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 the Rio San Juan yet.
Tucked away in the far, lesser visited 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.
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 a legitimate 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 for at least 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 – which villages to stay at, how to get around and your best points of entry to the wild Indio Maiz.
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 few nights here.
Whether you’re venturing the full distance down to San Juan de Nicaragua, visiting the enchanting and peaceful islands of the Solentiname Archipelago 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, and 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, a piece of bread that is neither sweet nor textured like a dry sponge will be just what you are craving. If you can, get them fresh from the oven before the humidity gets into every crumb and sogginess ensues. The sugar donuts were also a great treat for our many long boat trips.
TOP TIP: San Carlos is the only place on the river with ATMs so be sure to withdraw more 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 are staying in Leon or Granada, it is possible to take the first minivan of the day to the UCA, change terminals and still make a morning bus.
Buy tickets in advance from the counter. A rough schedule is provided here but 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 have heard 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 to San Carlos from Managua, 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.
Sabalos seems to have something of an identity crisis – the river slicing 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.
This village 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, family-run guesthouses and simple comedores line the roadside. The solitary dusty road is a constant flurry of feet and dust and culminates at the dock where the water becomes the only means of transport.
Boats from San Carlos leave 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 between the left and right banks 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, this is a place to gorge on fresh fish and icy batidos, relax in a hammock in the afternoon shadow and take in the swarm of activity between the gushing rapids. 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 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 to both the Indio Maiz and Bartolo Rivers. Some tours are charged by 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 disembarking) is a wealth of information and should be your first point of call for any tour enquiries.
You’ll find a wide selection of locally run hospedajes along the main street and it was in El Castillo we found our best bargain accommodation – a basic private double for just $10, complete with waterfront balcony and a pair of hammocks.
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 down stream 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 back rest 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 distinct 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 scent of coconut drifts from the bakeries.
We had come this far to venture into the Indio Maiz and while it ended up being one of the greatest expenses of our entire trip, it was a completely eye-opening experience.
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.
If you have come to San Juan de Nicaragua to venture into the nether regions of 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 runs 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 and largely showcase the areas 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 and hiking to Canta Gallo, a 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 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 expense, especially in Nicaragua, but if you have a complete group it works out to a little over $30 a 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 thousand 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 few days a week with stops at El Castillo and Boca de Sabalos along the way. 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 down river which was full of locals with just one other tourist and the jungle scenery along this stretch is the best on the river. But it really 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 to Managua several times a day, although it is recommended to take a morning service to avoid arriving late at night. For visits to the highlands, transfer at the San Benito intersection outside of Managua and flag down buses for Esteli and Matagalpa that 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.