Down The Rio San Juan


6 January 2016 by Justine

Paddling from El Castillo to San Juan del Norte on our Alpacka Raft, Nicaragua – November 2015
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I know, I know! I didn’t quite finish to publish our Southern African stories from last trip’s (2014-14), but what can I say… We left again, and…. New stories are overflowing. So here’s a peek of our little escapade biking in Central America, just before crashing in Uvita, Costa Rica for three months of luxury, followed by a crazy move down South America until summer 2016. My friends, let me take you on the Rio San Juan, natural boundary between Costa Rica and Nicaragua from its interior lake to the coast of the Carribeans – see at the end of this article for notes specific addressed to the cyclists and to the paddles, and for more pictures.

. . .

It basically started with JP falling in love with Alpacka’s packable rafts, and me, convincing both of us that this year’s trip should be done “differently”. By that, I meant that since last trip was crazy and next one would be crazier, I though that maybe it would be interesting to try to go from only cycling in doing something else than just cycling… Let’s say… Staying in one spot, using our brains or getting our hands dirty, and then cycling to another spot, and so on. My idea remarkably made its way, and… We bought a packable two-person raft and flew out of Canada with our raft, carbon shred-appart paddles and life jackets along with our normal cycling gear.

I’m pretty sure that I have mentionned this before, but I will repeat it : JP has a sixth sens for finding crazy stuff to go through or to. He’s good in finding cycling routes, and appeared to be just as good in finding rivers to paddle. And so we cycled from Nicaragua’s capital Managua (where we landed) to San Carlos, on the East of Lake Nicaragua, the starting point of the San Juan river. Our paddling destination : San Juan del Norte, also called Greytown or San Juan de Nicaragua.
Like pros, we bought our permit to be on the river at the port (300 Cordoba, about 11$US), we sadly parked the bikes in the port’s hangar (480 Cordoba for 10 days, about 18$US – note that you can also park your car or motobike with security there), we bought our first “water ticket” to go from San Carlos to El Castillo (30 Cordoba, less than 2$US), we bought a bit of food and left San Carlos on our little inflatable black boat just passed one o’clock on the afternoon of that Tuesday. We soon realized few important points. From San Carlos, we felt like paddling upstream. Why? The river is large. The lake is big and close. There’s a head wind. To make everything funner, the scenery sucks. But we paddled, and laughed until the light changed intensity and we saw the little village of Medio Queso and asked a very nice man if we could pitch the tent on his yard for the night. We asked few basic questions like the kilometers before the next supplying point (for food AND water) and if the current was ever going to change direction. After a night of thinking, we jumped on the speed boat that was passing at 6AM sharp in direction of El Castillo (…).
El Castillo is a happy place with little restaurants, grocery shops, hostels and…  Level II rapids. We spent few hours there shopping for food and water for the next six days (my reference being the tours – booked from Managua, San Carlos or El Castillo – that are bringing tourists to paddle canoes from El Castillo to San Juan del Norte in 5 days), asking questions to the nice lady from the touristic information center (thanks Eva!), eating amazing food, drinking amazing natural juices, giving our infos to the militaries (which will be part of our daily routine for now on), and shooting El Castillo’s rapids with no gear. At 3PM that Wednesday, we were on the water, shooting the rapids one more time and heading East.
We could see the red roof of a big building not to far ahead – a possible camping spot with facilities – but we decided to camp on a little farm on the left side, few kilometers after El Castillo. With no one in sight, we used the roof of a shed to cook dinner with the music of the rain, wondered about how far the crocodiles would venture on shore at night, fed a lonely cat, and went to bed. The next day, the level of the river had risen more than a feet. We packed our stuff (we can store gear inside the tubes of our pack AND inside the middle tube where we kneel in a canoeing paddling position) and left. The red rooftops reappeared. The current is pretty strong and logs and other debris are flotting around us at different speeds, making us navigate in-between them with sportive moves. All of this because of last night’s rain – which haven’t stopped. We know that we need to stop at all military posts to give our passeports, navigation permit and to buy new “water-ticket”. But what we thought was a hostel happened to be Bartola’s military post and we are just passing it, with militaries standing there, under the rain, staring at us without doind nor saying anything. In JP’s mind: “what the hell, I won’t stop, even if they have guns”. But in my very straightforward rational mind, there is no other way than stopping there, chat with those smiley guys and being fully legit. Only one problem: we can’t stop.
But we did manage, to stop, but it wasn’t gracious. There we were, at the further point of their property, the only clear spot on this jungle land, two meters lower, still on our boat, on the water, holding on grass and small branches for us not to drift away with the current, screaming for assistance – and by that I mean : “come on guys, do you need our passports or not, because if so, come and get them, god dam, because we are running late for tea !”. We very probably looked like two lost souls, desparate to be saved. The militaries, on their side, very probably thought that rescueing us from those unforgivable waters would be their good action of the day. So they came running – after a solid 45 seconds of nothing, and they grabbed us from our boat – which wasn’t the best idea in the world. You see, in our Alpacka Gnu, we are sitting canoe style, kneeling on a pneumatic tube, with our legs immobilized between the kneeling tube and the main side tubes. Being simultaneous pulled, both of us, from the top, means bringing everything up – us, the boat, six day of water and food, and 15kg of gear. It didn’t work well and JP got furious, working hard not to drop anything in the moving waters. I slowly walked under the rain to meet the captain of the military post. He really took his duties seriously because he refused for us to leave, because of the strong currents. Shit… So we DID look very desparate. I nicely laugh at his face and explains him with my very elaborate spanish that since his military post looked so nice, we thought it was a lodge and didn’t plan to stop, until we saw the militaries standing, last minute, and ending up coming alongside dramatically. He took the compliment with a pleasure, and let us go. YEAH ! No time to waste when the current is doing our arm’s job. Let’s hit the water!
That day, we cleared a great distance – basically from El Castillo to Boca San Juan, through Bartola – most likely because of the rain. That stretch was amazing. On both sides of the river, the jungle is dark, dense and humid. Howling monkeys are dramatically debating in the background while splashes of big reptiles remind us that we are in crocodile territory. There are wrecks from steam boat from the 19th century on islands on the way, but a tourist boat is blocking the way. Anyways, we go too fast – and we don’t want to stop that lovely pace.
We get to Delta military post late in the afternoon the following day. Eventhough we are expecting to take five full days of paddle, we are already eager to reach San Juan, now on our 3rd day. The truth is that we paddle every kilometer of this river – except for that one day with great rains. Also, the river is, a some point, very wide. The river turns to the right, then to the left. Like pros, we cross from one side to the other, ferrying in curves to take the shortest line, but it takes up to 15 minutes to ferry. 15 minutes! Fortunately, at the Delta military post, the river splits and the big part becomes the river Colorado (and reaches the Carribean sea on the Costa Rican side), leaving the San Juan about one tenth of its size. At Delta post where we set camp, the militaries are skeptical. They can’t take their eyes off of our little boat. One of them comes to us and asks about the crocodiles. Yes, we are aware of their presence but didn’t have any problems – although we did walk more than once on the muddy shore, or put our legs or arms in the water close to shore. He isn’t quite reassured. We ask him about our last stretch tomorow : “Is it hard to find our way to San Juan?” “Just go straight”, he says, in spanish.
Today is our last day on the water, and it’s going to be a long day. The river is now narrower – sometimes 10-15 meters wide, and it becomes more and more swampy. The next military post is on piles, just like a military cabin placed a bit further, monitoring the very scarce Costa Rican activities on the other side . Everything screams crocodiles, eventhough we see nothing. We manage to make our way in the labyrinth created by some lettuce-like water plant, thanks to our Garmin GPS. We see the ocean, on the far end of a curve, twice, but we need to keep on following another path. San Juan del Norte isn’t by the ocean, but in a lagoon – very strategic location. We don’t know it (because it is now eaten y the jungle) but we are passing in front of the old town of San Juan, bombed in 1984 by the Americans. The only evidence of the great era of this place, when THE canal that would link the Atlantic to the Pacific was right here, on the San Juan, is a huge rusty digger, still placed in the middle of the water, frozen in time. Not to far, we see the red roofstops of the legendary Rio Indio Lodge, offering nothing under 200$US a night. We can now see the cellphone towers with great pleasure – we have arrived. To the first person we see, daydreaming in a hammock by the river, we ask where the cold beer is. “No more” he says, “we ran out yesturday”. Our big proud smiles drop like an anchor… “There is only rhum left!” – and…. The smiles are back.
Our little pneumatic killer boat brought skepticism amongst people in San Juan too. We asked around if there was any problems with crocodiles in the area. Here’s what they said : “A dad was bathing with his two kids, like they do every once and then. He got out to get something, heard screams and splashes, and saw a crocodile, taking his boys away. Not too long ago, too, a military was fetching water in the river when he got attacked. There was nothing left of his upper body. We can also hear stories of people in wooden pirogue, looking back and seeing a crocodile fallow them for a long time, and then diving. I think that since your boat is black, the crocodiles thought you were a log. You got lucky”. True or not, we then understand the skepticism of the militaries along the river. They must be completly traumatized with nothing to do all day than tell each other horror stories and urban legens about the wild creatures including 1000-pound manatee living few meters away from their military beds, crawling out of the water for a night out.
Since we got to San Juan del Norte on a Sunday, we wanted at least a day, so we were basically stuck in there until Thursday morning. There are worst places to be! We hanged around, drank rhum, went to the beach with our raft, went to check out the cemetery (unfortunately the access to the ruins of the old town, eaten by the jungle, is closed to the public by the authorities), cooked some Carribean specialties with new friends, and heard some more stories – not only dramatic ones about people getting eaten by crocodiles. My favorite is that in a certain time of the year, the currents are bringing barils and crates of interesting stuff like gas (oh!), rhum (OH! oh!) or weed (HO-HO-HO!), which makes their lifes hard because since few years only, San Juan del Norte changed a lot. Before, without any of those numerous military posts monitoring the Costa Ricans for obscure reasons, San Juan was one of those Carribean little town, living freely with a Carribean lifestyle, making San Juan a prominent destination on the hippie world circuit.
After three days, we were pretty happy to hit the road again and go back to our beloved Surly. Funny thing : we saw more wildlife on our way back on the boat than on our little raft. Were we talking too loud? (probably) Are the animals used to the sound of the motor? (sadly) Anyways, I had the great pleasure to watch turtles and lezards getting tanned, toucans chilling together in a three, crazy big crocodiles and caimans (…) and a JAGUAR. Yes indeed. I saw a F**KING jaguar, from the boat, on our way back to San Carlos, on the Costa Rican side, between Boca San Carlos and Bartola. Nothing fancy about it (…), and I got the chills for a solid 5 minutes.
. . .
* To cyclists :
Our highlights on the road from Managua to San Carlos are the road that goes around Ometeppe’s island’s two volcanos, and the road on the Southern shore of the lake Nicaragua that finishes in Colon, where we took a small boat to San Carlos
** To paddlers :
Our boat : We decided to take our Alpacka Gnu Raft with us on this trip. It’s small and light enough to be carried on bikes. JP took all that part, while I took our 3.5 person palace tent. Our Gnu has a cargo-fly, a spray-deck and vectran outside floor. Plus : with a bit of rain everyday, the cargo-fly was great. It also allowed us to minimize the stuff put loose on the boat. Cons : The Gnu only comes in black, and so we had a hard time keeping the pressure high in the boat. With minimum 35 degrees Celcius in the day and warm water too, the air would always take less and less volume, eventhough we would blow maximum air from the nozzle every 30 minutes or so, while being on the water. That problem doesn’t occur on cold water – typical of white waters.
San Carlos. In San Carlos, buy your permit to be on the water at the Port. We paid 300 Cordoba for our personal non motorized boat. You need to show this permit, aswell as your passports and “water-ticket” to EVERY military posts (6 from San Carlos to San Juan). If starting your trip in El Castillo, catch the slow or fast boat (140 Cordoba per person for the fast and 80 for the slow boat I think) from the port. I believe they both run every day, few times a day. To start paddling from San Carlos, plan at least 4 days more (of time, food and water), and don’t expect great scenery nor services (except Sabalo area). There are plenty of camping spots on the way, on both sides. Until El Castillo, both sides are Nicaragua’s.
El Castillo. Don’t forget food and water in El Castillo. There are three nice shops with all you need, including rice, pasta, sardines, tuna, tea, coffee, fruits, veggies, milk powder, oats, beans, 4L water jugs and bread. We took 6x4L water jugs for ourselves and drank only 5, and could have filled up in military posts instead of bringing everything. For the food, though, it’s better to bring everything, with an extra day safety net. El Castillo has the first rapids. They are class II rapids, only about 30 meters long, and bigger on the right side, close to El Castillo, and very little on the left side. The fast and slow boats and local pirogues that naviguate on the San Juan cross those rapids on the left side. If not confident, you can portage buy walking the village and putting the boat in the water at the soccer field, after the rapids. Note that each military post, you need to give your “water-ticket” and buy another one to the next post, for 30 Cordoba.
Rapids. The biggest rapids are at El Castillo. El Castillo’s rapids are large and short – only about 30 meters long. You can portage them through the village of El Castillo and put all your gear and boat on the water from the soccer field and skip the rapids, or shoot them at their lowest on the left side, or shoot them in the middle for some nice waves. Our Alpacka is extremely stable and we had no problem. I wouldn’t recommand a beginner to shoot those with a loaded canoe, though. Shoot without gear to have fun : if you fall, you can swim to shore and flip your canoe back at the end of the village, and start your trip from there with all your gear. The other rapids on the Rio San Juan are between Bartola and Boca San Juan. Mostly class I, little tiny waves, and some class II with one big waves. I believe the left side is always the side where local boats are crossing, and where the rapids are less dramatic. They are short, with no big obstacle. We had absolutely no problem at all with our Alpacka raft, which is way more stable than a canoe. If problem, you can always swim to shore and take the time to collect all your stuff – my only concern would be crocodiles and caimans. In the end, if you can’t shoot a class I with a canoe and gear, rethink your trip or go with a tour or a local guide. There is no portage for those ones and jungle on both shores. After those ones, it’s done. But be always careful for hidden logs in or on the water, shallow waters and rocks. Obviously, don’t get close to caimans and crocodiles if you see some (we didn’t since they were all diving in the water when we were getting closer, and so we only heard big splashes except for the head of one caiman, surfacing two feet from our raft).
Delta. This part is tricky. The San Juan splits in two : left side (small side) continues as the Rio San Juan, and the right side (very large) is the Rio Colorado. Keep your left otherwise you won’t be able to ferry on time to follow the left side – and to stop at the military post. The currents can be strong. A local boat could always tow you back at Delta, but think that it’s Costa Rican side and that those guys don’t really like each other.
San Juan del Norte. The final part is tricky. We manage the final stretch with our cycling Garmin Edge Touring GPS. Without that, it would have taken us double of the time to find our way since there are many ways (it’s a swamp) in little floating vegetation corridors, and that boats are scare. Once again, if without GPS or very good map or a local guide, rethink your trip. The local militaries aren’t big help neither in the sens that all they say is : todo recto (go straight). San Juan del Norter is a nice little town with big History, no criminality and very nice people. Few restaurants runned by families offering grilled chicken, fish or camarones dish (80-120 Cordoba per person), stores, a bakery, a liquor store, a librairy with wifi, a discoteca, few bars and few hostels – don’t forget to go see the Carribean sea before you leave. A lot of people don’t see any interest in that place. We liked the vibe and had fun with locals. From San Juan del Norte, you can take a small 20 passenger boat to Bluefields for 900 Cordoba, leaving on Wednesdays.
Itinerary: This is how we did it, which is different from the tours. Note that you can sleep and get water at Boca San Carlos and Delta military posts. Other than that, the Nicaragua’s side is pure jungle while the Costa Rican’s side built a road and has little villages on the way (mostly houses – don’t count on anything except on the island before Boca San Carlos, on the right side, where there is a bar-restaurant and where I believe you can buy some stuff – with american dollars or Costa Rican Colones). Some stretches have jungle on both sides, which makes it hard to find a spot to stop  without having to prepare the field with a machete (which we did’t have) :
Day 1 : El Castillo – Boca San Carlos military post. 6-8 hour paddle
Day 2 : Boca San Carlos military post – Costa Rican village on the river. 4-5 hour paddle
Day 3 : Costa Rican village on the river – Delta military post. 4-5 hour paddle
Day 4 : Delta military post – San Juan del Norte. 6-8 hour paddle
Boats from San Juan del Norte to San Carlos :
Thursday : 5:00AM – slow boat – 5:30AM – fast boat
Friday : 5:30AM – fast boat
Saturday : 5:00AM – slow boat
Sunday : 5:00AM – slow boat – 5:30AM – fast boat
Monday : 5:00AM – slow boat
*slow boat : 280 Cordoba per person : arrive around 4PM in San Carlos
*fast boat : 600 Cordoba per person : arrive at 11:30AM in El Castillo and 1:30PM in San Carlos
. . .
More Pictures !
Costa Rica

2 thoughts on “Down The Rio San Juan

  1. Salut les jeunes!

    Votre blog est magnifique et j’adore votre façon de raconter vos aventures!
    À vous lire et à regarder vos photos, je me rends compte que j’ai totalement manqué tous les beaux coins du Nicaragua et du Costa Rica. Faudra que j’y retourne, avec un vélo Nietzsche et un Alpacka, idéalement. Amusez-vous bien à votre camp de pêche! Ici, à quelque 600 kilos d’Ushuaïa, je commence à entrer en contact avec pas mal de monde qui peuvent m’aider à m’y trouver une job. Ça promet!
    On se revoit en Afrique ou au Québec sur les Sentiers de l’Estrie.



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