San Juan del Sur is a sleepy fishing village on the Pacific coast near the border of Costa Rica. It is small enough that you would never need a car. All of the hotels, restaurants, stores and homes are mixed together in this tiny fishing village. The entire town consists of four streets back from the beach and four streets along the beach.
A larger grocery store called Pali is just on the outskirts of town. Visitors can stay in Hotels such as the Colonial or the Gran Oceana for around $50 per night or spend $350 per night for the best room at Pelican Eyes resort up on the hill with a spectacular view of the cove. You can eat at the five star restaurant or out by the infinity pool. Then go visit the monkeys on-site in their sanctuary.
But we aren’t travelers. We prefer living internationally. Outside of town, you can rent a four bedroom three bath house up on the hill with a full time guard and a swimming pool for $2,500 per month.
We love living in town among the eclectic mix of Canadian, British and American ex-pats who live sprinkled among the Nicaraguan locals. We rented a six bedroom, four bathroom home with a huge balcony and hammock for $800 per month. Our two preschoolers had fun trying to find purposes for all of the extra rooms.
That way we didn’t need or want a car. We were within quick walking distance of the beach, stores, restaurants, the park and every other amenity you can possibly desire… almost…
Small town living in a relatively poor country has it’s advantages. Both ex-pats and locals get to know you in this friendly town. But it takes awhile to figure out how to get certain things done.
For instance, there is an open market in the center of town for fresh produce, but it really doesn’t look very good. Greens are wilted from the heat. Fruits are small and blemished. There must be a solution.
There is, but you have to ask around. On Saturday mornings, the ex-pats have their own open market next to the American chiropractor’s office across from the harbor. Just ask for the Chiropractor’s office. There is only one in town. It is run by Dr. Andrew. Tell him, I said “Hi.”
The grocery store on the outskirts of town also has a very limited selection. You may eventually grow to miss Sam’s Club and Costco. The good news is that Costco is in Nicaragua. They operate under the name Price Smart. The nearest store is in Managua which is a two hour drive though.
The solution is just as easy. Four blocks away from Andrew’s office on the other side of town, you will find Big Wave Dave’s, a bar and restaurant tucked away on a side street just off the beach. The owner, not coincidentally is Dave Grace, but everyone calls him Big Wave Dave.
You need to introduce yourself to Dave the first day you get into town. He is a problem solver of all kinds. You can find him sitting at his own bar “holding court” just about every afternoon except Sunday when the entire town is pretty much closed.
Dave runs a van service to Managua every Tuesday and Friday. I think it costs $10 to take the ride. He fills the van and dictates the itinerary based on everyone’s needs. Some are going to their embassy. Some are shopping at Price Smart or another large grocery store in Managua. Others are going to a doctor’s appointment. You just tell Dave what you need and he’ll get you there, but you need to be flexible about which order people get dropped off and how long it might take to be picked up.
But if you just want a big juicy California orange, some smoked salmon and a root beer (none of which are available in San Juan del Sur), you just tell Dave on Monday or Thursday night and he’ll pick it up for you. He charges a very reasonable fee for this service. I think it is 10% of the purchase price or $10 whichever is more.
Prescriptions aren’t a problem in Nicaragua. He can pick those up too… often without actually having the prescription since most pharmacies are pretty lax about requiring prescriptions even for the few drugs that theoretically require them in Nicaragua.
A couple of doors down from Big Wave Dave’s (on the same street), you will find the El Gato Negro (the black cat) bookstore and restaurant. Rob and Kelly, who own and operate El Gato Negro have been called “book nazis” by the local ex-pats for their firm policy of not allowing people to read books from their vast collection without first paying for them. Little signs advertise that it is a book store, not a library.
But here is where you will find English books to read in Nicaragua. They also have a great menu of very healthy and delicious food.
This is also one of three places in town to get the secret greens. Remember when I told you the greens in the market are wilted? Well, some of the restaurants in town have these excellent wild mixed greens that are fresh and organic. It will take you a few weeks to get a local to tell you where to get them. Actually, I never did find out the real actual source. It is a HUGE secret and people joke about how hard they worked or who they had to pay off to find the supplier of the secret greens.
I don’t know the source, but I do know that you can buy them for about $6 a bag (more than a week’s supply of salads) from either El Gato Negro or from Big Wave Dave. They are also usually available at the Saturday market.
Another ex-pat you will want to get to know is the owner of Jerry’s Pizza which is located right in the middle of town and serves a great pizza even by international standards. The owner’s name is actually Bob, but he doesn’t mind if you slip up and call him Jerry. He bought the place years ago from Jerry and in typical San Juan del Sur style, he decided it just wasn’t important enough to change the sign or the web-site so he kept the name Jerry’s Pizza.
There are other ex-pats you will want to get to know in town for various reasons. Of course one reason is that ex-pats in San Juan del Sur are just plain cool people.
You’ll want to get to know the pirate family who makes and sells the home made bagels. Yes. I said pirate. And I’m not going to tell you anything more about that. You’ll just have to ask about it yourself when you get there.
Also ask about The Pier and go watch a sunset with my friends Steve and Shannon. It is one of my favorite parts of the San Juan del Sur experience.
Who do you ask? Well, you can ask Dave at Big Wave Dave’s or Rob and Kelly at El Gato Negro or Bob at Jerry’s Pizza, but the real place you absolutely need to go is the Saturday market.
All of the gringo ex-pats gather across from the harbor to trade stories and socialize every Saturday morning for the Saturday market. It is also a great chance to buy great looking produce from the organic gardens of the ex-pats or get other rare commodities craved by ex-pats.
San Juan del Sur is a truly magical place that needs to be experienced to be truly appreciated.
About the author: Subversive Uncle Frank lived in San Juan del Sur for eight months with his family of four including two toddlers. You can read more about San Juan del Sur and Uncle Frank’s other adventures on his blog here: http://www.SUFAQ.com
He will be happy to answer any questions if you leave him a note in the comments section of his blog.