In favour of excellent surf, all-night benders, colourful colonial towns and the odd volcano hike, few travellers stray off the well-trodden gringo trail along Nicaragua’s Pacific coast.
However over on the east, the Rio San Juan leads from Lake Nicaragua to the Carribean and this truly unique part of the country where nature dominates and roads don’t exist is definitely worth a detour.
We spent a little over two weeks in the area soaking up a different kind of island life on the Islas Solentiname, setting foot on Caribbean shores and venturing into the farthest arteries of the Indio Maiz.
Here’s everything you need to know before venturing to this little-explored corner of Nicaragua.
Along the Rio San Juan, San Carlos is really the only place to replenish your wallet. There are several ATMs in town so take more than you think you will need for the entire river adventure.
Jungle tours can run into the hundreds of dollars depending on what you choose to do so it’s best to bring along a stash of USD as well.
Wifi just isn’t a thing along the Rio. Aside from San Carlos, the only other wifi we encountered was in San Juan de Nicaragua.
While this disconnect is part of the area’s charm, if you are in dire need of internet Claro and Movistar do data-only packages starting at about 20 cordobas (less than $1). These can be bought at all the river villages and phone reception is widespread.
While boats between San Carlos, Boca de Sabalo and El Castillo run several times a day, the service to San Juan de Nicaragua leaves just a few times per week and chances are you won’t want to be stuck in San Carlos for three days waiting for it to arrive. Check the timetable at the municipal pier and plan your trip accordingly.
If you find yourself with a few extra days up your sleeve, a side trip to the Islas Solentiname is definitely worthwhile. The cheap public colectivo runs on Tuesdays and Fridays while the more expensive family-run services run every day from the pier on the main square.
With hammock time taking priority over practically everything else, things here just move at a much slower pace.
The laid-back attitude is completely endearing and a trip down the Rio San Juan is really about experiencing the amusing eccentricities of the snail-paced river life.
Do as the locals do and take it slooow. This is not a place to rush through.
With stops at a few of the villages and a multi-day trip into the jungle, expect to spend at least 10 nights on the Rio, a few more if you include a trip to the Islas Solentiname.
If you are returning to Managua by bus there are many options available, but unless you have an arranged pick-up at the bus terminal it is advised not to take the service that will arrive in the middle of the night.
The 8 AM bus is considered to be slightly more ‘express’ and is probably your best option overall. A vague timetable can be found here, though it is not an entirely reliable schedule.
Having used the border crossing at Peñas Blancas multiple times, we can happily say that the one at Los Chiles is infinitely more pleasant.
If you’re heading to Costa Rica, then this is the perfect entry point – just make the river your last stop in Nicaragua.
Boats leave just twice a day from the immigration building in San Carlos to Los Chiles, otherwise minivans leave when full from the bus station heading to la frontera. On the Costa Rica side buses run regularly to San Jose and La Fortuna.
One phrase in the Lonely Planet nearly deterred us from our river trip entirely – “the experience will cost you”. So, if you opt for several tours and always take the fast boat your costs will quickly add up, but done right a river expedition is perfectly manageable on a tight budget.
Day-to-day travel expenses are very reasonable and we found some excellent value options. There were riverside private rooms with balconies of hammocks and rocking chairs for the grand price of $10, and huge local breakfasts for just $2.
Most accommodation is family run guesthouses rather than traditional hostels though and the presence of a guest kitchen was something we saw just once. Bring supplies to prepare your own meals that don’t require cooking as eating out for every meal will quickly put a dent in your budget.
Your biggest expense will definitely be a trip into the jungle.
Tours from El Castillo start at around $60 each (as part of a group of 4) and increase depending on the length of the trip and extra activities you want to do. For a few nights in the Indio Maiz leaving from San Juan de Nicaragua you’ll be looking at spending around $400 for a group.
If you’re sitting on an uncomfortable wooden bench for 14 hours straight, you’ll definitely want something to nibble on.
Most shops along the river sell a pretty meagre supply of fresh produce but there are some great bakeries in San Carlos and San Juan de Nicaragua that can stock you up with a fresh baguette or two.
Don’t miss the heavenly coconut cookies on the Caribbean end.
Yes, we know, we know, things should be enjoyed at a slower pace, but… more than 30 odd hours in boats that felt like they would crumble beneath us at the slightest ripple was enough to seriously test our patience.
Once at the Caribbean, if another 14-hour boat ride is a little too much to bare, the fast boat (complete with comfortable car seats and powerful engines) is a worthwhile upgrade. It takes at least half the time but is nearly double the price.
If you take it just one way, make it the way back.
The fish we tried along the river was some of the best we had anywhere in the country – fresh, delicious and most importantly cheap.
While our guidebook gushed that the river shrimp was a ‘not-to-be-missed’ delicacy, we never managed to find it for anything under $20 which was completely out of our budget.
However, our guide in the Indio Maiz did manage to source some for us in the jungle and it was definitely worth the wait.
With a direct link to the Caribbean and an unpatrolled border with Costa Rica, the Rio San Juan is a possible smuggling route with an active military presence.
Along the river your passport will be checked several times and any movements in and out of the San Juan de Nicaragua dock will incur a thorough search of all luggage.
Needless to say, don’t have anything on you that you shouldn’t.
Our trip into the Indio Maiz to spend a few nights with the indigenous Rama families was one of the highlights from our year on the road.
The organic and uncomplicated way of life drew us in completely and having a machete-wielding 10-year-old child defend us from a deadly fer-de-lance snake is not something we will forget in a hurry.
We will add that while we met others that thoroughly enjoyed the wildlife watching opportunities, having spent lots of time in other wildlife rich areas ourselves we felt it was a little lacking. Birdlife is abundant, monkeys hang from the trees and caiman bask on many a sandbank, but if you’ve already spent time in the natural areas of other Central American countries, it may not be anything new to you.
That said, the cultural experience is second to none.