Nicaragua – San Juan River

Leaving Ometepe

Sad to leave Ometepe, we had two choices on how to reach our next destination of San Marcos. We could either sit up most of the night on the long ferry ride across the rest of Lake Nicaragua or we could fly for $73. USD. We said our said goodbyes to our friends at the Hotel Finca Santo Domingo hotel and set off by taxi to the airport for our twenty minute flight which took us over the Concepcion Volcan and alongside the Marineras Volcan. Our last views of the beauiful Ometepe were from the air. A bit bumpy heading into the constant head wind off Lake Nicaragua but we soon found oursleves in San Carlos where we were picked up at the dock by Davie from our Fish Camp, La Esquina de La Lagua (The Corner of the Lake).

At the Corner of the Lake Nicaragua

When two rivers share a corner of a lake in the south east corner of Nicaragua magic is born. A place of transience like no other, the San Juan River flows 192 kima from Lake Nicaraugra into the Caribbean and right next to the San Juan is the Rio Frio which flows from Costa Rica to Lake Nicaragua. Once waterways for pirates and gold seekers, the corner of the lake still has that frontier feeling, a place that time forgot. Not many tourists make it to this area which make the Biological and Wildlife Reserves in this area even more inviting.

The air is hot and humid and when it rains, which it did most days, the skies open and the downpour on the tin roof of my habitacion could be deafening. Fortunately it would only rain for a short time and luckily each time we were indoors. Soon the rain would stop and quiet was restored, broken only by the call of birds, the lapping of the river and the distance thrum of outboard motors. Tom being a bird watcher was in heaven and spent his time photographing and rhapsodizing over the host of species he enjoyed every day.

French Cooking at a Nicaraguan Fish Camp

The fish camp is owned by a French ex-pat Fillipe who settled in the Caribbean and eventually moved to Nicaragua. Not short of opinions Fillipe offered his ideas on the most recent canal proposal that would see digging along the Rio Gordo. This latest route takes canal plans away from Rio San Juan which is much wider and deeper but is subject to seasonal low waters and a few rapids. Canal talk has been just that since well before the Panama Canal and a number of routes have been proposed. This latest proposal is backed by China with Russian investment and will belong to China until the investors are repaid. At least fifty years. Fillipe says he will not live to see the canal built (he looks to be about 75). Opinion about the canal is said to be strong and divided amoungst the Nicaraguans, with of course some doubting that it will even happen, although roads have been built to bring in the machinary to dig the canal. Let’s hope if it does happen that a more equitable distribution of the resultant wealth helps all of the Nicaraguan people and not just some like you see in Panama.

To Fillipe’s credit, the staff at the “Esquina” are all Nicaraguans. In addition to room and board, our $50 USD a night bought us unlimited kayak, guide and motor launch time. The night of our arrival we took a night cruise up the Rio Frio in the launch, on the hunt for caymens. We spotted several but they were quick to dive as soon as our spotlight picked up their gleaming eyes beneath the jungle overhang. Our guide Davie, born and raised on the river had a knack for spotting them that only someone of the river could. At one point he pulled up to the shore, reached over the bow and extracted a baby caymen from the muddy water. It was brilliant to see one up close and he held it long enough for us to pet it and examine its scaly skin and pointy features. He actually called it to the boat by imitating the sound of its mother which is what brought it to the surface long enough for him to make the grab. We weren’t the only boats out skimming the river on this dark night and occassionaly we would see other motor launches slipping by, or dark figures paddling dug out canoes silently into the night.

Meals at the camp were made by local women and served by the camp muchacha who was a dwarf and who made us feel very welcome in spite of language differences. He was enthusiatic and knowledgeable about his river home and several times he called us to the deck rails to see a bird or a reptile. Fillipe trained the women in French cookery and we had meals of roasted potatoes and steak with buttery sauces. It was very nice. My room had screened windows on three sides and being on the second floor of the floating camp which meant the night breeze made sleep possible. It was impossible to sleep late as the birds were up and squawking by 5:30 which had Tom leaping from his bed and me pulling the sheet over my head.

Birds Galore

Tropical Rain Forest & Cattle Fincas

Day two at the camp saw us touring far up the Rio Frio on the camp launch with our guide Davie. We slid past fincas with cattle and assorted crops that gave way to tropical rain forest with more birds than you could name. Parrots, herons, egrets, fly catchers, king fishers, not to mention other creatures like a lime green gila monster and a number of monkeys. I am certainly getting my education on bird life. The fincas along the river are very rustic and the families live in relative isolation with the river being their only means of transport in or out of San Carlos the major center on the San Juan

Heart of Darkness

On day three Davie took us by launch to San Carlos and helped us to find tickets up the river to El Castillo a Spanish fortress built to hold back the British backed pirates that were regularly ransacking Granada. They would travel up the Rio San Juan and then across Lake Nicaragua. We opted for the fast boat which would take us up the Rio San Juan to El Castillo in 1.5 hours. Little did we know that the wake of the bow of the fast boat would provide us with showers when the captain turned the boat in or out of the shallow channels of the river. Photography was out of the question.

El Castillo is a beautiful little town on the river, complete with stilted buildings hanging out over the river and quaint artisitic touches on clapboard buildings and of course a resident rooster who keeps his eye on vistors. Tom made a terrible pun with his foot resting on a downed palm about “winning palms down.”

The town reaches right up a hill from the river banks and at the top of the hightest knoll is the ruin of the Spanish Fortress that dates back to 1675. Horatio Nelson himself attacked the fort at one time and nealry died of dysentery in the jungles of Nicaragua. Thank God he survived to be glorified and preside over Trafalgar Square. One of the assaults by the British was repelled by a young Castillo girl, still just a teenager, but who had been schooled in the “arts of men”. The fort looks down on rapids that make navigation difficult in the dry season.

Having asked a succession of people when the boat returned to San Marcos from Castillo we took ourselves down to the dock at 2:00 only to find that we were alone in what should have been a throng of would-be passengers. Of course, in spite of what we were told by several different people, there was no 2:00 boat and we seemed to be the only two passengers not in the loop.

Just as we were resigning ourseves to staying the night in Castillo, and having watched a coconut boat pull away (potential ride) along came a long skinny launch, clearly a working boat of some type, and we negotiated a ride to Boca De Sabalos, another small settlement back up the river, where, the boatsman told us we could catch the last bus back to San Marcos. I bought a round of cokes at the dockside tienda and we left satisfied that we would be able to stick to our schedule of departing San Marcos for Leon on Wednesday.

Once in the boat and underway, Tom remarked how great it was because we would have the photo opportunities that we had missed on the way up the river but I told him to hold on to that thought because just as he said it I spotted something by my right foot. A great spray of water poured in from a hole in the fiberglass. We turned back toward the captain with what were probably looks of alarm and he calmly pointed to plastic liter bottles which we were to use to bail our way along the river. Dutifully we took up the task and before long we were safely in Sabalos, having enjoyed a most unique adventure. There on the bank of the river was the chicken bus to San Marcos. It turns out the hole in the boat was made by a cow which the ranchero regularly transports along the river. Can’t imagine the boat not tipping with the weight of a distraught cow-but then maybe they like their boat rides.

After paying the boatman considerably more than what we thought he had set as the price we had a quick clamber up the muddy bank and we were enjoying the throbbing base of mega speakers blasting salsa music from the overhead racks on the chicken bus on the bumpy road back to San Marcos. At one point we hit a hole so deep I did about a foot and a half of air time, crashing back down onto the not so padded old school bus seat.

On to Leon

Our adventure made a good story back at the fish camp and everyone there was just as puzzled as we were by the absence of a return boat. Although the river was beautiful, three nights was enough to see what we had come to see so we were glad to pack up the next morning to catch the chicken bus to Leon.































Author: scbates

I love to travel, solo or together with friends. I’m writing this blog in part to remind myself of where I’ve been and what I’ve enjoyed about this wonderful world of ours, and in part I hope to help other travellers by sharing my experiences. I’m happy to be contacted for further information and appreciate your following my blog.

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