The Río San Juan, running through deep jungles, drains Lake Nicaragua from its eastern end into the Caribbean at San Juan del Norte. Over 190 km long and with more than 17 tributaries, it runs the length of the southern border of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve and connects Lake Nicaragua to the Atlantic Ocean. It is the best area in Nicaragua to spot wildlife. This great river has played an integral part in Nicaragua's colonial and post-colonial history and is one of the most accessible of the country's many pristine nature-viewing areas.
The department's capital, San Carlos, is perched on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, providing access to the wonderful Solentiname archipelago. These idyllic islands are home to various artistic communities, where families practise a type of primitivist art that has reached galleries in New York and Paris. The archipelago has a fascinating history, and was the subject of a famous social experiment in Utopianism.
First sailed by the Spanish in 1525, the complete length of the river was navigated on 24 June 1539, the day of San Juan Bautista, hence its name. In colonial times it was a vital link between the Spanish Caribbean and the port of Granada. After three attacks by Caribbean pirates on Granada, the Spanish built a fortress at El Castillo in 1675. The English tried to take the fort twice in the 18th century, failing the first time thanks to the teenage Nicaraguan national heroine Rafaela Herrera, and then succeeding with Lord (then Captain) Nelson, who later had to withdraw owing to tropical diseases. Later it became the site of many aborted canal projects. It is still a most rewarding boat journey.
Like a ragged vulture, San Carlos is perched between several transportation arteries. It is the jumping-off point for excursions to the Islas Solentiname, along the Río Frío to Los Chiles in Costa Rica and the Río San Juan itself, with irregular launches to the river from the lakeside. It's a reasonably ugly town, but not overly offensive. Nearby are the two great nature reserves of Los Guatusos and Indio Maíz. In the wet season it is very muddy. At San Carlos there are the ruins of a fortress built for defence against pirates.
Isla San Fernando, many locals carve and paint balsa wood figures. The diet on the island is somewhat limited but there is lots of fresh fruit. Ask for Julio Pineda or his sister Rosa, one of the local artists. The island has a new museum, with a variety of natural and cultural history exhibits as well as a spectacular view of the archipelago, especially at sunset; if closed ask in the village if it can be opened. Apart from at the hotel, there is no electricity on the island, so take a torch.
, named for its plentiful population of
(deer), is also home to artists, in particular the house of Rodolpho Arellano who lives on the south side of the island. He is one of the region's best painters and his wife, daughters and grandson all paint tropical scenes and welcome visitors to see and purchase their works. On the north side of the island is a series of semi-submerged caves with some of the best examples of petroglyphs from the pre-Columbian Guatuso tribe.
is privately owned and the only island inhabited by howler monkeys. If you circle the island in a boat they can usually be spotted in the trees.
Los Guatusos Wildlife Reserve
is the largest in the chain, with the highest hill at 250 m. This is where the famous revolutionary/poet/sculptor/Catholic priest/Minister of Culture, Ernesto Cardenal, made his name by founding a school of painting, poetry and sculpture, and even decorating the local parish church in naïve art. He preached a kind of Marxist liberation theology, where the trials of Christ were likened to the trials of poor Nicaraguans. There is a monument to the Sandinista flag outside the church. Hiking is possible on the island where many parrots and
make their home. The island's hotel of the same name is part of the local folklore as its founder Alejandro Guevara was a hero of the Sandinista Revolution; his widow Nubia and her brother Peter now look after the place.
El Castillo to the Caribbean
Known as the cradle of wildlife for Lake Nicaragua, Los Guatusos is home to many exotic and varied species of bird and reptile. It is also heavily populated by monkeys, especially howlers. The reserve is crossed by three rivers, Guacalito, Zapote and Papaturro, which are popular for boat touring. It is essential to be at the park for sunrise to see the best of the wildlife. After 1030 the river often becomes busier with the immigration traffic of labourers heading to Costa Rica. A new
, built by Friends of the Earth and the Spanish Government, has a collection of over 90 orchids native to the region and a butterfly farm. Visitors are welcome. Lodging is also possible in the research centre. There is a public boat from San Carlos to Papaturro.
Reserva Biológica Indio Maíz
Some 60 km downriver is
, built around the restored ruins of the 18th-century Spanish fort called
La Fortaleza de la Inmaculada Concepción
. The old fort has a good history
on the quay has a leaflet about the fort and town. It was here that Nelson did battle with the Spanish forces. There are great views of the river from the fortress. The town is on a wide bend in the river where some shallow but tricky rapids run the whole width. Horse riding is possible. El Castillo is a good place to pick up food on the river.
Bartola and further east
A few kilometres downstream is the Río Bartola and the beginning of the Reserva Biológica Indio Maíz, 3000 sq km of mostly primary rainforest and home to more than 600 species of bird, 300 species of reptile and 200 species of mammal including many big cats and howler, white-faced and spider monkeys. Sleeping is possible in
, a research station and training ground for biologists; it has a labyrinth of well-mapped trails behind the lodge. The hotel guides are very
knowledgeable. They will also take you down the Río Bartola in canoe for great wildlife viewing and birding. Neglect in recent years has made turning up without booking a bit of a gamble, so make sure you book in advance. Camping is possible; ask the park ranger (his house is across the Río Bartola from the Refugio Bartola
The river past
becomes more beautiful and the Costa Rican border reaches to the south bank of the river. The Costa Rican side is partially deforested; the Nicaraguan side with the Indio Maíz Reserve is almost entirely intact. Watch out for turtles, birds and crocodiles. Two hours downriver is the
and immigration check-points for both Costa Rica and Nicaragua (no stamps available though).
If coming from the Río San Juan to Río Sarapiquí you will need to check in with the Costa Rican guard station if you want to spend the night, or even if you want to pick up something at the store. If continuing down the river without stopping you only need to check in at the Nicaraguan station on the Río San Juan.
Past the Sarapiquí, the San Juan branches north, and both sides of the river (heavily forested) become part of Nicaragua again as the Río Colorado heads into Costa Rica. Two hours or so later, the San Juan reaches the Caribbean via a series of magnificent forest- wrapped lagoons. The Río Indio must be taken to reach the isolated but surprisingly wealthy village of San Juan del Norte.
San Juan del Norte
One of the wettest places on the American continent with more than 5000 mm of rain each year, San Juan del Norte (also called Santa Isabel) is also one of the most beautiful, with primary rainforest, lagoons, rivers and the Caribbean Sea. It is settled by a small population (estimated at 275), though it was once a boom town in the 19th century, when the American industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt was running his steamship line between New York and San Francisco. Then called Greytown, San Juan del Norte was the pickup point for the steamship journey to the Pacific via the Río San Juan, Lake Nicaragua to La Virgen and then by mule overland to San Juan del Sur. This service was quite popular during the 'gold rush' of San Francisco and a young Mark Twain made the crossing, later recounting his journey in the book
. The town remained in its location on the Bahía San Juan del Norte, actually a coastal lagoon, until the 1980s, when fighting caused its
population to flee. Re-established in its current location on the the east bank of the Río Indio, the village is separated from the Caribbean Sea by 400 m of rainforest. The population is a mix of Miskito, Creole, Rama and Hispanic. There is no land route from here to Bluefields
and the boat takes about three hours, US$600. Due to its proximity to Limón, in Costa Rica, colones
are the standard currency here as all the food and supplies are bought easier there than in San Carlos. In Sarapiquí and San Juan del Norte córdobas, colones and dollars are all accepted.
If in your own boat (chartered), a trip further down the
is recommended, with lots of wildlife, virgin forest and Rama (please respect their culture and privacy). A visit to the ruins of old
is also interesting, with a well-marked trail that leads through various cemeteries buried in the forest and to the town centre where only foundations and the church bell remain. It has been described as 'incredibly atmospheric' with amazing wildlife and is great for birding in the morning. Note the names on some of the tombstones, which include sailors from around the world. Most of the year the entrance is underwater so rubber boots are of great use here as for the rest of the region. Swimming is best in the
; as there are many sharks in the Caribbean. If coming on the public boat from San Carlos, Melvin can arrange tours with one of his
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