San Juan del Sur

As we traveled further and further south into Central America we kept hearing good things about San Juan del Sur.  Everyone said how peaceful and tranquil it was, its miles of unspoiled beaches and beautiful jungles and we knew that we had to get there.

Once we arrived and I had a chance to meet some of the locals and some of the expats that were living there I found out that its climate is quite unique in the Americas; it is far enough south that it is warm all year but because of its location by the ocean and next to Lake Nicaragua, it stays relatively mild all year-long.  It is located on a narrow strip of land between these two bodies of water that act like weather ballast; they keep it warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  The weather was quite pleasant and I could see why so many American, Canadian, British and German retirees were buying houses down here.

The town itself is situated on a small cove much like  or Avalon on the island of Catalina off the coast of Los Angeles.  The cove was like a semi-closed horseshoe that blocked out the harsh Pacific waves and allowed for the small boats and yachts to anchor.  In the photo above you can see the “right” or northern shoreline of the cove.  On the north  cove a small hill rose and developers were just starting to build new houses – beautiful houses with wonderful views that reminded me of Avalon.

I learned that the town has an active sport fishing industry and beautiful swordfish and yellow tail can be caught just outside of the cove.  Hiring a boat was not too expensive and while there wasn’t a lot of “advertising” of sport fishing, just asking around on the beach you could find more than a few willing captains and crews.

Looking up the beach (photo below) you can see “restaurant row.”  There were 6 or 7 restaurants along the beach with wonderful sea food.  I found the food here to be quite unique from what I’d previously experienced in Central America.  The fish was heavy with garlic and served with some potatoes and a salad.  During the day, Spanish tutors teach lessons on the ocean-front patios and lucky students sip on fresh fruit juice with the cool breeze and a majestic view that should (and probably will) a lot more than it does.  Meals could be had for $5 to $8 and we paid $8 per night for a hotel room.  Our hotel was in an old Victorian hotel building left over from the 1800′s.  It was in need of repair but the owner had turned it into an ad hoc hostel.  We had a balcony facing the ocean just across the street.  If I had more time I would have been happy to stay here for 3 months.

This place had a lot to do.  Swimming, fishing, sunbathing, drinking beer and tequila, eating, jungle hiking, stretches of beach to the north and south for walking, watching the turtles hatch and crawl to the sea and all sorts of other fun activities.  In the photo below, looking south along the “left” edge of the cove, you can see the thick jungle and its “undeveloped” state – many western real estate developers were buying land and subdividing it and selling it to retired people from North America and Europe.

I met one of the top real estate developers in town.  He was a retired American man who had moved down here a few years earlier.  He told me that the prices are climbing each month as more and more westerners come to buy land.  Apparently, the government had just settled most of the claims for the land that was confiscated during the Communist Revolution.  By taxing new real estate development, the new government raised revenue that was used to pay off those who lost land.  In sort of a “reverse Catch-22,” no one would invest in land in Nicaragua because of the “unsettled” claims of the past.  Now, by developing land and taxing the process, the government can settle the claims thereby encouraging more development.  The real estate developer told me that it started off slow but as more people were becoming acquainted with Nicaragua the money was beginning to pour in.  He advised me to quit my job, sell everything I had and come down here, buy some land, sub-divide it, sell it off and begin anew.  He told me that fortunes were being made and as a “young man,” I should take advantage of the situation.

His words have always stayed in my head.  I surely loved San Juan del Sur and I would love to have a house by the sea.  It seemed like a perfect place to have a vacation home.

At the end of our first day, spent mostly in the ocean and on the beach, Jeff and I grabbed dinner and a cold beer.  We watched as the sun set over the deep blue Pacific and I really thought that it can’t get any better than this.  This place is really paradise and I would love to come here every year.  The people were friendly, the food was wonderful and the scenery was spectacular.

Now, the local vendors and restauranteurs of San Juan del Sur certainly had a bit more business savvy than our hotel proprietor in , but they were still a few decades behind the business savvy “Ricardo” and his jammin bar and restaurant at the “top” (read: north end) of restaurant row.  The local restaurants had a certain ambiance with the local cooking and certainly the flavor couldn’t be beat, but when it came to after hours time, Ricardo topped them all.

Now, Ricardo was no Nicaraguan  Heck, he wasn’t even from Central America.  Ricardo is a “gringo” (read: American) who immigrated to this beautiful seaside port some years ago.  In fact, his name is Rick but who would go to a bar called “Rick’s” in San Juan del Sur?  You get it, he is now “Ricardo.”  He is a fair hair-blue eyed Anglo with a beautiful American wife and a kid or two who look like they come from Holland.  But, he sure knows how to run a bar and this place was “the place” to be after sunset.  Every expat, traveler and Nicaraguan with a sense of adventure was here every night after sundown.  Rick had happy hour, nightly drink specials, the most popular music, volley ball games on the beach in front of his bar, good service, fast food and free movies every night.  Of course the movies were bootlegged but there are no copyright restrictions down here, yet.  The movies are played on a screen projected from a DVD player hooked to a projector.  The place was fun, it was “happening,” and once you looked around, you realized that San Juan del Sur is a “sleepy” little town and this is the “only” game in town.

I wondered if any of the other restaurants had any inkling of how much $ Rick was making.  If they did, they might have stayed open a little later, played some movies, had drink specials and made more of an effort.  But, the rest of the town shut down at 8 or 9 pm and Rick just cleaned up.  Beers were a buck and a half and his cost was only 40 cents.  Hundreds of drinks went down and his cost for rent is probably nil.  I’m sure he was raking in the cash.

… view from the patio at “Ricardo’s”…

In the few days we spent in San Juan del Sur, we came back to Ricardo’s each night and in no time we came to know all of the locals – Nicaraguan and expats.  There was a boisterous community of “retired” American, Canadian and German men who “hung out” at Ricardo’s each night.  All of their wives seemed to stay at home, if they had any.  We came to know the rich Nicaraguans who lived in the capital but kept vacation homes here.  Within 48 hours it was like walking onto the set of “Cheers’ except that it was an open air bar, situated on the sand of the beach and everyone was half-dressed and feeling very relaxed – a far cry from snow blown Boston.

We met the local “Peace Corps” girls who were in fact part of the same party of girls that we met in Creel, Mexico some weeks earlier.  The girls we met in Mexico had finished their tours months earlier and were on their way home and the girls here were just finishing and were about to do some travel before heading home.

I remember one night at Ricardo’s, Jeff and I were sitting with the American girls from the Peace Corps, I thought we were doing quite well with them as Jeff charmed them with one witty story after another.  Meanwhile, the local prostitute, actually there were two of them, but in this case, the one was copulating with a German or Canadian man in the bathroom stall and it was quite obvious as everyone was commenting on it.  A few of his chums were standing outside the door of the stall (no actual bathroom – the stalls face right to the bar and the doors only go up to two meters, if you are tall or have a chair, you can look down into the toilet from the bar).  His chums were gawking and laughing in a drunken stupor and all of the Peace Corps girls were quite disgusted as were many of us.

We all talked about the “ugly American”; the tourist who makes a bad name for us all.  And some of the Canadians and Germans commented that it’s not just the Americans, there is always some “bad wheel” who makes the rest of his country men look bad.  So, we commented on this bad situation.

I commented that “some day,” this episode would be a “chapter” in my “book.”  One of the lovely young American Peace Corps girls said, really, and what will you call this chapter?  I thought for a moment and responded, “San Juan del Sur; 38 drunken expats, 7 Peace Corps volunteers and a prostitute.”  The whole table erupted in laughter.  It probably wasn’t a good name for a chapter but it certainly got a laugh from everyone there.

Also during my time in San Juan I met a Nicaraguan real estate developer.  He built some beautiful houses on the hilltop on the “north” edge of the crescent that makes up the San Juan bay.  He invited Jeff and I and some local girls that we had met to come and visit the show home.  In the photo below, it is the white house on the left side of the hill directly above the person in the surf on the far left.

When we drove up and around the hill I was quite impressed by this house.  It was built into the side of the hill and was completely furnished and fitted with the latest; big screen tv, stereo, fireplace, gazebo on the hill facing the ocean, the pool and Jaccuzi both faced the ocean.  The house was 4 rooms displacing 4,000 square feet, vaulted ceilings, a 3 car garage, huge kitchen, tile floors…  I could go on and on.  It was a multi-million dollar home with a spectacular ocean view.  I was quite shocked to find that the price tag was only $350,000.  I wanted to buy it right then and there.

Often, I think back to San Juan del Sur; I hope that I’ll have enough money to come back and buy a home before the prices skyrocket.  I’ve seen Vietnam, Thailand and Croatia get developed.  There are few places in the world with “affordable” beach property.  I’d sure love to buy one of these and pass it to the grandkids…


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