Rio San Juan Jan 13-17, 2013

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Day 1: San Carlos – Jan 13/13

We arrived in San Carlos at about 2:30pm.  We saw a big yellow sign for a Hotel that said Backpackers – Ecofriendly – Free WIFI so we decided to check it out.  A private room with a bathroom was 250 cords for the night. However the water often doesn’t work in the bathroom so she showed us where the main bathrooms were.  Also the WIFI didn’t work in our room so we had to go out to the main area where there was one hammock and no seats.  Sorry if I’m not romancing this place very well, it was very basic and we got what we paid for.

We went out for dinner at a nearby pizzaria we saw on the way.  155 cords for a pizza so we assumed the pizzas can’t be that big and ordered 2.  Well the pizzas were not only a good size but they were also delicious.  Kristi thinks it’s the best pizza she’s ever had.  I won’t go that far but we were very pleased with our meal and we had leftovers for breakfast.

We tried to find where we buy boat tickets to El Castillo but it was Sunday and everything was closed early.  We walked back to our hotel, relaxed and called it a night around 9pm.  We had a fan over our bed which was quite powerful and we had to turn it on because our bed didn’t have a misquito net there were about a hundred of those buzzing assholes in our room. I wore my long sleeve shirt to bed.  Neither of us slept well.

Day 2: El Castillo Jan 14/13

We woke up early to get to the boat terminal to buy tickets for the 10am boat to El Castillo.  We were told there was only 1 express boat that morning so we were prepared to take the 3 hour slow boat and relax and enjoy the surrounding jungle on the way over.  Turns out we got ourselves a fast boat.  90 minutes later we were in El Castillo so we started looking for a place to stay.  We saw a big flyer for The Grand River Lodge with all kinds of cool stuff for $20/night.  What we didn’t do was read that it is half way between San Carlos and El Castillo.

We walked to what seemed to be the end of the strip unhappy with our options until we came across a place we had written down and beside that, Hotel Victoria.  We decide to go into Hotel Victoria first for no apparent reason.  We are greated by a very friendly upbeat lady (we’ll call her Victoria) who shows us a room with a beautiful view.  Kristi asks, “How much?” and the lady responds “$40.”  This is over our budget so we say, “No thank you, it’s too expensive but it’s a beautiful room.”

Next thing we know, Victoria is haggling the price with us.  $35 to $30 to $25. We told her no each time without countering but politely explaining that our budget was $20 per night.  We go downstairs and she tells us to wait one minute.  Comes back and takes us back upstairs to show us another very nice room for $20. The only difference was the first room had views of the river and the fortress but this room could only see the river.  We took it.  She was so friendly and enthusiastic, it was hard to say no.

Funny thing is, Victoria only needed to mention one feature to sell us and she left it out.  They have hot water showers.  This is amazing.  It’s been a month and a half since my last hot shower.  This morning the water wasn’t even working in our other hotel and I guess I tried to shower too late since the bucket was empty.

We grabbed lunch and decided to head up to the fortress that El Castillo is known for.  It was built in the 1700s by the Spainards after they invaded it successfully.  They decided to build a fortress to protect them from future invasions from both the native Nicaraguans and the British.  The place they built it was perfect as the rapids pick up in front of it so it would slow ships down and make them an easy target for cannons.

We had to pay $2 each and a 50 cent camera fee to go in but they told us it’s good for the next day too if we wish.  There’s a museum there packed with old weapons and other stuff with information and history of the fortress.  My favorite part: It was all translated into English.

The fortress itself is amazing.  It’s so cool climbing it and looking over the river and being able to imagine the guard posts and how things happened when there was an attack.  If you enjoy history or architecture then you would love this place.

We checked out tours and prices.  Unfortunately the tour prices are all the same for the group whether it’s 1 or 6 people.  That price is $75 which is a lot of money for the two of us and there appears to be very few tourists here.

We went back to the hotel and hung out in the bar drinking beer and playing crib.  Around 5:15pm the friendly employee came in and said she had two people doing the Caiman tour tonight and there was room for 2 more it would be $10 each.  Kristi translated for me and I said “Yes”.  I guess my tone was so matter-of-fact that everyone started laughing. Like duhh, why wouldn’t I want to see caiman at night for $10? We ate an early dinner of shrimp fried rice, tostones, salad, and mashed potatoes.  And yes, it was as good as it sounds.

On boat at 6:45pm there are 4 of us plus the 2 guides. As we were boarding, the Spainard in our group asked the guide, “Are the caimans ready? You told them we’re coming right?”  Basically the tour is you go around at night and the guide, armed with a “headlamp” (he had a flashlight tied around his homemade shoelace headband)  go around and find caiman.  This tour was awesome.  As we approached the first caiman we found, you could hear a mouse fart our boat was so quiet in anticipation. Then in a split second, our guide reached into the water, grabbed it around the neck and pulled it up into the boat.  We took photos, put him back in the water and went on our way.  After that it was just about spotting the caiman and the guide told us a bit about them.  Next thing we knew he was catching lizards out the bush and we stopped at a tree that had hundreds of Herring sleeping.  Overall the tour was awesome.  It lasted just over an hour but it can last much longer (2-3 hours) if you don’t spot anything right away. This tour was 100% worth it.

We relaxed, played some cards, showered again.  I may shower 5 times a day here.  Then went to sleep.

Day 3: El Castillo Jan 15/13

We had ordered breakfast for 8am as it was included with our room.  Eggs, toast, fruit, fresh cheese, gallo pinto and coffee.  After we ate we were hanging out and Victoria approached us asking if we’d like to do another tour.  There were 2 older ladies that were doing a leisurely tour which is normally $75 and they got it for $45.  With us splitting that cost, our day was made easy! We leave at 9:30am.

The tour starts out with us spotting a baby crocodile about 6 months old sunbathing on a log.  This is a pretty solid start. We see caymen, turtles and lots of birds.  The ride is smooth, we stop at one part where we are literally on the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican boarder.  The river is still Nicaragua’s though because that’s where it origiantes. We arrive at a ranger station to enter the Indio Miaz.  We quickly sign in and are back on our way.  We head down a shallow creek with crystal clear water seeing many fish swim by.  I kept thinking the boat was going to bottom out but I guess my depth perception isn’t as good as the guy who does this for a living.

We arrive at a spot where we all get out to swim.  Apparently there are no caimen, crocodiles or pirhannas so it’s safe and fun.  The water is cold and barely waist deep but it’s refreshing in the hot sun.  After 30-45 minutes we head back towards the Ranger station.  Kristi swears she hears monkeys and is on a mission to spot them.  Sure enough she yells out gleefully, “Mono Congo(Howler Monkey)!”  We stop, take some pictures and watch the howler monkeys play in the trees right in front of us.

The rest of the ride back was pretty uneventful though the view of the fortress as we come up to El Castillo is pretty amazing.  When we arrived back, we immediately went for lunch next door knowing that we will want our appetites tonight for the jumbo river prawns.

After lunch we walked up around 100 stairs to the Butterfly Sancuary at the top… It was closed.  We’ve noticed a lot of places close from 12pm-2pm here in Nicaragua.  I think when I get home, I’m going to exercise this 2 hour lunch when I’m at work.  I hope it goes over well.

We went down to the restaurant for a couple hours and played cards and had a couple beer.  Kristi kicked my ass all afternoon at phase 10, crib and 8 card omaha.  We went upstairs to shower and change as tonight was the night we wanted to have a nice dinner.  Kristi put on the cute dress she bought in Leon and I wore my finest of tshirts.  We ordered the Jumbo River Prawns.

The server came out, bringing us a plate each full of rice, vegetables, salad and tostones.  Then came out with another plate of the same size with 6 jumbo prawns.  They were almost like mini lobsters with long and thick enough legs that you could get meat out of them.  Cooked up in garlic butter, this is by far the best meal we have had on the trip.  This, alongside with an ounce of Plata each and a bottle of Coke to mix was 680 cords which works out to be around $28.5USD.

I really wish we could eat like this at home for the same price.

We went for a walk after dinner in hopes to find a dessert place before realizing that we didn’t bring any money because we have a tab running at Hotel Victoria.

The one complaint that I have about El Castillo is that when the sun goes down, there is nothing to do here.  There is a bar with 2 pool tables that seemed to be full of locals playing pool and it didn’t look promising about getting on the table for any extended amount of time. We did the caymen tour last night and were not really in the mood to drink.  The internet was down across town (for the past couple days) and the tvs weren’t working in our hotel so our options were very limited.  We hung out in our room for the rest of the night.

Day 4: Back to San Carlos Jan 16/13

In the morning we packed our bags, had breakfast, reserved our spot on the boat and paid our bill.  It was kind of sad saying goodbye to the phenomial ladies that looked after us, helping arrange tours and making sure we enjoyed our time at Hotel Victoria.  I recommend the place based purely on the hospitality we received, nevermind the clean rooms, hot showers and view of the river from the restaurant.

We spent the morning debating on going to Boca de Sabalos which is 30 minutes up river from El Castillo but we decided against it as they offer the same tours + one that involves hot spings and camping in a research station. Though it sounds pretty cool,  we decided we could pass on this and head back to San Carlos.

Back in San Carlos, we walk up to Parque Central looking for a place to eat lunch.  We find a place just off the water and have a great meal.  Now it’s time to find somewhere to stay.  The first place we checked was $35/night which is over our budget.  The second place we went to was 80 cords for the night… this was way below our budget and they didn’t have internet or private bathrooms.  Third and fouth places we went to were 300-400 cords each but weren’t very nice when we compare them to the 250 cord room we had a few nights earlier.  We decided to seek out a place we saw in the Lonely Planet book that’s supposed to be on the water, nicer but a bit more expensive.  When we asked someone where it was, she told us she has a place and it’s nicer and a better price but gave us directions for the place we were looking for.  We inquired about her place and decided to check it out.   For 320 cords we have a room with 2 single beds, one double bed, and a big private bathroom.  They didn’t have a smaller room so we took it.

After we settled in, we walked back to Parque Central (2 blocks from where we are staying) and saw what may be the nicest playground in Nicaragua (Kristi thinks maybe in Central America).  Just up the hill from Parque Central is a Fortress.  Having just been at the Fortress in El Castillo, I was excited to see this one.   We got up to it and excitement faded.  It wasn’t really a fortress at all, just a few gazebos around the area and nothing really interesting.  We walked the city core in about 30minutes and headed back to the hotel where we relaxed until dinner.

We had a late dinner and a couple of beers, followed by a 25 minute walk before going back to the hotel, watching a movie and going to sleep.

Day 5: Traveling out of Rio San Juan Jan 17/13

We spent a lot of time trying to figure out where to go next.  There are a couple islands north of us on the lake, there’s a little fishing town a couple hours up the road or there is San Juan Del Sur where there are a lot more tourists and things to do.  As we’re packing our bags, we still don’t know where we are going.  We’ve pretty much ruled out the islands as there is not much to do there and by the sounds of it, the boat schedule to get there is wonky and we don’t want to get stuck there due to lack of boats.  San Miguelito may be cool but it will be another small town with not many tourists which is fine, but when there are no tourists, it usually means that there is not much to do.   We’ve had a lot of that lately so we agreed it was time to hit the party spot, San Juan del Sur.

We figured by boat it’s a 10 hour ride to Ometepe where we would spend the night and arrive some time the following day.  But the ferry leaves on Tuesdays and Fridays.   So we decide to bus to Managua.  Then from Managua to San Juan del Sur.  At 10am we bought tickets for the next bus out which was noon.  The last bus to SJDS was at 6:45pm so if everything goes according to schedule, we are in Managua by 6pm with time to grab a bite to eat then in San Juan del Sur by 11pm as the bus ride is roughly 4 hours.  This would have been great.  Unfortunately the Travel Gods were taunting us.  They gave us a big comfy bus to Managua with lots of leg room and reclining seats.  But the bus didn’t arrive until 7pm causing us to miss the last bus to San Juan del Sur.  So we decided Granada was the next best stop as we could catch a bus out in the morning.  Unfortunately we had to take a 189 cord taxi across Managua to get to the bus terminal that has busses to Granada.  This bus was an express and only supposed to take an hour.

Worst. Express bus. Ever.

We stopped every 30 seconds in Managua to pick someone up or drop them off.  It took over 90 minutes to get to Parque Central.   We quickly decided to go back to Oasis Hostel.  Then last minute, we stayed next door to Oasis because it was $2 cheaper and includes breakfast. The wifi even works in our room! We quickly dropped our stuff off and raced to grab some food before everything closed.

The highlight of our dinner was watching a guy probably a couple years younger than me huff glue right in front of everyone at the restaurant then go off in his own little world.  It took 2 employees to get him away from everyone.  It’s rather sad seeing this as the guy probably started as a naive child and never learned better.

We plan to get to San Juan del Sur tomorrow and potentially stay there for a few days.  Kristi wants to go diving, I want to go ziplining and we might go sailing as well.  Until then, I need some beauty sleep.  I’m also not proofreading this so if something doesn’t make sense, figure it out or ask me.

Last second edit: We suspect we could have gotten to the end of the Rio San Juan for much cheaper than we were told.  However, it really depends on the frequency of the boats and how long you’re willing to wait to get out of there.  We found a schedule that said there was a ferry running from Bluefields to San Juan del Norte and vice versa but in Bluefields we were told it doesn’t run anymore which is why we didn’t do that in the first place.  Boats can get expensive and if there’s no one else to split the cost with you, you could get stuck fronting the whole $150 per boat. Same goes for tours. Our Caimen tour was $40 whether it was just Kristi and I or the full boat of 4 people.  I recommend a group of 4-6 to do Rio San Juan in order to keep costs on boats and tours low.

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