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138km (86 miles) S of Managua; 96km (60 miles) S of Granada; 215km (134 miles) S of Léon

San Juan del Sur used to be a sleepy little Pacific coast hamlet, until it was discovered by backpackers and surfers as the perfect spot to hang a hammock and enjoy a rum-colored sunset. It is now Nicaragua's top Pacific coast destination for foreign visitors, and its pioneering blond-haired wave riders have gradually given way to silver-haired property seekers. Retirement homes are beginning to dot the surrounding hillsides, and upscale hotels are appearing along the coast. There is now even the occasional cruise ship idling in the bay.

San Juan hasn't completely lost the laid-back charm that attracted travelers here in the first place. And even though, on a weekend night, its tiny bar strip on the northern end of the beach can pound like Ibiza, the town is quiet during the week, and the surrounding area is perfect for beach wandering, leisure sailing, deep-sea fishing, and scuba diving. The town really comes alive for holidays, particularly for its delightful religious flotilla on July 17. The lunar cycles between September and April see a beach party of a different kind -- the mass hatching of turtles and their spectacular but treacherous rush to the sea. This takes place just south of the town and has to be one of Nicaragua's most amazing sights.

San Juan del Sur's history is as colorful as its perfect, bay-framed sunset. It was discovered by sailor Andres Niño in 1523 in a vain attempt to find a water passage to the Caribbean. It remained a tiny fishing village until the 1850s, when it became the final staging post for Americans heading west to California via the Caribbean on an overland trip from Lago de Nicaragua. William Walker then used it as a base to invade and eventually flee the region. He was prevented from invading again when the British navy ship the Vixen blocked the bay. In the 1970s, the area became the stronghold of legendary rebel Commandant Zero, who beat off Somoza's National Guard and forced them to hastily commandeer fishing boats and flee the port as the Sandinistas advanced from Rivas.