The Indio Maíz Biological Reserve is considered one of the best preserved natural reserves in Nicaragua. The area is located in the southeast corner of the country, bordering the San Juan River. The reserve encompasses 3,180 km², and it is home to a wide variety of rainforest animals.
Among the animals that live in the forest are hundreds of different bird species, including toucans, hummingbirds, macaws, parrots, and many other spectacular, colorful species. The reserve is also inhabited by beautiful mammals like deer, sloths, wild boars, pumas, jaguars, pacas, foxes, and even one spectacular aquatic mammal: manatees. All of the three monkey species that live in Nicaragua can be found in the Indio Maíz Reserve (Howler, White-Face, and Spider Monkey). Other animal species that can be found in this area include poison dart frogs, snakes, crocodiles, turtles, and iguanas.
The major part of this area does not allow hiking or other methods of exploring, as the Ministry of Natural Resources (MARENA) does not allow people to enter the reserve at most places. There are, however, two areas where this truly fascinating area can be entered to enjoy the natural treasures that lie hidden away in the remove corner of Nicaragua.
Option 1: entering at Bartola
Bartola is a river that forms the western border of the Indio Maíz Reserve. This river is located only 6 kilometers from the historical town of El Castillo, and visiting the reserve during a daytrip from this town is therefore a great option. The Bartola River is connected to the San Juan River, making it easy to reach this area by boat.
A guide is necessary to enter the reserve. Generally visitors hire a guide and arrange transportation in El Castillo, but it is also possible to hire one of the guards of MARENA who have a small station at the entrance of the reserve. Within the reserve there are two trails that can be hiked to explore the area, varying in length (2 km and 3.5 km) and time (2-2.5 hours and 3-3.5 hours). Wildlife is spectacular and many tropical animals can be easily seen. Another option is to stay in the boat and go up the Bartola River. The Indio Maíz Reserve is situated right next to this river, and from the boat it is also possible to spot beautiful animals and enjoy the impressive forest. Especially birds can be easily seen when traveling up the river by boat, and it is not uncommon to see dozens of different species during one trip.
The reserve can be entered at Bartola between 6AM and 2PM (it is possible to stay until later, but no more people are allowed to enter after this hour). Being a tropical rainforest, items like insect repellent, strong boots, and raincoats can all come in handy. Trips to the reserve can be arranged with guides from El Castillo or at the hotels in this same town or in Sábalos.
Option 2: entering via San Juan del Norte
The remote town of San Juan del Norte, located all the way down at the Caribbean Coast, offers another possibility to enter the forest. This town gives access to the Indio River, which leads directly into the reserve. Recently, MARENA has started to allow tourists to enter the reserve using this river, which offers a possibility to visit this unexplored, remote side of the reserve.
The visit starts by traveling up the Indio River, which is a spectacular boat-ride by itself. The width of the river slowly decreases and nature becomes more and more dominant along the road. The vegetation next to the river becomes more and more spectacular, and beautiful animals can be seen from the boat, including many birds, turtles, and even crocodiles. Within the reserve, there are two options: either going directly to the hiking trail and returning to San Juan del Norte the same day, or staying overnight in the reserve to have more time for hiking.
In any way, there is only one group of people that can show visitors around: the Rama Indians. These Indians have been living in the forest for hundreds of years, and they know it by heart. The Rama Indians can guide visitors to the trails, and they can also provide a place to stay for an overnight visit. Small settlements of wooden huts are situated along the shores of the Indio River. The Rama Indians used to live here, but new governmental laws are prohibiting them from continuing their centuries-old way of living. Most of these settlements are therefore deserted, but it is nevertheless possible to stay in one of the huts with the Indians. The luxury level is minimal and there are no amenities, but it is one of the most intimate ways of exploring the forest and a truly unique experience. It also allows for a lengthier visit which means more spectacular animals can be seen.
Either way – when undertaking a day-trip or an overnight stay – the flora and fauna that can be seen at this side of the reserve is spectacular and less explored than the forest at Bartola. One of the most interesting hikes at the Indio River leads to very odd rock formations that appear to have been carved by men, although a limited study found that they are from natural origin. Another interesting place is the Manatee Lagoon, which can also be visited along the way. It requires some time and effort to travel the small creeks that connect the Indio River and this special lagoon, but it is one of the few places where manatees can be seen. With some luck and patience, it is possible to see these magnificent animals come to the surface of the lagoon.
Trips to the Indio Maíz Reserve can be arranged in the town of San Juan del Norte. Some Rama Indians are also living in this village, which makes it possible to hire the guide here as well. The hotels can assist in arranging such a trip. Strong boots and raincoats are again useful, but interestingly there are no mosquitoes in this area which makes it not necessary to bring repellent.
All in all, the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve is a great place for visitors interested in visiting tropical rainforest and observing all it grandeur. Visits to the reserve – be it at Bartola or at San Juan del Norte – take some effort and time, but this is rewarded by the spectacular nature that can not be found at many other places.
It is necessary to hire boats to get to the entrance sites of the Indio Maíz Natural Reserve. You can hire either tour operators or local guides who have their own boats. You can contact the guides by asking in the hotel you are staying at (San Carlos, El Castillo, San Juan del Norte or another point in the river). Tourists can just also ask the boat drivers that are located in San Carlos' dock if they know about someone that can take them there.