You’ll never want to leave this pretty surf spot once you visit.
Do you have your Nicaragua vacation plans booked yet? If not, I'd highly recommend a trip. My last visit to this Central American gem was full of tropical jungles, thundering waterfalls, colorful colonial towns, and sleepy surfing towns that I never wanted to leave. Luckily for ILP volunteers living in Nicaragua, that pretty much sums up every single week.
Though you have a lot of destinations to choose from in this country, our ILP groups in Nicaragua have the right idea by spending a day or two in Juan Del Sur. Tucked on the southwest coast of Nicaragua, this fishing village-turned paradise is a little picturesque spot nestled in a “c” curve cove of the Pacific Ocean. You’ll find a range of big surf beaches and relaxing stretches of sand to catch some sun, along with colorful waterfront homesteads.
Interested in seeing more of Nicaragua?
Read this Central America Destination Guide.
Because this beautiful beachy trip is so popular with ILP volunteers in Nicaragua (and volunteers from nearby countries who also love to visit), we've pulled the best recommendations and pictures to help you get excited for your own trip here.
Planning A Trip To San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua:
The Top Things To Do
San Juan Del Sur is the ultimate laid back beach vacation, a nice way to spend a weekend after a week of teaching (or as a beachy addition to your vacation to Nicaragua if you're here for just a short amount of time). It's a very popular tourist spot, home to several expat communities and people looking for a vacation full of sand, sun, and surf. You’ll find your typical beachy things to do, along with a couple of activities to keep you coming back for more.
The Best Beaches
Time to hit the beach! SJDS is on the coastline, after all. You have the pick of the litter when it comes to beaches in San Juan Del Sur. Some are better for those looking for a relaxing day on a secluded beach, while some are best for swimming, and more than others are ideal for anyone wanting to surf (beginners and experts are welcome!). Here’s our breakdown of a couple different kinds of beaches (out of several!) so you can find the stretch of sand that's perfect for what you're looking for.
Playa Maderas is probably the city’s most popular beach and definitely one for surfers, found just outside of SJDS (it's actually its own sleepy community if you'd rather stay out in this area rather than the bustle of San Juan Del Sur). This might be our favorite beach around town! Playa Maderas is a good beach for a few reasons: there are gentle waves that last until you’re about waist deep for swimmers, or you can head out further and catch the bigger waves for surfing.
Some say this is the best surfing beach around. If you're interested, you can find a handful of surf schools in the area. It's about $25-$35 for a lesson (group lessons are more affordable) which are typically 60-90 minutes. You can also find board rentals for around $10 for the day.
Getting Here + Other Info: You can easily catch a taxi from where you’re staying (they will all know Playa Maderas) for a few dollars. You can also check out the shuttle schedule here or by asking around. You can also take a water taxi here which is a fun way to make this more of a vacation excursion (more info on this below).
You’ll find a dozen plus shops and restaurants advertising rentals, along with a pocket of tide pools where you can admire crabs and starfish up close. Just know there is zero shade, so be prepared with lots of sunscreen, a hat, and a day out in the sun if you're not going to rent a cabana or umbrella. You can find a few restaurants and other activities (like massages on the beach) making this a good spot to day trip out to.
You'll want to get there earlier in the day because this place does get busy.
This is a swimming and relaxing beach, with small waves and a chill vibe. Taxis will know the spot, making it easy to get to. Nearby there are a couple of restaurants and hotels if you’re looking to grab lunch on the beach. It's walkable from Playa Maderas if you'd like to split your time between these two beaches one day, but know that Playa Marsella has barely any waves and stays pretty empty (no one comes here to surf, just to hang out, so it's very chill and relaxed).
Getting Here + Other Info: Come by taxi, or if you'd like to walk from Playa Maderas, it's recommended you put "Marsella Beach Front" in your GPS and follow the directions (it's easy to end up at a dead end).
Hire out some hammocks or grab a massage on this beach. There are also huts advertising surfing lessons if you’d rather spend your time in the waves rather than on the sand. Or, if you’re in the mood for a horseback ride on the beach you can make that happen. Playa Hermosa is one of the more popular beaches in SJDS because of all the things to do here, plus there are facilities like restaurants, restrooms, and showers.
Getting Here + Other Info: As always, you can travel by taxi, but you may also be able to take the shuttle. The $7 - $12 shuttle charge typically includes the $3 entrance fee you’ll need to pay to enter the beach (more on that in a second). Check the shuttle schedule here.
The beach is technically privately owned, but you can access it when you pay the $3 fee (you'll get a wristband when you pay). You can't bring your own coolers or drinks (water is fine) but you can bring a snack or two which can help you save a few dollars. Restaurants in this area are on the pricier side compared to other beaches on this list.
Playa San Juan Del Sur
If you're short on time or just here to visit several beaches in the area, hanging out on the beach closest to San Juan Del Sur can make for a fun afternoon. This enormous half-moon bay is home to groups of people looking to catch some sun and hang out in the waves. The waves here are smaller and calmer, so surfers tend to hang out in other places, but it helps keep the beach feeling not-so-busy. One corner of the bay is where the town's harbor is which can make for a fun walk if you'd like admiring the boats docked there (if you'd like to be on the opposite end of the harbor, just head to the northern section of the beach).
Oh, and if you really want the best views of this beach, just make the hike up to the Cristo de La Misericordia statue where you can see the whole bay spilling out below you (more info on that later).
Getting Here + Other Info: It's right in the center of SJDS and can easily be reached on foot if you're in the center of town.
You're also very well supported at this beach, which is full of restaurants, vendors rending out beach umbrellas and cabanas, toilets, and more (plus you're just a short walk away from the middle of town).
Another popular beach, volunteers in the past have headed here for some surfing lessons. The beach is backed by a couple of restaurants for lunch or dinner after a day in the sun — just make sure you bring cash (several places don't accept credit cards).
This is the closest surfing beach to SJDS, so it's a popular pick. You'll find a selection of surf shops where you can rent a board (some quoted prices around $10 for the day) and lessons (some shops had 60 to 90-minute lessons for $25 to $45+). Some volunteers say this is a good beach for beginning surf lessons.
Getting Here + Other Info: Easily reached by taxi or you can take the shuttle. Several SJDS surf shops run a shuttle here but tend to leave only when they have enough passengers. If you're traveling with several members of your ILP group you guys can help get the shuttle numbers up, but it's not a great pick if you're looking to arrive at the beach at a certain time.
This is a small beach so it gets crowded especially on the weekends.
Hang Out with Turtles!
One of the main reasons to relax in San Juan Del Sur is to come see the sea turtles — each year thousands of little turtles hatch and make their way to the ocean, and you can be a part of that. If you'll be in town from July to November (ish), you're visiting in turtle season. Ask around for tours that can take you to see the turtles nesting or hatching (the nearby La Flor Natural Reserve is the best place to see them). It's found a few miles south of SJDS and is a protected space for the Olive Ridley turtles to lay their eggs.
You'll need to go with a tour, so we have all the details about seeing turtles in Nicaragua right here.
Water Taxi to Playa Maderas
Line up in front of Hotel Estrella before 10:00 AM to book your tickets on a water taxi (tickets are around $8 USD). You’ll take a 30 minute boat trip across the waves to Playa Madera, a tranquil beach of golden sand, gorgeous waters, colorful bungalows and a relaxed vibe. Surfing also puts this place on the map, so plan on spending a couple of hours in the waves yourself (you’ll find board rentals all over) or watching the pros.
Stay just long enough to catch your water taxi back to San Juan Del Sur, which departs around 4:00 PM (But double check with the Hostel Estrella!).
Find the Hotel Estrella here. (Pst: Past ILP groups have also stayed at this hotel if you're looking at options — we have more info below on places to stay for more choices, but keep this hotel in mind).
Take A Catamaran Cruise
Another popular option is to see the coastline via catamaran. You can find a handful of companies that will take you out for the day, but past ILP groups have gone with this one. Snacks and beverages are included, plus they have snorkel gear and fishing along the way and a few different tour options to choose from.
Here's what one ILP volunteer had to say about her catamaran trip! "We took a catamaran that picked us up at San Juan Del Sur. It picked us up at 1:00 and we were out until sunset. They provided fruit, snorkeling stuff, floaties and kayaks. They took us to a private beach that you can only get to by boat and we spent a few hours there .... We brought our own drinks and snacks because we knew we would be out for a while!"
Have A Zen Yoga Session
You can find a few yoga studies around San Just Del Sur, but there is something to be said about visiting the first yoga studio in the area. You’ll get a view of the canary-yellow church and the coastal town from the windows in the two-story studio, plus there’s no need to have a reservation. You can have a drop in lesson which includes a cup of tea and a yoga mat for $10. Head to Zen Yoga Nicaragua, and take a peek at their yoga schedule here.
Fav Photography Spots
This coastal, sleepy town is charming, with more than a few lookout spots:
The Christ Statue
Cristo de La Misericordia, a giant statue of Christ is a landmark you can spot from a couple of beaches. It’s a 25+ minute hike uphill to the statue or you can hire a taxi to take you all the way up for a few dollars. Plan on paying $2 USD for your entry fee which includes a tour around a small museum. The views from the top are stunning and an absolute don’t miss spot.
These Sunset Spots
They are stellar here, especially if you catch the sun going down behind the waves. The Christ statue hike boasts the most spectacular views of the surrounding town, but you want to be off the mountain on the sand for the best views of the sunset. A good spot is the San Juan Del Sur beach.
You’ll see signs, but just as a heads up, it’s not the best idea to be out wandering at night. Like any other tourist town, theft and petty crime tends to be more popular at night (and here, around the beaches) so be sure to snag your picture of the sunset and head to your hostel’s pool before bed instead of hanging around after dark.
The Art Warehouse
Tour the murals at The Art Warehouse, a gallery of local artists where you can hang out at the coffee shop or purchase a unique take-home. There are also classes you can take like soap making and painting classes. Message them about classes on Facebook.
The Colorful Town Square
You’ll find pops of banana yellow, creamy turquoise, vibrant pinks and stunning blues all over, so best to grab your camera whenever you’re walking around. Get bursts of color on the Main Town Square in particular. The yellow church is also picture perfect for a colorful Instagram feed.
Places To Stay
Like most popular beach towns, you’ll find a mix of hostels, fancy resorts, and Airbnbs to check out. These are just a couple of recommendations.
Hostal Brisas y Olas
Our favorite place to stay in San Juan Del Sur! It's really close to the beach and has really clean and affordable rooms, plus some rooms have a terrace where you can spot the sunset. Book here.
Another favorite place to stay, Casa Oro is one of the oldest hostels in the area — kind of the original surf house in San Juan Del Sur! Rooms are simple, with A/C, close to the beach, and has breakfast available for just a few dollars. Book here.
Grab a shuttle to the center of town, or make the 10 minute walk along the beach from the Hola Ola hostel. Travelers who stay here love hanging out at the pool and paying a few dollars to eat dinner (family style) with a group of travelers all over the world. It's kinda the hangout spot for a lot of travelers looking for a loud and social experience. Just know they don't have A/C if that's important to you in this hot and humid country (but they do have a pool).
Dreamsea Surf Camp
This hostel is nestled in the thick foliage just outside of the city, with a fun tropical vibe (thanks to the bamboo and yoga lessons, plus the elevated cabanas). There's also a pool which is a fun perk. Book here.
Enjoy a free local breakfast at the Hostel Esperenza before you hang out on the beachfront hammocks. The hostel boasts a helpful staff that can help you rent out bicycles for the day, or feel free to head out right to the beach (it’s right across the way). It’s a pretty unbeatable location with good rates not to mention the close access to the beach.
A 15 minute drive away from San Juan Del Sur gets you to Hush Maderas, a slice of paradise, where travelers can hang out in the pool that overlooks the coast, yet still remains tucked away in the trees.
You always have several Airbnb options to choose from, but if you're looking at where past ILP groups have stayed, we have their top picks below:
Complete with a view, a pool, and hammocks, this Airbnb is a popular and highly recommended spot for ILP volunteers. Book here.
Here's another pool option we love. Book here.
We love this bungalow option, complete with an A-frame loft filled with hammocks. So fun.
Favorite Places To Eat
So many volunteers say the food in San Juan Del Sur is amazing! We've put together the top recommended spots to you don't miss out on the best breakfast places, smoothies, fruit bowls, and taco spots around town.
Ding Repair Cafe for breakfast is a win all around. Some volunteers say that can't even explain how good this place is because it's just that good. Some mention to get the bowls, the golden milk latte, and (very filling) pancakes.
The Art Warehouse is another recommendation, with yummy wraps, fruit bowls, granola, taco plates, and more. The pork tacos and the ginger lime soda are mentioned as good picks from their menu.
Taco Stop's is a fav place to get tacos if you need them (which you do, by the way).
Simon Says is a popular place to grab smoothies but they also have seafood dishes, salads, sandwiches, etc.
Another recommendation is Dale Pues. They have a menu full of wraps, tacos, salads, sandwiches and other yummy things.
If you need dessert, go to Gelateria Superfrutto for the best gelato you’ll ever have, according to some. Right next door to that place is a restaurant where you can get cone pizza at which was really fun.
In the mood for sushi? "The sushi at El Social is incredible" according to more than a few volunteers — but others thought it was kind of expensive for sushi that was "just okay". Kinda split views on this restaurant!
There’s a surprisingly present Jewish population in this Nicaraguan town, so spotting a falafel stand isn’t too out of place among the eateries boasting ceviche and tacos.
How To Get To San Juan Del Sur
From Granada, you have a couple of options: you can either take a private car, a taxi, or a bus to San Juan Del Sur. If you’re a fan of taking a bus, you can catch a bus from Granada to Rivas, then follow the directions below to get to from Rivas to San Juan Del Sur.
Chicken buses leave for Rivas from this station a few times a day, at 5:50 AM, 6:30 AM, 8:05 AM, 9:30 AM, 11:30 AM, 12:40 PM, 1:10 PM and 3:10 PM (no 3:10 on Thursdays and Sundays). The ride is just over $1 USD, but takes about 2.5 hours, plus the 1 hour drive from Rivas to San Juan Del Sur. The whole journey shouldn’t cost more than $3 USD, but will take around 4 hours. If you’re on a tight budget and have the time, taking a bus to Rivas, then a bus from Rivas to San Juan Del Sur is your best bet.
Taking a private shuttle will be more expensive, but a lot quicker. The drive from Granada to San Juan Del Sur is about 1.5 hours, and some ILP volunteers let us know that their Local Coordinator helped them arrange this (for about $25 per person). This is your quickest option.
Or, take a taxi to Rivas is about $60 - $80 USD, which isn’t too terrible if you’re splitting it with your ILP group, then you'll just need to take the bus ride from Rivas to get to SJDS.
Most buses are coming from Rivas, with several daily buses making the trek from Rivas to San Juan Del Sur. Check this website for more accurate listings, but buses pretty much leave every 30-45 minutes starting from 5:00 AM to 5:00 PM. The buses are cheap (only about $1, or $30 cordobas). The bus ride takes just about an hour to arrive to San Juan Del Sur.
How Long Should I Stay?
This is an ideal weekend spot, especially if you have the budget to take a taxi down, and get there early on a Saturday morning. There’s enough to keep you busy for a day, then you can sleep overnight Saturday night, and hit the beach one more time or schedule in a yoga lesson before leaving.
Dying to get more out of Nicaragua?
This country is an untapped gem, a place travelers who really know adventure and off-the-beaten-track experiences know all about, but are totally off the radar for most people.