We didn’t think Nicaragua could get any better after Isla de Omtepe, but we were pleasantly surprised by our time in San Juan del Sur. In fact, some of the highlights of our entire trip were made here on the coast. But it wasn’t necessarily the town of San Juan del Sur that proved so fascinating (though we had a great time here, too!) It was the nearby beach town of Playa Maderas, and our adventures both on and around the water.
San Juan del Sur is located on the southwest coast of Nicaragua. Once a sleepy fishing village, the town is now one of Nicaragua’s most popular tourist destinations—especially for those seeking surfing, yoga and partying. But because of its rising popularity with expats and backpackers, it can be a bit chaotic in the city center itself. Located along a bumpy dirt road just twenty minutes north of San Juan del Sur, Playa Maderas makes a fantastic alternative.
There’s a daily shuttle that runs between the two locations that makes it easy enough to hop into town to take advantage of the best restaurants, bars and activities. Yet Playa Maderas is also far enough removed to be a peaceful and tranquil retreat, even if it’s not necessarily off-the-beaten path.
Ready to learn more? Here are five of the things we loved the most about our stay in Playa Maderas, Nicaragua:
Perhaps the single most popular reason to stay at or near Playa Maderas is for the beach’s legendary surfing. The surfing here is in many ways what put Playa Maderas on the map, so don’t be surprised if you’re sharing the sand with heaps of other surf enthusiasts.
Dan took a board out a few days while we were there and consistently came in saying it was some of the best surfing he had experienced in Central America. What’s particularly nice is that the waves break in layers, so even if you’re a beginner, you can try to grab a wave on one of the smaller sets that break closer to shore.
There are numerous surf schools and locals who offer lessons on Playa Maderas. If you already know what you are doing, it’s possible to rent a surfboard on the beach for around $10 a day. And if you’re like me and you prefer to chill out with a book and a beer, then there are a handful of beach huts featuring fish tacos, beverages and hammocks.
2. Catamaran Sailing Trip
As mentioned above, one of the greatest things about Playa Maderas is that you’re still close to all of the best activities in San Juan del Sur. And one thing you absolutely cannot miss on any trip to the area is a catamaran sailing trip with Nica Sail and Surf.
This is perhaps the most popular activity in San Juan del Sur, but with good reason. Hop aboard a catamaran and enjoy a half-day of gorgeous sailing with great people. The trip includes an open bar, snorkeling at a private white sand beach, delicious snacks including fresh ceviche and guacamole, and a brilliant sunset as you sail back to the shore.
We met some great fellow travelers and enjoyed what was probably a few too many Mai Tais, but the experience was easily a highlight of our entire trip to Nicaragua. After all, why wouldn’t you want to enjoy a day of great company on the open water with a cocktail in hand?
3. Beach Hop
The best way to beach hop around the stunning coast of San Juan del Sur is with your own 4 x 4. Alternatively there are buses if you’re patient and willing to wait for them.
Playa Marsella is routinely considered to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the area. It’s quieter than Maderas, and while not great for surfing, it’s a picturesque spot to soak in the sun or kayak. Alternatively, Playa Hermosa, El Remanso, and Tamarindo are great beaches to the south of San Juan del Sur. They’re known for their laid-back beach bars, causal harangues serving up fish tacos and beer, and not much else. We didn’t have enough time to do the entire region justice, so to know more about the best beaches in San Juan del Sur, check out this post.
San Juan del Sur is easily the yoga center of Nicaragua. And it makes sense—the coast is known for its surfing, and yoga and surfing are two excellent complementary activities. You don’t have to go far to find a retreat center or classes being offer both in town and the surrounding beaches.
There is yoga every morning at 10:00am at Hulukai. We opted to use the studio for a bit of private practice and meditation, soaking in the beauty of the studio’s ocean views and tranquility, but we’ve heard great things about their classes. Alternatively, Zen Yoga and NicaYoga are extremely popular options.
5. HulaKai Hotel
It’s not easy to find fantastic beach resorts that offer top amenities while remaining unpretentious. But at HulaKai Hotel, we found just that.
We were invited to stay at this eco-resort a few months prior to our trip, and we had been looking forward to the experience ever since we looked up their awesome eco-pods. Luckily, we were not disappointed!
HulaKai is a new resort so it’s still doing a bit of fine-tuning, but so far, the place is off to a great start. The basic but chic eco-rooms boast large windows, ocean views and cozy beds. One morning we even had a monkey tap on our window—not a bad alarm clock if we say so ourselves!
Coming in at just $100 a night, the eco-pods are quite affordable for the views they offer. The highlight of HulaKai for most though is easily the gorgeous ocean-view pool. Expats commonly come hang out in the pool and at the bar, making it a fun community space. The owners have even constructed a place to watch movies in the pool, which we though was quite creative!
The food we ate at HulaKai was also the best we had in Nicaragua. The hotel has weekly family dinners which also draw in a local crowd from San Juan del Sur. It brought us back to our days at Blue Osa when we would sit around the table eating amazing fresh cuisine with inspiring people from around the world. The bar is a bit pricy compared to what you’ll find elsewhere in Nicaragua, but for the view and the pool, we think it’s worth it. Even if you don’t stay at HulaKai, venture out there for a family dinner and enjoy a Macua (the national drink of Nicaragua) from their perfect pool. You won’t be disappointed!
This is really just the start of all there is to see and do around San Juan del Sur. We didn’t even get to the horseback riding, the fishing tours, the sea turtles, the bar crawls, the frisbee golf… For a more tips and tricks for what to do in San Juan Del Sur, the Yoga Nomads have a must-read post.
San Juan del Sur is super close to Costa Rica, so we’re confident that we’ll be back sometime soon to explore the coast more. And we’re already looking forward to it!
Have you been to San Juan del Sur? What did you think?
We were guests of HulaKai Hotel, but all thoughts and opinions are, as always, our own.