Welcome to Nicaragua’s party capital – San Juan del Sur. The Magaluf of Central America (hence this awful title pun), we spent more time here than we originally expected to. Partially, ’cause Abbie got a mosquito disease but also because we loved the vibes so much. Here’s the breakdown…
As always, I’ll start at the beginning of our journey. In this case, the journey begins in Costa Rica where we caught a shuttle to the border of Nicaragua and, let’s just say, this border crossing didn’t go quite as smoothly as the last one… On the drive through we saw thousands of tents belonging to African and Cuban immigrants trying to make their way to the US. It was a shocking sight to see and quite heartbreaking – we hear about the Calais camps on the news but this stuff just slips under the radar…
It costs $8 to leave Costa Rica, which we paid with the last of our local currency (colones). We asked our driver if there was an ATM at the Nicaragua check point and were reassured that there would be. Our passports were stamped, we were given the all-clear from border police, we waved goodbye to Costa Rica and then began to cross into ‘no-man’s land’ to use the bank before the Nicaragua border.
This is where things started to go wrong for the 3 empanadas. Turns out that some cash machines in Nicaragua can’t read cards with a chip and it just so happens that the only ATM on the border is one of these. We just had chip-cards and absolutely $0 of any currency to our name and therefore couldn’t pay the $13 entrance fee into Nicaragua…
Alice went into the bank to try and negotiate with them to no avail, and eventually we realised we’d have to go back into Costa Rica to get money out there instead. We trudged back through ‘no man’s land’ (which is a good 15 minute walk each way) whilst our shuttle driver patiently waited for us on the other side. The border police were confused as to why we needed to return but let us through regardless and we finally found a cash point with the ability to read chip-cards that issued US dollars. Hallelujah.
Time for border crossing round 2! We didn’t want to queue to exit Costa Rica again so we just went straight to the border police who laughed and signalled us through without even checking our passports. Safe to say, when the border police know you by face, you’re probably doing something wrong…
We stood in yet another queue to pay our $13 entry tax to be told that they had no change for each of our $20’s. After some (more difficult than it should have been) maths we managed to solve the issue and finally got our stamps to enter Nicaragua!
Lesson learned – always have some hard cash on you when you cross a border.
Aaaand we’re back in the shuttle on the way to San Juan – the story continues. Upon nearing the town the shuttle driver asked us which hostel we were staying at. Once again, we decided not to book anything in advance and chose a hostel that works on a first-come-first-served basis. Not really ideal considering that we were arriving a lot later than we’d expected to due to border kerfuffles but we decided to stick to our guns anyway and told the driver to drop us off at ‘Hostel Casa de Olas’.
About 30 minutes later, we pulled up to a shabby looking hostel and the driver glanced back at us to signal that we’d arrived. It didn’t take us long to realise that we’d been brought to a hostel called BRISA de Olas instead of CASA de Olas.
He sighed, explained that there had been some miscommunication and said that the hostel we wanted was located on top of a huge hill and that his insurance didn’t cover him to drive up it. None of us fancied lugging our backpacks up a steep incline in the midday heat so Alice used her Spanish-linguist charm to convince him that taking us up to the hostel at no extra charge with no insurance was exactly the right thing to do… It didn’t take him long to agree. #latinamerica.
The hill was steep and gravelly and would have easily taken us about 30 minutes to tackle on foot. There were times when we were cringing at how difficult it was for the shuttle to accelerate on this near-vertical mound of land (we are terrible people) but finally we made it, said a million thank you’s and prepared to relax in our new hostel. Too bad, God/Science had different a different plan for us. One that involved absolutely no relaxation.
We couldn’t find the entrance to the hostel at first and ended up stumbling into the neighbouring hostel: Naked Tiger. It was buzzing, drinks were flowing and music was booming. We were ushered in the direction of Casa de Olas to find things equally as crazy – people jumping in the pool, neon paint splattered everywhere. It suddenly sunk in… we’d arrived at 1pm on a Sunday. Now, in the UK, this would most likely be the time for a cuppa and some catch-up TV but in Nicaragua they do things a little differently… 1pm marks the start of the infamous Sunday Funday! We pushed through the crowds of people and scrambled to the reception desk to check-in. Luckily, they had 3 beds left (all in different rooms) and the hostel manager M.J. told us to quickly drop our backpacks off and run to buy tickets for Sunday Funday while we still had time. We looked at each other and thought, can we really hack this? We hadn’t showered in 24 hours or had any chance to recover from the 8 hour journey and border crossing nightmare but we were expected to start partying pretty much straight away?! Challenge accepted.
We had approximately 30 minutes to buy our tickets, collect our t-shirts, get changed into bikinis, cover our faces in paint and buy a drink before the trucks started to arrive to pick people up. I had about 20 seconds to get acquainted with my new roomates amidst all of that madness – they were all super cool and really shocked that we’d managed to get a room on one of the busiest nights in high season. They were all die-hard San Juan del Sur travellers who had been staying at the hostel for weeks on end, they were all well accustomed to the Sunday Funday madness. They told me to take nothing but my money (Nicaraguan money is waterproof, super useful for pool parties) and my t-shirt. They insisted that phones, Go-Pros and cards would get lost/stolen, so we followed their advice and went empty handed.
Sunday Funday (a weekly affair) begins at 2pm on a Sunday and ends at 5am on the Monday – a pool/club crawl around town with everyone in the same t-shirt and free drinks deals. It’s pretty crazy – every tourist/backpacker (and even some locals) get involved.
So, as I was saying before, pick-up trucks arrived at the hostel at around 2pm and people started filing into them. I would have loved to video the ride – the sun was shining so bright, the sea was glimmering in the distance and there were coloured t-shirts galore all clinging on for dear life as these trucks took us down the hill into town.
The first bar was called ‘Pachamama’ and it’s considered to be the warm-up. It was fairly mellow – people standing around bobbing to shit music, knocking back drinks and a few people paddling in the pool. None of us were very impressed, so we just used the time to chat to people and relax a little – we met some Olympians, which was super cool and spotted some people we recognised from Bambuda Lodge in Panama.
The second bar/pool was called ‘Ana Marias’. The music was awful, meathead boys were bombing into the pool and guys were either grinding on girls or trying to find a girl to grind. Delightful. Making small talk with guys with 2 brain cells and sidestepping to electro music really isn’t my scene… especially because I don’t drink a lot, so this part of the bar crawl was where I started to seriously reassess my life choices. I wanted to be anywhere but there. Throwback to the time I went to Costa Rica alone instead of to Ayia Napa with my school friends… nothing changes.
Luckily, things improved rapidly when we made it to our third stop of the night – The Naked Tiger, conveniently located directly next door to our hostel. The vibes were much better, the music improved and there were VEGGIE BURGERS. I’ve heard all the coolest 22 year olds spend all their drinks tokens on food, you know… 🙄
We had also come up with a brilliant way to keep unwanted male attention at bay – by speaking German! Well… none of us actually speak German so it sounded more like the language that Sims speak but it definitely worked:
Scenario 1: ‘Hey beautiful, can I buy you a drink?’
‘ICH FRAGEN LAGEN MEINE’
‘Oh, okay, cool – maybe later then’
Scenario 2: ‘Hola guapa, de donde eres? Quieres un novio gratis?’
‘ICH FRARGEN LAGEN MEINE’
Sounds harsh, but we were borderline at a point of getting harrassed – so it became a necessary way to deal with the situation (huge apologies to any German friends I have, I’m aware that’s the worst interpretation of your language known to man). We eventually realised that I actually do speak Russian and so started to use that language as a deterrent instead (but more accurately, of course).
We played in the pool for a while and noticed a local Nicaraguan guy with a full snorkel set swimming lengths of the pool. We asked him, as a joke, if he was protecting us from pool bandits and he replied with a straight face that his job title was actually ‘underwater security’. Suddenly, a guy stripped naked and bombed into the pool causing our underwater security friend to dive tackle him and pull him out of the pool, whilst trying to re-clothe him. It’s nice to know that he takes his job seriously – we felt very safe in that 5m by 5m body of water…
Eventually our exhaustion caught up with us and we couldn’t quite make it to the 5am mark (more like 9pm 🙄). We headed back to our hostel next door where we were surprised to find a LOT of people chilling around by the pool and enjoying a more relaxed Sunday Funday – this was perfect for us and we ended our night on a high.
The next day, Alice and Abbie weren’t feeling on top form so we decided to have a chilled day at the hostel. I found myself feeling super restless – when I’m in a new place that I haven’t explored yet, I itch to go out and find something to do. It was too late to go on a solo-explore, so instead I put my energy to good use… designing Alice’s future tattoo. I’ve been given an in-depth idea description, a notebook and a pen – every time I draw something Alice says ‘OH MY GOD that’s amazing, I love it, now what about if we add this?’ and now I’ve used about 20 pages of the notebook on about 15 different designs. Will keep you updated on the process – don’t worry Mrs Williamson, this tattoo isn’t going to be inked in Latin America… we’ll wait until we’re back in the UK before any drastic decisions!
The day after Sunday Funday usually calls for a massive check-out of people. Having all spent the first night in separate rooms, we were quick to pounce on the newly-empty beds and reunite the 3 empanadas once again. All the rooms in Casa de Olas are the same price, so you could be in a 6 bed room with fans and plug sockets for the same price as a 16 bed shack with no fans or plug sockets. For the sake of being together, me and Alice we sacrificed our luxuries and moved into the shack with Abbie.
The first night we were all in there together the rain was so heavy that it poured in through the ceiling… right onto Abbie’s bed. If you don’t know about Abbie’s bad luck by now then you really need to keep up! Our poor lil bub trudged to reception to get new sheets for a different bed and at this point started to make comments that she was feeling a bit ill.
We thought nothing of it, a classic case of ‘you’ll feel better in the morning’ and the next day we decided to hike to the Jesus statue up on the hill. Looking back, it probably wasn’t an appropriate daytime activity for someone that was about to be diagnosed with a mosquito disease but more on that later…
The walk didn’t take too long but it was really steep and, in the midday sun, proved difficult to tackle without regular breaks for water. The view at the top was worth it though and of course to tick, yet another, Jesus statue off my list!
We spent the afternoon chilling on the beach, exploring the town and eating falafel. I love the vibes of San Juan del Sur – it’s so relaxed and surfer-y. Definitely on my list of places to re-vist one day.
When we got back to the hostel, Abbie was feeling more than just a little bit ill and went straight to bed. Alice and I were chatting to the hostel manager and other guests over dinner, explaining Abbie’s symptoms, when everyone suddenly started to suspect that she’d got Chikungunya. A bit like dengue and zika, it’s spread via mosquito bites and has been going around San Juan for the last few weeks. We decided that the best thing to do would be to go to the Doctor the next day and get some treatment.
Obviously, because of Abbie’s illness we didn’t want to go out or do anything too energy-consuming that night. So, instead, we set up shop in the TV room and watched far too many episodes of Glee on Netflix.
The hostel staff were so helpful, even trying to turn on the air conditioning for us, which involved holding two open wires together while sparks were flying and then clipping them into the electric box. Not sure feeling cool is worth anyone risking their lives for but hey, that’s hospitality at it’s finest!
The next day, Abbie was feeling even worse – wearing 7 jumpers in 30 degree heat is never a positive sign – so, we took her to the doctors for a diagnosis. The doctor refused to believe that she was ill at first (because Abbie always looks so flawless) but after we demanded that she always has glowing skin and a positive disposition, he took her temperature and asked some more questions before agreeing that it was Chickungunya and prescribing medication.
It was an expensive investment and we weren’t even told what the tablets were but they worked… that’s for sure! Not straight away, unfortunately, Abbie still had to spend one more day in bed. Alice and I tucked her in before heading back down to town to grab some food at a super hippy, veggie friendly café. After lunch, we caught a shuttle to Maderas beach, rented some surfboards and headed out to the waves. They were broken waves and it was an absolute mission to get out to the break but we had fun and watched the sunset together before returning back to our missing empanada.
That night, Abbie was starting to feel a bit better – just in time for our journey to Ometepe Island the next day! To play it safe, we decided to have yet another chill night but, unfortunately, the TV room wasn’t available for us to fulfil our daily Glee quota. Instead, we did what we do best – had an early night, dreamed of all the lazy surf days we’d spent in this gorgeous town and prayed that Abbie would make a full recovery ASAP.
So, that’s that for San Juan! The Nicaraguan journey continues…