San Juan del Sur was a sleepy fishing town before it was discovered by vacationers from nearby Granada. Owing to its proximity to some of Nicaragua’s best breaks, surfers followed, then real estate agents and subsequently, the rest of the world began to trickle in. As a traveler looking to experience Nicaraguan culture and improve my Spanish, maybe I’m supposed to look down my nose at the sunbathers and party-goers here—bars and beaches, that’s just not culture, right?
I went to San Juan anyway because, of course, I felt it was my obligation to document the tourism center of Nicaragua (read: I wanted to catch some waves). But after a few guilty days of exploring the bars and breaks around San Juan del Sur I found myself telling a fellow traveler, a white-haired German tour guide named Sascha, that while this was a pleasant town, it was not exactly a cultural Mecca. I planned to leave the following day in search of more interesting destinations. Sascha was incredulous.
The two main commercial streets in San Juan meet at an intersection in the center of town, a few blocks from the beach. Here Sascha had adopted a daily ritual. In the afternoons he would sit on the steps of a small tienda, sip orange juice and watch the world go by. Just witnessing the interactions between the locals and visitors in passing was an endless source of entertainment for Sascha. Taking his advice, I began to watch.
A series of live-action vignettes, little glimpses into San Juan’s oddly unique culture, began to unfold around me. I watch as an American expat sees a matronly local woman in passing that he recognizes and launches into a sappy love song, a mock serenade. She laughs and shouts, “Hola, guapo!”, as they dance past each other.
An older tourist, in short shorts and an ill-fitting purple t-shirt, hears a crowing rooster in an open doorway. Turning suddenly, he begins to crow wildly back at the bird. A shoe cobbler working on the street corner bursts out laughing at the strange display and looks to me as if for an explanation. I shrug and say what he must be thinking, “turistas son locos.”
Sascha was right. Somehow I hadn’t noticed that this town was ground zero for cultural exchange. All around me were examples of a diverse group of Nicaraguans and travelers from all over the world bridging the language gap and sharing experiences.
For days now I had been a part of it without paying much attention. From my daily consultations with Codo, a local surfer who was telling me where to surf and how to get there, to hours-long Spanish conversations with a Nicaraguan-Brazilian couple I met at a tiki bar on the beach, I had been participating so effortlessly here, that it somehow seemed less of a cultural experience.
I realized that many of my past “real travel” experiences were actually amusing anecdotes prompted by communication failure—like when I inadvertently ordered a plate of fried chicken feet in Laos, or accidentally agreed to help move a 500-pound concrete sink across the sprawling city of Xela, Guatemala.
Now, knowing enough to avoid unintentionally ordering the lengua (tongue) on the Nicaraguan menus unless I’m feeling particularly adventurous, I sit at the local restaurants eating food that I actually wanted to order, often at a fraction of the price of those around me because I’ve learned to ask about almuerzo, the set lunch not displayed on the menu. It doesn’t make for a very interesting story, but it’s much easier on the stomach.
Because San Juan residents have the patience and experience to communicate with travelers speaking all levels of Spanish, true cultural exchange defines this place. My improved Spanish meant this kind of cultural experience was unfamiliar—much less awkward and uncomfortable than those I’d become accustomed to. When you can communicate with your hosts, cultural exchange begins to seem less exotic and more like simply living life and meeting new friends.
Of course, this exchange is easier for many travelers in San Juan because the language gap is being bridged from both sides—many of the locals have taken the initiative to learn English. For them, learning English meant better employment opportunities and a chance to interact on a deeper level with their visitors.
As the wooden fishing skiffs on the bay are gradually overtaken by yachts and cruise ships, English will become more of a reality and Spanish less of a necessity here, but the emergence of English comes at a premium. Prices will rise, sterile hotels will replace quaint guest houses and the smoky sidewalk grills will eventually be outnumbered by pizza and burger joints. But as San Juan grows into a resort town, those who speak Spanish will always be better equipped to find the hidden charms that make it unique.