It’s always exciting for us to explore a region of Nicaragua we’ve never visited before.
Elisha’s parents were visiting from the East Coast of Canada. It was their forth visit to Nicaragua and they were excited to embark on a new adventure. Word of a newly paved road to the Río San Juan was enough to cement our decision.
The drive to Tipitapa is very familiar to us, as it is on the way to the airport, but this was our first time making the turn east toward the back side of Lake Nicaragua. The newly paved road extending all the way to San Carlos cuts driving time from ten hours to only four.
The port town of San Carlos is located directly on the mouth of the Río San Juan and the shore of Lake Nicaragua. The town itself is unremarkable, and for us, it was just a place to park our truck and catch a ferry down the river.
We parked our truck in the government operated ferry lot. The cost for parking was $2 per day.
There are two ways to travel along the Río San Juan. The fast ferry or the slow boat. We opted for the fast ferry. Our tickets cost $6 per person for the 1.5 hour trip to the town of El Castillo. The slow boat, although nearly half the price, takes twice as long.
Our boat passed by small homesteads with herds of cattle grazing on the river banks. We made a fews stops along the way to drop off passengers and supplies to the homes on the river — a reminder to us that there are no roads in this region and that the river is truly the life blood of the people there.
The hour and a half trip on calm, flat, slow moving waters was both relaxing and exhilarating. We enjoyed the ride down river so much that the slow ferry might be our choice next time.
The charming riverside town of El Castillo
Upon arrival in El Castillo time seemed to slow. We wandered down the main road (which is actually just a wide cobblestone sidewalk) looking for a place to lay our heads for the next couple of nights.
After checking out a handful of places we came to Hotel Victoria.
Hotel Victoria looked grand and we expected the room rates to match. Although rooms in the newly built section of the hotel were in the $60 price range, we were pleasantly surprised to find out that the smaller rooms in the original building were half that.
All rooms at Hotel Victoria are equipped with hot water, AC and TV. Breakfast is also included in the room rate.
Hotel Victoria sits directly on the river’s edge with abundant balcony space and plenty of hammocks and rocking chairs to relax in. From the restaurant you can sit and watch the daily river lifestyle float by.
El Castillo is a small village without any roads or cars. In fact, the town is so small bicycles aren’t even commonplace.
The residents of El Castillo have been neighbors (in the true sense of the word) for generations. Everyone we met was friendly and accepting, in a relaxed way, that didn’t show much fuss. Maggie ran around off leash the entire time we were there. By day two many locals knew her by name and often called her over to visit.
There are few dining options in El Castillo. The best and most popular restaurant is Borders Cafe.
The friendly, flamboyant owner Yamil serves up some of the tastiest pasta dishes we’ve had in Nicaragua. He uses fresh fruits and vegetables grown from his very own garden.
His beers are the coldest I have ever tasted. How Yamil is able to get each bottle of beer completely frosted over without freezing the contents has left me perplexed.
What to see and do on the Río San Juan
On top of the hill overlooking the town and the river sits the Fortress of the Immaculate Conception.
El Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepción was built to protect the waterway against pirates, as well as opposing forces like the British. A self guided tour of the fort costs just a couple of dollars, with $1 extra for cameras. The views alone are worth the price of admission.
Nena Tours is the most popular and well established tour company in town. Fishing, kayaking, canoeing and caiman observation tours are available. Nena Tours also offers overnight camping excursions where you sleep in hammocks over platforms built in the trees.
They have English speaking guides and the tours are very reasonably priced.
Indio Maíz Biological Reserve
Our chosen tour totaled $79 for the four of us, with no extra charge for Maggie. With some locally sourced fruit, snacks and wine we hopped aboard our panga (small boat) with a guide and captain en route to Indio Maíz Biological Reserve.
A few meters up the river we checked in at the park warden’s office where we were greeted by a baby ocelot. This 16-week old rescue cat who had been named Bartola, was already bigger and undoubtedly more fierce than Maggie and tried relentlessly to capture her.
In the reserve you have a chance to see howler, spider and capuchin monkeys, sloths, caiman (small crocodiles) and hundreds of species of birds. Some hikers have even spotted species of wild cats, including jaguars.
On our hike we sampled sap from a tree that was a natural gum and helped with intestinal troubles. We also sampled a plant that is used as a natural anesthetic. Chewing on a tiny bit of leaf made by whole mouth go numb…for nearly twenty minutes.
By the time we returned to our boat we had seen (and tasted) enough of the rainforest. Sticky with sweat we were ready for some refreshment and a cool off. As we headed towards the swimming hole we spotted a couple of caiman floating in the river.
100 meters around the bend is where we came to a stop.
We looked at each other with trepidation. Swimmng in the river…with caiman so close?
Too hot and thirsty to worry much about personal safety, and a guide’s promise to keep watch, we waded into the water with plastic cups full of wine.
For many visitors of the Río San Juan the big draw is the world class fishing. There are a handful of lodges on the river that specialize in trophy fishing for the huge tarpon and snook that are prevalent in the waters there.
Fishing regulations on this river are well policed, so if you plan on fishing on the Río San Juan it’s important to book your excursion a week to a few days in advance to allow time for your guide to secure the necessary permits.
El Castillo is a quaint little town that makes you feel at home within minutes of stepping off the boat. The region has the infrastructure for tourism, but it really hasn’t arrived yet. The locals are not jaded or opportunistic when dealing with visitors. They are truly welcoming — which is one of the reasons we can’t wait to return.
Planning a trip to the Pacific coast of Nicaragua? We highly recommend The Insider Guide to San Juan del Sur.
Our friend Brooke Rundle (with Claudia Gonella) has just published this content packed 180-page travel guide all about San Juan del Sur.
From now to September 5th The Insider Guide to San Juan del Sur is available to purchase online for just $4.70, which is 40% off the cover price. A 30-day money back guarantee comes with the book, but we guarantee you won’t need it.
This informative and inspiring guidebook will be available on Amazon soon…but for 2 times the price…so buy it now!
Munchies Bluues is a very successful pizza restaurant where reservations are required and often need to be made days in advance. Through careful observation we have compiled a top ten list of DOs and DON’Ts to follow if you want to make it as a restauranteur in San Juan del Sur.
1. DO specialize in one food. If you serve pizza don’t offer other Italian options like pasta.
2. DON’T allow menu substitutions. If someone makes a request for something silly like Hawaiian pizza simply ask them to leave.
3. DON’T take walk in traffic and DON’T do takeout. Reservations only!
4. DON’T worry about location, location, location. It doesn’t matter so DO set up in a remote location…like in the jungle…20 minutes from town…nowhere near a public transit route.
5. DON’T worry about signage. If you aren’t cool enough to be in the know, then you aren’t cool enough to go. That same adage applies to the phone number needed to make a reservation.
6. DON’T have staff. Customers can learn to write their own kitchen tickets, serve themselves beverages and tabulate their own bill at the end of the night.
7. DON’T over-extend yourself. Opening three nights a week is more than enough. Opening for lunch is for losers. 6:30 PM until everyone is fed and watered is the recipe for success!
8. DON’T advertise on Facebook or in local newspapers. And DON’T worry about a website. Word of mouth is all you need although there seems to be no way to avoid that pesky Trip Advisor from finding you.
9. DON’T take shit from anyone! The customer is NOT always right. And if people refer to you as the Pizza Nazi wear the title like a badge of honour.
10. And last, but certainly not least, DO serve the best authentic, thin crust, wood oven pizza in Central America!
Although items 1 through 9 seem counter intuitive this business model not only works, but has stood the test of time for long time resident Nicaraguan expat Sergio.
Roman native Sergio Tarantini offers only the best ingredients served in the traditional way. He is a unique individual and restauranteur who loves to entertain in the kitchen. With his eclectic song selection pumping through the speakers (all of which are pointed towards him) he dances while spinning pizza crusts in the air.
Sergio’s is a place to hang out with old friends and make new ones while sipping wine, feasting on delicious pizza and enjoying a night away from the hustle of San Juan del Sur. It’s a dining experience must for travelers in the San Juan del Sur area and a great meeting place for expats.
We are feeling charitable today so we will provide Sergio’s phone number 8814-8530, but you’ll have to figure out where it is located on your own. Refer to item number five in the list.
As Gordon and I prepared for our move to Nicaragua two and a half years ago I tried to envision what life would be like. I knew it would be different. I knew there would be challenges, but looking back I realize there were a lot of things I hadn’t “really” thought about.
In this article I will describe 5 challenges I faced as part of becoming a Nicaraguan expat.
LIVING ON A BUDGET
“What do you mean I can’t buy a bottle of wine to give to our friends who have invited us over for dinner?”
Prior to moving to Nicaragua the word “budget” wasn’t really part of my vocabulary. Gordon and I were far from what you would call wealthy, but if either of us wanted something we bought it. I rarely looked at prices when I was grocery shopping and whether it was clothes, cosmetics or over-priced Starbucks coffee I consumed a lot!
Now that we have a monthly budget of $1400 USD we actually have to pay attention to how much money we are spending on a daily basis. We can’t always partake in all the activities we would like to. And we definitely don’t buy things we don’t really need.
Over time I’ve become comfortable in our spending and realized that being on a budget isn’t all that bad.
Coming from Canada I knew it would take time to get acclimated to the heat in Nicaragua, but what I hadn’t thought about was the fact that we wouldn’t be living with air conditioning. For us time at the beach isn’t followed by afternoon siestas in a chilly air-conditioned room…and that’s because electricity in Nicaragua is expensive.
For example: If we used air conditioning an average of 8 hours a day we would have to pay at least $150 USD for electricity each month. When you consider over ten percent of your budget could go to paying for electricity (i.e. air conditioning) it really changes your perspective.
We currently live in San Juan del Sur where daytime highs average between 28ºC – 34ºC. Average lows only drop to between 18ºC – 24ºC, but sleeping with a fan at the foot of the bed, taking cool showers before hitting the sack and only turning the air conditioner on for a few hours a night in the hottest months of April and May works for us.
Forewarning: If you are someone who isn’t prepared to live without air conditioning you’ll definitely need to add extra into your budget for electricity.
Whether it’s barking dogs, announcements blaring from loud speakers on a truck, roosters crowing, firecrackers going off or bad karaoke coming from your neighbour’s house noise is everywhere in Nicaragua — and it’s hard to escape — especially if you live in town.
Having a set of earplugs nearby at night helps, but if you’re someone who can’t live with a lot of noise I definitely recommend living out of town. You still won’t be able to escape the odd rooster, random barking dog or troupe of early rising howler monkeys, but life will definitely be more tranquil.
LEARNING THE LANGUAGE
Typically when you’re vacationing in a destination where you don’t speak the language it’s pretty easy to get by. Besides good food and drink — which in a pinch you can obtain by pointing to — what more does one need? Maybe directions to the beach? Generally there is little need for a common language.
This is definitely not the case when you are living in a place where you don’t speak the language and need rent an apartment, buy a cell phone or get your truck repaired. Not speaking Spanish made completing these tasks (and others) nearly insurmountable, but somehow we managed.
Learning the language has definitely made day to day life in Nicaragua easier.
Going from working full time and having a relatively busy social calendar to being unemployed with no friends was a change that definitely took some time to adjust to. My wish of having nothing to do all day came true, but I quickly learned that having nothing to do all day is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Since moving to Nicaragua I’ve learned that I am happiest and most content when I am participating in meaningful work or activities. Whether it’s helping out at Bar Republika, volunteering with local organizations like Comunidad Connect or meeting with a concierge client incorporating, structured activities into my life works better for me.
It took some time, but my circle of friends has grown and now my social life competes for time with my other activities. I’ve found balance and life is good!
In summary Gordon and I quickly learned that living as an expat in your favourite holiday destination is very different than being a traveler there. Life doesn’t suddenly become a vacation just because you move somewhere warm and tropical.
Admittedly, in the beginning I really struggled with some of the changes and challenges life in Nicaragua presented. Gordon on the other hand settled into semi-retirement and life in a new country with relative ease…which seems to be the way with most expat couples we have met here.
All in all I have no regrets with making the move to Nicaragua. There have been many foreseen and unforeseen challenges along the way, but that is life in general. In my opinion overcoming challenges is rewarding and fulfilling no matter where you live. Expecting the unexpected is good advice and certainly holds true in Nicaragua.
Twenty-nine-year old primary school teacher Katie Doyle has always been passionate about travel. Now she has taken a sabbatical from her position in Dublin, Ireland to pursue a teaching opportunity in San Juan del Sur, which is on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast.
For Katie life in the classroom at San Juan del Sur Day School is miles apart from south Dublin, both literally and figuratively.
“Coming from a school where there was a laptop for every student and interactive white boards in the classroom to a place where it can be challenging to source regular teaching tools and supplies has definitely required me to become more imaginative with my teaching,” explains Katie.
But with only 14 children in her classroom—instead of 25 or 30—she has a lot more individual time to give to her students. Katie’s students range in age from 4 to 8 years old.
“A mixed age class is a new experience for me, but I am really enjoying the challenge of having such a variety of ability levels within one group,” says Katie.
Katie’s work days are much shorter in Nicaragua. With classes starting at noon she has mornings free to study Spanish, practice yoga, and surf—a pastime for which Nicaragua is particularly well known. School days finish at 4 p.m., leaving plenty of time to catch sunset on the beach with friends—one of the great benefits of living in a beach town.
With the low cost of living in Nicaragua, Katie’s salary is enough to cover her rent and day-to-day living expenses while allowing her the freedom to enjoy her desired lifestyle. She shares a two-bedroom, one-bathroom furnished apartment with her roommate from New Zealand, who is also a teacher at the San Juan del Sur Day School. Their combined rent is a mere $300 per month.
“I may not have a whole lot of disposable income, but I do get to live in a beach town, which would cost a small fortune elsewhere. And if I want to take a special trip somewhere I just cut back on my spending a few weeks beforehand,” says Katie.
Since living and traveling in Central America was nothing new for Katie she had a relatively good idea of what to expect when she arrived in San Juan del Sur. Nonetheless small town living took some getting used to.
“Working at home in a big city, I would rarely, if ever, see my students or their families outside of school,” she says. “Here I bump into them everywhere I go—sometimes at a pool, at the beach, or even at a bar. Feeling like there was no separation from work life and personal life was strange at first, but once I realized I didn’t have to have my ‘Teacher’s Hat’ on 24 hours a day things got easier.”
When asked what advice she would give to someone contemplating overseas teaching Katie answered without hesitation. “Do your research. Decide where you want to live and what type of school you want to work at. Don’t accept a job just because it’s the best- paying one.”
Just eight months after her arrival in San Juan del Sur—with some great adventures already behind her and a whole lot of the country left to explore—Katie is thrilled to be teaching in Nicaragua.
“I love the people and their way of life. I love the laid-back atmosphere and the lack of materialism. I love the fact that I can be relaxing on a beautiful deserted beach one day and take a one-and-a-half-hour drive to a beautiful colonial city the next.”
Author’s Note: This article was written by Elisha and originally published in the June 2014 issue of International Living’s Incomes Abroad monthly newsletter.
It’s been one month since we said adiós to our beloved three bedroom, two bathroom home in San Juan del Sur and said hello to our new digs in Marsella Valley.
Located just 15 minutes from the center of San Juan our new rental home sits on a 1/2 acre parcel of land. Our current living space includes an open concept kitchen and living room, one spacious bedroom and one bathroom with a kick ass shower.
The second floor open-air thatch roof rancho is one of our favorite features of the house. It’s the perfect place to visit with friends during the day or evening.
An alternate and equally enticing option for outdoor lounging are the hammock chairs that hang on the front of the house. We love the abundance of outdoor living space our new abode offers.
On the property, a few steps from the main house, sits this cute little casita.
In addition to the casita we also have a private bedroom and bathroom which is located right under the rancho.
We promised exciting news in our previous post and here it is.
In Nica Now is now providing lodging!
Moving out of town was something we discussed for awhile before actually doing it. Did we want to give up the convenience of walking to our favorite hang outs, the central market and San Juan Bay? Well, we’re happy to report that thirty nights in we have absolutely no regrets with our decision to move to Marsella Valley.
An 8 minute walk puts us at Playa Marsella, where sunsets with a bottle of wine are tough to beat. A three minute drive up the hill takes us to Playa Maderas surf beach. Although we don’t actually surf we definitely enjoy watching those that do.
Gone are the days of bombas (firecrackers), bad karaoke and constant barking dogs and crowing roosters. At our new home in Marsella Valley we enjoy the sounds of birds chirping happily in the trees and a distant growl from a howler monkey now and then.
I’m discovering my green thumb and Gordon has plans to plant a little vegetable garden.
Our miniature schnauzer Maggie is equally content here. She loves to wander around the property sniffing, digging and exploring. She is gradually getting used to the horses that sometimes wander near the house.
Life here in the campo, as it’s called, is pretty sweet and we can’t wait to share these surroundings. Who wants to be our first official guests?
It’s been a super busy month for us here in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua! Too busy to even blog about it.
Our good friends Caroline and Adrien decided to buy a bar. Their decision to buy this bar was made in 48 hours — just two days before they were leaving for Belgium to spend time with family and friends. Adrien and Caroline asked for our help, and as good friends do we jumped right in.
In addition to managing Bar Republika, we’ve also moved. Stay tune for details about our new home (as well as some exciting news for In Nica Now) in our next blog post.
After 21 days of bartending, waiting tables, stocking the bar, prepping food and cooking Gordon and I were both ready for a break.
We finished our shift on Saturday afternoon and arrived home just before sunset. With a bottle of red wine in our back pack and our little Schnauzer Maggie by our side we strolled down to the beach.
We sipped on our wine, played fetch with Maggie and admired a magnificent sunset and were reminded why we love life in Nicaragua.
As the last of the light left us we packed up our belongings and wandered up the road to a local restaurant. Country western classics belted out from the stereo speakers as we sipped $1 beers and chatted with the owners Jose and Maria. We dined on delicious whole fried fish dinners and reminisced about our very first month in Poneloya, Nicaragua, the place where our expat adventure began just over two and a half years ago.
Time sure flies when you’re having fun!