Traveling Down the Rio San Juan

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Waiting for the panga to take off in San Carlos.

Michaela and I live on the Eastern side of the country, which puts us really close to some of the country’s most beautiful, if not super remote, destinations. Fortunately, we both love to travel and are constantly aching to explore when our schedule permits.

Two weekends ago, we took advantage of a free weekend and headed to El Castillo for two nights. El Castillo is a tiny village located on the Rio San Juan. Most famous for El Castillo de la Immaculada Concepción, a fortress built by the Spanish in 1765 to protect Granada from pirates traveling up river from the Caribbean, the town also serves as an access point to one of Nicaragua’s largest nature reserves, Indio-Maiz.


San Carlos, Rio San Juan

Our trip started with a bus ride to San Carlos, the department capital of Rio San Juan. We stayed here for a few hours walking along the Malecon, checking out a german bakery that sells homemade pretzels, and looking out from a Mirador from where you can see Lake Nicaragua turn into the Rio San Juan. Then, we caught a panga that took us down the river towards El Castillo.

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Boco de Sabalo.

El Castillo is only reachable by boat. As a result traveling down the river on the panga feels a little like a regular bus ride with one guy driving and another guy calling out the stops along the way. At one stop in a community called Boco de Sabalo, a line of people were waiting to climb aboard much like they would for a bus in Manhattan.

Boco de Sabalo also happens to be the last reachable community by road so the further you go beyond this point on, the more you feel yourself stepping back in time. The trees become a little denser. The sounds of the jungle become a little louder. You start to see monkeys literally falling out of the trees on either side of the river and as the sun goes down, you hear the roar of howler monkeys echo across the water.

Sunset on the Rio San Juan.

Sunset on the Rio San Juan.

Finally, around 6:30 pm we arrived at El Castillo. As you approach the tiny dock of the village, you immediately see the fortress located on top of a huge hill overlooking to the town below. It was a full moon and the power was out, giving the fortress a brilliant and somewhat eerie glow.

There were only two places that had generators, our hostel and another bigger hotel. Since our hostel didn’t serve dinner we ate at the bigger hotel. Finally, around 9:30 pm, electricity returned to the town, just in time to watch the Pacquiao, Mayweather fight being shown by the hotel. Neither of us are boxing fans, but why not?

Calle Principal in El Castillo.

Calle Principal in El Castillo.

El Castillo is pretty hard to believe at first. It’s hands down one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited in Nicaragua so far, and yet, there are hardly any people there. The owners of our hostel – a Spanish, Nicaraguan couple – tell us that in 2003, there was only one small hotel. Since then, tourism has grown but due to its remoteness, not by much. It remains the same sleepy backwater village that it always has been, at least since when the Panama Canal was built, which siphoned off boat traffic from the Rio San Juan.

The Fortress.

The Fortress.

There are no cars in El Castillo. Calle Principal is a 5 ft.-wide walkway that takes you from one side of the village to the other in about a 20 minute walk. Most of the buildings are people’s homes, but a handful of them advertise adventure tours that’ll take you into Indio-Maiz to see poison-dart frogs and other rainforest animals.

Salvador, a science teacher, enjoying his day off from school on a hot Sunday afternoon.

Salvador, a science teacher, enjoying his day off from school on a hot Sunday afternoon.

We had one full day in El Castillo. We spent it eating a hearty breakfast provided by our hostel, touring the fortress and its museum (which is great), eating lunch and drinking great coffee at a place called Borders Coffee (and you thought Borders went out of business?), and hanging out on our hostel’s balcony overlooking the river. The power went out both nights, but that doesn’t seem to stop anyone from blaring music or dancing up a storm at some of the local bars.



Unlike Bluefields or Pearl Lagoon, you definitely still feel like you’re in the same country here. But similar to Pearl Lagoon, things appear to run much like they did 10, 30, even 50 years ago. It hasn’t been taken over by the tourist machine, and yet it’s one of the most hospital places we’ve visited. On our last night we returned to Border’s Cafe for what everyone had been telling us is the best pasta in town. In fact, it ended up being the best pasta we’ve had in Nicaragua (yes, even better than the italian we’ve eaten in Matagalpa).

Most of the houses are made of wood and are painted colorfully like this one.

Most of the houses are made of wood and are painted colorfully like this one.

On Monday we had to get back to Nueva Guinea by lunch, so we took the first panga out at 5:30 am. Our hostel provided us with a small breakfast to-go including a hardboiled egg and fruit. It was a short visit, but this is definitely a place we’ll return to at some point.


Looking out for pirates coming up river.




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