SAN JUAN DEL SUR— As San Juan del Sur evolves from a lesser-traveled backpacker surfer hideout into a mainstream tourism destination, some beachgoers are concerned this popular community by the bay is starting to lose its authentic, small-town Nicaraguan charm.
“It’s not going to be like this in 10 years. We wanted to see it now before it really develops,” says Canadian tourist Anita Hansen, who says she likes the town’s relatively inexpensive prices and smaller crowds than those found in neighboring Costa Rica.
While San Juan’s most recent foreign tourism boom has catered greatly to surfing backpackers and the $5-per-night hostel crowd, longtime residents and developers say the town’s continued expansion is now leaning toward a higher-end market.
“The potential is huge. Infrastructure here has become more sustainable and established. And there are property lots that someday may contain someone’s dream house,” says seasoned expat Kelvin Marshall, pointing to new condominiums being built on the beach’s northern side.
Las Talanqueras Townhomes development project is an example of the new type of market San Juan del Sur is already starting to attract. The project will include 19 luxury units that sell for $100,000 to $300,000. The development is markedly fancier than many of the earlier condo projects in town.
“San Juan attracts a diverse crowd, but I think it is moving in the direction of medium-to high-end markets because it’s a better value and has more history and culture than Costa Rica,” says Las Talanqueras project architect Jeff Gordon. “For the growing numbers of folks who are looking for a second home, there are an increasing number of sophisticated options; many find great investment value in Nicaragua.”
San Juan del Sur’s development boom is changing the landscape of the once-frondescent hillsides surrounding the town.
Watching the sunset from a beachside bar amid tourists sipping piña coladas, Henrik Thaekkr, who has been visiting San Juan del Sur for 12 years, points to the south and north sides the crescent-shaped beach and predicts there will be “much more developed, with gated communities and houses” to come.
Local tourism secretary Nadiezdha Ibarra says more higher-end projects are in the works.
“Only a couple of businesses target the higher-end tourist now, but more luxury hotels and restaurants are coming,” she says. “Cruise ships will visit more frequently, and more apartments, houses and hotels are being built.”
Rob Thomas, who runs local cafe El Gato Negro, says the press coverage Nicaragua has received in recent years is already bringing a wealthier type of tourist to town.
“This year in particular tourism has boomed, and we are seeing a different type of tourist. Wanderlust rated Nicaragua the world’s best emerging destination this year and the New York Times rated Nicaragua third out of 46 places to visit this year,” Thomas says. “Now that mainstream media is covering us, we are seeing a more privileged type of tourist. We used to feel lucky when we had electricity on, but now people are complaining that the Internet service isn’t fast enough.”
Thomas hopes tourism doesn’t become more than San Juan can handle. He notes that San Juan del Sur has survived waves of foreign travelers in the past, starting back with the influx of U.S. prospectors heading to and from California during the Gold Rush of the mid 19th century. Still, he thinks the town is lucky to have natural geographical barriers to help contain the sprawling development.
“The town is protected by its geography because it’s surrounded by a ridge, so there is no space to build huge resorts,” he says.
Still others are less optimistic that geography will be enough to slow development from crawling all over the remaining hillsides.
“Little by little, more exclusive places are being built, especially now with more press attention on San Juan,” says surfer and local hostel owner Javier Baldovinos. “This town will probably develop more into something I don’t like.”
Read part I of this series here.