San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
Pacific coast beauty. Lush tropical growth butting up against dry dessert-like landscape. Hippy surfer beaches with clove-smoking tanned Americans, riding in the backs of pick-up trucks. Mango trees. Banana trees. Monkeys and roosters. San Juan del Sur had a bit of everything for the first of three stops in our 8-day, whirlwind journey around southwest Nicaragua. Me, my husband, our three kids (ages 11, 9 and 5) and my mom; first time to Nicaragua for all of us and it did not disappoint.
We decided to travel to Nicaragua for many reasons:
- Easy flights from the Washington DC area (we flew Delta via Atlanta into Managua.)
- Affordable airfare (we flew Tuesday, returning Wednesday for $400 per ticket.)
- Crime against tourists in Nicaragua is lower than in some neighboring Latin American countries.
- The tourist infrastructure is enough established that we could plan our accommodations and travel, but not overly developed and “touristy.”
- We wanted to show the kids a part of the world very unlike what they know.
With the help of a close friend, we decided we would visit three places in Nicaragua: San Juan del Sur, Isla de Ometepe, and Granada. We plotted our actual itinerary based on accommodation availability and timing of our flights. For San Juan del Sur, I found Mango Rosa while reading travel reviews on www.tripadvisor.com I don’t think we could have navigated this adventure without the great feedback and advice on Trip Advisor! I’ll add my own review of our hotels there as well.
Getting to San Juan del Sur was more of a trek than we had anticipated. Our fault — we only skimmed the details in the guide books, and relied greatly on friends accounting of our itinerary. Arriving in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, at nearly 8pm local time (2 hours behind EDT) meant the kids were already beyond tired. Our prearranged transport through Iskra Travel was waiting for us outside of customs, and our driver, Mike, whisked us away from the dark airport — at which point we learned that Mango Rosa was nearly 3 hours away! The kids quickly conked out (with husband to soon follow) while I tried my best to see beyond the headlights and take in this new country.
- Cow crossing signs (just like our dear signs)
- Pick-up trucks filled with everything — goods, people, animals, speeding down the dark 2-lane highway
- Pedestrians walking in the road. At night.
- Cyclists, in the middle of the lane.
This kind of highway travel is not for the feint of heart. Coming up behind a car without taillights on, at full speed, requires an adept and alert driver. Mike did great, but I must admit feeling great relief when we arrived safely at Mango Rosa at 11pm.
We quickly settled into our private house, and soon found out that good sleep is hard to get for us city folk! Howler monkeys, roosters (who don’t just cockle-doodle-doo at the crack of dawn) and dogs make for a night time cacophony many decibels louder than I personally appreciate. The trees over our house were filled with monkeys.
Time change + sunrise at 5am + very loud roosters who sing out “WHERE’S THE PAPER?” endlessly (+ excited kids) meant we were up EARLY. Mango Rosa offers a lovely menu of breakfast choices, and fresh fruit smoothies, which got our first day in Nicaragua off to a great start. My mother arrived shortly after breakfast (her flight was delayed from the previous night, thanks to an earthquake warning in Managua, something that didn’t deter our Delta flight from arriving, but her Copa Airlines flight through Panama was stuck.) We generally vegged out by the small pool and lulled in our hammocks until late afternoon.
We took a ride to one of the small Pacific beaches, Playa Madera, in the open back of a pick-up truck, and spent many hours luxuriating in the warm waters and enjoying local beers while people watching. Most of the beach goers were American or Canadian — with some Nicaraguans in the mix as well. Two bar/restaurants (one with a hostel above) dotted the small beach, known for its killer surfing, and competing loud music blasted from both — sending us out into the sun to escape the noise. We enjoyed watching fabulous surfers and obvious first timers, jumping our own waves and watching a great sunset before returning to Mango Rosa again in the open truck. The kids thought it was fantastically dangerous, exciting and “lawless” to get to ride that way.
Another loud night led to a gloriously hot and windy morning where we had to hide the kids from the sun. I forgot to pack the aloe and our SPF 50 didn’t do the trick (or we failed as parents and didn’t reapply often enough.) That afternoon we charted La Pango Rosa (a fishing boat) to take us onto the Pacific for hopefully some dolphin spotting, fishing and swimming. Right out of the beach we saw a whale breach and that was it for water mammals. The waters were choppy and the ride was nerve wracking for a couple of the kids. Once we anchored at another beach and had a cooling swim, the water was calmer and we then enjoyed some drag fishing. My husband reeled in the first of two 8-10 pound fish. We were bummed that it wasn’t something more tasty — but were assured that the local staff would take the fish home to use for soups. The kids were thrilled to catch the fish! I found myself contemplating vegetarianism again.
Getting to enjoy another glorious sunset over the Pacific was a nice conclusion to our last night in San Juan del Sur.
Mango Rosa was so comfortable, and easy — with an American owner/manager and a fully fluent English speaking staff, I knew that this was a great entree for us into Nicaragua, and I also knew that our next destination wouldn’t be quite the same. We left the next morning after breakfast, bidding our tree full of monkeys and the flock of roosters goodbye.
We didn’t actually visit the town of San Juan del Sur. We were in Nicaragua during the popular vacation week around Easter, when Nicaraguans flee to the coast and create what was described by locals as a crazy party scene in the town. The American who ran Mango Rosa likened it to Mardi Gras, Nicaraguan style. I’d have liked to check it out; but my kids had seen on the bar tv an accounting of a death the previous night in the town (and another staff member at Mango Rosa warned that thefts of tourists go way up during the week,) so the kids and my mom (age 71) were deterred and we didn’t push the idea.
Where’s the Paper?
That’s what I heard when the first rooster loudly cried out — I must admit that not everyone in our group heard that, but once I heard it, I couldn’t not hear it. I will probably forever more hear “where’s the paper?” when others hear “cock-a-doodle-doo.”