In our original plan we turned out to have forgotten an important aspect of traveling in the Río San Juan area: the boat schedules. We simply thought that there would be daily connections with the different destinations, but this was not the case. Boats to the Solentiname Archipelago and to San Juan del Norte only run twice a week, and we were consequently forced to adjust our schedule. We had one more day before the boat to Solentiname would leave, and we decided to visit one of the most historical sites in the area: the El Castillo fortress.
From a practical point of view this was not the best choice, because Solentiname is located in the exact opposite direction of El Castillo. However, the limited boat schedule forced us to wait one day and having seen most of San Carlos we felt it was better not to lose our time and travel down the river to El Castillo.
We bought tickets for the 8 AM boat, and at exactly 8.01 AM we left San Carlos, which is a remarkable promptness in this region of the world. The journey between San Carlos and El Castillo is one of the most spectacular boat rides in Nicaragua. Not only is the San Juan River stunning by itself, but the birds that can be seen along the way are also impressive. Hundreds and hundreds – if not thousands – of birds can be seen along the green shores of the river. Beautiful egrets and slender cormorants are among the most abundant birds, but there are also many other species that include king fishers, falcon-like birds (I am not a biologist, so this is as exact as I can get), stilts, jacanas, as well as many others that I am not even going to try to identify.
During the three-hour boat ride we stopped several times to pick up people from small settlements that often have no other access than by boat. After about an hour a small boat came towards ours and we slowed down to cruise alongside this other boat. There were only two people in the other boat: one man who was navigating it and a lady who was the river-version of the ladies that enter buses to sell candies and drinks. She had a cooler with sodas and a box with food, and within five minutes she quickly sold her products to the hungry and thirsty people in our boat, and after this drive-by sale the two boats parted their paths and we continued our journey.
We planned to stay at a hotel called El Richardson, and we saw signs right at the port so locating the hotel was no problem. It took no long to find out that El Castillo has much more to offer than can be done in one day. In addition to visiting the famous fortress, other activities like horseback riding, jungle boat trips and sport fishing tours can all be undertaken from El Castillo.
Because of our tight schedule we decided to stay in the town of El Castillo itself and visit first of all its main attraction: the fortress. The El Castillo fortress was built in 1675 and it was one of the most important defense posts of the Spaniards. The San Juan River gave access to Lake Nicaragua, and therefore to the treasures of Granada and León, and it was of utmost importance for the Spaniards that as few people as possible would sail up this river. Several famous battles have taken place at El Castillo, and it is one of Nicaragua’s most important historical sites.
We highly enjoyed the visit to the fortress. It was built on a hilltop right next to one of the strongest rapids of the San Juan River, overlooking the meandering river and the surrounding area. The view has not changed – except for the vegetation perhaps – and it is not hard to imagine how the Spaniards fired their cannons at the pirates in the river down below. Inside the fortress there is a small museum where we learned more about the history of El Castillo. We were furthermore surprised to find something else inside the fortress: one of Nicaragua’s finest libraries. A small room in the top of the building houses an impressive collection of mostly Spanish but also some English literature. The library is open to the public and it has been set up with the goal to support students in the area who would otherwise have no access to these types of books. A large part of the collection consists of scientific books that were donated by different institutions, concerning nature, history, and geography. Foreigners can also visit this library for free. We have been reading some of the books with great interest, and we can definitely recommend looking around in this impressive library when visiting the fortress.
In addition to the fortress, the river itself is also a great attraction. Although we had no time to explore much of it, we were able to perfectly enjoy the stunning view from the second floor of Restaurant Daryzu. It was Róger who first observed something that he could not identify in the river. It seemed to be an animal that briefly surfaced and then disappeared into the water. We stared to the river for a while and after seeing several of them in the corner of our eyes, we saw one of them spectacularly surface right in front of us. It was a huge, silvery fish swimming upstream against the strong current. The owner of the restaurant told us this is tarpon, or sábalo in Spanish, and it is a very common fish in the region of El Castillo. An area south of the town is even called after this protected species.
We also visited the butterfly garden in El Castillo. Although the butterflies are not abundant during the dry season, we did see some nice ones in the enclosed area. An explanation is also given about the different life stages of the butterflies and about the different butterflies living in this area. In addition, butterfly-related souvenirs can be bought here.