Playa Maderas Is the Perfect Alternative to Busy San Juan del Sur
A visit to Nicaragua is not complete without some surf, sand and sun on one of the beaches along the west coast. While San Juan del Sur is the popular choice, I opted for the nearby sleepy surf town of Playa Maderas and was not disappointed. It’s just 25 minute detour from San Juan del Sur, but oh so worth it.
Treat yourself to a stay in an ecopod at Hulakai Hotel for $65/night, including breakfast. There are two reasons this splurge was worth it. First, Hulakai has “family dinner” where everyone eats together at one table. This is a great option if you’re traveling solo. Second, these views speak for themselves. Grab a cocktail from the bar and enjoy the best sunset view in the area.
Fun Fact: You can apply to live as a resident at Hulakai if you want to work in exchange for a place to live.
Hulakai Hotel is Just a Short Walk to the Beach
If you arrive in late morning before your room is ready, like me, drop your bags at the front desk and explore the property. Relax on the upper level open air yoga studio, lounge by the pool, or grab a cocktail at the bar. Because Hulakai is built into the side of hill, you have a beautiful ocean view from just about anywhere.
The ecopods each have a stunning wraparound view of the Pacific ocean. As if the view wasn’t enough, howler monkeys spend their afternoons swinging in the trees on the property! Seriously, set aside some time to just watch these amazing animals in their natural habitat.
From Hulakai, you can walk for about 10 minutes down a steep road to the beach, called Playa Maderas. If you’re looking for alternative places to stay, check out the beachfront hostels. Don’t forget to bring some cash so you can enjoy some tacos and a beer! While Playa Maderas is most known for surfing, it’s also a great place to relax in the sand, play in the waves, or walk along the shore. Walk north to find even more secluded beaches.
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An Unexpected Evening in Playa Maderas
I learned that Hulakai is owned by Tyler, originally from the Portland, Oregon area. It just so happened that I was there during a down period and the Tyler’s family and a friend were all visiting and staying at the resort. As a result, unfortunately, there was no family dinner as I was literally the only guest staying there! At first I was bummed, but it turned out that the owner’s friend knew the area and offered to take me to another restaurant.
So, the friend asks if I would mind if we take the “house” motorcycle to dinner. It wasn’t far, but the walk was uphill so this would be easier. I didn’t mind, so I hopped on. Now, let me tell you, this was not a finely oiled machine. We had to sort of do a running downhill start and then pray a little bit (It’s all part of the adventure, right?) I expected a small basic local restaurant, as is common in Nicaragua. Well, we pulled up to an enormous home on a hill overlooking the ocean and valley. Inside was a boutique hotel and a restaurant called Arte Sano. Despite not being the local experience I was anticipating, the food and conversation was great! I didn’t make it there for brunch but I hear the daytime views are spectacular from their pool area. From there, we ended up on a friend’s patio sharing drinks and stories before heading back to the top of the hill at Hulakai. The motorcycle barely made it up the hill 🙂 I laid near the pool and watched the stars for a while before going to bed, you know, since I had the place to myself and all.
An Afternoon Exploring San Juan del Sur
On the second day, the same friend told me he was heading into San Juan del Sur and asked if I wanted to check it out. Of course, I said yes! You guessed it, same motorcycle, same issues, but the ride there was so much fun. The long dirt road took us through the countryside and a few small towns. San Juan del Sur is as expected. There’s loads of hostels/ hotels, tourist shops, and a beach area. Definitely skip all of the restaurants at the beach as they are way overpriced. Also, most shopping is closed on Sundays, so plan accordingly. After walking around a bit, we stopped at San Juan del Sur Cerveceria. The beers were unique and delicious and, from what people told me, the food is the same.
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The Kindness of Strangers in Playa Maderas
It wasn’t until the day I was leaving that I realized how expensive it could be to get to Managua from Playa Maderas. A few people told me that you can catch a shared shuttle or bus from San Juan del Sur. Just as I was getting a quote for a taxi into San Juan del Sur, the owner’s friend told me that a farmer and contractor that he works with was going to be stopping by and then heading into the city. The guy was willing to let me ride along for free and he’d help me find a good place to catch a shuttle. So, there I was riding shotgun with a complete stranger talking about his farm in the hills as we rode down the dirt road. He negotiated me a great price for a shuttle (at a small tour company next to Casa Oro hostel) but when I offered him a few dollars to say thank you for his trouble, he just smiled and said “it’s been no trouble at all.”
So, Playa Maderas may not be the destination for everyone, but it was absolutely the perfect one for me. Quiet, secluded, beautiful and low-key. If you prefer more action, I’d definitely recommend San Juan del Sur instead. Either way, this area of Nicaragua is beautiful and not to be missed!
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Reflections on Nicaragua
As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I booked my solo trip to Nicaragua on somewhat of a whim. I wasn’t sure what to expect. On my last day, I felt incredibly sad to be leaving but positive that I would be returning. The kindness of the people and the diverse landscape have me hooked.