Nicaragua’s beach and surf scene are famous throughout the Americas. Backpackers in search of a Nicaragua surf trip flock to San Juan del Sur by the thousands. They’ve turned the coastline into true gringolandia. But there is a quieter — and more authentic — alternative. Right near the border with El Salvador, the small town of Jiquilillo occupies a kilometer-long gray sand beach with incredible volcano views. Better yet, it’s home to Rancho Esperanza Jiquilillo — one of the best Nicaragua hostels and one of the best backpacker hangouts on the planet. It’s even one of the best Nicaragua surf spots, if that’s your thing — but it totally doesn’t have to be for you to have a great time here.
Note: I did not work with Rancho Esperanza on this post. In fact, this blog wasn’t even live yet when I stayed there. I paid for my stay and all activities, just like you would, and all opinions are 100% my own.
Rancho Esperanza Jiquilillo: A beach “resort” for backpackers
Rancho Esperanza Jiquilillo includes all the great things about beach resorts, with none of the awful high-end tourism things.
True, it’s more rustic than luxurious. Most people stay in a fan-cooled beach bungalow. There are a couple dorms in the bungalows, and there are beds in the loft of the restaurant for folks who don’t mind a bit of noise. The beds are comfy and come with mosquito nets and lockers, but everything is fan-cooled (no A/C). Everyone uses shared (composting) bathrooms.
But what it lacks in luxury, Rancho Esperanza Jiquilillo makes up for with that true far-flung, chilled-out backpacker vibe that you only find every so often. Have dinner around a communal table. Get to know the staff by name. Lie in a hammock right next to the ocean all day long. I know, life is hard.
Even better, Rancho Esperanza employs a community-minded approach. The staff all come from the village (as do the masseuses and tour guides). They emphasize low-impact tourism with environmentally-friendly facilities, and they offer cultural activities in the local fishing village.
People of all ages and on all kinds of trips stay at Rancho Esperanza Jiquilillo, from families with kids to retired couples to 21-year-old backpackers. You’ll meet some of the most interesting people on all of your travels. Because the rooms and dorms are pretty small, everyone hangs out in the main pavilion in the mornings and evenings. This creates a very social vibe — surfers gushing over the best beach breaks, trekkers returning from climbing a volcano, and beach bums cooling off from spending the day in the sun.
Additionally, Rancho Esperanza Jiquilillo serves great food. Breakfast and lunch cost under $4, and dinner costs $5.25. Vegetarian options are always available. Nearly everything is homemade, including all the sauces. The best part is the bottomless Nicaraguan coffee available each morning for $1!
There aren’t many places to stay at Jiquilillo Beach Nicaragua, so to be safe, book your room at Rancho Esperanza Jiquilillo in advance. I paid $10.50 a night for the “quiet” dorm. Private rooms start at $22. You can sleep in a hammock or pitch your own tent for $5.
The beach at Playa Jiquilillo
Playa Jiquilillo is a gorgeous, long stretch of volcanic gray sand on the Pacific coast. It’s clean and the water is shallow at low tide. The waves get pretty serious at high tide, but never so much that you can’t wade in up to your waist.
Rancho Esperanza Jiquilillo has a couple of hammocks right on the beach. Otherwise, you can lay out your towel on the sand. Because there are only a couple guesthouses here, the beach doesn’t see much traffic — you might be one of only two or three people using it at a time.
Don’t leave anything on the sand while you go in the water — leave it inside the gate at Rancho Esperanza. Theft is very common. If you walk down the beach, leave everything, including your shoes, behind to avoid a robbery. And be careful to stay out of the way of the motorbike drivers who use the beach as their own personal playground.
Surfing at Playa Jiquilillo
I’m not a surfer, so I can’t really speak to how good the surf is. But the vast majority of people who come to Playa Jiquilillo are here because it’s one of the top Nicaragua surf spots. The surfing is mainly geared toward beginners and intermediate surfers.
You can rent a surfboard from Rancho Esperanza Jiquilillo for $11. If you’ve never surfed before, take an English-language lesson for the same price. Remember to bring long sleeves — the Pacific Ocean is freezing, even when it’s 95 degrees and humid outside!
Kayak through Central America’s largest mangrove forest
It would be easy to spend days at Rancho Esperanza Jiquilillo and never venture further than the ocean. But if you’re up for a more active adventure, a trip into Central America’s largest mangrove forest is very rewarding.
Mangroves are a hugely important species due to their ability to support other wildlife. Entire ecosystems throughout the tropics are dependent on these unique trees.
Unfortunately, climate change and human development are taking their toll. Healthy mangrove forests are on a steep decline — and with them, all the bird, fish, and other wildlife that depend on them.
A few kilometers outside Jiquilillo is the Reserva Estuario Padre Ramos — the largest mangrove forest on the subcontinent. You can take kayaks onto the river and into some tiny streams (with a good guide).
If you go in the late afternoon, you’ll see lots of bird life. But the whole landscape is really beautiful and unique. What’s more, you’re likely to have it all to yourself.
If you’re in Jiquilillo, don’t miss the chance to see the Reserva — it might not be around for much longer. The guided tour costs $25 per person.
Other activities at Rancho Esperanza Jiquilillo
Beyond enjoying a Nicaragua surf trip and kayaking through a mangrove forest, Rancho Esperanza Jiquilillo offers a few other adrenaline activities and some ways to kill an hour during a chill beach day.
If you’re feeling active, you can try climbing Volcano Cosigüina. It’s an all-day trip leaving around 4 am, but the views from the top are amazing. It runs $25 for the day. Overnight trips are also available.
Alternatively, stay in town and do a community-run tour. These range from village walks to cheese-making lessons to learning to climb a coconut tree or hunt for crabs by digging holes in the mud. Each tour is 1-2 hours long and costs $5.
Check Rancho Esperanza Jiquilillo’s website for the latest tours available.
How to get to Rancho Esperanza Jiquilillo
One reason not many travelers head this way is it’s hard to get to Playa Jiquilillo.
The first stage of your journey is getting to Chinandega. You can do this by bus from Managua, or by minibus from León (about 45 minutes). You’ll arrive at the main bus station.
Next, you’ll need to take a taxi or bicycle rickshaw to the “Mercadito” bus station. There are only a handful of chicken buses a day from the Mercadito station to Jiquilillo. They leave at 7, 10, and 11:30 am, and 3 and 4:30 pm. It’s about an hour and a half down a bumpy dirt road. Tell the bus driver you’re headed to Rancho Esperanza and they’ll drop you right at the gate.
Bank on the whole thing taking about four hours from León, including transfer time in Chinandega. (Have more time in León? Check out my León guide here!)
Jiquilillo is truly one of my favorite beach destinations in the world. So whether you’re after the surf scene, cultural tourism, or just a few days to relax, skip the party scene in San Juan del Sur. Head to Jiquilillo Nicaragua for a few days of true relaxation instead!
Looking for more travel info about Nicaragua? Check out my budget Nicaragua travel guide here!
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[…] loved Jiquilillo so much that I wrote an entire post about it here, but the short version is: a long stretch of soft, gray, volcanic sand. Unbelievable sunsets. Good […]