car through the waning afternoon sunlight, we headed south and passed the city of Rivas with its countless papaya stands and turned right at a sign marked SAN JUAN DEL SUR. Almost immediately, the decent asphalt gave way to a formerly decent asphalt road. Taking this road would test all of our driving abilities due to the fact that the number of potholes began to outnumber the Starbucks cafés in New York City. As one pothole was successfully avoided, the unavoidable reward was to slam into another one with such a force that it felt like it could swallow the car. At some point, our aged Hyundai started sounding like a souped-up hot rod (just without the torque). After pulling over next to a cattle farm, we noticed that a chunk of our muffler was gone; an apparent sacrifice to the Asphalt Gods miles back. Having no choice, we continued on this slalom run polluting the air with our unnecessary noise. Believing that we were lost, we slowed down next to someone walking along the shoulder and asked, “San Juan del Sur?” “Si, directo!” he shouted back over the roar of our partial muffler. We trudged on.

After 45 minutes of bouncing around, we emerged onto the final turn that rewarded us with a hilltop view of the deep blue Pacific Ocean, salty air and a small bay of scattered fishing boats. The potholes had become a memory (except for our aching backs) and were replaced by signs that welcomed visitors to the quaint town. Noticeably, the pace was slower. Compared to our near-death aircraft landing and cross-country slalom run, it was like we had stepped into a time portal where everything moved in slow motion. The refreshing and aptly named Avenida del Mar was exactly what it was: two miles of avenue on the beach where a few dozen people were out for a late afternoon stroll sharing the beach with a single horse and thirty sea gulls.

Following the rusted signs marked Piedras y Olas, we smiled knowing that we were close to our final hilltop destination. But we were left with one more obstacle: a thirty-degree uphill drive toward the entrance. After a good minute of discussion about the pros and cons of the ascent, we agreed to go forward and managed to pull our dilapidated, noisy car into the welcoming arms of a smiling valet. Calmed by the trickling fountain in the foyer, I was no longer worried about the car’s rental deposit and happily recounted our slalom run to the nicely dressed and smiling receptionist.

She stated, “Oh THAT road. We stopped waiting for the government to fix it long ago. Now we just smile and tell everyone that it will be fixed next year! Unfortunately it is our only road to get here.” She was right, because other than using a helicopter, the inland highway was the most direct way into San Juan del Sur. But smarter visitors, presumably with no mufflers to lose, probably use fast-moving SUVs that easily cross the car-gulping crevasses at full speed. This gives you an idea of what kind of place San Juan del Sur is, and what sort of people end up here.

“San Juan is where rich people from California and Managua go to pretend they’re poor,” jokes Julio Cansino, a local musician. He’s right: in the past few years this isolated village had become a retreat for the wealthy expats who found the town’s simplicity to be a bizarre opposite of their fast-paced and stressful lives. But that’s not why you should go. You should go to San Juan del Sur because it is one of the most beautiful places in Nicaragua and an impossible place to forget once you leave.

Standing vigil over the whole town is the luxury, hillside development and hotel of Piedras y Olas (Pelican Eyes to the tourists), one of Nicaragua’s finest resorts. This establishment has a pledge of hiring locals, using locally grown food and donating portions of the profits to the local schools. The rooms are individually designed with large beds that seem to swallow you up. Each private balcony has breathtaking views of the whole bay and if it becomes too hot for you in the afternoon sun, you can simply recline in your Nicaraguan rocking chair under your remote-controlled air conditioning unit.

After a dip in the Infinity pool that seemed to blend into the Pacific horizon, we dined on freshly prepared ceviche and sipped on a wide selection of perfectly chilled local wines. To wrap up our long day, we watched a performance of the band Phoenix that consisted of one of Nicaragua’s most well known musicians, Julio Cansino, and his lead guitarist Tony Ferrari (yes, he IS related to the famous car maker).

Despite the luxury resort and the private cliff-side haciendas, San Juan del Sur has always stood apart from the rest of the area. From its founding by the Spanish in the 16th century to its embrace as a hippie and surfing Eden, the village itself has remained somewhat primitive. Down at the market, there is still a sense that barter, not cash, could be a means of exchange to receive a basket of locally grown vegetables. The town is also remarkable for what it lacks, stoplights and well-functioning ATM’s to name a few.

At the far end stands the chalk-white Iglesia San Juan Bautista, one of the oldest churches in southern Nicaragua. It’s plain facade, wooden door and dusty windows is a fitting image for this place of uncomplicated pleasures. In front of the church, there is a shady park with a cultural sampling of the area that range from street musicians and local art work to tasty Nicaraguan food. We were lucky enough to sample a delicious item known as Nacatamales, which are made of cornmeal, potato, pork, tomato, onion and sweet chilies wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed to greasy perfection. To the right is the  Calle Central, with rows of small houses painted in brilliant hues that range from papaya-pink to lime-green. You can still hear locals refer to them as “the pink one” or “the green one.”

For three weeks in late December, San Juan del Sur is jumping. It begins with La Purísima on Dec. 8 for the Immaculate Conception and continues until Semana Santa: Holy Week. The beaches get packed, the hotel rates skyrocket and all celebrations seem to end with fanfare and fireworks. These pyrotechnics are some of the most dangerous you could ever imagine. Without any safety measures or regulations, you can purchase anything from hand-held rockets that look like they could reach orbit to blasting boxes that are humorously named Osama Bin Laden. The celebrations are strong because the faith is strong and if you are lucky enough to be there on Christmas Eve, the whole town erupts into explosions and song. After the noise dies down, the smoke from the pyrotechnics covers the town, your ears are ringing and the remaining sounds are only barking dogs and car alarms. A truly memorable moment.

Then as the holidays end, San Juan del Sur becomes all but deserted. Weekenders pass through during the long off-season, but not many. In the curious ebb and flow of San Juan del Sur, one month it’s salsa or reggaeton at the packed beach bars, and the next it’s the gentle chirrup of green lizards crawling on the ceiling above you as you swing on a hammock. At quieter times like those, you have to wonder what it must have been like a generation ago.

Many original hippies and newer classes of young bohemians still remain and are mostly known by their first names: Dude, Hey and Yo. These men in untrimmed beards and large dreadlocks walk barefoot around the square selling everything from bracelets to on-the-spot drawings. With the right timing, you can see some impressive sidewalk art being created to the strains of Bob Marley. Not surprisingly, you can always make out the scent of ganja in the breezes around these locations.

From the evening of that first visit, we fell into an easy routine taking us back and forth between the beach and the hotel. The Pacific’s rhythms nudge travelers to adjust their goals accordingly. Our typical daily itinerary included:  1- Wake up and step onto the balcony to smell the fresh air; 2- Count the clouds in the sky; 3- Frolic in the ocean and work up an appetite for deep-fried whole fish while drinking an ice cold cerveza at a beach-side café;  4- Walk down the street and buy another coconut from Marco the coconut vendor;  5- See what the hippie artist drew on the sidewalk today;  6- Find an open hammock;  7- Take a siesta from the strenuous day;  8- Look at those stars; 9- Get hypnotized by the lights of the rocking boats in the bay; 10- Guess the style of music echoing down the beach.

And so when I returned to San Juan del Sur the following year, it was with some trepidation: Would it be the same? Did they add a Club Med or a Sandals resort? Has the slalom highway become a super-smooth expressway?

Yet the road was as awful as ever and perhaps even worse. As I drove through some of the largest potholes and bounced down the pitted road toward the coast (this time in a SUV), it was clear that nothing had changed except my mode of transportation and I smiled. I kept this smile as the wind rocked me to sleep in my hammock later that afternoon.

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~ by JHN Writer on February 7, 2011.

7 Responses to “Traveling to San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua”

  1. […] original post here: Traveling to San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua « Of Foreign Lands and … Share and […]

  2. Traveling to San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua « Of Foreign Lands and ……

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

  3. thnx bro

  4. i love it

  5. Thank you for this.

  6. Hello! interesting site!

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