Crossing the border from Costa Rica into Nicaragua is a mere one-hour boat ride down the river.
Emerging from the jungle towards the small town of San Carlos, you feel the vibe of a new country and the sense of a community that lives by the rhythm of the great Rio San Juan.
The Rio San Juan was the first stop on our trip through Nicaragua en route to Omepete Island. This was a part of Nicaragua we were quite excited about seeing.
We left Costa Rica early by bus to Los Chiles to catch a boat up river and over the border into San Carlos, Nicaragua.
On arrival in San Carlos we were supposed to find another boat to head further down river on the Rio San Juan to El Castillo. For bureaucracratic reasons beyond our understanding, we had been delayed on the border crossing on the river for a very, very long time. The thought of another 3 hours in the dark on a crowded boat was not at all appealing, so we opted for a night in San Carlos.
San Carlos is a small fishing and port town. Here you will complete a final customs clearance after the unusual military stop on the river from Costa Rica. You can then board another boat or ferry to various destinations. A small airport services Ometepe and Managua and chicken buses depart daily for the capital as well.
Recommended Travel Gear For Nicaragua and Rio San Juan
We managed to find a small, basic but clean guest house for $20 US on the water front and a fantastic street side restaurant that serves meals all day from 6.00am. A huge traditional Nicaraguan breakfast will set you back around $3 US. San Carlos is a lovely and very handy stop for those heading either north or south.
We finally made our connecting boat to El Castillo the next morning, a very small town on the Rio San Juan close to the nature reserve of Indio Maiz. Boats leave San Carlos all day down the river, if you are lucky you will grab the express which takes 1.5hrs. The other option is the 3 hr milk run that stops at every village, hut and imaginary, make shift stop along the way.
El Castillo is instantly recognisable by the fort that sits high on the hill over the village. The village is very small and comprises mostly of one street facing the river with houses, restaurants and businesses perched on stilts over the river rapids.
You will find similar accommodation as in San Carlos. Very simple guest house style hotels, both clean and very friendly. There is no WIFI to speak of and only 2 hotels have hot showers and / or air-conditioning. Expect to pay around $15-$25USD per night and as high as $95 for a stay at one of the fancy (still pretty basic) hotels with hot water.
A lot of the hotels will provide breakfast and have small restaurants offering fantastic home style cooking. A large plate of rice, beans, tostones, chicken done in a variety of ways and salad will set you back around $5USD. It is a little more expensive than San Carlos, but they are a long way down the river!
El Castillo survives on a simple and fairly new tourism industry, one that is set to take off. Once you have walked around El Castillo, been to the fort and enjoyed a good meal overlooking the rapids, it is time to set out and see what the area has to offer.
Make sure if you put the effort into getting this far, leave yourself some time to explore. We heard too may stories from locals about tourists that could only do certain things because they only had one night there – Stupid!
We wandered around town looking at various options for tours of the nature reserve and the river. At first we found most to be expensive and short. A 4 hour hike for $70 US, a night tour to see Caiman $40 US, we would have had to take at least 3 or 4 different tours to see what we came for.
Then we stumbled across one of only 2 operators running camping and canoe trips into the reserve. Juan Ardilla (Ardilla is Spanish for squirrel – his nickname) runs all different length camping tours anywhere from 2 days to 6 days all the way down the river to San Juan Nicaragua.
We spent a couple of days with Juan in a canoe, camping on a small island on the Rio San Juan and had the most fantastic all inclusive experience for just $75 US each. He supplied and prepared all of our meals, okay we did have to do some fishing! Hammocks, sheets, snacks, rubber boots for the jungle, fishing gear and fresh coconut water. He even invited us to his home on the morning we left where his wife cooked us the most amazing breakfast! She also runs a very reasonably priced laundry service if you want to catch up on some laundry while you are in the jungle!
On the morning we left, after our home cooked breakfast, Juan picked us up down stream past the rapids in the canoe that would be our transport for the next few days (you can opt for a motor boat but we considered the noise and the slower experience). The canoe was stocked with everything we would need, Juan even bought me a straw hat made locally to keep the sun off.
We drifted down the river using the current, along the way Juan pointed out an incredible amount of wildlife we would perhaps not have noticed ourselves or seen in a motor boat. His knowledge of the flora and fauna was that of a man who’d been raised on the land, there was so much he knew about the local wildlife, medicinal plants and the ways of the river. We drifted down until we reached the entrance of the Indi Maize reserve at Bartola. Once we had ensured all our permits were in place with the military stationed at the river intersection where the reserve begins, we continued on as the jungle became more dense and the animal noises louder.
We had asked Juan about seeing sloth, he said it was possible but very difficult, they sit very high in the tree and stay very camouflaged so are hard to spot. Within 10 minutes of drifting into the reserve we had seen our first sloth. He was right, they were very hard to see and very high up but we were satisfied, we had seen our first sloth in the wild and that was more than enough for us, this trip was already a big success.
As we continued down river we saw no end of howler monkeys hanging about in the over hanging branches, white faced monkeys using the trees to leap from one side of the river to the other and large lizards that actually walked on water. Juan continued to amaze us with his knowledge and stories of life on the river.
We pulled up the canoe for a lunch stop, Juan built a quick fire, fashioned some plates from banana leaves and cooked up a storm of chicken, rice and salad while we swam in the shallows out of the current.
Back up stream and we stop for a quick fish to catch dinner, Mark unfortunately was having rice and beans! After a brief but heavy rain storm we head back to Bartola and jumped off at the military station for a short afternoon hike through the jungle. Juan again astounded us with his knowledge of medicinal plants, animals and insects.
Back in the canoe, one last chance for Mark to save himself from having rice and beans for dinner, with 5 minutes to spare he pulls in the biggest fish of the day! Then we settle in for a sunset drift down the river while Juan scales and cleans our dinner.
Once the sun has disappeared the fun begins, Caiman spotting! With flashlights in hand we paddle around in search of Caiman, the alligators of the river. After spotting a number of Caiman hiding in the reeds of the banks it is a 4 meter crocodile that grabs our attention, time to paddle this small canoe to our camp site for the night!
We spend the night on a small island made up predominately of enormous bamboo plants and the wreck of an old steam boat that ran aground there nearly 150 years ago. It is the perfect camp spot; flat ground, no mosquitoes (as the island is surrounded by rapids), plenty of places to string a hammock and of course a spot to cook up a great feed of fresh fish!
The following day we are collected by motor boat, our canoe is no match for the upstream rapids we need to travel further up river to trek the Aguas Frescas trail. Again as we head off into the swampy jungle, still deep with mud from the recent floods and landslides, Juan shows his incredible knowledge of the jungle. Today he has taken the challenge to find us Toucan. In almost complete silence we trek through this pristine jungle with Juan pointing out nearly every bird species we would not have seen without his help. He finds the smallest frogs of bright red and fluorescent green which are very poisonous and trees that walk, literally! 2 meters every 40 years. We hear Toucan but cannot see them high in the canopy.
After our trek, we are heading up river on our way back when Juan spots something in a tree far off in the distance – Yes, its Toucan! How he saw them is beyond us but we were grateful he did, along with the sloth, this was another highlight of our trip.
A quick stop on the river banks for a swim and to cook up a large fresh fish caught that morning before we head back to El Castillo
When we arrive back in El Castillo Juan’s family are on the dock waiting for us, he again invites us back to his home where his wife has prepared a special drink made from chocolate and rice – So delicious and refreshing.
The trip with Juan is the kind of personalised service that is so indicative of the service you receive everywhere in El Castillo. The people of El Castillo and the entire Rio San Juan welcome you in to their region and their towns with a type of hospitality that makes you feel like, if only for a moment you have been welcomed into their lives.
People like Juan are proud and passionate about the region. He has an enthusiastic vision for the future of tourism and the protection and conservation of the river and surrounding reserves that he is excited to share with anyone who takes the time to visit.
*Note; On the morning we left El Castillo on the 5.00AM ferry (it was still dark) Juan got out of bed to come to the center of town to bring us some birthday cake his family had made him the night before.
If you are looking for Juan Ardilla, take a right on the main street when you get off the ferry in El Castillo, you will find Juan’s house on the left, it has signs out the front advertising the tours and laundry service. Or, just ask for him around town, everyone knows everyone.