The Río San Juan carries the waters of Lake Cocibolca to the Caribbean through a lush landscape of extensive nature reserves and broad cattle ranches. The biggest town in the area, San Carlos, has transformed from edgy port town to quaint destination. You’ll inevitably pass through it on the way to various adventures. Offshore, the Solentiname Archipelago is a quiet group of islets of striking natural beauty, as pertinent to the revolution years as to Nicaragua’s prehistoric past, and the source of some of the country’s best-known paintings.This region isn’t part of the casual traveler’s itinerary, but if you can invest a little more time than usual, the dramatic landscapes and remoteness will impress you.Take a boat down the river towards the Atlantic, a windy, sun-baked ride back through time. El Castillo, one of Spain’s most permanent colonial legacies, remains little changed from the 17th century and the days of marauding pirates. From there, downstream fishing village follows pasture follows rapids, until you reach San Juan de Nicaragua, remote and untamed.
Parallel to the Costa Rican border, the river has been contested by politicians between the two countries for centuries. In spite of relentless “El Río San Juan is ours!” chest thumping in Managua, as in most border zones, the communities along the river live symbiotically with their neighbors. Families in this zone are a mesh of Nicas and Ticos; many give birth in Costa Rica to provide their babies with dual citizenship (and better work opportunities). Many towns use the Costa Rican colón instead of, or in addition to, the córdoba.
This region isn’t part of the casual traveler’s itinerary, but if you can invest a little more time than usual, the dramatic landscapes and remoteness will impress you. The tourism potential here is enormous.
Planning Your Time
Allow at least a full week for exploration of this region. Make your plane reservation from Managua to San Carlos early; seats fill up fast. Outside of San Carlos, expect about 25 percent higher costs for most goods in this isolated region (35 percent more on Solentiname). Use your time in San Carlos to find updated boat schedules, make contact with downstream river lodges, and stock up on snacks and supplies. It’s not easy to get around the Río San Juan, though things are rapidly changing for the better, due in large part to a $14 million tourism development plan called La Ruta del Agua, the effects of which you’ll see as soon as you step onto the refurbished dock or paved airstrip at San Carlos. Public transportation can be slow and capricious, but is inexpensive.
Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.