There's a point in every surf movie when the wandering heroes pile into a Land Rover and bounce their way down a rocky cow path or jungle road that ends where the ocean begins – a surf idyll with steady waves and a handful of locals riding a break that would be lousy with boards back home. That scene plays out daily in Nicaragua's San Juan del Sur, a town so Pacifically mellow that its chief concern is hitching a ride out to one of the beaches tucked along the coast to the north and south.

Today's destination is Playa Hermosa, a few coves south of town. The half-hour journey entails several river crossings, many tons of obstructive livestock, and a $3 fee paid to the stern woman manning the gate. Riding shotgun is Rex Calderón, a 19-year-old San Juan native and the best junior surfer in Central America, who explains why the woman's husband is climbing onto our pickup. "Security," Rex tells me. "Sometimes banditos in through here. With pistolas."

There remains a scary side to Nicaragua – armed insurrection, grudge-holding Sandinistas, those banditos – but it's largely by reputation only. Besides, it was the country's leftist leanings that kept it from becoming Costa Rica sooner, as decades of war and well-earned anti-American resentment delayed the invasion of the hemisphere's most intrusive tourist force. The Nicas I meet are still happy to see foreigners toting backpacks and longboards. With the exception of a few adventurous Californians, people didn't surf here until the late 1990s. But once they started, word traveled fast.

Playa Hermosa is a stunning stretch of jagged Pacific coast, with a rickety outdoor bar that rents boards and sells beer, and a newly renovated wooden A-frame with bathrooms and an outdoor shower. Even the road to get there has improved lately. A steep stretch of it was paved – reparations paid by 'Survivor,' which filmed a season here – after secrecy-obsessed producers shut down cove access, even by boat, to fishermen and surfers. There are a total of three people in the water – Brits on surf holiday – when I flop down on my board.

Most of the great beaches that surround San Juan del Sur – Maderas, Remanso, Tamarindo – are similarly outfitted: There's usually a place to borrow some wax and scarf a fish taco. That San Juan has no real break of its own doesn't diminish it as a beach town. More than one Nica reminds me that San Juan del Sur is "the St.-Tropez of Nicaragua," and the beachgoing here is closer in spirit to the South of France than to Southern California. Few people are swimming or diving for volleyballs in the sand. Instead it's the kind of beach where a three-generation family will decamp on a Sunday afternoon for ceviche de pulpo, grilled camarones, and as many Toñas – the delicious national lager that costs only $1 – as they can down before driving back to Managua.

San Juan sheds that familial vibe each night. The steady offshore breeze from nearby Lake Nicaragua means there's no need to rise with the roosters to catch decent waves, and partying in San Juan often means meeting the roosters head-on. "It's one of the few surf towns where you can surf and party," says Javier Baldovinos, who founded the Nicaragua Surfing Association a few years ago. With outdoor bars like the Black Whale and Henry's Iguana offering cheap Toñas, local rum, and sweaty, makeshift dance floors where dozens of countries of origin are represented, San Juan attracts savvy party people, but also wandering spirits who stumble in and never leave.

Take Henry Roy, a white-haired ex-pilot quietly lording over the evening with a Cuban tucked into his mouth, a local girlfriend at his side, and a laptop that empowers him to play "Brick House" whenever he damn well wants to. Roy was laid off after 9/11, so he bought a Ford 4WD and drove down from Houston. "I never did use the four-wheel drive, but I did hit a cow," he says. "San Juan in 2002 felt like Montana in the 1970s. You could get drunk on $5. It soaks into you. It's got soul."

It's true that San Juan's draw transcends surfing. When Rob Thomas left his stress chamber of a futures-trading desk to move here, it wasn't the waves that brought him. He and his wife opened El Gato Negro, an expat hub serving San Juan's best coffee, which they grow and roast themselves. (They also refuse to serve it to go, on the grounds that if you don't have five minutes to enjoy a coffee, you can get it elsewhere.) After work, Rob bikes the jungle trails around town. "When I got to San Juan, I bought a $65 Chinese mountain bike and started getting lost in the woods," he recalls. "Now I have an $8,000 carbon-fiber bike and a network of trails in my head." But all that tech doesn't prevent him from getting smoked once in a while. "There are strong riders here," he says. "I got caught on a hill by a guy with an old bent bike and a machete taped to his crossbar. He was wearing flip-flops!"