Sometimes it all just comes together beautifully. A great day of fishing in San Juan del Sur at half the normal price!
When people think of San Juan del Sur they think of Sunday Funday hostel parties, surf trips to the nearby beaches and lazy days recovering on the sandy crescent beach in town. But, for us, a fishing trip in San Juan del Sur turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of our time so far in Nicaragua.
We’ve been in San Juan del Sur for three weeks now, and for three weeks now my boyfriend, Mikko, has been saying he wants to go fishing. Between my work on the Green Nica project and his never-ending stream of school deadlines, we just haven’t been able to make it work. And then one slightly inebriated night, fate stepped in. The result was a day on the ocean complete with private beaches, dolphin sightings, a boat load of fish, new friends, cold beers and two great local guides.
Most of the shops in town will quote you a price of between $425 and $550 for an 8-hour day on the water. With a maximum capacity of 6 people, this works out to be quite an expensive day at sea. Combine this with the fact that you pay per boat, which means you have to find a group large enough to make the trip financially feasible, and you can see why it doesn’t top the list of budget-minded travelers.
Lucky for us, one random Tuesday night, we decided to meet up with a friend for dinner and drinks in town. Outside one of the bars, we met a group of Canadians that mentioned they had been trying, unsuccessfully, to get a group together to go fishing. Mikko pounced on this opportunity and exchanged Facebook information with one of the girls.
The next day, after an unsuccessful attempt at Facebook communication, we ran into the group while watching a particularly spectacular sunset at the town’s beach.
They were disappointed after being quoted a price of $550, and were debating whether they could afford such an expensive trip. Fortunately, we had a lead through our favorite lunch-time seafood comedor, La Lancha, that the guys at Arenas Calientes surf shop could get us a better deal. We got to the shop, explained what we were looking for and were quoted a price of $220 for a full-day of fishing. At $40 dollars a person and more than half the price of the other shops, we jumped on the deal. After scraping together the $50 deposit and giving him our names for insurance purposes (a nice and unexpected touch), our group parted ways with a plan to meet the next morning at 7:30 in front of the market to buy supplies.
Bright and early the next day, we met up to grab a bite to eat in the market, buy take away quesadillas and a couple 12-packs of Toña. Then, it was down to the beach to meet our boat and captain.
The boat was a typical fishing boat, 25 feet long with a waterproof tarp providing much needed sun protection over the majority of the deck. There was a cooler with ice, which we filled to the brim with Toñas, and 4 fishing rods. Eduardo and Sebastian, our captain and crew, helped us board. Then, after waiting for a lull in the waves, we pushed off and head out past the barrier of anchored fishing boats into the open sea.
As soon as we cleared the bay, we let out our lines and began trolling, waiting for the tell-tale whizz of the reel as a 4-foot Marlin grabbed hold of our bait. I’ll cut to the end and say that though towards the very end we did get a bite, we weren’t able to hook a ‘big one’. We went home with lots of fish, but our dreams of catching a giant sailfish were never realized. But, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.
We headed out of the bay and made our way north along the coastline. The most surprising thing for me was the clear azure color of the water once you got to the open sea. The wave heavy water that comes into the bays along Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast churns up the fine grey sand and gives the water a greyish-brown tint. But there out at sea, the ocean floor far below us, the water was a brilliant shade of blue and made me feel like I was in the Caribbean not the Pacific Ocean.
We trolled our way up the coast, eventually abandoning our hopes of catching a big one and just sitting back to enjoy the scenery. Nicaragua’s southwest coastline, though touristic, is still extremely underdeveloped. Even the popular beaches north of town showed only a sprinkle of hut-like structures along the tree line and a few hotels and hostels sticking up above the branches in the hillside. After a while, even those were replaced by virgin bays of varying sizes with the odd house visible every 15 minutes or so.
One girl on the boat kept saying that it was like being in Jurassic Park. And, when you’re coasting along kilometer after kilometer of undeveloped coastline with aloe plants growing alongside several meter high cactuses, lush forest ending in rocky cliff faces and large boulders jutting out of water, the waves crashing violently against the stone carving statuesque figures despite the relatively calm water we were motoring along only 30 meters away; it’s easy to see what she meant. Add to that dozens of pterodactyl-like pelicans soaring overheard, and even I half expected a T-Rex to come stomping through the palm trees onto one of the beaches.
About an hour and a half into our trip up the coast we were joined by a pair of dolphins swimming alongside the boat. Snapping away with our cameras, we joked that we didn’t even need to catch any fish; we could just call this a boat tour and dolphin safari. As if in answer to our joke, a little while later we were joined by a group of 10 or so dolphins who put on a show jumping out of water and swimming only a couple meters from the boat. At that point we could have happily turned around and counted ourselves fortunate, but it was only 10 past noon and our day was just beginning.
After a while, we came to a bay where we saw another boat of tourists taking a swim. We asked Eduardo if we could jump in too, and he smiled and said of course. Despite the shade on the boat it was, as it always is in Nicaragua, a hot day, and we were happy to jump into the water. Extremely salty but also cool and refreshing, we spent a half hour or so swimming and playing. Sebastian even threw on his mask and snorkel and jumped in with us. Eventually, we dragged ourselves, literally since there was no ladder, back on the boat and headed back out to the open water.
We had turned around and were heading back down the coast when Eduardo told us that they were going to a spot they knew was good for bottom-fishing. We were happy to switch up our fishing technique since we were having no luck with the trolling. So when he dropped anchor and brought out the sardines and hand reels, we had renewed excitement that we might catch a fish or two after all. Despite our optimism, it caught us by surprise when we pulled in the first fish only seconds after dropping our lines. After that, it was nibble after nibble and our arms were getting sore from pulling up all the fish that we caught. The majority were snappers and a couple big trigger fish, but since I don’t eat fish, I ‘liberated’ all the fish I caught. We also set free the smaller fish, though some that were injured quickly met their end in the mouths of the growing number of birds circling our boat looking for scraps.
One poor bird got tangled in one of fishing poles in the back of the boat. Luckily Eduardo, with an impressively gentle touch, was able to work the wing free. And, we were glad when the bird flew off with no visible injuries.
After an hour and another quick cool off in the ocean, we decided to stop since we didn’t want to fish more than we could eat. We double checked with Eduardo and Sebastian, and they said they would happily take any extra fish home to feed their families and friends. Satisfied, we wound up the hand reels and headed back to town…or so we thought.
Thinking we couldn’t top the amazing day we’d had: drinking ice cold beers, joking and playing cards, spotting dolphins, swimming in the ocean and catching a ridiculous amount of fish, we were pleasantly surprised when Eduardo pointed to a golden-sand beach and said we were going to anchor there. He explained to us that it was one of only a couple private beaches owned by rich Nicaraguan families, but that we were allowed to go on to shore and relax for as long as we wanted. He dropped anchor and we jumped in, swimming to the beach. Relaxing on the sand, an especially welcomed treat to one of the girls suffering from seasickness, Mikko eventually stumbled onto a small natural swimming pool formed by large rocks that created a hot tub sized pool big enough for a relaxing snuggle away from the rest of the group.
Realizing we needed to make our way back if we wanted to reach town before sunset, we swam back to the boat to find that our crew had cleaned the fish and even filleted some of the bigger ones for us.
Trolling our way back to San Juan del Sur, we did eventually get the aforementioned nibble. But, when it didn’t work out we were only slightly disappointed, because our initial mission of catching a giant fish had turned into so much more.
We pulled onto the beach in town just before sunset. We gathered together the money to pay the remaining balance and 10% tip and took a couple fish, leaving the rest for our outstanding crew to take home to their families. The whole group was gushing about what a great day it had been, how it had surpassed all expectations and how lucky we were to have met each other and been able to make this whole thing happen.
Walking home with the sun setting behind us, Mikko and I smiled to each other knowing that we made the right decision moving here to Nicaragua. Now, getting ready to leave San Juan del Sur in a few days, we are so excited to explore this beautiful country and see what other surprises it has in store for us.
Responsible Travel Tips
– Look for the little guys. We found this fishing guide by asking around to the local community. Arena Caliente is a well-established surf shop, but they arrange their fishing tours by working with smaller independent people that have boats and equipment available. They weren’t as flashy as some of the other boats, but it was safe, had life vests and the guides were great. I’ve seen the other boats that cost double, and they aren’t much better. We also got leads on a couple of other local fisherman who were happy to take out tourists, but they weren’t able to accommodate us so last minute. We even met a guy who was invited fishing by a local fisherman and caught a marlin with a hand reel! So ask around and give some money to the little guys.
– In a perfect world, we would only fish by non-motorized kayaks or solar paneled boats. But that is not a possibility for many of the local people here trying to make money with the resources they have available. Our fishing boat had a pretty new motor, but I’m sure that it was not the most environmentally friendly craft in the world. However, sometimes contributing to the economic development of an area means more than perfect environmental sustainability. I chose to participate in this as it was the best option available and the small-scale of the fishing tourism industry in San Juan del Sur minimizes overall negative impact.
– Catch-and-release. I am a BIG proponent of catch-and-release fishing in order to preserve the local fish population and allow local commercial fisherman to be able to remain in business. In San Juan del Sur some fish are protected, like the Marlin, and will have to be released once caught. But, if you are in an area with a healthy fish population (something I checked-up on before we went), throw back small fish and only take as much as you can eat in one or two days, there is nothing wrong with going on a fishing trip and enjoying the fruit of your labors grilled over an open fire.
– Give back. 10% tip is a necessity in Nicaragua as many people earn a wage of less than a dollar an hour. But think of other ways you can give back, like giving the majority of your catch to the crew of your boat.
Affordable Fishing tours in San Juan del Sur Nicaragua:
Pass by Arena Caliente, 8815 3247, located on the same street as the market
Fishing Trips with Roberto, 7539 2425
White stand on the south end of the beach. I don’t know the name, but I heard by someone that they offered cheap but good fishing trips
Or ask your waiter, cab driver or just any smiling face you meet and they can point you in the right direction. But never pay more than the deposit in advance and check your boat to make sure you feel safe in it and that it includes basic safety precautions like life vests.