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I tried to get to San Carlos from Ometepe Island but the ferry between the two does not operate anymore.
I ended up in Granada and needed to renew my CA4 90 Day Tourist Visa.
So, I made my way from Granada to San Carlos via Costa Rica.
My ultimate goal was to take the boat from Greytown to Bluefields so that I could get out to the Corn Islands.
ABOUT RIO SAN JUAN:
The Río San Juan (also known as “El Desaguadero” (“the drain”)), is a 192-kilometer river that flows east out of Lake Nicaragua into the Caribbean Sea. A large section of the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica runs on the right (southern) bank of the river.
Nicaragua owns the waters of the river and Costa Rica can only use certain parts of it for commercial navigation.
Prior to the Panama Canal, the San Juan River was frequently used as a major part of the route from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
During the California Gold Rush (as many people from all over the world traveled to California) tens of thousands took a steamboat up the San Juan River and across Lake Nicaragua; a stagecoach completed the connection to the Pacific coast.
I found it to be a pleasant change from the tourist trail that I had seen in Nicaragua so far.
Neither ugly nor picturesque.
You won’t find many cheap options on the internet … BUT … once you get here, there are some unlisted accommodation options.
I arrived without a booking but I had already had a look on the internet and I knew that there were places available within my price range. I was arriving early, the town is small and walk-able, so I decided to just turn up.
I will only show you BOOKING.COM hotels because AGODA has the same ones at the same prices (but fewer of them) and sites like EXPEDIA list hotels that are too expensive.
PLEASE NOTE: Hotel and Hostel search sites usually display prices EXCLUSIVE of TAXES. You may have to add up to 18% to the displayed price to get the final price. Also, some of the cheaper rooms have a Shared Bathroom … so, check the details first.
Online, I noticed that Hostal Don Frank had a last minute discount on a Double Room with Private Bathroom (discounted down to US$13 / N$350 per night).
I looked around the streets first. After checking out a couple of very basic rooms for N$350 / night, I decided that Don Frank’s was good value for money.
I called the phone number listed above the door. The man that answered only spoke Spanish. I managed to converse in Spanish and he arrived at the door 5 minutes later.
I booked 2 nights for a total of N$700.
Have a look yourself:
EAT & DRINK:
From the central square, walk to the Bus Terminal and keep walking another 100 meters. On the left, you will find a Comedor displaying Fried Chicken on the footpath. A 2 piece Fried Chicken Meal is N$70.
Beer in the Central Square cafes is N$25 for a 350ml Tona. Up the hill, one block from the waterfront, you can find local bars that sell 1L Tonas for N$55.
BANKS / ATMs / MONEY EXCHANGE:
There is at least one bank and several ATMs in San Carlos.
MY ADVICE: Stock up with money in San Carlos … you will not see another ATM anywhere else down the Rio San Juan.
SAN CARLOS TO EL CASTILLO:
The morning boats from San Carlos to El Castillo leave at 6am, 8am, and 10.30am. I targeted the 8am.
But, the ‘highlight’ of El Castillo is the ‘el castillo’ (the little castle). The entrance fee is N$45 which includes entry to a small ‘museum’. If you want to take photos with your smartphone, that is OK. BUT, you will be charged an extra N$25 to take photos with a proper camera.
I stopped at the Cafetin Orquidea for Breakfast (see, below) and got on the internet to see if there were any last minute deals … and to see where the cheap hotels were.
The Orquidea were very nice and allowed me to leave my suitcase with them so that I could look around unencumbered.
I found a ‘little gem’ that is NOT listed on online search engines: the Hostal Fortaleza.
They offered me a Fan Double with Private Bathroom for N$300 / night excluding Breakfast … I booked 2 nights. They included Breakfast for a higher price … but I wanted to try Breakfast in different places around town.
It had in-room wifi … but the signal strength was a bit ‘variable’.
Have a look yourself:
EAT & DRINK:
When it came time to pay, I was pleasantly surprised … it was N$70.
That evening I joined two ladies from Italy for Dinner at the Orquidea. I chose the ‘special of the day’ without asking the price … River rawns done n garlic sauce … it was N$500! The ladies had standard meals (e.g. Chicken with Rice and Salad) for N$120 each.
BANKS / ATMs / MONEY EXCHANGE:
You will not find a Bank, ATM, nor a Money Exchange here.
Bring enough cash.
THE BEST LAID PLANS OF MICE AND MEN:
I arrived in El Castillo on a Monday. I came to El Castillo to organise my Kayak trip down river to Greytown … apparently, it is best to organise it here rather than in San Carlos …
The locals have already ‘caught on’ to what they have to offer … which is mainly a day trip into the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve. This involves 2 hours of kayaking down river to and into the park, 1 hour of trekking, a quick swim in the river, and a motor boat back to El Castillo. For this 4 hour trip, they now want US$85 each – everywhere!
I was more interested in a 5 day / 4 night kayak trip to Greytown … sleeping in hammocks in the jungle, etc. For this, they wanted US$450 (reduced to US$300 / person for 3 or more people).
BUT, I had arrived on the wrong day! Boats from El Castillo to Greytown only leave at 8am on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Tuesday is the ‘fast’ boat which takes about 5 hours. Thursday and Friday are the ‘slow’ boats which take 8 hours. No problem for me … I was going to kayak there anyway! I wanted to start my kayak trip on Wednesday.
The problem was getting my Guide back to El Castillo! The fast boat back only leaves on Saturday … if we left on Wednesday we wouldn’t get to Greytown in time for him to get back again … the price started escalating with his extra hotel costs, etc.
Worst still was the fact that the Greytown to Bluefields boat only leaves at 8am each Wednesday. This would leave me in Greytown for 5 days … Greytown really isn’t that interesting …
I decided to abandon my plans and leave on the ‘fast’ boat to Greytown on the Tuesday so that I could catch the boat from Greytown to Bluefields the next day (Wednesday).
The most that I would, now, get out of Rio San Juan was a river boat trip.
The Hostal Fortaleza were kind enough to refund me one of the nights that I had already paid for.
EL CASTILLO TO GREYTOWN:
I was down at the boat dock at 7am waiting for the 8am ‘Rapido’ (fast) boat to Greytown. I stopped at the only restaurant open at that time in the morning: the one next to the boat dock. As I waited, I had a Desayuno Tipico (N$90).
At the Tienda they asked me to wait and went to speak to the captain … the boat was full … BUT, they said that a seat would be free in 20 minutes because some people were getting off at the next town. I bought my ticket to Greytown for US$20 / N$610.
There was no room inside for my suitcase, so it went up on the roof (not tied down). I stood at the front of the boat next to the captain. The first thing that we had to do was negotiate the El Castillo rapids. Easy.
Afterwards, I checked that my suitcase was still on the roof! It was 🙂
At 9am we pulled to the side of the river for a Police Checkpoint. They asked for my passport … it was in my suitcase … it fell into the ‘too hard basket’. They never saw it.
It is about 150kms to Greytown from El Castillo. The scenery is nothing spectacular. It is either relaxing or boring (depending on your point of view). To get the best out of the Rio San Juan, you need to get into Indio Maiz to trek / kayak. I missed my opportunity to do so.
By 10am we were at Boca San Carlos for another Police Checkpoint … this time, I had to get my Passport out of my suitcase. We brought my suitcase down from the roof and I had to open it on the bow. The boat crew and the Police saw what was inside … and, where I took my Passport out from. After retreving my Passport, I locked my suitcase and it went back up on the roof.
At 11am, we had a third Police Checkpoint.
At 12:15 we had cleared the river and we were heading for Greytown down the estuary. I thought that we may hit open sea, so I went to the front of the boat to check that my suitcase was secure … it wasn’t there … I assumed that they had already brought it below (now that people had gotten off and there was space inside).
I got off the boat to find that my suitcase was back on the roof? Call me suspicious if you like, but I got the feeling that the crew may have tried to get into my suitcase. My digital lock had stopped them!
I cleared Immigration and hit the streets by 1pm. It was just a check of details … no money exchanged hands.
Greytown lies on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast just to the south of the Mosquito Coast near the border with Costa Rica. It is located at the mouth of the San Juan River.
The town’s geography is influenced by the San Juan River delta with volcanic sediment deposits from Costa Rican volcanoes interacting with ocean currents and winds. This action fills the town’s harbor with shifting sandbars and spits.
The eastern coast of Nicaragua had long fallen under British influence with the Mosquito Coast being a protectorate from 1740. In 1796, the town was declared a free port by the Spanish – but the Spanish were ousted in 1821 with the independence of Central America.
In 1841, the town was occupied by the Miskitos with British assistance and, in 1848, the town was occupied directly by the British. It was nominally ceded to the Miskito Kingdom, a British protectorate to the north.
The town was legally placed under the sovereignty of Nicaragua and removed from Miskito control in 1860 – but remained de facto under British protection through much of the remainder of the century. In 1894, Nicaragua fully incorporated the region into the state.
There remains a ‘British influence’ and many locals still speak English.
This is Greytown:
So, I turned up without a booking and tried my luck.
I went straight to the Hospedaje Familiar on the waterfront. ‘Hospedajes’ are usually cheaper than hotels …
A very pleasant little spot … and, not a bad little hotel for such a ‘rustic’ little town.
Have a look yourself:
EAT & DRINK:
There aren’t many options. You will find a couple of small Comedors one block back from the waterfront … otherwise, you are eating at your hotel.
That evening, I sat in the Familiar Restaurant looking out over the water to order a meal. They only had a choice of fish or beef. I ordered a Fried Fish meal (N$180) and washed it down with a couple of 350ml Tona beers (N$40 each).
They were kind enough to give me a free coffee refill.
BANKS / ATMs / MONEY EXCHANGE:
There are none. Bring plenty of cash.
INTERNET / WIFI:
I bought a Movistar SIMcard in Jiquilillo. I top it up as and when needed with N$100 and buy a new 7 Day MegaPack which comes with 500MB of data, 20 minutes of call time, 20 SMSs, and unlimited Facebook / Whatsapp.
I had a signal all of the way down Rio San Juan (except in the most remote places).
San Carlos and El Castillo both have wifi available around town. Greytown does not.
However, you will find free internet available in all 3 towns around the Central Parks.
PLEASE NOTE: Movistar run regular promotions (usually at least 2 per week) that can as much as Quintruple your top up credits. This only applies to call and text credits – not to data. Try and top up on a Promo Day. If you are a sports fan, they also do regular N$30 Promos that give you unlimited 4G internet for 24 hours … great for streaming weekend sports from back home.
PLEASE NOTE: When you top up in a store / tienda they usually charge you a 10% fee. If you top up for more than N$100, they usually charge you a flat rate fee of N$20. To avoid these charges, try and top up at a proper Movistar Store or a Movistar Stall found on the street.
HEALTH & SAFETY:
There is no reason to feel unsafe.
As always, exercise normal levels of caution … don’t make yourself an obvious target.
The main problem is Petty Theft … which is a ‘typical’ problem in Central America.
Drugs are illegal in Nicaragua – if you have 5 grams or more of Marijuana you can face a prison sentence of up to 10 years. If you are found with less than 5 grams on you, it is 5 days in custody, a fine, and a criminal conviction.
When I was there, mosquitoes were around but they weren’t a problem.
Don’t drink the tap water.
WHEN TO GO:
Rio San Juan can still get a bit of rain in December. Greytown is one of the wettest places in Nicaragua.
You are best to come January through April.
From Rio San Juan, I head to the Corn Islands for Christmas / New Year. I hope to spend 6-8 weeks there.
From Greytown, I catch a boat to Bluefields … it costs US$45 and takes about 6 hours. It ONLY leaves once each week: Wednesdays at 8am. You need to be down at the Greytown Boat Dock at 7:30am to buy your ticket.
I will tell you more about that trip in a future post.
There is no point in going into any details … this was a ‘journey’ rather than a destination.
For your information, I averaged US$31 / day which covered accommodation, food, drink, and lots of transport.
If you do what I did, you are (basically) just coming down the Rio San Juan to get to Bluefields or the Corn Islands. Cost-wise, you are better off catching Chicken Busses (either from Managua to Bluefields or San Carlos to Bluefields via Rama).
If you come to Rio San Juan to get an experience of Indio Maiz Bioogical Reserve, then start saving your pennies … you will not be able to do it on a GRANDPAcking budget.