Measuring 190 kilometers and connecting Lake Nicaragua with the Caribbean Sea, Rio San Juan is one of the most impressive rivers in Nicaragua. The river is located in the southeastern region of Nicaragua, partially bordering the Indo Maíz Natural Reserve and the neighboring country of Costa Rica. The Río San Juan furthermore carries a rich history. It was here where the Spanish conquistadors defended the entrance to the inlands of Nicaragua from the El Castillo fortress, and it was at the same river where – centuries later – steamboats loaded with gold from California traveled to the Caribbean Sea. This interesting combination of history and nature makes the Río San Juan one of the most interesting places for kayak activities. Given the length of the river, a wide variety of kayak trips can be undertaken.
The current is rather strong at times, making it logical to only kayak downstream or in the tributary rivers that can be accessed from the San Juan River. Kayak trips can form part of the transportation during a journey. There are several towns and villages along the river, with interesting attractions and lodging options, so moving from one place to another by kayak is certainly an option. A more detailed overview of possible trips can be found below.
Kayaking in the Río San Juan provides a unique perspective to explore this beautiful river. Aquatic wildlife can be observed much better, and with the liberty to move to any part of the river kayak adventurers can get very close to river turtles, birds, crocodiles (but not too close!) and other animals. The vistas are spectacular from the kayak and by entering the tributary rivers one can also see more of the interior forests (especially in the Indio Maíz area) and its wildlife.
Journeys and options
The overview below lists the most important kayak journeys that can be undertaken in the Río San Juan area. It starts with the downstream trips along the main river, followed by trips that start and end at the same place. Times are an indication for the relatively unexperienced recreational paddler, and also include ocassional breaks and lunch time for whole-day trips. More experienced paddlers focused on speed and less on bird and photography-stops can easily take off half of the indicated time. Make sure to remember that unforeseen circumstances like very heavy downpours or difficulties at army checkpoints (e.g. due to missing passport or an unregistered kayak) can just as easy take an extra hour. Therefore, always plan ahead and make sure the daily itinerary has some margin.
The following itineraries can be undertaken as single daytrips, but they could also be part of a larger multi-day journey. Some trips can be combined into one in a single day and – as said – faster paddlers will be able to shave off time anyway. Always check the itinerary with a local guide to make sure it is realizable in a safe way, though. In addition to the single travel legs there is also a description about the master trip of all San Juan river kayak journeys: the 200 km San Carlos-San Juan del Norte trip, which takes paddlers from the start to the end of this majestic river.
Paddlers can take their luggage with them in two ways. The first method is to stuff all the luggage in large plastic bags. These bags can be obtained in San Carlos and they will offer good protection. Bags can be stored in the kayaks. Some kayaks have special compartments for luggage, sometimes even water-proof. The second method is kayaking down the river with a boat that follows the group. This boat will carry the luggage of the paddlers. The advantage is lighter traveling and having the possibility to hang on to the boat when one gets tired. The disadvantages include increased cost and a higher environmental impact during the tour. With sit-on-top kayaks there is no storage space, so hiring a boat to carry equipment is a must for multi-day trips.
The advice regarding hiring a guide during kayak trips is easy and straightforward: always kayak with a guide. The river is flat and one only goes from point A to point B, but there are many circumstances that can make a guide a lifesafer – or at least a tripsaver. What to do when heavy thunderstorms get closer, where to stop for drinks, and how to get past the checkpoints rapidly are all examples of situations where a guide is extremely useful. Furthermore, guides will see much more wildlife, and they know what to do, for example, when one encounters a huge crocodile or how to improve chances for spottting manatees. The Tourism Institute (INTUR) provides certification so always require this when hiring somebody. Furthermore, ask about experience that is specific for your journey.
Army / MARENA Checkpoints
The Río San Juan is located on the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and next to the immense Indio Maíz Natural Reserve. Consequently, there are several checkpoints throughout the river. These checkpoints consist of wooden buildings on the shore of the river, from where both the army and MARENA (the Ministry of Natural Resources) officials guard the region.
Paddlers will have to report themselves at every checkpoint before passing by. Passports often have to be shown, and the registration papers of the kayaks might be asked for as well. These checks are generaly no problem but they can take a lot of time – especially if not all paperwork is in order. Ensure smooth controls by keeping both passports and passport copies at hand, as well as a copy of the list of all passengers including passport numbers, birth date and place, full names and nationalities. This saves time writing down all of the information at every post. Furthermore, the number of contacts of your guide can make another important difference. Another reason to make sure your guide has experience in this area.
Entering Costa Rica
Downstream of El Castillo, this neighboring country is only a few footsteps away. However, strict migratory rules apply and it is not possible to enter Costa Rica from here. There are no migration posts and it is therefore impossible to enter Costa Rica legally. The only migration post in the Río San Juan area is located at Los Chiles, near San Carlos. Work is underway to open more migration offices along the river, so this situation can be expected to improve over time.
Going onshore for a lunch break or drinking a cup of coffee at one of the farms on Costa Rican side will be no problem, but do not venture out further inland. In the settlements of Boca de San Carlos and Sarapiqui there is a police post where tourists should report themselves.
Downstream with the kayak... and now?
When heading downstream the current of the San Juan River is easily observed. Oftentimes, the kayaks will continue to float downstream even if one stops paddling. Heading back upstream, therefore, is virtually impossible. So after reaching a final destination, the question is: what to do with the kayak? This is fortunately not too difficult. There is public transportation throughout the whole river, and the same boats that can take paddlers back upstream can also take the kayaks back to the hotel or operator. Kayaks go on top of the boats, and the price is around two to three times the price for passengers (there is no set price, though, so be sure to ask beforehand and possibly negotiate).
Accompanying the kayaks is generally not necessary. The same guide that accompanies the group in the kayaks can often take care of the homeward journey of the kayaks. This enables visitors to stay additional days at the destination of choice, without having to pay extra rental days for the unused kayaks. Making clear arrangements beforehand with the hotel or operator that rents the kayaks is important, though.
Tips and hints
- Leave as early as possible. Especially for longer journeys, take advantage of the early-morning hours with little sun. Leaving at 5 AM allows paddlers to commence the day with up to two hours in a foggy environment where the calm, mystic river provides an even better kayak environment. Birds and other animals are also more often seen early in the morning.
- Think about the environmental impact. Kayaks do not use gasoline but paddlers easily leave many pounds of garbage behind throughout their visit. With the limited infrasture in the zone, this means garbage is often burned. Avoid this negative environmental impact by refilling drinking bottles, bringing fruits and other food with little wrapping paper, and by simply not bringing too much. Often you can get food and drinks from farmers that live along the rivershore, either on Nicaraguan or Costa Rican side.
- The San Juan River is a rather unexplored area. Especially downstream of El Castillo, there is very little tourism infrastructure. This is not a place for people looking for comfort and luxury, but even the more so for people looking for adventure and the unexplored.
- Communication is limited. Again, downstream of El Castillo there is no Nicaraguan cell phone signal until San Juan del Norte. At the small villages on the Costa Rican side there might be signal from Costa Rica, but keep in mind that you will be without communications for a few days.
- Not everything can be planned with precision. Boats might not run as frequently in the dry season, the few hotels in some of the small villages might all be full (or simply closed for the week), or you might encounter such a beautiful place that you want to stay for a little longer. So make sure you have some flexibility in your schedule and take things easier that you would back at home.
- Everything might get wet. Even though you pack your luggage very tight and are a very experienced kayakker. Hours and hours of heavy downpours have an amazing capacity to even penetrate seemingly water-proof bags. Use plastic containers to seal off the most important valuables, and simply bring as few delicate items as possible.
When to go
It is year-round possible to kayak down the San Juan River. However, certain conditions prevail in particular periods. An overview follows below:
Rainy Season (May-December)
The water level is higher. This allows for easier kayaking and less risk of getting stuck on sand banks. The further down the rainy season, the higher the water level. Rain during the day will also mean that better protection against the water is needed, and it might be more difficult to see birds and other animals, let alone take pictures, when it is raining. The clouds and rain do provide the best protection against the sun. There will be more insects in the rainy season than in the dry season. From San Juan del Norte, there will be a fast boat connection that heads to San Carlos twice a week in only 5 hours. This boat only runs when water levels permit so.
Dry Season (January-April)
Lower water levels do not provide as much downstream current. More sandbanks will form, especially near the end of the river. These sanbanks, however, do provide great places to see the large crocodiles sunbathing. Taking pictures is easier and besides some water dripping into the kayak from the paddle, the luggage will not easily get wet. Bring long-sleeve clothing, hats, and enough sun lotion.
During the dry season, camping in a tent on the sandbanks is also an option for the adventurous.
During these months the nuts of the almond trees are ripe and this makes observing Macaws easier and more likely. For birdwatchers, these are great months!