I love big cities, and always enjoy returning to Hong Kong, New York, and Sydney—among many others. But what about those unknown gems that are off the beaten tourist path… those obscure places that are just waiting to be explored by real travelers?
Our new “Mini City Guides” are here to uncover those gems, and we’re looking to our favorite explorers—AONC readers—to give us the inside scoop.
Nominate your favorite unsung city. This city was nominated by reader Claudia Gonella.
Which accessibly obscure city would you like to share?
San Juan del Sur, a fishing town set in a horseshoe shaped bay on the southern Pacific coast of Nicaragua.
Nicaragua is a two-and-a-half hour direct flight from Miami, three hours from Houston and four hours from Atlanta, making the country very accessible from the U.S.
It’s still an obscure destination because most people hear about the place for all the “wrong” reasons. They hear about economic difficulties, instability and the decade-long Contra War of the 1980s. And though it’s been over 25 years since the guerrillas set down their arms, these lingering negative perceptions still keep people away.
There is a positive side to this: Unlike more mainstream destinations, San Juan del Sur hasn’t been packaged up into a series of canned tourist attractions. A visit here won’t be plastic, contrived or diluted. San Juan del Sur is more authentic than that.
What makes it unique?
When I first arrived in Nicaragua, the tourism slogan was “Nicaragua … con Corazon” (“Nicaragua … with Heart”). It has since changed, but I think that old slogan still describes what’s unique about the place. It’s hard to define, but Nicaragua just has a little more “heart” than most places.
While San Juan del Sur is prime territory for a straightforward sun-sand-and-sea holiday, what makes it unique is that beyond the beautiful beaches is a rugged interior of jungle and volcanoes that’s begging to be explored. It’s a place where you can get stuck in a cattle drive and watch vaqueros (Nicaraguan cowboys) ride tall in the saddle. You can take to the water on a sailboat, visit remote beaches and ride horseback on the beach.
What makes it special to you?
My most special travel experiences in San Juan del Sur always come from the local people I meet. And it’s these interactions that lead to my most important insights about the world.
A special moment in San Juan del Sur could be meeting the 14-year-old child from the Carizal community attending her afternoon English class who believes that she can be a doctor some day, if she attends class regularly and studies hard enough.
Or when Doña Nelly, the director of the Jam ladies cooperative smiles with delight as I taste her new pitaya jam recipe and then takes me by the hand to see the community garden.
Or it could even be when the 75-year-old expat who’s been surfing for 30 years declares the breaks around San Juan del Sur as the best in his pursuit of a lifetime.
What’s the best place to grab a bite to eat or drink?
For food, head to El Timón. Located right on the beachfront, it’s been serving up great food since 1979. Start with the seafood ceviche to give your taste-buds an explosion of flavor and then try a pescado entero. It translates to “whole fish” and that is exactly what it is, fins, gills, eye-balls and all. And if your dining partner orders the seafood platter, there will be enough for you to pick at too.
On most nights there are live performances to accompany your meal, but if you come for cultural night on a Thursday, be sure to make a reservation ahead of time.
For a drink, order a macuá at Buen Gusto. Invented in Nicaragua, the drink is a heady concoction of guava, lime juice, orange juice and “Extra Light” Flor de Caña rum. Your drink will come in a giant fish-bowl drinking glass and will taste delicious.
Where can you kick your feet up with a great cup of coffee?
Head to Café Revolución, perch on one of the stools facing Playa Maderas and sip on a perfect latte while you check out San Juan del Sur’s most popular break.
Sometimes in return for a great surf break you accept you’ll need to sacrifice some home comforts, like good specialty coffee drink options. But not here.
Are there any festivities that can’t be missed?
Don’t miss the Pitaya Festival, a celebration of music, local handicrafts and sustainability. It’s held each year right on the sand at Playa Hermosa at the full moon, either in February or March.
In July, San Juan del Sur celebrates “Our Lady of Carmen” with a delightful floating procession of boats carrying a statue of Virgen del Carmen, the patron saint of fishermen, across the bay. The day before there’s a vigil on the beach road with music and street food. It’s worth seeking out.
Fiestas Patrias, the celebration of Nicaragua’s independence from Spain 1821, is always a special weekend in San Juan del Sur. Celebrated every September, children and marching bands take to the street in parade. There is lots of flag waving.
What’s the best time to visit?
December to January is a great time to visit. The landscape should hold some green from the previous wet season and temperatures will be a little lower than other times of the year.
If you’re a surfer, the main season runs from May to November when you’ll see solid swells that make the points and reefs come alive. You’ll likely encounter some rain over these months but even during the wettest periods, the rains rarely last for more than a few hours, clearing quickly.
What’s the best way to get around town?
Ride in the back of a pickup truck. It’s completely legal to do so in San Juan del Sur.
Any other areas around that can’t be missed?
Many visitors overlook the slower paced interior when they come to San Juan del Sur. But a visit to Escamequita could be the highlight of your trip. Sunny hills roll in all directions, ox-wagons roll by on wooden wheels and howler monkeys call from the trees. It’s the kind of country that will inspire you to move into a hacienda, start an organic vegetable garden and throw away your cell phone.
A not-to-miss experience in Escamequita is horseback riding and no one does it better than Rancho Chilamate. The ranch hands and trail guides are friendly, knowledgeable and energetic, making even the least experienced rider and farthest-flung visitor feel very much at home. You’ll wind your way through private nature reserves, across rivers and along quiet beaches marveling at the Nicaraguan countryside at every turn.
Thanks again to Claudia for putting another city on our Places to Visit list. Her site, San Juan Live, gives even more great tips on what to do in San Juan del Sur.
Images courtesy of San Juan Live