My original plan in coming to the Río San Juan was to travel the whole length of the river from San Carlos to San Juan del Norte (alternatively known as San Juan de Nicaragua or Greytown). What I didn’t count on was that after 3 years of drought, and at the end of summer, both Lake Nicaragua and the Río San Juan are very, very low. As an indication, there is currently a 1.5-2m jump up to the lowest level of the main dock in San Carlos. Yes, we had a step-ladder in the boat!
It was still pretty certain to be able to get from San Carlos to El Castillo, but there are a large set of rapids there which used to give pirates some grief and are currently all but impassable, as well as other sets of rapids the further down the river you go. So my plan changed to: take the boat from San Carlos to El Castillo and spend a night. Head further down the river to Bartola for a few days, head back up to the Boca de Sabalos for a few days and then back to San Carlos to fly out to Ometepe.
Caite and I decided to catch the 8am slow public panga (boat) from San Carlos down to El Castillo – a trip of 3 hours. We all loaded onto the boat and had to put our lifejackets on (trying to ignore the black sweat marks around the neck-holes) before leaving the dock. But as soon as we’d pulled out – not 2 minutes later – the boat-dude came through and collected them all back off us and stored them once again above our heads.
The trip down the river was wonderful! Loved being on the river and seeing it operate as a main thoroughfare. Saw plenty of other passenger boats (some with many, some with only one person), several goods boats (carrying mostly crates of softdrink, beer and gas bottles) and even saw a barge carrying a truck!
Loved having the time to relax and not think about anything, or alternatively, contemplate everything.
Loved the views of river life – something very different to my experience.
Arrived in El Castillo which, as the name would suggest, is famous for the 17th Century Spanish fortress that sits above the town. This stronghold was used to protect the major cities of Nicaragua (ie Granada and León) from pirates and invaders who used to come up the Río San Juan and across Lake Nicaragua for access.
The fort has a really interesting museum attached (definitely worth a visit) and some amazing views out over the river.
Although El Castillo looked like a really cute place to hang out, to be honest, neither Caite nor I thought it had a good vibe. The people just didn’t seem as nice as all the other Nicaraguans I’ve ever met. Plus, for a town where every second building was either a place to stay or a place to eat or both, it was very deserted and nothing seemed like it was open. We ended up eating dinner at the Hotel Victoria (actually the fillet steak was incredible!) and then the next morning, though we tried 3 places beforehand, we ended up back at the Hotel Victoria for breakfast. Both of us decided to only spend the one night there … unfortunately the town really didn’t gel with either of us.