Return to the Sea

Rivas was hot, dusty and filled with touts clamoring to shove you a cab bound for just about anywhere but Rivas itself. Not being the sort of tourists that like to disappoint a determined tout, we ended up in one of those cabs, along with a couple of Nicaraguans, bound for the Pacific coast town of San Juan Del Sur.

San Juan Del Sur 
harborfrontFrom Granada we caught a chicken bus south, headed for Rivas. Southwestern Nicaragua is a very small strip of land with Lago Nicaragua to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Rivas is smack dab in the middle of that strip, a kind of stopping off point rather than a destination, almost like a border town, despite the fact that the border is another hour south.

You essentially have two choices in Rivas: go east to the lake, visit Isle Ometepe and some of the other islands and small towns along the coast, or, go west to San Juan Del Sur and the other fishing villages along the Pacific (there’s also the third option of continuing on to the Costa Rican border, but that wasn’t in our plans).

Curiously enough, the morning we left for Nicaragua we stopped off for a cup of coffee at Jittery Joe’s and ran into our friend Nelson, who we hadn’t seen since we moved back to town. In one of those strange twists of fate that I’ve come to accept, it turned out that Nelson had just gotten back from Nicaragua the night before. We proceeded to do a quick five minute brain pick and came up with San Juan Del Sur, which is why we found ourselves trapped in a mid-90s Nissan sedan with the world’s slowest cab driver.

Playa MajagualThe Pacific coast of Nicaragua has long been famous in surfer circles for its near-perfect and seemingly endless breaks (it’s featured in Endless Summer if you’re into that sort of thing). The last time I went surfing Quicksilver was still run out of a garage and I have no real desire to take it up again, but I rarely say no to some time by ocean.

San Juan Del Sur proper surrounds a well protected harbor with a mediocre strip of sand. For the good surf and nice beaches you have to head up or down the coast to one of the many small inlets. And that means you’ll either have to catch a cab or take one of several 4x4 drive bus thingies (like troop carrying trucks essentially).

The problem is that if you stay in San Juan Del Sur, you’ll end up spending a good chunk of money getting to the beach, and that has never made sense to me. We did take a cab two days, once to Playa Majagual and once to Playa Maderas, two beaches to the north of the harbor, but they were something of a letdown.

The beaches themselves were curiously deserted, literally. In two days on two different beaches we were totally alone — save for our cab driver somewhere back over the dune sleeping in his car. Which is sort of where the letdown part comes in. I realize that we were paying him decent money, but I couldn’t help feeling guilty that there was this poor guy waiting all afternoon in his car. I wouldn’t want to do that, would you?

Hammock, Hotel ColonialThe guilt, coupled with the gusts of wind that whipped the sand against your skin a bit like a low grade sandblaster (come to San Juan Del Sur, free exfoliating while you wait!) made the beaches, well, something of a letdown.

The third day we got it right, we didn’t do anything or go anywhere. We lounged around in hammocks, had a stroll around the town, bought our own hammock and hit the harbor front restaurant/bar scene early.

We ended up taking an upscale room in San Juan Del Sur since the cheap stuff was pretty morbid (it’s hard to pay $25 for a room that isn’t half as nice as many of the $2 rooms you’ve had elsewhere). As it turned out a Canadian couple that we met briefly in Granada had exactly the same thought process and ended up in the room next to use at the Hotel Colonial ($46 a night, rating: A). Kenso and Melissa had perhaps a much better justification for splashing out in San Juan Del Sur since they had taken the “loft” at the Bearded Monkey Guesthouse. Corrinne and I were offered the loft when we arrived at the Bearded Monkey, but we elected to hold out for a private room (which we ended up getting, thank god).

Kenso and Melissa arrived after us and found that, since we had snatched the last private room, they were stuck with the loft, which was essentially a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood nailed midway up a high-ceiling hallway. Not only was there little in the way of privacy, you had to climb a rather precarious ladder to get in and out — no small feat when you’re in a country where beer is only a dollar.

Somehow they managed to survive and check in next to us at the Hotel Colonial in San Juan Del Sur (and they were nice enough to bear no outward grudge for stealing the last room in Granada).

sunset San Juan Del Sur 
harborfrontKenso and Melissa were on basically the same trip we were, though after San Juan Del Sur they opted to head to Ometepe while we went straight over to the Corn Island. But we spent a couple nights in one of the many near anonymous restaurants that line the harbor front, talking with Melissa and Kenso and watching the sunset while we ate lobster, fried plantains and, of course, the ever-present gallo y pinto.

However after three days we felt like we had more or less exhausted San Juan Del Sur. The combination of high prices and a plethora of rather obnoxious American ex-pats that seemed to generally hail from Los Angeles or some equally dreadful American metropolis sort of turned us off.

San Juan Del Sur is worth a visit, just don’t be surprised when you find a battered paperback novel selling for $40 at a coffee shop where no one speaks Spanish. Americans are a cancer, someone needs to stop us (as a friend recently pointed out, something, not someone, is going to stop us — the Euro).

And really it isn’t that bad. Though San Juan Del Sur may not be my favorite spot in Nicaragua, there is something to be said for watching the Pacific sunsets over a plate of lobster and a cold beer. Life could be a whole lot worse.


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