SAN JUAN DEL SUR— Before it was noticed by the world’s biggest guide books, San Juan del Sur was a sleepy fishing town with little interest in tourism. Surfer Javier Baldovinos remembers it well.
“When I started surfing here in ’98, there was practically no one…maybe 20 local surfers and a couple of expats; it was just a quiet town with a few tourists,” says Baldovinos, a Managua native known to locals as “Baldo,” as he sits amid his collection of surfboards and tournament trophies in his home that doubles as a cozy hostel.
Fifteen years later, San Juan del Sur is in all the guidebooks and nearly every other building in town seems to be dedicated to tourism—a home-turned-hostel, an eatery, or a gift shop. The once-sleepy fishing village, now Nicaragua’s main tourist destination on the Pacific coast, now caters almost exclusively to the influx of Nicaraguan and foreign visitors who flock here for fun in the surf and sun.
Funky restaurants with cuisines representing every corner of the world have sprouted up among the multitude of sunny surf shops and bars where foreigners sip rum and cokes on the beach overlooking a wispy pink sunset.
Baldo says the town’s booming tourism industry all started with a few surfers in search of unexplored waves.
“Surfers were the first ones here, and it has spread little by little to a wide range of tourists. In the ’80s, there were no tourists. In ’92, the minister of tourism tried to promote Nicaragua and Surfer Magazine made a film here about surfing and tourism,” he said.
“Surfers were here looking for waves back when there weren’t any tourist attractions,” Baldo adds. “Then, with word of mouth, the Internet, the real estate boom, and more promotion of San Juan, people started coming.”
Big-name surfers have also discovered Nicaragua’s southern Pacific coast. To the north of San Juan, Tola’s Playa Colorado last year hosted the ISA World Masters Surfing Championship and the World Junior Surfing Championship is coming next month.
Pulling tourists from Costa Rica
For regular surf tourists, Nicaragua’s rawness and comparatively low prices—a beer in town still costs only $1 and a taco goes for $.50—continue to give it a major competitive edge over its southern neighbor, Baldo says.
“Costa Rica is known as a surfing and tropical hotspot, but it’s very expensive, crowded and Americanized,” he says. “Here, it’s more free, less developed and cheaper.”
Wandering San Juan’s surrounding beaches, it’s not uncommon to bump into tourists who defected from Costa Rica to come to Nicaragua.
“We planned to stay in Costa Rica longer, but the prices were really high so we decided to come here after people suggested we go to Nicaragua because it’s a good spot,” says U.S. tourist Lauren Snyder.
Other tourists crowded along the beach to watch the annual Central American Youth Volleyball Tournament feel the same.
“It’s cheaper here than in Costa Rica, and it seems less touristy,” said Canadian Anita Hansen, who came to San Juan to learn how to surf.
“The lifestyle in Costa Rica is getting to a point where it’s more like America, but the point of traveling is to experience different cultures,” echoes fellow traveler Ryan Frizzell.
Sitting down over a cup of his cafe’s homemade brew at popular local hangout El Gato Negro, Rob Thomas says San Juan’s diversity is its strongest allure.
“San Juan is unique in Nicaragua because it’s big enough to have infrastructure but small enough to be comfortable. It has forest, surfing, and you can eat a good meal on the beach…there’s something for everyone,” says the Vermont native, who next month will celebrate his eighth year as an expat in San Juan del Sur.
Though the town’s rapid development has already spilled over the surrounding hillsides to neighboring beaches along the coastline, Thomas says San Juan still reigns supreme as Nicaragua’s top up-and-coming tourism spot.
“People are excited about Nicaragua now; in the past, people were afraid with the contra war, but it’s become safer and tourism in San Juan has more than doubled in the past eight years,” he said.
Apart from the quality surfing conditions, many visitors flock here for its safety, size and facilities.
“We were looking for a great beach and this was the only place we read about that had hotel infrastructure on the Pacific coast,” says U.S. tourist Shelly Grimaldi. “Plus it’s cheap and safer than Mexico or other Central American countries.”
The growing pains of tourism
San Juan del Sur also has a famous—or perhaps infamous—party scene, which is another big draw for the younger tourist crowd. The town’s nightlife has made an international name for itself among travelers from around the world who have rocked out to music thumping from oceanfront bars in the wee hours of the morning.
“Here, I don’t have to worry about anything. I can do whatever…drink, party, dance,” said U.S. visitor Kymberly Caddell, who came to the beach for a bit respite from her work with domestic violence victims in the northern colonial city of León.
But all the partying and good-time tourism come with a cost.
San Juan del Sur native Marcelino Zamora highlights what he calls “the other side” of tourism.
“The culture here has changed a lot—the language, the food, and the way people dress have all changed. I don’t like the dress—it’s almost naked, with dreadlocks,” the 22-year-old says.
Zamora says many of his friends work for foreign managers who underpay their local staff and can be verbally abusive toward the workers.
“Now there are more tourists here, but the question is are they contributing to the economy or just profiting from it?” Zamora says. “Tourism is good but it’s got to involve the people here.”
The influx of foreigners has raised prices for locals, too. Trying to keep pace with the economy can be tough, he says.
Alex Tuthill, owner of the Pacha Mama hostel, estimates food costs alone have increased 15-20% in the past three years; the price of dorm beds in his hostel have gone from $8 to $10, he says.
Thomas, of El Gato Negro, says more tourism has also brought more drugs and prostitution to town. And the changing environment has made it hard for many local Nicaraguans to keep up with an industry that’s essentially foreign to them.
“It’s difficult for Nicaraguans to start a business catered to tourism when the majority hasn’t had the opportunity to travel themselves,” he says. “If they try to jump in, they do what they know and serve gallo pinto.”
Thomas adds, “For younger folks, they see foreigners playing and spending money but not working, and don’t see the connection between working to save for vacation.”
In many ways, the past decade of development in San Juan del Sur has been driven by the needs of foreign backpackers rather than community plan.
“Backpackers controlled the trend (of development),” says expat Kelvin Marshall, who produces a local community newsletter, the Del Sur News. “Food has been aimed at backpackers, and hole-in-the-wall food places have opened up all over. This place opened up to surfers who could afford it more because of low prices.”
While the town’s transition from fishing economy to tourism has been rapid and not without its problems, it has certainly been curious to watch, Marshall says.
“Before there were only a few places to stay and eat, but it’s developed so much,” he says. “This was a sleepy fisherman town, and it’s been so interesting to see it grow.”