SAN JUAN DEL SUR Like a tomboy who blossoms into a prom queen after a rapid growth spurt, the southern Pacific town of San Juandel Sur in five short years has gone from being a tough-and-gritty beach town to something suddenly much more sophisticated and mature.
The transformation has been remarkable: Now, with the right budget, a weekend getaway here means world-class lodging, excellent international dining and an otherwise pleasant tourist experience.
In just a short time, the town has gone from being a tourism destination defined by drunk Managua teenagers and backpacking budget surfers to something much more refined and friendly to visitors of all-ages (though there s still plenty of drunk Managua weekenders, too).
Under the visionary and able leadership of outgoing Mayor Eduardo Holmann, the city has matured thanks to a healthy publicprivate partnership that s been exemplary to other municipalities.
City blueprints that four years ago looked unrealistically ambitious hanging on Holmann s office wall, have since come to life as a new oceanfront boardwalk, an artisan fishing wharf, a remodeled central park and expanded pedestrian sidewalks.
The town s improvements have also encouraged the local business sector to improve its tourism offerings.
Once unremarkable seafood shanties lining the beach drive have almost all experienced notable improvements in past years, as the tourist competition becomes increasingly stiff. Restaurants such as El Timon, which was once a non-descript beach eatery, has dramatically improved its service, facilities and menu, and is now a landmark restaurant that fills on the weekends with a mixed crowd of Managua politicians, Nicaraguan families and foreign tourists.
The town s original harbinger of growth was Piedras y Olas hotel and resort, perched on the hillside overlooking the bay. The hotel and its famous restaurant opened at the end of 2003, with only four rooms set into the forested surroundings of an impossible-looking hillside above town.
Five years later, the hotel now has 90 rooms, is a world renowned vacation spot, and is still growing up the hill. It is proof positive that upper-scale tourism can work in San Juan del Sur and has become a model for others to follow.
Owner Chris Berry, one of the original visionaries of the town s potential and the de facto patriarch of San Juan del Sur s tourism industry, says that his goal was always to set the standard for a socially conscious business model in town. Today, the hotel not only serves as a business model but as the standard-bearer of quality and service.
While Piedras y Ola is still the hotel of reference in San Juan, it s no longer the only high-end offering in the area. Soon to follow in its success was Morgan s Rock, the worldclass ecolodge outside of town.
More recently, however, there s been a newer trend in downtown San Juan set by two hotels that have rescued historic homes and turned them into charming boutique inns.
The first was the Pozada Azul, which opened up two years ago half a block from the beach inside the old restored childhood home of Vice President Jaime Morales.
The beautifully restored wooden home, with original wood-plank floor and bluetrimmed walls, now houses seven cozy rooms, a couple of which are situated next to the palm-lined swimming pool (ask for room 6; it s the best). A hearty breakfast with coffee is served in the morning on the porch overlooking the pool.
Though located right in the middle of town, when hotel visitors are sitting in the inner courtyard with a beer and book, listening to light reggae music wafting from the thatched-roofed bungalow to mix with the ambient noise of the pool s fountain, it s easy to forget that civilization is just at the other end of the hallway.
We wanted to provide the new sophisticated traveler the opportunity to experience the original architecture of San Juan del Sur in elegant accommodations and-a relaxing atmosphere, says owner George Anne Scharhag.
Two blocks away, facing the ocean, is the newer and uniquely charming Victoriano, a boutique gingerbread hotel inside an elegantly restored 1902 English Victorianstyle home, complete with decorative wood trim.
The hotel s quaint rooms overlook the ocean and the patio deck pool. On the first floor is a stately hotel bar and restaurant, which affords dazzling views of the sunset.
San Juan del Sur s restaurant offering also received a major boost last year with the opening of El Pozo Restaurant, which features some of the best and interesting food in town.
Tucked inside a simple yet stylishly restored building one block from the marketplace, El Pozo has quickly made a name for itself as one of the trendiest and delicious restaurants in town. If you re lucky enough to be in town on a Sunday night, it s sushi night at El Pozo, featuring some of the best sushi in Nicaragua.
The desserts are also worth splurging on, so make sure to save room.
Despite San Juan s tremendous transformation in recent years, Mayor Holmann says more should be done to reorient future growth.
The principal weakness over the past decade of development, he says, is that investors have focused more on selling lots to speculators than they have on actually building new tourism infrastructure, such as small and medium-sized hotels.
The lot projects have not had the desired economic repercussion because many of these lots haven t been built on; they re bought mostly for speculation, Holmann says, adding that many don t even inscribe the properties to avoid paying taxes. In other words, these businesses have had very little impact on the local economy.
So while many of the development projects market themselves as residential tourism, Holmann says, We think that a positive tendency should be to focus on developing small and medium-sized quality hotels to attract tourists who have better buying power and to increase the capacity of the town to attract different types of tourism.
Holmann says the more hotel infrastructure there is to bring high-end tourism to San Juan del Sur, the better chance the ubiquitous lot projects will have of selling their properties. But in building new hotels in town, Holmann says, San Juan del Sur needs to do more to establish and enforce building codes that respect the town s historic flavor such as the efforts made by the Pozada Azul and Victoriano.
Holmann also says San Juan needs to do more to diversify its tourism offering, by adding more attractions, such as canopy tours, rural tourism and sports tourism. And the town needs more of an offering for the tourists who get off the cruise ships, a market that Holmann says represents a great opportunity for business, but one the town isn t yet taking full advantage of.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity for San Juan del Sur lies to the south, in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Holmann says San Juan del Sur and the surrounding coastal municipalities must work to form a tourism route that connects to Costa Rica by opening a new border crossing and tapping into their southern neighbor s enormous tourism market.
The international airport in Liberia would only be an hour away with a decent coastal road and a new border crossing, Holmann said. That would open the possibility to 800,000 annual visitors and five direct daily flights to Europe, the United States and charter flights.
Once the project finally gets done, he said, Nicaragua, and especially San Juan del Sur, will have lots to win and little to lose.