More and more people have decided to visit San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua in recent years—and for good reason.
While Costa Rica has become expensive and overcrowded with tourists, Nicaragua offers a cheaper alternative filled with natural beauty. I went to Nicaragua in 2016 and it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited.
The people are friendly, it’s not overdeveloped, and tourism has yet to leave its mark on most of the country. It’s no wonder that more and more people are choosing Nicaragua as their next travel destination.
While there are a variety of beautiful, colonial cities and natural places to see, most people decide to visit San Juan del Sur and it’s also where I spent most of my time. It’s a small coastal town with great nearby surfing opportunities and a lot of activities catered towards tourists.
But the truth is that it’s not representative of Nicaragua and there was a weird vibe there that I just couldn’t get into.
It’s easy to ignore what’s going on around you if you spend most of your time in hostels or doing tourist activities. It’s easy to ignore it if you go there to party, as most people do. But the reality of what goes on in this town broke my heart.
I’m not writing this post to tell you not to visit San Juan del Sur. I’m writing it so that if you visit you can visit responsibly and be conscious of the issues.
You’re going to see a lot of homeless children.
Nicaragua is a really poor country. Around 30% of the population lives on less than $2 a day and in rural areas the rate is even higher. You’ll see people living in shacks on the side of the highway.
Because of the tourism industry, San Juan del Sur is where the money is. Children as young as seven or eight years old travel to the coast from Managua or rural areas. They come alone or with other children to try and earn money for their families.
I imagine they come with good intentions, but drugs are a big business in touristy areas and it’s not long before they get caught up in it.
How do I know this? I talked with a lot of locals during my trip, some of whom where even part of the drug trafficking rings in the area. Most of them aren’t dangerous criminals and drug cartels aren’t really a thing there. They’re just people who need money and selling drugs is a way to put food on the table.
Those kids you see entering restaurants to sell gum and candy? They’re probably selling marijuana and cocaine too. The older drug dealers find vulnerable children and “take care of them” in exchange for “work”.
You’ll see kids sleeping on the street. Anytime you’re eating something at least one will ask you for food (and how can you say no?). And, the most tragic of all, you’ll see children sniffing glue on the beach.
Tourists are treated better than locals.
The first time I went out in San Juan del Sur, I went to a beachfront bar with my surfing instructor and some people from my class. The town is small so people generally frequent the same bars.
This place was filled with tourists and expats. And basically only tourists and expats. Why? Most locals can’t afford these places. The prices are marked up and everything is catered towards foreigners. As with most places in the town, it wasn’t a place for locals.
I was sitting at the bar and observing the people around me, as I generally like to do. I saw people acting so disrespectfully that I actually felt embarrassed to be foreign.
I’m all about freedom. You can do whatever you want with your life and I won’t judge you at all. Everybody has a different path in life and that’s not for me to decide.
But the dynamic was just so awful. It was like everybody who was white was treated like royalty and their every need was catered to while the locals were treated like second-class citizens. And it was it seemed like everyone just accepted that as the way it was.
This isn’t a Nicaraguan town. It’s a town for tourists.
People will try to rip you off.
This isn’t specific to San Juan del Sur. It happens in most parts of the world, but it’s something to be aware of. I’ve traveled to several Latin American countries and people have tried to rip me off several times (and honestly I can’t blame them). But because I speak Spanish and I’m pretty good at knowing how much I should be paying, it’s not as easy to fool me.
This is the first place someone has ever successfully ripped me off. It wasn’t that big of a deal. I paid something like $8 for what should have been a $2 bus ride. It made a big difference to the bus driver but hardly any difference to me.
Still, nobody likes to be taken for a fool, so just be aware while you’re there.
To see the best of the area, get out of the town.
I honestly really loved San Juan del Sur and, despite all the problems, I thought it was beautiful. But my favorite parts were actually when I left the town.
To be fair, the San Juan del Sur itself isn’t that bad. It’s easy to ignore the problems I wrote about above, but they do exist if you observe closely.
When I went surfing, we went to nearby beaches and they were stunning. The vibe was so much more chill. The people weren’t so obnoxious and it was far from the loud party scene. When you visit San Juan del Sur, please leave the town and explore the surrounding area.
Ok…so what can you do?
I wouldn’t be able to write a post like this without telling you what you can do about it.
Should you visit San Juan del Sur? Yes. It’s beautiful, the locals are friendly, and it’s a great place to learn how to surf. But you should visit responsibly.
There are a lot of foreign-owned restaurants, bars, and shops. But make an effort to buy from local Nicaraguans—even if it’s just for breakfast or lunch. You’ll usually pay less and get a homecooked meal. Plus, you’re buying from someone who needs the money a lot more than, say, the Canadian who owns one of the most popular bars in town.
You can also make an effort to get to know the locals. Many of them are really friendly and like getting to know people from different cultures. In my experience, Nicaraguans are very accepting people. You don’t even really need to speak Spanish because a lot of people in SJDS speak English. It’s a great way to get a first-hand look at the culture.
When it comes to the children, it can be tempting to empty your pockets and give them any spare change you have. But it’s much more helpful to give them food. If you buy from them, they’re probably going to have to give part of or all of the money to someone “taking care” of them. If you give them food, you know exactly where that food is going.
You’ll also notice that most children on the street will ask you for food, and not money. So what does that tell you?
Another thing, I’m not here to judge you, but if you’re going to do drugs just take a minute to think where those drugs are coming from, who’s benefiting, and the consequences of you buying them.
If you’re looking for a more socially responsible trip, you can also try volunteering and bring something positive to the community. For example, Chica Brava Surf School has a variety of volunteer programs you can be a part of.
Have you ever been to San Juan del Sur? What were your thoughts? Do you have any tips on how to travel responsibly?