Seven Days down the Río San Juan in Southern Nicaragua

The canopy of a rain tree extends out over the waters of Lake Cocibolca.

The Solentiname Islands in southern Lake Cocibolca. Photo © Dick Culbert, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

The watery “Golden Route” through southern Lake Cocibolca and down the Río San Juan is tougher to access than it was when boat service was more frequent, so you’ll need a minimum of 7–10 days to get there, get around, and get back. Once you reach San Carlos (by boat, bus, or small plane), public boat transportation is regular and cheap, but limited to a handful of boats per week. As a result, unless you drop a lot of cash to hire your own personal boat and driver, you may find yourself stranded on one of 36 Solentiname islands for three days, with nothing to do but go fishing or bird- and crocodile-watching in a dugout canoe. The Río San Juan is unquestionably worth a visit, especially the photogenic fort and river town at El Castillo.

Day 1

Fly from Managua to San Carlos in the early morning. If you really want the full-blown adventure, take the slow boat from Granada on Monday: You’ll arrive Tuesday morning. Poke around San Carlos until the afternoon, when the boat leaves for Solentiname.

Days 2–3

Enjoy the island artist colony of Solentiname, set in a unique area of profound natural splendor. You can hire boats to take you among the islands, enjoy scarlet sunsets, and absorb the intense tranquility of the archipelago. Return to San Carlos Thursday morning to catch the boat to Los Guatuzos. If you’d rather go directly and bypass San Carlos, strike a deal with a local Solentiname boat owner.

Map of Solentiname and the Río San Juan, Nicaragua

Solentiname and the Río San Juan

Days 4–6

Hike and explore the fascinating tropical landscape of the Los Guatuzos Wildlife Reserve. A two-day stay will give you a taste for the reserve, but real outdoors enthusiasts will probably prefer to stay until the next boat (Tuesday, unless you make other arrangements). Arrival in San Carlos on Saturday means you are just in time to catch a boat downstream. Cast away and start your adventure down the mighty Río San Juan, bound for El Castillo.

Day 7

Start your day off in El Castillo early, so you can hear the sky fill with birds. Visit the old Spanish fort or rent a horse for a bush trip. Most travelers return to San Carlos for a flight to Managua at this point, but if the downstream horizon is beckoning, then keep on floating.

Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.

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  1. Hi Amber, loved the post above. Looking at options of traveling through Rio San Juan, if possible please email me at, would love to ask you a couple questions regarding this journey. Regards,

  2. Kris says:

    Hi Amber. I am a mom with 2 sons ages 19 and 14 who will be visiting Nica and have an extra week at the end which we were hoping to see some of the Rio San Juan area. I would love to get some more information about how we might be able to do this.
    Thank you, Kris