Former fishing town reels in whopper with tourism

San Juan del Sur’s evolution into a tourism town has been fast and furious, but the changing economy has led to some growing pains as well. First in a two-part series on tourism, development and the future of San Juan del Sur

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.

San Juan’s tourism boom has spawned a mom-and-pop surf industry (photo/ Claire Luke)

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.”

Javier “Baldo” Baldovinos remembers when San Juan was a sleepy town (photo/ Claire Luke)

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.

U.S. tourist Lauren Snyder and friend found Nicaragua after coming up from Costa Rica (photo/ Claire Luke)

“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

The beaches surrounding San Juan are becoming increasingly popular with tourists (photo/ Tim Rogers)

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.

Gato Negro’s Rob Thomas

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.”


  • mike

    San Juan del Sur would be pretty close to perfect, if Pali’s started selling Claussen dill pickles and they heated up the bay a bit. Luckily for the non-industrious, that very tidy little bay does keep most of the actual surf some miles away, so you don’t have to shout over it. It also won’t take long to discover why a town with only a few hundred hotel rooms needs 50 beach vendors selling sunglasses.

  • Jorge Greco Rodriguez

    San Juan Del Sur has had it share of tourist since before foreigners even thought about moving there, my family lived in SJDS until 1979, the famous Gato Negro used to be La Cabañita were Doña Berta Rodriguez(My Grandmother) served her delicious Raspados(kind of like Italian ice) back than SJDS was also an exclusive place for wealthy Nicaraguans like The Kellys who vacation specially in semana santa or easter as it called in the USA. There used to be even a movie theater in SJDS, regarding prostitution and drugs many of these surfers all they want to do is smoke marihuana and surf, in the positive side it has improved the lives of some locals and foreigners of course, everything has pros and cons…

  • Kelvin

    We just got a small Cinema back, just 25 seats or so but they are doing great. They may take over the old one (behind the downtown Eskimo) if they get enough interest. Frank Kelly still gets down here, always looking dapper in his sports gear.

  • Carlotta Chamorro

    Wrong Claire though your intentions are good!

    San Juan has barely ever been a fishing village as it was and started as a very important port in the Americas. Actually it was a very important port for the USA during the gold rush and specially for Mr. Vanderbildt who made billions of dollars (at today’s rate) as part of his company connecting the East with the West USA till the railroad opened the inland route or from 1750 to 1850.
    Latter San Juan served as a major Nicaraguan port and you can still see the huge warehouses for that effect and like it or not during (as with most things in Nica) opened during the Somoza time.
    It’s only been a few years with the Gringo backpackers as a getaway destination and who smartly use the “surfing” thins as an excuse to “get out” be a beach bum and drink plenty of beer, very smart!

    Besides it has always been a getaway for the very elite, not moneywise but decent wise and you can still see the houses for the Kelly, Holmann, Pellas, Palazio and few other select families. The rest you see now are just a bunch of new rich who want to show off (probably how to take from government-or nanny state or new age liberals).

    I hope I gave you a true San Juan perspective my dear!

    • Jorge Greco Rodriguez

      Well said my dear

    • Név Hamis

      As a doctoral thesis on the history of San Juan del Sur, I felt this piece glossed over some of the historical intricacies, evolutionary phases and influential actors of the past 200 years. Oh wait, this is a news article about how backpacker surf tourism has changed the town over the past decade? Never mind. Carry on.

      • Kelvin

        Nice one, John Cleese would be proud!!

  • Natalie

    For a fishing village, go to Jiqulillo or Las Penitas. Looking back, SDJS had some charms that we didn’t truly appreciate the one time we visited in early 2007. Compared to the rest of Nicaragua, though, it didn’t seem quaint at all, even then, with the big developments going up on the hillside that looked more like an attempt at Cinque Terre than a Latin surf town. I guess we will go back some time but we were soured by staying at a place owned by Americans who refused to learn Spanish, and with the rapid rise in tourism we imagined it’s only gotten worse in the last 6 years.

    I think SDJS is great for certain types of travelers but not for the authentic Nica feel. Stick with the Northwest coast for that.

    • Erik Jota

      “Stick with the Northwest coast for that.” Please don’t spread the word.

  • Kelvin

    Taken in chronological order, Claire’s comment is not wrong.

    Between the time it stopped being used as a major port (when container shipping came in and the deeper Puerto Corinto blossomed), it was a fishing village for many years. That’s why the Japanese built a US $12 million “Fishing Terminal” for the fisherman. Unfortunately that was about the time the fish numbers died off.

    Luckily, (or not, depending on your preference) tourism came along and provided work to the families of the fishermen. As big development slowed in 2008, SJdS was able to retain more of its its fishing village heritage and now provides a good blend of old school and new school jobs.

  • Ken

    Once a Nica in Costa Rica challenged: “What the hell do you know about Nicaragua? Ever been there? And neither Granada nor San Juan Del Sur are Nicaragua!”

    I was proud to be able to say that I had never been to San Juan Del Sur and was guilty only of Granada, but hoped that Managua and León gave me a little credibility.

    I suppose that if I liked to surf SJDS would be fine, and there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it or with tourism either, but I have my doubts about how authentically Nica it is. Hell, Granada isn’t very Nica unless you look.

  • mark druce

    Your article presented almost all the facts that are associated with growth. First of all, the growth is uneven growth. Most of it is in the service sector which historically pays less, offers little benefits, and creates mainly part time employment which is seasonal. 70% of the jobs at Walmart are part time jobs paying less than $10 per hour. Jobs that do not provide health care and retirements.

    Hotels are the worse, and restaurants are the worse.

    Secondly, most of the owners are non-nationals, outsiders who want to make a fast buck. The national owners or partners are the already super rich. Just like the 14 families in Honduras. Also, the money does not stay in the country it goes overseas.

    Thirdly, the development leads to a lack of development in good paying industrial jobs. When most of the development money goes to the service sector, a shortage of devolopement funds is created for industrial development.

    Fourthly, only the wealthy get to stay at the hotels. The average Nicaraguan citizen will no longer be able to go to traditional low and middle income wage earners.

    Fifthy, most if not all of the national infrastructure developemnt goes to the tourist centers and housing for foreigners living and moving to Nicaragua. Most of the population is left without proper water, sewage, and housing developement.

    Sixthly, the environment suffers from polution, espeicially the ocean and shorefront. La Paz in Mexico is a good example. It was also a quiet little agricultural and surfing town. Now, La Paz is big unfriendly toursist town in which hotel rates are now often $100 per night instead of the $15-$30
    per night it was. Food prices have gone up over 100%. The ocean is now so polluted that lobsters can no longer be caught 100 yards offshore and eaten. Crime has risen. Also, neighboring national seashore reserves have been developed to Cancun-like resorts.

    Finally, the culture of Nicaragua will be destroyed. Native cultures and languages will become extinct as the Western neo-liberalistic culture of I must make more money to be happy and secure The percentage of truly relgious God fearing citizens will decrease. They will only the value of the money worshiping American culture. In which, traditions family values will be destroyed. The divorce rate will soar. Domestic abuse due to drug abuse will soar. Prostitution will increase to the point where it becomes a legal tax paying job. Murder rates will increase. Homelessness will increase as land that had homes and farming land will become kingdoms for rich locals and foreigners. The new God in Nicaragua will making more and more money reguardless of how many lifes, cultures, families, nature reserves, unique regional animals, will be murdered in the name greed and money. Just look at the 5 farmers murderd by Coca Cola Security Guards at Honduran Sugar farms. Nicaragua will no longer be Nicaragua.


  • de Las Sombras

    When I last saw SJdS it still showed traces of the last remnants of the Southern Front and the hasty GN evacuation out to sea… (back in late ’79) Guess I’m going to be in for a shock when ever I get around to the dive back down there…

    The unfetted/undirected pace of change has increased so rapidly in the past 15 years it’s getting harder and harder to find the true Nicaragua anymore… :(

  • Greg Nelson

    Ridiculous barely investigated story – San Juan del Sur is far more than the Yank deadlocked, dope-smoking surfer dudes, their ‘hang outs’ and hostels mentioned here.
    There are many reasonably priced tourist friendly hotels and restaurants in town
    I’ve been there in 2002 and 2007, will be returning again this year.
    Road from Rivas was badly beat up in 2007 from construction vehicles.
    Roads north and south of town were in horrible condition due to condo construction.
    Hoping conditions are improved this year – and second part of this story is more accurate. BTW fishing industry appears to be thriving, and tour ships ‘unload’ blue rinse set every other day.

    • Elsa

      Jajaja! Thanks for the update from the guy who last visited San Juan del Sur 6 years ago. After you go back again this year, please let us know if they ever got that road from Rivas done. I’m dying to know.

  • Kelvin

    Greg, yes, there are many sides to SJdS but Claire picked one for this article.

    FYI: Tour ships as in Cruise Ships: We only had 27 Cruise Ships from 22 October 2012 to 29 March 2013.

  • Gio

    I see everybody has an opinion about San Juan del Sur according to the age. I´m a local and I remember tourism in my town back in the 80´s but the tourists were backpackers from Europe the most. My grandfather had the main nightclub in town and you could find a bunch of hotels in the 70´s. My mother opened a hostel in 1993 and it´s still running but it´s not a competitor to new foreign investment. Nostalgia brings me back to the Hotel Barlovento (the old hotel in the hill next to Pelican Eyes), I really liked that hotel, it has an Acapulco look. I see the Pelican Eyes and a lot of new buildings and condos look almost the same, it must be the same architect. But anyway like Marcelino said we have pros and we have cons.