I know that the days are only getting longer, but there’s something about February that makes it the darkest month of the year in terms of morale. Valentine’s Day, and the holiday weekend surrounding it, was temporary cause for celebration. But for many of us, it’s only downhill from here until late March shows us the first signs of life. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to relive happier, warmer times, and perhaps point those of you who aren’t saving vacation days for the 10 weddings you have to attend this summer, towards a quick, cheap getaway: San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.
Last month, I tastetrotted back to my stay at Maderas Village— a gram-worthy boutique hotel overlooking the famed surfing beach of the same name. And I’ve been meaning to share more recommendations for the best places to eat, sleep and gallop ponies in the surrounding area.
Nicaragua, as a country, is not known for it’s culinary marvels. For the most part, the cuisine is centered around simple Latin American staples like rice, beans, and fresh grilled fish from the bordering waters. But as tourism picks up, it’s only a matter of time before more foodie tastemakers start colonizing the towns with fresh, fusion takes on the local cuisine.
San Juan del Sur has already started sprouting some ex-pat hot spots, and in addition to those, the town offers some other wacky options for grabbing a good meal. With the variety that Maderas offered—including a valiant attempt at tropical sushi!—I had little reason to head off the premises for food. But I gathered many recommendations from my adventurous friends who have taken longer trips down to Nicaragua.
In terms of accommodations, where to stay really depends on what activities matter most to you. Since the country is relatively affordable (especially compared to Costa Rica just to the south), it’s a great place to take advantage of full service resorts that are within walking distance to the beach or, even better, house a private one of their own. Many options are about 20 minutes from town. And in my opinion, I think it makes more sense to taxi to the center for meals and make your home base a place of beachy relaxation.
Read on for some great hotels, restaurants, and activities to make your stay in San Juan del Sur (and surrounding areas) the best sun-filled getaway it can be. And if a trip isn’t in the cards for a while, then at least we can both fantasize about this next Southern adventure together.
From one healthy hedonist, to another,
For more healthy hedonist travel guides to help you tastetrot around the globe, click here.
I had the most amazing experience at this eco resort. As I mentioned in more detail here, Maderas has all of the benefits of a hostel (affordability, fun), without all the pitfalls (twenty-one year olds, Ikea bunk beds) that make this style of travel unsuitable for people in the next “stage of life.” Unlike all the European shared rooms I frequented in my early twenties, the village wasn’t just a stop-over–a place to lay your head and pick-up cute Australians at the bar; it was its own self-contained experience. And one of the things that made said experience so seamless and awesome was the food.
They offer both shared rooms, private casitas, and more high end suites for all price points.
My friend Liz has ventured down to San Juan del Sur Nicaragua on multiple occasions and loves staying here. It’s a less social experience than Maderas, but beautiful little casitas at an affordable price. If you’re looking to surf, you should note that it’s not walking distance to Playa Maderas. So if that’s your bag, I would stay at Maderas.
If you want to stay on a quieter stretch of beach, there are some great cheap houses for rent on Playa Marsella. It’s slightly closer to San Juan del Sur central. Just note that there’s not much in the way of food on the beach, so you’ll have to venture to town or nearby hotels for meals if you don’t plan on cooking.
For a more upscale experience, this full-service eco lodge up the coast looks like a dream. I lived vicariously through Dana Cowin’s experience on Instagram, which leads me to believe that the food was also worthy of the price. You get a beautiful private bungalow and access to a pristine protected reserve.
Aqua Wellness Resort
I came across a few couples at Maderas who were on their honeymoon. After a little social time at our hotel, they ventured off to this resort for relaxation and pampering. It’s a great pairing with Maderas if you want to splurge for a few days and fairly easy to travel between in a taxi.
This little brewery in the center of San Juan del Sur was started by a few twenty-something ex-Pats and, as a result, has some of the best tacos and finger food on order. I heard great things about the beer as well!
Recommended for their amazing burgers. A fun, small spot to hangout for a while.
This is the best place to grab a quick bite and a margarita on Playa Maderas. It’s a little pricey for Nica standards, but you get big taco portions. This is where I went when I wanted a break from the Maderas lunch offerings. The fish tacos are grilled and taste like they were just pulled from the ocean. It’s nothing to travel out of your way for, but if your adventure takes you to the beach, you’ll most likely find yourself eating some chips and salsa here.
A great little cafe in town that has fast wifi, good coffee and some other nibbles.
This was a strange suggestion from a friend. It’s a restaurant that’s basically the guy’s house. All he serves is fresh handmade pizza. So many people love it and it’s a true Nica experience.
One of my favorite days in Nicaragua was this boat excursion. Not only do they take you on a beautiful tour of the coast, but the day ends with some killer ceviche. Possibly the best thing I ate on the whole trip! Be warned: this isn’t your typical booze cruise, but the unlimited beer and rum is one of the attractions. Don’t plan on doing anything productive with your evening afterwards.
Playa Marsella was the perfect backdrop to gallop ponies in the sand. The one hour excursion was organized by Maderas, but the ranch was right on the main road between Playa Marsella and Playa Maderas. They had beautiful well-cared for horses, and our guide basically let us do whatever we wanted…which was gallop.
The road leading into Playa Maderas is lined with little surf shops. This one is one of the first you’ll encounter, with the name written on a surf board. Ask for Juan Carlos (JC) or Danny. They are total sweeties and will help even the most petrified beginner (me!) get up on the waves.
At the foot of the hill leading up to Maderas there’s a wonderful woman names Dunia who sells handmade jewelry and gives massages in a cute private hut off the back of her house. She’s also a professional surfer, so her operation is only open for half the year. If you’re staying at Maderas or anywhere right near the beach, this is a MUST after a day of surfing (i.e. getting thrown around by the waves).
There’s not a whole lot to do or see in Managua, where you’ll fly into to get to San Juan del Sur. So to break up the 2 ½ hour drive, most people will stay a few nights in Granada on one end of the journey. It’s home to some beautiful volcanos and I heard amazing things about the boutique Tribe Hotel. A chef friend also said she had an exceptional meal at Espressionista. In her words: “The food was widely imaginative and well done. They didn’t rely on fat for flavor, just tons of bright acid and powerful herbs. Also the owner only uses small local farms, and he is a wonderful handsome man.” Sign me up.