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San Juan del Sur with Kids

After taking a car-ferry from Ometepe Island, our destination was San Juan del Sur, a poster-child of Nicaragua. Famed for its perfectly crescent beaches and world-class Pacific surf, it made an excellent stop on the way to the southern border with Costa Rica, at Peñas Blancas.


San Juan has had a bit of a reputation for a beachside party town, with “Sunday Funday” pool-and-bar crawls so we decided to stay out of town and make this our first (and only!) “splash-out resort-type” hotel. We were very keen to get to a place with a balcony, pool and even a water slide and rock-climbing wall and get our toes in the Pacific Ocean for the very first time as well! Perhaps we might have our first encounter with turtles on the beach?

Sadly, mother nature had different ideas for us on this 2-3 day trip. The weather was grim, overcast and rained so heavily overnight that our choice of hotel proved to be both a blessing and a curse.


We arrived to the surprise that in order to reach the Surf Ranch Hotel and Resort you must drive at length down unpaved roads and eventually cross a pretty wide stream/shallow river. This was not a problem when we arrived, and we were so happy to have the beautiful pool and the squeals and shrieks of delight from the kids that we didn’t care for much else. We had the best time! However, when it tipped it down savagely overnight, we realised we may have trouble leaving! We did not have a 4x4/SUV. We decided to chance our way out after breakfast, but it was still raining and the unpaved roads had turned to mud slides. We sat at the precipice of the drop into the now fast flowing and much deeper river and knew we couldn’t safely make it. Attempting any other direction was a muddy quagmire that got us stuck several times before we gave up and went back to the hotel. The stop-start rain made for a pretty glum half-day of cancelled plans, closed rock climbing and sparse swimming, but to give it that extra special edge – the balcony that us grown-ups had been looking forward to became invaded by two tarantulas camping out of the rain!



None of us had ever seen a tarantula before, and I had prepared the kids for the giant creepy-crawlies we were likely to encounter in advance. But the first of these bad-boys appeared at eye-height on the glass when we drew the curtains back, which took me by surprise to say the least! Upon deciding we were brave enough to squeeze out the door quickly for a photo we discovered the second actually surrounding the door handle/frame, thankfully just before we opened it! I decided the swimming costumes “drying” out there were dead to me for the rest of the day.

Thankfully the rain stopped, and the sun came out enough at lunchtime that we decided to try our luck with the river again, this time with success! It was rather late in the day, but we decided to drive up to the town and salvage something.


Mirador del Cristo de la Misericordia

The Christ of the Mercy is an enormous statue of Jesus Christ in the city of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, to a height of 134m above sea level.


The 21m statue is located high above the northernmost seawall in the bay of San Juan. Hiking to the top requires a short walk up a very steep but paved road; if you have a car, you could drive most of the way (as we did!). Once at the top you will be charged 1USD (national) or 2USD (foreigner). At the foot of the statue is a small chapel with a display of photos and facts from other tall Jesus statues across the world. The views afforded from the statue are quite impressive. Not only can you get a panoramic view of San Juan Del Sur beach you can actually see all the way to Costa Rica on a clear day (not ours!). We headed back down to the bay front and left the car in a public car park to walk along the beach and find a commodore.


Surf/Beach

You can't walk down a street in San Juan del Sur without passing at least a couple of surf shops or schools, so you’ll likely be wanting to give it a try. There are 4-6 good beaches within 30 minutes of San Juan del Sur. We had selected Playa Hermosa about 20 minutes south of town, with surfboard rentals onsite, restaurants and shade. However, due to our being trapped in the hotel we made a last minute change to something more local. San Juan Bay beach has mixed reviews itself, as it’s calm sheltered bay reduces waves for good surfing, but this does make it great for more relaxed play with kids. We found it to be wide sand, desolate and charming, even on a drizzly afternoon. We slipped off our sandals and waded in the calm shallows - after 15 years or so of travel, this was the first time either of us had touched Pacific waters. To add to the occasion, Andrew skimmed a stone 7 times, which was pretty impressive. Max skimmed his first as well, out-classing me with a 3-bounce throw (I am rubbish)! The area had a surprisingly local-feel, but that might just be because we were out of season on a cloudy day. There were a few commadores right on the beach which made for a massive portion of BBQ grilled chicken, fish, slaw, rice and plantain crisps for a few dollars!



San Juan del Sur Town

Upon arrival you'll be greeted by a sweet turtle sculpture, welcoming you to a small and easily walkable town. With colourful architecture, lots of coffee shops and a fair few surf shops, the town also has a nice suspension bridge. It sure was a convenient place to be for Andrews swimming shorts to give up the ghost after thousands of miles on the road! There is a hostely beach-bar vibe in certain areas if that your thing too.


Turtles

La Flor Beach Natural Reserve is one of the few spawning sites where Paslama and Tora turtles lay their eggs. If you are fortunate to be in San Juan del Sur during the spawning or birthing of these amazing creatures then this is a family activity you should not miss. The tours are at night, and most will pick you up from in or out of town. We were aware that our time of year on the Pacific coast might mean we’d miss out here, and we were right. We contacted a number of reputable guides and charities but no turtle action was abound. As La Flor looked to be a beautiful place to visit even outside the turtle season it was on the agenda, but the weather on top meant we didn’t venture out for this one. We had the fortunate position of a pretty decent back-up plan - although turtle watching in Costa Rica (Tortuguero/Caribbean coast) is more expensive, it is more likely this time of year.


The Art Warehouse

The Art Warehouse hosts art shows, Thursday Night Markets, a café and classes for kids and adults including Pinata Making, slime, painting, and even a hip-hop class. The classes are always changing, and the current schedule can be found on their Facebook page. It’s $5 per person for pottery studio usage and good to know on a rainy day IF you weren’t trapped at your hotel.


In Summary

We didn’t get to do a lot of what we were here for – a bit of a bust for a travel blog so I will say this was at least a great place for it to be miserable weather! And we were very grateful of our planned flex-days as well, leaving us to shifting a few plans around for the next few weeks such that we didn't feel like we missed anything overall. We were coming this way anyway, and the hotel made it a comfortable and fun place to be. Be warned though – it was great, the kids loved it, but its location on the river with no bridge was sketchy at best! Stay here and bring an SUV, then it'll be spot on! We abandoned our car on the exiting side of the river when we returned after rain, and walked though the water to ensure we could leave for our next leg of the trip the following morning. Bit of an adventure, and glad we spent some time here.


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