During this trip one of our goals was to reach the historical area of San Juan del Norte (also sometimes referred to as San Juan de Nicaragua), all the way down at the Caribbean coast. However, the boat leaves only twice a week to this destination, so that influenced our schedule. After calculating travel times and drawing up different scenarios, we decided to go to San Juan del Norte after Solentiname, but not without visiting Sábalos along the way.
Sábalos is a small town located between San Carlos and El Castillo. The town is named after the tarpon fish (Sábalo in Spanish), the large fish that we had seen before in El Castillo. There are many nature and river activities that can be undertaken from this place, but we knew we were not going to have enough time for these attractions. Nevertheless we wanted to stay at Sábalos for one night to get an impression of the place before we would take the boat early in the morning to San Juan del Norte.
But first we had to get there. We would take the boat from Mancarrón at 5AM, arriving at San Carlos at 7.30AM. We left when it was still dark, and the boat went from wharf to wharf, picking up people from different islands, before making its way to the mainland.
When we arrived in San Carlos we hoped to be able to right away take the 8AM boat to Sábalos, but this one was already full and we could only make reservations for the 11AM boat. This meant that we had again some time in San Carlos. We had breakfast and after that we walked through the city that became more and more familiar to us, although I still had no clue how to get from one place to another, because all the streets seemed to lead to the central park but I could not figure out the way this city was set up. We could also again check our e-mail and make phone calls, because San Carlos is one of the few places in the region with more or less good communication channels.
The boat ride was once again spectacular, and the abundance of birds and fascinating nature never seemed to bore. It took about two hours to reach Sábalos. This little town (around 1,000 inhabitants) is a regular stop for the boat to El Castillo, but we had reservations for a hotel called Sábalos Lodge, located a little east of the town, further down the river. The river-boats have no problem with picking up or dropping off people at any place along the route, so they dropped us off right at the wharf of the hotel.
We were greeted by the personnel with a fresh juice, and we were immediately impressed by the setting. The hotel is situated along the border of the river and surrounded by nature. It features comfortable, wooden cabins that overlook the impressive river, and you get the sense that the lodge is built well in harmony with nature.
There was not much time to enjoy the hotel’s amenities, because we had to take advantage of the couple hours of sun that were left to see something of the area. We decided to walk the trails that led through a small natural reserve behind the hotel. The forest here was definitely different from the type of forest found at the Pacific side of Nicaragua. Both the vegetation and the animals were different. The trees were very high and the forest was quite dense. It was in the top of one of the trees that Róger saw a group of howler monkeys. This is one of the three monkey species that can be found in Nicaragua, and it is also the most common monkey at the Pacific side. We observed them for a while and we tried to take some pictures, although this was hard because they were high up in the trees.
When we moved on we ended up at the river, and it was quite a spectacular sight. We saw the small island in the middle of the river, in front of the lodge, and the many herons and cormorants in the water. It was a great place for pictures. At one point, Róger was taping a video when he heard something in the water. He promptly moved his camera and was able to shoot the tail of a tarpon. We then realized that we might be able to use the underwater case for the camera that we brought. Not much later we were in the water, trying to snap a picture when a tarpon passed by. However, the visibility was very limited, probably due to the strong current, and a tarpon would have to basically crash into the camera before we could take a picture. After evaluating our chances, we decided to put the camera aside and just swim a little in the river.
The water temperature was great for swimming and the river offered a great challenge because of the strong current. It was hardly possible to swim upstream, and after fighting the water flow for ten minutes to reach a certain point upstream it took only a minute to float back. One of the activities offered by the hotel is floating down the river in a large tire, which must be a great deal of fun. Nevertheless we had no time for that, so we just enjoyed the river for a while before having dinner in the same hotel.
After our dinner the darkness had already set in and we wanted to participate in a nightly activity: alligator spotting. The San Juan River provides a great habitat for these large reptiles, and they are most active during nighttime. Normally the alligators are sought for with a boat, but we did not make any reservations for this activity and it was therefore not possible to do this by boat that same night. However, we went looking for them close to the hotel, and without much effort we were able to spot several alligators. By doing a boat tour, it’s easy to see much more of them, but we were rather pleased with the couple alligators that we saw in a time span of only twenty minutes.