After spending several weeks in Nicaragua, we thought we had it all figured out. Lively colonial towns, idyllic beaches, volcanoes on every horizon and people with an undying love of baseball and a prevailing laid-back attitude.
But, we hadn’t been to Nicaragua’s Rio San Juan yet.
Tucked away in the lesser visited west corner of the country, straddling Costa Rica, we uncovered a new side to Nicaragua where the river is the highway and all sounds of traffic and angry horns are forgotten behind the dense primary jungle imposing on either side. A wonderfully offbeat paradise away from the country’s booming gringo trail.
Colourful wooden houses stand on stilts above the water, dusty village roads are alive with music and monkey calls and hanging in a hammock all afternoon is an obligatory past time for all.
A trip down the river is one of tranquillity, but it’s probably not for everyone. If you relish the chance to have nature at your fingertips, watch the world from a rocking chair and enjoy life off the grid, at least for a few days, then this is the perfect adventure for you.
Our guide has every thing you need to know to plan your journey down the Rio San Juan in Nicaragua – which villages to stay at, tips for your time in El Castillo, San Carlos, Boca de Sabalos and San Juan de Nicaragua, how to get around and your best points of entry to the wild Indio Maiz.
As the gateway to the Rio San Juan, San Carlos leaves a little to be desired in the charm department, but as the major jump off point for all your river adventures, you’ll probably be spending a night or two here.
Whether you’re venturing the full distance down to San Juan de Nicaragua, visiting the enchanting and peaceful Islas Solentiname or simply looking for an alternative route into to Costa Rica you’ll be transiting through San Carlos at some point.
In true Nicaraguan style, the market in town is bustling and the bus station is a chaotic cacophony of yelling vendors and tooting buses. Once you’ve collected your bags there isn’t a great deal to hold your attention here.
Given the infrequency of some of the boat trips, if you’ve got some time to kill visit the fortress on the hill and explore the crumbling streets, watch life ebb and flow around the central plaza and chat to the locals on the malecón.
There is a great bakery in town that sells proper French baguettes and, if you’re anything like us after a few months in Nicaragua, a piece of bread that is neither sweet nor textured like a dry sponge will be just what you’re craving. If you can, get them fresh from the oven before the humidity gets into every crumb and sogginess ensues. The sugar doughnuts were also a great treat for our many long boat trips.
You’ll find a number of comfortable, budget-friendly guesthouses in San Carlos, some with waterfront views. Search for rates and availability here.
TOP TIP: San Carlos is the only place along the Rio San Juan with ATMs so be sure to withdraw more money than you think you’ll need, especially if you are planning on a tour into the jungle. This is also your last wifi point before reaching San Juan de Nicaragua.
Bus – Buses heading to San Carlos leave from the Mercado de Mayoreo terminal in Managua a handful of times a day starting from 5 AM. The trip takes 6 to 7 hours and costs 150 cordobas ($5). If you’re staying in Leon or Granada, it is possible to take the first minivan of the day to the UCA in Managua, change terminals and still make a morning bus to San Carlos on the Rio San Juan.
Buy tickets in advance from the counter. A rough schedule is available here though it’s not totally reliable.
Boat – There was once a boat that ran twice a week from Granada to San Carlos via Altagracia on Ometepe, but at the time we visited this service was on hold due to the low water levels during the dry season. There were plans to resurrect the service but as far as we know, it remains out of operation. Ask around on the ground if you’re interested in taking the 14-hour journey.
Plane – Domestic airline ‘La Costeña’ runs flights from Managua to San Carlos, Ometepe and San Juan de Nicaragua twice a week. Check the schedule here.
From Costa Rica – If travelling by land, minivans leave when full from the Nicaraguan side of the border and will drop you at the bus terminal in San Carlos. If travelling by boat there are just two services per day that will drop you at the Immigration office in town.
Tiny Boca de Sabalos, set back off Rio San Juan, seems to have something of an identity crisis – the river carving a rift between the achingly charming left bank and the blaring reggaeton and sparkling fashions of the right.
The two places could just as easily exist on opposite ends of the country.
Boca de Sabalos is small with nothing in particular to do, but for us, the joy was found in the simplest of things – taking the brief boat trip to the left bank and exploring the quaint jumble of narrow pathways between turquoise huts and blossoming fruit trees.
Ladies gathered in the river to wash clothes and catch up on gossip, men worked tirelessly turning blocks of wood into ornately carved doors and children rolled marbles in the dust and back flipped effortlessly into the caiman-infested waters, never failing to greet us from afar with beaming smiles and an enthusiastic wave.
Back on the right bank, the solitary dusty road is a constant flurry of feet and dust which culminates at the dock where the water becomes the only means of transport downstream.
Here you’ll find simple comedores and family-run guesthouses lining the roadside. Search for available accommodation in Boca de Sabalos here.
Boats leave San Carlos for El Castillo via Boca de Sabalos every couple of hours from the municipal dock and cost up to 120 cordobas ($4) for the fast boat. Buy tickets in advance at the counter.
Two canoes paddle across the river that divides Boca de Sabalos and, for just a few cordobas, this 10-second trip is definitely a worthwhile one to take.
With its brightly coloured houses, quirky village life and historic tales of pirates and bloodlust, it’s easy to see why El Castillo is the most popular destination on the Rio San Juan and for many, the only place they will visit along the way.
Nestled alongside the river, tantalisingly close to the jungle, El Castillo is a place to gorge on fresh fish and icy batidos, relax in a hammock in the afternoon shade and take in the swarm of activity focussed around the gushing rapids that mark this section of the river. These turbulent waters are the site of many battles and lives lost in the search for gold and the quest to once again conquer Granada.
An afternoon in El Castillo beside the Rio San Juan is easily spent exploring the pebbled lanes beneath lush fragrant trees and the Spanish fortress atop the hill, but for many, their reason for venturing this far is a trip into the jungle and the abundant wildlife that awaits.
There are several operators in town running fishing tours and trips up both the Indio Maiz and Bartolo Rivers. Some tours are charged per person, others are a set price for a group of four. Prices start at around $60 per person for an overnight trip to the jungle.
While we heard many excellent reports of these trips, some guides mentioned that with the growing popularity, the plethora of wildlife is retreating further into the jungle.
The agency upstairs to the right of the dock (when facing away from the water) is a wealth of information and should be your first point of call for any Rio San Juan tour enquiries.
You’ll find a wide selection of locally run hospedajes along the main street and it was in El Castillo that we found our best bargain accommodation – a basic private double for just $10, complete with waterfront balcony and a pair of hammocks. Search rates and availability for accommodation in El Castillo here.
TOP TIP: During our stay, village-wide power outages were a daily nuisance. If you’re preparing for a jungle trip, leave enough time to charge your camera or phone batteries properly.
Boats leave every few hours from San Carlos to El Castillo via Boca de Sabalos and back. Services run to San Juan de Nicaragua just a few days a week. Check the current schedule in San Carlos and plan your trip accordingly.
At the time of visiting the water levels were so low that the river further downstream was all but an obstacle course with rocks and fallen trees needing to be navigated around for the first few hours of the journey.
Bear in mind that the lack of rain during the wet season may affect the running of boats during the dry season and make passages down stream slower than usual.
If you’ve done your jungle trip from El Castillo then there’s little reason to venture as far as San Juan De Nicaragua – the 14-hour journey alone in a flimsy boat and hard wooden seats with no backrest was enough to have us questioning whether we had made the right decision.
But, as we arrived at this end-of-world village on the verge of being engulfed by its own overgrowth, the darker skin tones mixed with flashes of brilliant green and blue eyes and the beguiling lilt of the Creole language gave this place a distinctly Caribbean feel.
The completely addictive coconut cookies weren’t bad either.
San Juan is a strange place though. By day it feels completely abandoned with wide boulevards flanked by metres of overgrown grass, as if an old road had once passed through here but cars never came to claim it. When darkness falls, the streets slowly come to life as benches fill with happy locals and the sweet scent of coconut wafts from the bakeries.
Accommodation options in San Juan de Nicaragua are somewhat limited, ranging from basic double rooms to wonderful waterside bungalows. Search available accommodation options here.
TOP TIP: There is public wifi zone in the large gazebo off the main pedestrian strip in town. Unfortunately we no longer have the password but the nearby shops should be able to help you out. If there aren’t too many people using it, the connection is pretty good.
We journeyed as far as San Juan de Nicaragua for one purpose – to venture into the untamed Indio Maiz Nature Reserve. While it ended up being one of the greatest expenses of our entire trip, it was a completely incredible, eye-opening experience.
If you have come to San Juan de Nicaragua in the hopes of travelling up the Indio Maiz, there are several options available to you depending on the experience you are looking for. Tours can also be catered to your preferences.
NATURE – The tours run by the guides at the tourist office near the dock are more geared toward experiencing the nature of the area. These tours are more polished for tourists and largely showcase the area’s wildlife.
CULTURE – We opted for the more cultural tour where we were accompanied by an indigenous Rama guide and spent two nights staying with the Rama families in the jungle and hiking to Canta Gallo, an ancient sacred site. This was a completely authentic and unforgettable experience. It was also very much an exercise in getting back to basics, involving sleeping on the floor and eating food largely hunted, fished or gathered directly from the surrounding environment.
Tours into the Indio Maiz cost $400 for up to four people (it’s the same price for just two) and cover a 2-night/3-day trip with all expenses and activities included. It may sound like a huge upfront expense, especially in Nicaragua, but if you have a complete group it works out to a little over $30 per person per day.
We will also add that while both tours include a stop at the Caribbean coast, if, like us, you’re picturing soft white sand and turquoise waters, you will most likely be sorely disappointed.
We were looking forward to being back on the beach, especially as we had decided to forgo a trip to the idyllic Corn Islands, but the beach we found here, completely strewn with trash that had travelled thousands of kilometres across the ocean was sadly a little difficult to find much love for.
Boats travel from San Carlos to San Juan de Nicaragua just twice a week with stops at El Castillo and Boca de Sabalos. Slow and fast services are offered in both directions, the latter being almost double the price (610 cordobas, $21) and half the time.
We took the slow boat from El Castillo and though it was full of locals and the jungle scenery was beautiful, it was a painfully slow and uncomfortable trip with very frequent stops to pick up passengers and drop off supplies and extra time added to carefully navigate the shallow waters brought on by the drought. On the way back we opted for the fast boat and although it came at an extra cost it was in every way a far more pleasant journey.
The Rio San Juan might feel a little like you’ve reached the end of the world, but there are several options for getting out of the region.
Air – If it’s in your budget, flights will save you several hours of boat and bus travel. La Costeña run flights from both San Carlos and San Juan de Nicaragua to Ometepe and Managua twice a week. Check the timetable here.
Land – Buses run from San Carlos to Managua several times a day, although it is recommended to take a morning service to avoid arriving late at night. For visits to Nicaragua’s highlands, transfer at the San Benito intersection outside of Managua and flag down buses bound for Esteli and Matagalpa which pass every hour or so. There is also a daily service to Rama for connections to the Caribbean. A rough timetable can be found here but check at the terminal before departure.
Sea – If you’ve reached San Juan de Nicaragua and don’t want to face the long boat ride back to San Carlos, there is a weekly boat service to Bluefields on Wednesday morning. Ask at your hostel to reserve a spot on board and make sure you are given (and wear) a life jacket.
Crossing into Costa Rica – For heading into Costa Rica you can either go by bus or boat.
Minivans leave when full from the San Carlos bus station and will drop you directly at the border. From there complete your immigration paperwork and pay the exit/entrance fees at the buildings for each country. On the Costa Rica side, buses wait in the dirt parking area on the right and leave on schedule to San Jose and La Fortuna.
To cross the border by boat, complete your immigration paperwork at the office in San Carlos. Boats depart just twice a day and will drop you in Los Chiles on the Costa Rica side.