We were transported in fine style from Tamarindo, Costa Rica, to the border of Nicaragua.
After a 20-minute stop, we continued north to a crossroads where a taxi met our private shuttle van and took us to our hotel in San Juan del Sur. The rest of the van was filled with day tourists wanting to wet their feet in Nicaragua.
Our hotel was two short blocks up the hill from the expansive beach, where the authorities have wisely banned all adjacent construction. It is wide and sandy, shallow enough to wade in safely as the waves billow in. It is at once excellent for swimming and, especially when the tide is in, good for board- and body-surfing. There are restaurants and bars just above the beach. There is a light breeze and hot enough so that when emerging from the water there is no need to towel off, at least for hardy Canucks.
Our hotel, Park Ave. Villas, was built around a courtyard that was just a bit bigger than its square-shaped swimming pool—nice and cool for an afternoon dip after returning from the beach. The rooms have all the amenities, at a reasonable $75 a night. For breakfast we went to the Gato Negro, a hippie-ish warehouse with eclectic furniture, hundreds of used and new books for sale, granola and homemade yogurt breakfast, assorted teas, and lots of other healthy stuff. There were ducks quacking in the yard, ’60s music purring from loudspeakers, and visitors from North America and Europe chilling out. This is a good hang.
Evenings, we dined at Big Wave Dave’s, another hangout for old hippies with a somewhat more restrained granola look and a popular bar where ex-pats while away the hours knocking back cold ones and listening to ’70s hits. I enjoyed a huge frozen margarita ($3), but couldn’t finish it. Dave’s nachos, chili con carne and Bolognese spaghetti—not to mention Caprese salad—were all finger lickin’ good. What did we find just a block down from our hotel? Chabad House! Lubavitch is everywhere, it seems. A young Israeli couple run it and have opened a restaurant where they serve Friday night dinner and Saturday lunch, all for $10. Two Israeli travellers told us it is the only Chabad House in Nicaragua.
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Now for the big surprise: we loved San Juan Del Sur so much that we returned three months later, during spring break in March. We stayed at Park Ave. Villas, this time in an apartment, and saw the same Canadians who had been there at Christmas. They were retired and had picked San Juan as their six-month, walk-along-the-beach, exercise-in-the-pool, watch-the-sunset-from-the-terrace home away from Canada.
The longer you stay at Park Ave., the cheaper it is. At about $1,000 a month for an apartment, it was definitely a good place to hang and . . . be retired. It was hot in March—hotter than the Greek Islands in July. And there were few places with air conditioning. Our apartment had it, but who wants to sit in an apartment all day?
This time we visited the market and had a cheap, delicious lunch and walked around the town, as small as it is. But the main reason we returned is the convenience, the relaxed atmosphere, and the welcoming locals. There are a lot of ex-pats, U.S. and Canadian retirees living on their pensions quite nicely. Singles and couples have come to Nicaragua and opened businesses, married locals and had kids, just like Dave, owner of Big Wave Daves, who by the way, is a fellow Edmontonian.
You might have guessed that in the end, we preferred the laid-back authentic atmosphere of Nicaragua to the more touristy Costa Rica. We will return to San Juan Del Sur and unlike our Greek Islands vacations—where we move around and try new islands—we will return to the Park Ave. Villas and get another taste of what it’s like to be retired.