This article has been updated on June 11, 2021.
We are in the southwestern corner of Nicaragua. This is an entry point for many travellers arriving here from Costa Rica. Right across the border, there will be a massive Lake Nicaragua (Lago Cocibolca) on your right-hand side. If you look closer, you’ll see two volcanoes sticking up on the horizon. They are Concepción and Maderas and they are located on the lake’s island (Isla de Ometepe). Upon your arrival to the closest town of Rivas, you can choose whether you want to jump on a ferry to explore this beautiful, tranquil island with an undisputable rural-tourism vibe or if you catch a chicken bus to a vibrant, surfer-friendly party town San Juan del Sur on the Pacific coast, about 30km away.
San Juan del Sur
While the town’s 15 thousand residents used to make their living in fishing and naval transport during most of its 150 years long history, the last couple of decades have shifted the local economy heavily towards tourism. Today, San Juan del Sur welcomes plenty of local tourists and it also appears to be a rather popular spot for numerous North American retirees. However, the primary group that favours SDJS quite a lot are surfers from all around the globe.
Given the popularity among the surfers’ community, San Juan grew a reputation of being a party town. It has beautiful beaches, stunning sunsets and it comes with everything the little party towns normally come with. The town is also rather safe, the beer is cold and everything works the way it supposed to work in a place like this. It’s a well-oiled tourism machine, as they say. And it’s also a bit overpriced for Nicaraguan standards. On a beer, you’ll spend nearly €0.50 extra if compared to other popular spots in Nicaragua, such as Granada or León.
Things to do in San Juan del Sur
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Well, unless you are a surfer, your options in this place will appear rather limited, when it comes to the variety of activities in all but a negative way. SDJS is a very laid back town. It’s therefore a perfect place to chill, watch stunning sunsets and perhaps taking a dip in the ocean. Then you can enjoy some of the amazing and fresh seafood the local restaurants’ offer, followed by a beverage or two of their cocktail menus. Well, and then you can chill, eat and drink some more 🙂
In case such activities become too repetitive for you, there’s always an option to take a stroll to the statue of Jesus (Cristo de la Misericordia), where you can enjoy the spectacular views of the area for a little fee of about $2. Another popular activity outside the chill-eat-swim-drink circle appears to be stressing the poor little sea turtles while they’re giving birth at the nearby La Flor Beach Natural Reserve. There are also multiple yoga-retreat options as well as a few Spanish schools, where you can work on improving your language skills.
Beaches and get around the area
The town’s Playa San Juan del Sur is already stunning by itself but there are also other beaches in the area worth checking out, especially if you like secluded and even more laidback spots. Among the most stunning ones was Playa Hermosa, a beach that’s certainly worth its name, there are also other beaches you can visit, such as Playa Maderas, Playa Remanso or Playa El Coco.
While the whole town itself is pretty much walkable, to get to those beaches, you’ll have to use some means of transportation. Some of them are accessible by shuttles, others are harder to get but the taxi drivers will be happy to earn their 10-15 bucks to get you there. Your hotel receptionist will be able to advise you about your options.
Go out and events in San Juan del Sur
Well, depending on a perspective, this is either a complex or rather a simple subject to cover. Being a small party town, San Juan del Sur has plenty of options to dine and sip on few cocktails during the sunset. All meals I’ve tried were decent to high quality. Cocktails were OK-ish but later on, I’ve settled on beers to slow down the process of intoxication. Please note that Victoria Beer is a wee bit stronger than Toña 😉 When it comes to clubbing, let’s just say that there are a lot of options to gain a first-class hangover, especially on Sundays, when many travellers join the mega pub-crawl feast someone inventively named Sunday Funday 🙂
In spite of being only a lake island, Ometepe is the largest island in Nicaragua. It was formed by two volcanoes Maderas and the perfectly cone-shaped Concepción that both dominate the landscape as well as the shape of the island. As mentioned above, the way of life and the whole vibe of the island is very rural.
The islands’ population of about 30 thousand friendly people mostly make their living off the island’s fertile land, with coffee, tobacco and plantains as the principal products, not to mention the ever-present livestock. The rural vibe is also what you can expect from the tourism on the island. The 60+ thousand tourists that visit Ometepe annually can enjoy the natural biodiversity of the island as well as its super laidback atmosphere.
Things to do in Ometepe
The island is much bigger than you might think. Being 32km long and 5-10 wide, it has an area of 276 km2 (107 sq mi). To move around, you’ll therefore need to use either a taxi, a chicken bus or rent a bike, which is also a popular activity. The cheapest option is a pushbike but please bear your fitness levels in mind as the heat can get quite intense here. The legendary Chicken buses are regular and even cheaper. And sloooooow. But it’s a great experience.
Rent a bike
So the good idea to explore the island is to rent a motorcycle. They go at about $15 for an automatic scooter per day, but you can only drive those paved roads, which is the problem because they don’t cover the whole circle, that is in the natural “8” shape around the island. If you want to drive the whole “8”, your only option is to pay $20 for the off-road bike. FYI, the terrain is not very challenging – I mean that you do not have to be a highly experienced off-road bike driver 😉
A tip: If you decide to go for it, which I believe you should because it’s good fun – do not forget to keep applying the sunscreen the whole day because the wind on the bike tricks your brain that everything is all right and then, in the evening you realise that you’re burnt as hell (:0
While you’re on the bike, you will certainly visit the island’s two main villages Altagracia (pop 4k) and Moyogalpa (pop 3k). While they are as colourful as the whole island, well, to be precise as the whole country, there isn’t much to do, from the tourism point of view, unless you include grabbing a cold drink in a shop or taking a ferry from the latter village.
I would personally recommend stopping at other places. Among the popular spots to visit here is a waterhole La Ojo de Agua. To be perfectly honest, as a destination itself, it’s not the most spectacular place I’ve ever visited, but if you look at it as an activity, as a whole package that includes riding a bike around a stunning island, it’s definitely worth it. Plus you can take a refreshing dip in the water.
Another place people like to visit is the waterfall of San Ramón. This activity involves a short 4km/1.5 to 2 hours hike and the reward for your effort and $2USD is a cute little, about 45 metres tall waterfall. The same as with the waterhole, I’d recommend not to set your expectations very high and enjoy the whole package of your experience, rather than looking for some breathtaking spot at the end of the hike.
For a more breathtaking experience, I’d recommend trying to time your bike trip around the island, try aiming at catching the sunset at Punta Jesus Maria, which is a popular spot to enjoy this daily spectacle.
However, if you’re hunting for some truly unforgettable marvellous experience on Ometepe, then consider hiking one of the vulcanos. Both of them are hikeable if you fancy doing it in high temperatures. Except for the heat, both hikes are rather challenging, and it is recommended to hire a local guide for about $50USD.
The more popular Concepción (1610 metres above sea level) is about 200 metres higher than its fellow Volcán Maderas and it takes about 9 hours, rising from the hot and humid climate at pretty much zero metres above the sea, through the tropical jungle up to the colder and windy peak.
Go out and events at Ometepe island
The islanders have kept many traditions alive and they’re proud to tell you that they celebrate more religious and folk festivals than anywhere else in the whole country. There is also quite a wide range of workshops and retreats on the island. On my way to the island, I’ve seen some old posters for what appeared to be some sort of mini-festival of electronic music so the genre range and options appear to be surprisingly wide. Here‘s an fcbk page where people can list their own events and activities you can join on the island, in case you wanted to check out what’s up on Ometepe before your visit.
Safety in SDJS and Ometepe
Well, being a small party town, San Juan del Sur also naturally attracts petty thieves. I’ve heard of some incidents, I’ve seen people saying not to go on the beach at night and not to wander intoxicated on the streets at night. To be honest, I don’t mean to undermine the accuracy of these claims, they might just as well happened to these people.
I’ve however done everything they warned me against and nothing happened to me at all. But as I say, it doesn’t mean that these things don’t take place here. Just be careful, when you drink and whatever else because the party scene at these little party towns can get rather predatory.
As for Ometepe island, things are as safe as they can get when it comes to crime. I would however show big respect to mother nature, especially if you attempt to hike one of the vulcanos by yourself. Take plenty of water, wear proper gear, protect yourself from sun and mosquitoes and do not overestimate your hiking skills, nor your fitness level.
The respect to Mother Nature also of course applies to swimming in the Pacific in or around San Juan del Sur. The current in the giant Pacific is rather strong so make sure that you don’t fall for one that will take you out in the open ocean against your best swimming efforts to get back. If it happens, stay calm and try swimming out of it sideways, rather than against it towards the shore.
How to get there?
- San José (Costa Rica) to Rivas (Nicaragua): comfy bus ride takes from around 6hrs to 7hrs. The costs vary from $27 to $42 USD, depending on the company you’ll pick. The bus will wait for you until you will sort out your border stamps, payments and all that. From the border to Rivas it’s about 45minutes.
- Rivas, to Ometepe: catch a chicken bus to San Jorge for 20,-NIO (€0,55) to grab a ferry to Ometepe for 50,-NIO (plus 33,-NIO for the port tax).
- Rivas to San Juan del Sur: take a chicken bus to San Juan for 45,-NIO (€1.20). FYI, there will be very “friendly” taxi drivers that will tell you there’s no public transport today because of something like “it’s Sunday” or national holiday or whatever just so you will go with them for $15 to San Juan or $5 to San Jorge…
When to visit San Juan del Sur and Ometepe island
I wish I wasn’t there in the hottest period of the year. April was just too much, especially on the less windy Ometepe, and so it apparently goes into the summer months. Doing anything physical at these kinds of temperatures is a bit challenging, not to mention nursing hangovers at 33°C degrees. I was told that the best time to visit both places between mid-November and mid-May where it calms down a bit, with the temperature rarely going below 24°C (75,2F).
After leaving South America, all border crossings appear a bit more difficult and silly, plus there are also charges. As a European, to exit Costa Rica, you’ll be charged $7 followed by Nicaragua’s entry fee of $13. Upon leaving they will charge you a further $3 for an exit fee. WTF is an exit fee? Who came up with that? And to come to San Juan del Sur or Ometepe, you’ll also have to pay tax to enter the region.
- Panama: The entry fee was reported to be $3,-USD by some people, I wasn’t asked to pay one. The exit fee was $3,-USD. Many travellers reported that they have needed to show proof of onward travel. I’ve purchased the bestonwardticket.com for $12,-USD but I wasn’t asked to provide it.
- Costa Rica: No entry fee. The exit fee is $7,-USD. You might need to show proof of onward travel. I have passed without one.
- Nicaragua: Entry fee was $13, the exit was $3,-USD
Stay @ San Juan del Sur and Isla de Ometepe
As for places to stay – there’s plenty in both spots, with the more popular and busy SDJS offering more variety. When it comes to Ometepe, I personally liked the Playa Santa Cruz area as it appeared like it’s offering more than just sit in your hostel and get eaten alive by mosquitoes.
- San Juan del Sur: Due to the fact that at this point I wasn’t alone, my friend and I decided to treat ourselves to semi posh, airconditioned Barrio Cafe Restaurant and Bar. For $43,- USD per night, we got a super-comfy room in a nice place that served a great coffee. The brekky was included and we were about 5 minutes walk to the beach.
- Ometepe: I’ve picked the most colourful place I could find based on the pictures. Lazy Crab Hostel was OK and had a lot of character, however, the dorm I was shown was rather claustrophobic. The staff was very friendly but I wasn’t entirely sure about the manager who had me paying double taxes when upon switching the room to private. If I was ever coming back to the island, I would most likely stay elsewhere.
Sort of conclusion
Oh well. What else is there to say? We were talking about pretty much nemesis-like places, only separated by a few hours of travelling between each other. One is a classic surfers’ party town filled with bars and restaurants overlooking the stunning bay on the Pacific shore and the other is a tranquil, rural place, ideal for nature lovers. I’d say that both places are definitely worth your visit.
When it comes to how long to stay question, I’d suggest 2-3 days on Ometepe, including a volcano hike, a day on a motorcycle and 3-4 days in San Juan, including a couple of hardcore hangovers and a day trip to Playa Hermosa. But it’s easily done to stay a bit longer and either party in SDJS or chill and relax at Ometepe 😉
Useful and interesting links
- Ometepe: Isla Ometepe Nicaragua .com website with plenty of useful information
- Celebrations and fiestas in Nicaragua: here are some of the most popular traditional events in the country
- Events at Ometepe: an Fcbk page with various events and invites
- Events at San Juan del Sur: an Fcbk page with various events, activities, promotions and so on
- La Flor Wildlife Refuge: Nicaragua.com‘s page about the refuge famous for egg-laying sea turtles
Other destinations to consider in Nicaragua
I’d definitely recommend checking out the pretty and colourful colonial towns of Granada and León. If you wanted to experience an unspoiled and stunning Caribbean island with no resorts and a great community, then consider visiting the Corn Islands.
Well, and last but not least, in case you were interested, here’s a piece about the vibrant history of Nicaragua that can give you an idea of how crazy this part of the world once was.
Enjoy San Juan del Sur and Isla de Ometepe🙂