Down the Rio San Juan to the Sea
Disclaimer: This is a long post – something close to 4900 words.
I was fortunate to spend the last few days on the Rio San Juan, starting in San Carlos and going all the way to the Mar Caribe and back. About 400 or so kilometers in 3 days, staying at two different lodges, visiting several more, and seeing some of the most exotic country one could imagine.
- The Journey Begins
Our group of seven met at La Costeña at 730am for our 830am flight to San Carlos. A bit late for a “normal” La Costeña check-in but we were a group and apparently had some latitude in the situation. Fermin’s Bar was open but staffed by a woman! Apparently Fermin has taken over the La Costeña bar in the main terminal and prefers to work there.
The flight was nothing out of the ordinary – a typical Caravan flight over the water to San Carlos, in the air about 45 minutes. Our guide Sandra greeted us and taxis awaited us at the airport and whisked us over bad roads to the port where our boat awaited. We were on the Cofalito 3 and our “capitan” was Hamilton. The boat would seat 15 comfortably and had a Suzuki 70hp (4 stroke) engine. After a bit of confusion finding the bathrooms (they are across the street from the port, next to the bus terminal), we were off.
- Initial Impressions
The Rio San Juan is quite wide at its source (Lake Nicaragua) – maybe 3 miles across. Lots of floating vegetation along the edges but we were pretty much in the middle of the river, headed downstream. Could see lots of birds and trees along the edges and, as we proceeded further downstream, we started hugging the river banks. After about 10 minutes south of San Carlos, the people just disappear – a few homes here and there but a serious lack of people. Even the river traffic was sparse as we only saw one other “river boat” and maybe 3 dugout canoes.
One of my first impressions was how clean the river was. The entire first day (maybe 4 hours), I counted one piece of trash, a Big Cola bottle. Is this still Nicaragua? How can it be that my adopted country’s national flower is the plastic bag and I haven’t seen ONE yet on the river? Strange doings…
The flora and fauna are almost beyond description. Think Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise – on Barry Bonds-type steroids. An explosion of trees, vines, water plants, flowers for mile after mile after mile. In the first day I would estimate seeing somewhere close to 100 species of birds…
The first major tourist facility I saw was the Hotel Sabalos – not to be confused with the Sabalos Lodge. This facility is located on the western shore of the confluence of the Rio Sabalos with the Rio San Juan. It looked to be a major facility although we didn’t bother to stop there.
- Monte Cristo
Instead we stopped about 2 kms down the river at Monte Cristo Lodge. The place, and the owner, has an interesting tale of how the Lodge came into being. It sits on a high bluff overlooking the river and the Sabalos Lodge across the river. There are several cabina-style accommodations, each with bath. The owner treated us to beer (for some reason our guide failed to provide refreshments for the first day – grrrr) and some anecdotes of local lore and the various businesses along the river. It was an excellent stop but after an hour or so we were off down river to El Castillo.
- El Castillo
I had done some research on the place before I left for the trip. I’d seen the pictures and thought, ok, a pile of old rocks out in the middle of no where. Big deal? Yes! The topography of this part of the river has many high bluffs and around every bend in the river I expected to see El Castillo.
And suddenly, there it was. They picked an excellent location – commanding view of down river (where the threats originated), shallow water (currently rapids due to the dry season), with steep cliffs on three sides.
Sadly, when we arrived the place was closed for lunch. The sign says 12-1pm but it was 130pm and no one in sight. Well, heck, I know I’m still in Nicaragua – what is a schedule for, if NOT to keep, right?
We trudged back down the hill and went to the restaurant right on the water (I don’t remember the name but as you face dock from the water, it’s immediately on your left). Nice place and people said the food was good. I can vouch for the coldness of the beer and the view. We sat upstairs where they had rockers and I just plunked down and watched the river go by, with attentive service from the beautiful waitress who made sure my Toña was never empty. Most of the rest of the group re-trudged up the hill when the restaurant folks tracked down the keeper of the castle and had her open up.
Meanwhile, the rest of sat and watched at least 30 tarpon roll and jump just above the rapids. Now I’ve seen pictures of tarpon so I know they are BIG fish, but seeing them roll on the surface and actually jump out of the water is a neat experience!
El Castillo is the “hub” of the middle river – it has internet access, some phone lines (voip I would presume), and its own power station. It is an interesting place and I could see myself spending more time there in the future.
- Refugio Bartola
Located just 10 minutes down river from El Castillo is a slice of paradise: The Refugio Bartola. The owner of the Lodge was our guide, Sandra, and she has an amazing place. First stop was just across the Rio Bartola (I threw a rock across – it is that close) to “check-in”. This was our first of many “check-ins” – the government requires river travelers to stop at several different check-points to “register” their presence and intent on the river. Most of the check-points are manned by both the Army and Marena, the ministry of the environment. Other than one bit of fun later, the “checking-in” usually amounted to showing the “man” a list of travelers, their nationalities, and cedula or passport numbers. They also provided a necessary bathroom break for the ladies!
Anyway, back to the Lodge. Again, Sandra has an amazing place. There are 8 cabinas arranged in a semi-circle (totally max occupancy is 24) facing the Rio San Juan. There is a gigantic rancho that has several hammocks and rockers in which to sit and watch the profusion of birds, bugs and river go by. To top it off, the Lodge has its own boat for trips up the Rio Bartola – a refuge that is completely unspoiled, wild, and filled with critters – monkeys, macaws, turtles, sloths, big cats (unclear whether puma or jaguar – but saw the tracks!), etc. It is a small river – maybe 50 meters across at the widest point we saw but it goes for mile after mile after mile of pure jungle. At a loss for words to describe the experience – it was that surreally gorgeous!
Meanwhile, back at the Lodge, I became friends with the two residents: Daniela, a really cute, really affectionate… spider monkey. Dani doesn’t like women but takes a shine to some men. Well, I made the mistake of walking right up to her and couldn’t separate her from my arms for about 10 minutes. Daniela was orphaned about 3 years ago and has become a fixture of the place…
My other friend was Pablo, a giant, lazy, slothful… cat. Every time he saw me he meowed and every time I sat down he wanted onto my lap. Even with everyone else feeding him, he would still gravitate back to me. Sigh.
Dinner at the Lodge was spectacular – simple cooking done in an excellent manner: salad, fried potatoes, and river shrimp! Some of the biggest danged river shrimp one could find. Best I’ve ever had – and they were caught 3 minutes from the Lodge. Think lobster but with sweeter meat and more tender!
- Down the River
We got an early start the next day as we had about a 7 hour journey all the way down to the Mar Caribe and our next place of sleep, the Rio Indio Lodge.
The river after Rio Bartola changes dramatically with fewer hills and generally flat topography, as well as many, many islands. It is also dramatically more shallow, with several places where we slowed to a crawl and picked our way through sand bars and rocks. Part of this is due to the dry season although Hamilton told me there are at least 10 places where it will always be slow-going due to sand build-up. Anyone have a dredge?
Our first “check-in” was at Boca San Juan – and we were greeted by a machine gun nest (with whatever the commie version is of the BAR) and an armed patrol boat. Here, and only here, we were “commanded” to present our “documents” and wait for further instructions. And it turns out that one of our party was a trouble-maker and they had to call Managua on the radio to make sure he was “ok”. All in all kind of amusing, but I do wonder what the heck they are expecting there? Do the Nicaraguans REALLY think the Costa Rican Army or Navy is going to come screaming down the river in force and invade? Doubtful since CR has neither! Pretty ridiculous but then there is high unemployment and I guess they have “jobs”…
The ladies said the bathroom was horrid as well…
Anyway, down the river we go and our next check in is at Sarapiqui. Things go smoothly here and we continue down the river to the next checkpoint at Delta, which is the split of the Rio San Juan and the Rio Colorado (Costa Rica).
Along the way we started seeing crocodiles. Not just little caimans (never saw those) but big brutish crocs. They like to sun themselves on the sand islands and look just like logs from afar. Our first encounter we went by the danged thing and had to back up to get a better look! They are pretty timid – if you just keep chugging down the river, they will stay put but any other change – slowing down, backing up, turning, and they hit the water.
We also saw the same myriad of birds, turtles, iguanas, flowers, trees – the diversity has to be seen to be believed and I am still digesting all that I saw. One may think a 7 hour trip in a river boat is a long time – it passed all too quickly and seemed like no time at all.
What was helpful was that Sandra got the message and packed a cooler full of beer, bread, cheese, cold cuts, fruit, etc. We had a front row seat on Nature’s splendor, while munching and enjoying cold brews – truly paradise at its best…
- Mar Caribe and San Juan del Norte
After the Delta checkpoint, the river changes yet again – more shallow, more islands, and more people. Throughout the last 2 hours, we were never more than one or two minutes from people – small houses on the river banks, children playing in the water, dugout canoes out fishing. Not to say it was populated or civilization – just more evidence of people.
After a few sweeping turns, we could see a broad sand island ahead. And I smelled salt in the air. Sure enough, the sand island was actually a “barra” and the waves were breaking on it. We had done it – run the Rio San Juan to the sea. Pretty spectacular sight but far too dangerous on this day, with rough seas breaking over the barra, to get real close. So we chugged up the river to San Juan del Norte. One can never confuse San Juan del Norte with San Juan del Sur! It is a ratty little town clinging to the river. Most of the economy is fishing, at least the economy that registers on the books. Lots of tough looking hombres with go-fast boats that I don’t think are involved in the fishing business. Lots of “upscale” – at least for SJdN – homes that are brand new with satellite dishes and new boats parked out front. Either the fishing is very good or…
We had to check-in at the port captain’s office and then a quick run up the Rio Indio to our sleeping place.
- Rio Indio Lodge
This Lodge sits on the point of the Rio Indio, overlooking a lagoon. The dock area contains three 26 foot sport-fishers, an airboat, and about 10 kayaks. A couple of small runabouts complete the dock area.
The physical structure of the main building is stunning – solid mahogany everywhere, etched-glass windows, murals, paintings, tropical fish tanks. It is a place to be seen.
And it is totally empty.
We are greeted by “Ken”, the “manager” who seems surprised to see us even tho Sandra had confirmed reservations a couple of weeks in advance. “Ken” seems to be the only one on duty and over the course of the next two hours he scrambles to assemble a staff to serve us cocktails and dinner.
The rooms at Rio Indio are cabinas with two rooms each. The rooms themselves are spectacular as well – very large with two queen size beds, mahogany again everywhere, two ceiling fans (with controls conveniently located over the bed), gorgeous ceramic tile throughout, and a huge bathroom with coffee maker, hair dryer, amenity kit, etc. Think Hilton or Marriott rooms, in the jungle.
We spend our down time (meaning waiting for someone with a key to arrive to open the gosh-danged bar!) wandering the grounds -- the EMPTY grounds. There are a total of 10 completed cabinas (20 rooms) with five more under various stages of construction/deterioration. The large infinity pool overlooks the lagoon and is fairly warm. The overall landscaping is well done with lots of the original trees left in place and a kind of “managed jungle” ambience (or ambulance as MA would say!).
Finally workers are dragged from town (SJdN – only “Ken” and a watchman live on premises) and we get to hit the bar and eat. The bar lists “national beers” at $2.50 a pop. Great, give me a Toña. We have Imperial, Pilsen, and Bavaria comes the reply. Hmmm. National beers of Costa Rica! Drinks are listed at $4 for “national rum” (Centennario, again from CR) and $3 for Absolut, $5 for everything else.
The bartender, a native Rama, explains the measuring system. She has a two-sided jigger – one side is .75 ozs and that is “a drink”. The other side is 1.25 ozs and that is a double. Well, she actually doesn’t explain the measurements – I know the pertinent data from my bartending days in college. What she doesn’t tell everyone and no one knows until they get the bar bill the next morning is that when you ask for “a double” she actually pours 2 shots from the “double” side and charges you $12 for a “double vodka” and $15 for a “double” whiskey. Yikes! (I lucked out as I went to re-fill my “double” vodka and she was gone. The “chef” came over, grabbed my glass, filled it to the rim and handed it back. I asked if he wanted my room number and he just laughed!)
Anyway, “dinner” is served and it was: an overcooked piece of ham with boxed mashed potatoes and canned carrots. Think bad cafeteria food. Very underwhelming. We had been considering wine – they had a nice (way overpriced) wine list but when we saw what “dinner” was we decided to call it a night. No salad course, no soup course, no desert, no bread. Just a plate of luke-warm cafeteria fare.
Some of us spent much of the evening talking with “Ken” the “manager”. Turns out he is (maybe) a retired oilman from Dallas who comes down and spends a couple of months fishing and “managing” the “resort”. We discussed all the rumors I have heard through the travel industry grapevine about the place and he neither confirms nor denies anything, basically talking around any specific questions. The place IS for sale – they want $5 million for it. They maybe have $3 million invested in the place. Occupancy runs in the low 20’s – and they charge $200 per person per night all-inclusive. The “easiest” way to get there is via Costa Rica – fly to SJO, fly to Barra de Colorado, two hour boat ride to the resort. Most of their guests seem to come for the fishing although a few have come for their honeymoon.
“Ken” made much of the fact that there was a contract and money to build an airport and that will change things dramatically. Yeah, ok. Sure…
Sandra (our guide) went into SJdN at some point and an employee of Rio Indio told her the place was sold and the new owners take over on April 15th. When I told “Ken” this, he said it was news to him and “which employee is talking about things that are none of their concern” – touchy touchy!
Rio Indio Lodge is a spectacular facility with many amenities. It is a 5-star facility with cafeteria food, overpriced booze and not even a hint of a marketing plan. Even at 100% occupancy the place would take 15 years ROI at $5 million. Talk about silly business plans but then many have told me that the place is just a front for Aleman, drug money, and various other nefarious and sordid activities.
- Café con Monos and Greytown
We needed to leave early the next morning as we had a 7+ hour run up the river to Bartola Lodge. I awoke to a fierce rainstorm – in the dark. They shut the power plant down from 11pm to 530am to save money – but it would be nice to have a candle or flashlight. Stumbling around with a lighter at 0-dark-30 is not my idea of 5-star treatment but at least they did tell us about the loss of power.
But as the light came up (natural light – the power plant went online at 615am), the rain slackened and I heard howler monkeys. Couldn’t see them but knew from their voices that they weren’t too far away. When the lights came on, my pot of café started brewing and I was sitting on my porch (screened to keep out the bugs/critters), I saw movement in the trees to my right. And there they were – a troop (pod, gaggle, herd, whatever) of about a dozen howlers. The male remained hidden, howling from time to time to let other troops (whatever) know he was there and stay away. Meanwhile the females climbed around, swung around and ate leaves and twigs. Just at the end I finally saw two youngsters – one on mama’s back and one on the limb next to mama. It was a special pot of café and a great memory to take away from a fairly strange place.
We left after breakfast (bleck) and the sticker shock of paying the bar bill (among eight people it was well over $200); we took off for old Greytown – apparently SJdN is “new” Greytown. It’s only a 5 minute ride up the lagoon from Rio Indio Lodge and then a 5 minute walk through the jungle.
The town is gone, and only cemeteries remain. At one point during the Gold Rush, Greytown was a major city as it was the terminus of the Atlantic portion of the journey to California. People were dropped there, taken up the Rio San Juan to Granada in small boats and then across the land to the Pacific where boats plied the trade up to California. There is quite a history of Greytown and I commend one to read up on the place – it is really fascinating. We wandered the three cemeteries, taking pictures and slapping bugs. Bring bug spray. Bring INDUSTRIAL strength bug spray!
Interesting side-note: there is a very serviceable short runway there – marked with a center line, side markers and windsock. No one seemed to know if it was used by anyone – we walked about half-way down the runway and saw no evidence of recent landings. The runway is hard-packed and grass – but the grass was recently cut and the runway is certainly well delineated.
We headed back to SJdN to check-in and report our departure/intentions. Quite a discussion ensued at the port captain’s office with some of the locals hanging around the pulperia which sold mostly Costa Rican items. The government of Nicaragua has been pumping lots of money into the region as the people have been “slighted” for many years by previous governments. Goods and services are more easily obtained from CR and the government seems intent on winning the “hearts and minds” of the SJdN citizens by throwing money into projects (163 letrinas, two schools, agua potable, road work, etc). Of the VERY small sample of people we talked with, all were FIERCELY Nicaraguan and very anti-CR. Strange place.
- Up the River
We fled back up the river with a quick stop at the beach. Where we stopped the sand bar was maybe 30 meters across – not much of a beach but unique in my experience to walk such a short distance from fresh water river to an ocean.
The ride up the river was about the same – lots of flora and fauna and never a dull moment. Our check-in at Delta passed uneventfully and we continued onward, at times very slowly as it is more difficult to “read” the river going upstream than downstream.
Our only major stop of the day occurred at the Sarapiqui check-in where we needed to replenish supplies (think beer here folks) on the CR side. Our “check-in” at the CR side consisted of cruising by a hut where a guy in a Policia t-shirt and shorts just waved at us. We crossed over to a lodge (the name of which escapes me) and “negotiated” our purchases. First the proprietor tried to tell us the colon exchanges at 400 per dollar. Um, sorry it’s 503 or 504 to the dollar. Then tried to tell us that pesos exchange to the dollar at 20 per. Um, well, no but she really didn’t want pesos or colones, only dollars. After re-filling the ice chest, we were off…
- That Eco “Paradise” – Costa Rica
I would be remiss if I didn’t spend a minute comparing, contrasting and blasting that eco-paradise to our south, Costa Rica…
The Sarapiqui river smelled bad and it was green. Think of a bright green shade that looked totally unnatural. But that wasn’t the only thing I noticed. For at least 100 kms, the Costa Rican side of the Rio San Juan is pasture land. The trees are GONE and there is only grass and cows with very few people but lots and lots of cattle. We spent most our time looking at the Nicaraguan side which is pristine virgin forest, full of what Nature intended: bugs, plants, birds, mammals, and jungle.
Whomever was in charge of marketing Costa Rica as an “eco paradise” should either win a Nobel Prize in BS or be shot. I’d vote for both. The contrast between CR and Nicaragua on the Rio San Juan is startling and sad but am very happy to say that MY Nicaragua wins the eco paradise prize hands-down!
- Bartola Part II
We rolled into Bartola (after “checking in” 50 feet away!) for our second night. Most of us were pretty tired and sorta hungry. So the chef greets us with whole fried guapote (it’s a kinda bass folks) served with a fresh tomato sauce loaded with garlic, onions and fresh oregano, crudités with cheese and rice with vegetables (not just plain rice, the underwhelming national method of Nicaragua). Pablo was well-fed, Daniela was PO’d I wouldn’t come closer than to shake hands and give her guavas and we were all snoring by 8pm.
It was a full moon and I awakened several times to jungle sounds – monkeys screeching (I think capuchins but there are spider and howlers around too), frogs bellowing to get laid, and a couple of times a distinct growling (big cat?).
- The Butt Crack of Dawn
We had to leave no later than 5am to make our flight plus a stopover at Sabalo’s Lodge. Awoke to fresh coffee, continental breakfast and, of course, one fat Pablo the cat meowing after me everywhere. The moon had set and it was a misty morning out on the water – kind of eerie and magical at the same time. Maybe Tolkein was actually here when he was writing the trilogy?
It was also COLD. Now, I do own long pants and I even schlepped along a pair of jeans but of course was wearing my customary shorts. Brrr.
The trip up to El Castillo was magical and as we approached the rapids, we could just make out the fort on the hill. Tried taking pictures but my camera refused to cut off the flash and all I got were still photos of individual water droplets – neat in their own right but not the special moment of seeing the fort through the mists (note: the camera worked fine, it was operator error as always!).
We arrived at around 7am at Sabalo’s for a quick potty break, café re-inforcement and a chat with the manager. It is a neat location – individual “huts” laid out along the river bank, each with a porch with hammock, and some degree of privacy. Lots of bird life there – heard macaws calling but never saw them, and a flock of maybe 50 yellow headed loras came swooping in to devour the fruit of one of many guava trees.
- San Carlos and Back to Reality
We arrived in San Carlos at 830am and said our goodbyes to Hamilton (plus generous propinas and left over cerveza [yes, for once I didn’t drink ALL the cerveza!]). Climbed in the taxi and off to the airport (BTW 40 pesos for a full taxi to/from the airport). San Carlos was hopping around the bus terminal and I wondered what it would be like to sit on a bus for 10+ hours back to Managua. It’s difficult enough for me on a Caravan for 45 minutes so I think I’ll let someone else find out about the “cheap” route to San Carlos!
The airport was deserted except for the “restaurant” worker who also doubles as the departure tax collector (20 pesos to flee San Carlos by air). We all ordered coffee but she only had six cups (real cups not Styrofoam). Then I saw that it was Presto instant “café” and decided a beer would hit the spot. Well, no beer. Pepsi, yes – in the baby bottle. I think the restaurant inventory amounted to maybe US$20…
Despite dire warnings of the La Costeña dragon-lady in charge of San Carlos to be there no later than 830am, she finally managed to arrive around 915am. Checked in and waited for the plane, the plane, the plane.
Despite broken clouds all over the area, we were able to get good views of Solentiname, poor views of Ometepe and good views of the isletas, Granada and Laguna Apoyo. The trip passed very quickly and all too soon we were back in reality at Managua, getting inspected by the policia (gringos only of course) and then out into the madness of the Carretera Norte and Managua.
Would I go again? I wish I were still there. My trip down the Rio San Juan is one of the highlights of my Life and travels here on this planet. It is a special place and NOT TO BE MISSED.
Thanks for reading.
Pictures are located right here. NOTE: The slideshow feature works the best!