I am not sure why, but months ago, when I was vaguely planning my backpacking trip to Central America, I noticed how much the idea of going to Nicaragua spoke to me. It might’ve been the prospect of visiting a country with 19 volcanoes – many of them still active – or it could have been the pictures I had seen of pretty colonial towns, or the stories I had heard from other travellers about the famous “Sunday Funday” party in San Juan Del Sur. There was a lot to look forward to, but there was one aspect to Nicaragua that had made the country even better; my “brother from another mother,” Adam, who I had travelled with on a sailboat years ago, was working in Nicaragua.
I said goodbye to Costa Rica and stepped into my shuttle that would take me to the border, into Nicaragua and to San Juan Del Sur in about four hours. Getting to the border was bittersweet, I was excited to get into the country and start a new chapter of my travels, but I quickly noticed the large number of people, mostly African, Asian and Haitian sitting along the road. I learnt later that these “migrants” who are marooned in Costa Rica are on their way north to try to get into the United States. In Paso Canoas, which is the border to Panama, the Costa Rican government registers migrants and gives them a document that allows them to travel freely through Costa Rica as long as they check in with authorities every 15 days. Many continue north to Costa Rica’s northern border, only to find that crossing into Nicaragua is a vastly more difficult task.
Nicaragua has maintained a hard line stance against letting migrants without visas pass through the country. Many of the migrants have sought out human smugglers to get them across the border, with varying degrees of success. The going price to hire a coyote to smuggle people into Nicaragua is around $600, migrants here say. But they also say that many of the smuggling offers are a hoax and migrants frequently end up getting robbed or worse. Some of the migrants in Peñas Blancas have been in Costa Rica for three months and have run out of money to continue their journey. Still, migrants walk through the streets of Peñas Blancas and deal with squalid living conditions, hoping that somehow Nicaragua will change its mind and let them continue on their way north.
This was very sad to see and hear about and it made me realize how lucky I was to be able to move around freely between countries and have a home I could easily and comfortably come back to. I was also lucky that I had two seasoned expats in the same shuttle as I; they had crossed the border multiple times and knew the somewhat confusing process. We had to go through four different offices, some of which looked like just another supermarket selling snacks and beer. Weird. Half an hour later, I was officially stamped into Nicaragua!
The shuttle dropped me off at my hostel – Hola Ola – where I impatiently waited for Adam. Adam walked in, with a scruffy face, dirty overalls and a big smile. There was a short blur of hugs and tears and then we spent the rest of the day catching up. So much had happened in between the years that we hadn’t seen each other, yet it also seemed like yesterday that we had travelled together. The next days were all about rum, barbecues and parties! It was weekend and living up to its “party-town” name, San Juan Del Sur had plenty of music, dancing and of course the famous Flor De Cana rum! On Saturday, we enjoyed a BBQ with the guests and owners of Hola Ola Hostel, during which I first noticed how absolutely perfect the sunsets in Nicaragua could be.
On Sunday, the town is normally crowded with hordes of young travellers aiming to forget life back home and have a party of a lifetime they might forget, due to all the rum. But this Sunday was a bit different as there were elections and a nation-wide alcohol ban. Elections went as everyone expected and incumbent President Daniel Ortega was re-elected for a third consecutive term amid charges he and the Sandinista Party used their control of state resources to bypass constitutional term limits and hamstring political rivals. Learning this, the political situation in Nicaragua piqued my interest and I would slowly learn more over the coming weeks.
The eager partygoers did not have to worry too much, though, as the Sunday Funday would just be held on Monday this time around. “Monday Funday” drew a crowd of over 300 people, although it was still low season in the small town. All I will share about that long afternoon is that the famous barhop was definitely a good time! After recovering from the Monday Funday Flor de Cana overdose, I decided to go and explore the town a bit more. Once a quiet, picturesque, fishing village, discovered by the Spanish Andres Niño in 1523, San Juan Del Sur had definitely grown, and was now one of the most visited destinations by foreigners and locals in the country.
The town of San Juan del Sur has almost everything: hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs, language schools, a post office, a central park, a municipal market, a port, a police station and the famous bay of the same name. This is the obligatory stopover of almost every traveller seeking for relaxation and lots of surfing on its quiet beaches. For the first time in weeks, I did a bit of shopping, and found a nice bathing suit designed by an expat, who had seen the business potential of San Juan Del Sur just like a growing number of travellers had. I also had a great quesadilla for just $2. Food, I would notice in Nicaragua was good and very cheap, which basically just meant I was tempted to have two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners every day.
Twice I visited the “Jesus de la Misericoridia” statue, located on the summit of the highest hill in town. The monument was made by Costa Rican artist Max Ulloa. Cristo de la Misericordia was designed and built by Costa Rican artist Max Ulloa in 2009 and is 15 metres high in addition to its nine-metre pedestal, for a total of 24 metres. The enormous statue of Jesus is one of the biggest in the world and boasts an incredible view of the Pacific Ocean and the town below. On my last day in San Juan Del Sur, I was lucky enough to catch a double rainbow right before a perfectly pink-hued sunset at the statue.
During my week, I had visited many beaches near San Juan Del Sur, but Playa Hermosa easily outdid them all! I spent hours exploring the coastline, finding little rocky coves and a deserted white beach that remains nameless to me up till today. As usual, the sunset here did not disappoint and it was extra entertaining to see a group of cows make its way to the beach, looking out over the water, seeming to be enjoying the changing tones of the sky as well. Rum, barbecues and beaches – if besides that, I also liked to surf, maybe I would have been tempted to stay longer, but it was time to move on and explore more of Nicaragua.
by Laura Bijnsdorp, Follow Laura’s travels every Saturday in the WEEKender or on Instagram: laurasxm