It all started with a Groupon that sounded too good to be true.
That’s how I discovered the Villas de Palermo perched high above Nicaragua’s surfing town, San Juan del Sur. But I wanted to go there for a different reason. I’m a big fan of the reality TV show Survivor, which filmed two seasons in the area.
The biggest challenge is getting to the coastal town from the airport in Managua (MGA). The Villas are a collection of privately owned two-story townhomes that is run like an upscale hotel. The concierge was happy to arrange a private transfer in an air-conditioned van for our family of three. It’s highly recommended; bandits have been known to go after tourists in rental cars on the long stretches of highway leading out the capital city.
Our driver went the extra mile to make an interesting stop along the way at a crater lake, and the nearly three-hour drive through the Nicaraguan countryside was a roadside window on rural life in this developing socialist country. Here’s a video.
Villas de Palermo
Next challenge: getting up the hill to the Villas. The van driver was familiar with the steep road and dropped us off at the reception. Our bags were delivered to Villa #22, only a short walk up the hill from the restaurant/pool area and bordering a jungle filled with entertaining monkeys.
At the time of our visit in 2012, the $499 USD Groupon provided three nights stay for up to four adults and a $250 credit in the poolside restaurant with its amazing view of the jungle, farmlands and coast. If you don’t have a Groupon, click here for rates. The two bedroom villa, each with ensuite bath, was perfect for our family, a couple with a college-age son. We enjoyed the breakfast choices, drinks by the pool and fresh dinners including salad and appetizer. We also booked massages in our villa, a bargain at $35 an hour. Here’s the resort video:
You could be forgiven for just staking out a chair by the pool — and never leaving. However, the resort offers a free tuk-tuk into the seaside town 1 mile away on the treacherous road down. Return trips were at pre-arranged times, so to have more flexibility it was fortunate that our son is fluent enough in Spanish to hire a taxi in town.
Diving in San Juan del Sur
Surfing, fishing and diving are all among the options once you get into town, booked through San Juan del Sur Surf and Sport. Here’s their video:
Dario and company run a tight ship. The dive briefing was on Google earth and we were fitted with wetsuits before the short truck ride to the dock. Expect to get wet from the wind and surf hitting the small panga, but once underwater it’s peaceful with lots to see in good visibility at 40ft.
Be aware that the Pacific is VERY cold and if you stay down too long you could get too cold to do the second dive. Other than that, an excellent adventure with Divemaster Ken and crew. Loved the fresh pineapple snack, sliced with a big machete. Would dive with them again anytime. The dive shop is across the street from a market, so you can stock up on any provisions you would like to take back to the fully equipped kitchen in your villa.
Passing through the small harbor we saw some promotional signs that had been used for Survivor. Season #21 aired in 2010, followed by Survivor: Redemption Island, which was also filmed in the area. After diving we wandered around town and took a taxi up to the Christ statue. The shore of the town is lined with restaurants and pubs, but we found ourselves heading back up the hill to the excellent food in the Villas de Palermo restaurant.
A word about the weather. During our Spring Break visit it was extremely windy. As in: everything not tied down was going to be gone with the wind including books and pool towels. The locals assured us that this was quite unusual and it didn’t interfere too much with our activities. We’ve seen plenty of HGTV House Hunters International episodes where people fall in love with San Juan del Sur and move here, but we found that three full days here was enough to get a feel for the place. We spent a full day in Managua before heading home. If you’re into ziplines or horseback riding, there’s plenty to do if you stay longer.
A Day in Managua
For a capital city with a fascinating history and culture, Managua is oddly lacking in tourist infrastructure. The Hilton Princess Managua provided a welcoming home base in this developing city. You could stay somewhere cheaper but we found the service was worth it. When our room was not ready for check-in, the staff apologized with free drink tickets!
Through the hotel’s car service, we were able to arrange a private tour with a young driver named William who said he learned his English mostly from American music videos and TV. With our son’s AP Spanish, we made it work. Our driver managed to show us the the cathedral ruined in the 1972 earthquake, the monument opposing former dictator Anastasio Somoza, and the Mirador view of old/new Nicaragua and the crater lake in under two hours!
But the most fascinating sight was the Acahualinga footprints. They are the fossilized tracks of human beings — men, women and children — fleeing a volcanic eruption that occurred six thousand years ago. Since our visit, heavy rains have closed the small museum where you can view the footprints, so check to see if it has reopened.
After the tour, another hotel staffer pointed us in the direction of the nearby shopping mall which was a short walk from the new cathedral. Walking the streets of the neighborhood near the hotel in daylight hours, we also managed to find a fascinating park dedicated to Cuban-Nicaraguan relations. We reluctantly headed home after celebrating our Spring Break at La Teraza Peruana, a charming garden restaurant with authentic Peruvian food and plenty of cold Nicaraguan beer. People seem to understand more English than they let on, but you’ll have a better experience if you speak some Spanish.
Terry’s Travel Tips
Stranger Danger: The drive to San Juan del Sur from the airport takes over two hours. Not only are there bandits, the police have been known to pull over tourists in rental cars for alleged traffic infractions, anticipating a bribe. Even Survivor host Jeff Probst got pulled over! Be smart and take the villa’s transfer for up to 8 people, $300 roundtrip. You won’t need a car after you arrive. Trips to the famous Playa Hermosa and Playa Maderas beaches are easily arranged through the hotel or dive shop.
Tourist Visa: Americans and Europeans don’t need a visa to enter Nicaragua, but you will be required to purchase a Tourist Visa for $10 per person when you arrive. There is no exit fee, unless you leave by land through Costa Rica.
Currency: Nicaragua’s currency is the cordoba, but US dollars are widely accepted. Have cash on hand because credit cards are not widely accepted by local businesses, except in tourist-oriented restaurants and hotels. ATMs dispense both dollars and cordobas. If you pay in dollars you might get change in cordobas, so know the exchange rate at the time of your visit.
If Villas de Palermo is not offering the Groupon, you can book your trip here.