Fully fed after a great breakfast we were brought from our hotel to the wharf of the Sábalos town, less than ten minutes from the hotel. Here we would take the boat to San Juan del Norte. This boat leaves early in the morning from San Carlos, and it arrives in the evening at San Juan del Norte. Although we would get on the boat a little down the road, it meant a full day of travel. We had mixed feelings about this trip. Between El Castillo and San Juan del Norte there are no other towns or villages along the river, only forest, which was an attractive aspect of this trip, but being in a boat for ten or more hours does sound like a long sit.
It was not possible to make any reservations; we just had to wait for the boat to pass by and hope that it would not be full. Despite hoping really hard that there would be empty seats, the boat arrived fully packed and there was no space to sit down. Nevertheless we could still get in, which was at that moment the highest priority, but we would have to stand up. Consequently we passed one uncomfortable hour until we reached El Castillo. Here, the boat docked and everybody was given some time to buy snacks, water, and other supplies for the trip.
The strongest rapids of the San Juan River are located right after the wharf of El Castillo, which caused a complication for our boat. Being so fully packed, the boat would be too heavy to safely maneuver past the forceful current. A group of people, including us, was therefore moved to another boat that would bring us past the rapids. This was obviously a welcome solution for us, because now we could sit down at least.
Passing the rapids was quite exciting, as you can really feel the force of the water below. The smaller boat was also not roofed, which meant that we had a full view of everything happening around us. After conquering these rapids our smaller boat continued traveling down the river, which was fine with us because this was much more comfortable. Soon after El Castillo we docked at a small control station of MARENA (the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources), where we had to hand over a list of passenger names before we were allowed to travel further. We feared this would be the moment where we would be transferred to the other boat, but this was not the case. From this point, we traveled next to one of the most fascinating attractions in this region: the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. Measuring 3,180 km² and housing a spectacular variety of plant and animal life, this is one of the most interesting reserves in the country. And all the way down to the coast we would be traveling with the reserve on our left hand. The San Juan River also forms the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica at this point, and we therefore had Nicaragua on our left and Costa Rica to the right.
The views of the reserve and the forest were spectacular, and we truly enjoyed this part of our trip. When it started raining we found out why most people preferred the other, roofed boat, but the rain did not pour down heavily so it was not too dramatic. Meanwhile we passed the clouded, forested hills that formed a magnificent sight.
After perhaps one hour from El Castillo, we seemed to have past all of the major rapids, and we were transferred back to our original boat. Fortunately, several people had gotten out before this point, and we were now able to sit down, which made it much more comfortable.
What followed next were hours and hours of traveling past forest on our left and mostly cleared land on our right. It was a stark difference between the untouched forest on the Nicaraguan side and the farmland on the Costa Rican side. We stopped at several MARENA stations, and when we passed the DELTA station we noticed on the map that we were unexpectedly close to San Juan del Norte. It was around 2PM, and it appeared to be only two hours of traveling before we would reach our destination. Shortly after this station, however, the river got smaller and shallower, and this slowed us down significantly. Not only did we travel at a lower speed, but the boatman had to cautiously maneuver from one side to the other side of the river in order to avoid the very shallow parts. We could sometimes hear the boat hit the sandy bottom, and it was apparent that we risked getting stuck here in this river. And that is exactly what happened not much later. We hit a sand patch below the water surface, and we could not get off easily. The frequent travelers already knew what this meant: pushing. About 8 men, including me, got out of the boat to push it to deeper water. It fortunately took only a few minutes before we were back on the road again.
Not much later after this small incident we witnessed an impressive act of the Nicaraguan Postal Office (Correos de Nicaragua). When the boat passed a small, rural house next to the river, the boatman alarmed the people on the land, who then grabbed their wooden canoe while an empty bottle with a plastic-wrapped envelope was thrown into the river. Although we have no idea how long it took for this letter to be delivered, at least it got to the recipient in this remote corner of the country.
After a couple more hours of slow travel during which we did see several crocodiles sunbathing on the shores of the river, we finally reached the estuary of the San Juan River, and we saw the place where the water from Lake Nicaragua flows into the Caribbean Sea after traveling 180 kilometers eastward. There was a thin strip of sand and a small opening where the sea’s waves hit the water from the river. Nice to see and it was also a relief to know that we were now really close to our destination. It was around 6PM when we saw the first lights appear next to the river. We were entering San Juan del Norte! We had reservations at Hotelito Evo, and the hotel owner don Enrique was already awaiting us at the small wharf.
We were escorted to the hotel – only a 5-minute walk from the wharf – where we were officially welcomed by Enrique who presented us his small but friendly hotel. In addition to the two of us, there were six other new guests at the hotel, which pretty much filled all rooms. The other guests included four Nicaraguans who were in San Juan del Norte for their work, and surprisingly two other Dutch people (I’m Dutch too, hence the surprise) who came to find out what this area would look like.
During our dinner in a small eatery the consequences of the town’s remoteness were evident: food prices were 50-100% higher than in Managua. The owner of the eatery told us that the majority of all products come from Costa Rica. In Costa Rica the price level is higher than the Nicaraguan price level, and there are also high transportation costs, resulting in these significant differences between this town and Managua or other cities at the Pacific side of Nicaragua. The prices were still rather accessible, and we paid around $5 per person for our dinner.