El Castillo and Boca de Sabalos, Nicaragua, 14-19 April 2019

At San Carlos we walked to the wharf – 7.30am and the wharf waiting room was already full with people. A young boy was shining shoes – I was a little taken aback – we had not seen any children working like this in the far richer Costa Rica.

Above: young boy shining shoes.

We paid our fares and completed the form detailing our name, age, passport number, current location and destination. The ticket seller indicated to us to walk over to the boat departure area – we wondered why all the people in the seating area remained seated. We stopped at the armed guard and advised our destination – he indicated to us to proceed. Sometimes, when travelling, we feel as though everyone else knows what is going on except us. The last thing we want to do is to appear like privileged Westerners taking advantage and priority. We walked towards more armed guards figuring this is where the boats may depart. A boat docked and armed guards were checking bags. Yes….this was the departure area as well. Once again, our passports were required and more forms were completed. Ah! Maybe this is why the ticket seller indicated for us to proceed – more paperwork for Westerners. People commenced lining up behind us, and two empty boats pulled into the wharf. We boarded, and off we went at 8am. A clipboard was handed around on the boat – once again, we, and everyone on the boat, completed the form with all the details mentioned above. I can only guess every official destination requires a form for the army-immigration office.

Above: map detailing our trip from San Carlos to El Castillo (in red) along the San Juan River. The green line details our camping trip with Juan Ardilla.

The San Juan River is approximately 200 kilometres long commencing in San Carlos at Lake Nicaragua and travels east, ending at Greytown on the Caribbean coast. We had expected thick jungle all the way. Wrong. Large areas along the banks are devoted to farming and individual homes as well as villages. The boat trip was just over two hours dropping off and picking up people along the way. Sometimes people disembarked and there were no villages or houses to be seen. At some small villages women were washing clothes in the river, children were swimming. One little boy had home-made ‘floaties’ constructed with plastic Coca-cola bottles, the identifiable logo still visible.

We arrived in El Castillo and immigration once again recorded our details. El Castillo is a very small town with no cars or motor bikes. The main street is a stone’s throw from the waterfront with shops, homes and the odd hostel or hotel scattered amongst them. Smaller streets lead up the hill and into the ‘suburbs’ of El Castillo. Having not booked any accommodation we walked to one end of the town and commenced making inquiries. (We had of course looked online and had a list of preferred options). We commenced with Hotel Lara’s Planet. An unkempt pathway led to the reception area. We were greeted by a rather eccentric woman speaking English with a strong American accent. We asked if she had any rooms available.

She said ‘Well, how much do you want to pay? People tell me my rooms are very expensive’.

Us: ‘How much are your rooms?’

Her: ‘US$65 per night’.

Us: ‘Yes, that is above our budget…’ She did not offer to negotiate.

We walked the length of town rejecting rooms that were too small and pokey with no air flow or fan. And just when I was becoming too hot and frustrated and about to give up we came to Hotel Victoria. Huge attractive rooms, many with air conditioning. When they asked for US$60 and we hesitated and the price immediately dropped to US$50 – we were very pleased.

We settled in, and then visited Juan Ardilla to organise our camping trip to Reserva Biologica Indio Maiz. (For convenience, I will now refer to this reserve simply as Indio Maiz). Wikipedia states Indio Maiz is a protected area covering approximately 4,500 square kilometres in Nicaragua. It was established in the 1990’s. We had walked past Juan’s home when looking for accomodation and spoken briefly with him about the trip – he advised he required notice of approximately a day or so to organise permits and provisions etc.

Later that afternoon we relaxed on the wide deck at Hotel Victoria. The constant breeze was delightful. Below us two cows and a bull were tethered under trees by the water. Men were standing around. To our amazement, two men in a canoe motored across from the other side of the river. The men handed the long rope attached to one of the cows to the men in the canoe. They fired up the motor, and lead the cow into the river. It initially walked willingly into the water, but then of course the water became much deeper. Suddenly a dog appeared from nowhere and raced into the water to hassle the cow. The men pushed the dog away from the cow, and held the cow closely beside the boat so it’s head was supported out of the water as they motored across the river. A bit like a life saver….The dog tried to swim back to shore, but the swirling water of the rapids was making the task impossible. We watched in horror thinking the dog would drown. No one on our side of the shore was paying any attention to the dog. They were focused on the huge bull who was causing a little bit of trouble – he obviously did not like being tethered near the river. I was becoming increasingly agitated. Just when I was about to race downstairs and ask the hotel staff to intervene the boat journeyed back to collect another cow. People highlighted the struggling dog to them, and they motored out and fished the dog out of the water. A huge sigh of relief…

Above: the wonderful wide deck at Hotel Victoria. Afternoon breezes were always guaranteed.

The Spanish built an impressive fort above the town in the 1500s and for years the rapids kept other invaders, including the British, at bay. The following morning we decided to visit the fort early hoping for some good morning light for photos of the fort and town, however it is only open between 8am to 4pm.

Above: the fort. It has an on-site museum.

Above: looking down onto El Castillo township and the San Juan River from the fort.

As it was about 6.30am we continued on and wandered through the town – locals were already up and about. The housing is generally wooden and humble. We kept walking out of town and passed through agricultural areas – some farms had signs of sponsorship from European countries. The road ended at a dairy farm and a couple of men were letting their cows out of the holding pens. To our surprise, the younger man, at a guess in his forties, spoke a spattering of English. With our spattering of Spanish we had an enjoyable exchange. We told him we were looking at birds, communicated our nationality, and he told us his father was 62 years old. We told them how old we were, and admired his cows – all very lighthearted, but friendly and enjoyable. I have a small stuffed kangaroo attached to my handbag, and one also attached to my backpack. Well worth the A$2 I paid for each of them. People assume we are either American, German or Canadian – at least now I can show them the kangaroo – it has caused some outrageous laughter on a few occasions. ‘Ah! Cangaru!’

Horses and donkeys are the mode of transport here. Old traditions combine with new – a young man on horseback rode past us – headphones connected to his phone. Rubbish collection is courtesy of horse and cart.

Above: rubbish collection

Above: El Castillo housing.

Above: another local home.

I mentioned above we had visited Juan to organise the camping trip to Indio Maiz. We warmed to him immediately as he took the time to explain various options – we found him to be honest and trustworthy. He was very thorough in discussing options for an overnight trip. One option was to camp by the river and sleep in hammocks or on a mattress on the river bank – he recommending we did not take that option as we would not get any sleep in the hammocks (as we were not experienced with hammocks). We agreed…The second option was to stay overnight at the base camp where there was a tent in a bungalow – well, that’s what we understood. All meals would be provided etc etc. We settled on the second option.

On the morning of our 6am departure the wonderful Hotel Victoria staff cooked breakfast for us around 5.30am. We had packed our backpacks with a few essentials for the trip, and gave them our luggage to store until we returned. Juan turned up right on 6am with the canoe, just as he had said when we made all the arrangements.

Above: early morning with Juan on the San Juan River.

Juan paddled us downriver along one side of the wide San Juan River for three hours to Indio Maiz headquarters. We saw various kingfishers and herons, jacanas, Howler monkeys, a turtle, Green Basilisk lizards, other ‘Jesus Christ’ lizards – thus called as they can run across water. At one stage Juan paddled us along a small tributary for approximately fifteen minutes – Juan said in the wet season he could paddle along that tributary for an hour. Such was the difference in water levels between wet and dry seasons.

We reached the Indio Maiz headquarters and paperwork was exchanged. Four or five military police were standing around on the wharf. (Guru maps indicates a military police headquarters at this junction). Juan then paddled the canoe along the smaller Bartola River – it was a sublime tranquil experience. The only sounds were Juan’s paddle dipping in and out of the water, the breeze overhead, the call of birds. I delighted in the ever changing reflections in the water. Combinations of browns, deep deep greens, bright limes, and blue from the sky.

At 9.30 we clambered out of the canoe to commence a walk in Indio Maiz. I commented to Juan that he must be tired – he had been paddling us since 6am. He replied in the negative, saying all locals use boats or canoes and it is just part of life in this region. He went on to explain how he knew this region so well. ‘Like the back of my hand’ were his actual words. He was born in El Castillo and at the age of thirteen he commenced working on boats that travelled the entire length of San Juan River. By the age of eighteen he was a captain. And knew every tributary of the river.

Above: our tour guide Juan Ardilla. Contact him via FaceBook: Juan Alberto Aruilar Gomez. He does not have a web page.

We walked for three hours along a heavily vegetated jungle circular trail – all of a sudden, some bats flew out from under a large leaf. The bats actually cut a line across a large palm leaf to create an angular shelter. Juan picked some leaves from a plant and suggested we chew the stem – our lips went mildly numb. Indigenous people would boil these leaves and stems to make an anaesthetic liquid for women to consume during child birth. Poisonous Dart Frogs were abundant. Two species: the beautiful green and black species, and the ‘Blue Jeans’ species. The latter also known as ‘Strawberry’ poisonous dart frog. Juan explained he could touch anything in the jungle, but not poisonous dart frogs. Once, a frog jumped onto him. Some poison transferred onto Juan’s skin, and he instantly felt giddy and a little nauseous. If the poison enters your body, via a cut for instance, you are likely to die.

Above: ‘Blue Jeans’ poisonous dart frog, also known as ‘Strawberry’ dart frog.

Above: green and black Poisonous Dart Frog.

It was remarkably quiet bird wise. However, we did see some Great Green Macaws. The bird highlight was a male and female Spotted Antbird – too difficult to photograph in the thick undergrowth. Further along we were delighted to see a Nunbird.

Above: male Spotted Antbird – courtesy of Merlin App.

We returned to the canoe and Juan paddled us upstream stopping at a small sandy bend in the river. This entire section of the Bartola River was a ‘kingfisher highway’. We constantly saw Kingfishers land near us or ahead of us – flashes of bright turquoise contrasting against the greens and browns of the river and vegetation. It was time for lunch, so Juan lit a fire and cooked us fish wrapped in foil. Cold coconuts from the esky were a delightful drink. At 2pm a couple of young men appeared from somewhere upstream. We were a little surprised when Juan indicated for us to hop into their canoe and head upstream with them. We had assumed Juan would be with us for the entire journey – obviously something had been lost in the translation. We were heading to base camp.

These two young men used poles to steer the canoe through at times extremely low water levels – the water so low the canoe’s hull would scrap against the rocks. It was extremely hard going for them when we had to traverse rapids. At one stage we hopped out and walked a larger section of rapids. The canoe was extremely old and leaked constantly – I acted as chief baler for the entire one and a half hour journey. It was a constant job to remove water. John thought the canoe could have been repaired with lots and lots of silicon. I thought it should have been decommissioned.

Above: river scene on the way to ‘base camp’.

We had reached the base camp – the ‘Sol y Luna’ (Sun and Moon) cooperative community. We walked up a very steep hill. Imagine our surprise – a tent set up on a wooden platform with a a thatched roof. Our bed was made up with sheets and pillows, and two white towels were on display. Two showers, two pit toilets, and a small kitchen with an attached dining area. We were not expecting this….Catalino came and introduced himself to us – our English speaking guide during our stay. He advised 23 families lived spread out over the land, with a total of 170 people. We would have liked to learn more about the community, but the opportunity unfortunately did not arise.

Above: our tent at ‘Sol y Luna’ cooperative.

A river night tour after dinner – fireflies, bats, and numerous frogs were seen. The canoe was extremely shallow – we were actually really tense as both of us felt we could topple out very quickly. Nothing adverse happened of course, as these experienced people spend their lives in and out of canoes and have such an incredibly toned sense of balance. We were asleep by 8pm – exhausted after an extremely exciting day.

We slept in until 5.05am – breakfast was ready at 5.30am. Pancakes, fruit and freshly brewed coffee. A bird watching walk with Catalino, and a chocolate making demonstration – the cocoa beans were cooked over an open fire, the skins removed, then the beans put through a grinder. The ground beans were then cooked to a thick paste with fresh unpasteurised milk and a small amount of sugar. Very rich….Catalino advised the cows were used to make milk, cream and cheese for the community. They grew rice , corn and other vegetables. Chickens provided meat and eggs. Fish from the river. There were only a few pigs as they tended to cause too much damage in the cropping areas. The only strictly rationed items were the cocoa beans.

Above: roasting the cocoa beans prior to grinding.

Above: grinding the cocoa beans

After a bit of confusion regarding arrangements we stayed for lunch. We sat under a shelter and bird watched in comfort. At least six Great Green Macaws flew past, and we saw quite a few Scarlet Macaws as well. We heard them frequently. We were then ‘poled’ down the river, this time in a non-leaky canoe to meet Juan. By the time we returned to El Castillo, right on 4pm, just as Juan had initially discussed, we had seen all the kingfisher species in Nicaragua on that trip: Ringed Kingfisher, Belted Kingfisher, Amazon Kingfisher, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, and Green-and-rufous Kingfisher.

The thoughtful staff at Hotel Victoria had put our bags in our room. Everything ‘El Castillo’ had been a wonderful experience.

On Easter Thursday morning (18 April) we took the boat to Boca de Sabalos – about half the way towards San Carlos. We always knew we would need to ‘hunker down’ somewhere during the Easter period, so this was a solution for a couple of nights. Besides, I liked the look of a hotel jutting out over the river on poles. When boats travel past the hotel, waves wash under the poles of the hotel – it is like living on a wharf….Easter has been busy here with lots of loud music (!) from a residence on the other side of the river opposite the hotel. Thankfully they turn it down around 8pm (!) Boca de Sabalos is a small town in transition – we have seen a water skier, and can imagine in a few years it may be altered terribly with jet skies etc. There was no evidence of such behaviour at El Castillo.

Above: John in the dining area at Hotel Sabalos.

Our next destination is Granada.

One thought on “El Castillo and Boca de Sabalos, Nicaragua, 14-19 April 2019

  1. Again a great travelogue! I would imagine that freshly made chocolate would be amazing. Loved the picture of the roasting! Something about fire and embers in photos.


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