Ending the year on the Rio San Juan

Days: 187-190

Total distance travelled: 38,942 kilometres (24,187.58 miles)

* This is a bit of a marathon post. Perhaps prepare yourself a nice tea/coffee (or even a stiff drink) to help you through this one..?

It’s not often that your ride departs an hour and a half late, takes over an hour longer to make the trip than scheduled, yet you still walk away feeling like you’ve had a win.

That however was how we viewed our overnight ferry from the island of Ometepe to the southern shores of Lago Nicaragua to San Carlos, our starting point to explore the Rio San Juan.

Thanks to this collected series of delays, it now meant we would be pulling into port during daylight hours (when the town and its people are awake and businesses, boats and buses might be running), rather than in the darkness of the pre-dawn.

It also meant we got the chance to view a lovely sunrise over the waters of the lake!

Deck class. A full $30.00 Cordoba more expensive and surely more comfortable than our 'bench/floor' class!

Deck class. A full $30.00 Cordoba more expensive and surely more comfortable than our ‘bench/floor’ class inside the vessel!

A beautiful sun rises over Lago Nicaragua

A beautiful sun rises over Lago Nicaragua

Arriving in San Carlos, we linked up with an English couple, conveniently (at least when it came to remembering one of their names) called Chris and Faye, who we decided to grab some breakfast with before grabbing a boat up river.

With it being on the cusp of New Year and the high season, we still hadn’t given it enough thought (at least with the benefit of hindsight) as by the time we returned to book tickets for the 8am river boat, the ticket office was for some reason closed.

Never mind we all figured, we’ll just grab them on board.

Turns out there were none available on board, as this boat had sold out!

As had the 10am also, but we were delightfully informed that there were some spare seats on the 12pm vessel…

Not too thrilled at the thought of waiting around for 4 hours in a steamy ticket office, we took our chances and went to investigate things at the bus station, where to our relief, we were able to find our way there (to Grand River Lodge, a place we’d found online) by road.

When said bus did come to a halt (just beyond the ‘town’ of La Esparanza) allowing us to alight, we found ourselves on the verge of a dirt road, with an at times wet and muddied track our means of onward travel.

I’m sure it was the heavy, humid heat, but the walk certainly felt longer than the expected 10 minutes as stated on their website, and when the road began to disappear into what looked a muddy herd of cows, our doubts we were in the right place only increased!

Fear not, this bovine bevvy was to be our welcome to our home for the night and for the New Year, Grand River Lodge.

No bookings had been made, but fortunately for the 4 of there was space aplenty, so both parties (ourselves as well as Chris & Faye) quickly grabbed a cabin each for a couple of nights.

The charming Grand River Lodge

The charming Grand River Lodge

The cabins were basic wooden affairs with thatched roofs, comfortable double beds (including mosquito nets, albeit slightly holy) and a private bathroom.

To some it was a curse, to others a blessing, but we also find that their Wi-Fi wasn’t working at present, so we were out of touch with the rest of the world until next year!

Being fairly remote as we were, meant all our meals and beers had to be purchased through our hosts which weren’t exorbitantly priced, but were certainly more expensive than had we catered for ourselves and been able to buy drinks at a supermarket.

Still, there were a few perks.

We had a lovely spot right on the river (the Rio San Juan) on which to celebrate the end of another year, as well as the opportunity to indulge in a few optional, free activities through the lodge.

Horse riding was one such option, but the first we all partook of was the chance to milk some cows (likely the very same cows that greeted us on arrival).

Now not milk them as would be done back home (by machine), as here things are a bit more traditional.

It was time for us all to squeeze a few teats!

To gauge my milking prowess, look no further than the face of our watchful farmer...

To gauge my milking prowess, look no further than the face of our watchful farmer…

We all partook, and of the 4 of us, Chris (our new English friend, not myself) was the clear star!

In total, we, as well as a small German family of 3, laboured through 3 or 4 cows over 40 minutes or so.

Word is, our farmer usually does his whole herd, by hand, in around an hour and a half.

I guess it’s all about the best person for the job!

Now having all these cows, means having a whole lot of milk, so what could you do with it?

Well it turns out one of the other activities one can partake in, also for free, puts this milk to a very good use.

Making cheese! When we first discovered this, Sarah was particularly thrilled.

Sarah living out her dreams...

Sarah, elbow deep in the stuff of her dreams…

Down to the cheesy business end of things

Down to the cheesy business end of things

They actually make 5 different types of local cheeses here, of which we got to enjoy part of the process for two.

Not to mention a good amount of quality control taste testing to go with it!

It was certainly a good bit of fun as well…

Now the actual prime reason for us making our way down to this slightly remote region of Nicaragua, was not solely to find a location in which to celebrate the New Year (that was a distant 2nd, after all, much New Year celebration gets over-hyped and just disappoints).

You see, the Rio San Juan is long, very navigable body of water, as already mentioned flowing from Lago Nicaragua.

Its terminus however, is an impressive distance away as it emerges in the Caribbean Sea, so it effectively serves as a local highway, and historically this was extremely important for trade in the days before the Panama Canal, not to mention of interest to marauding pirates who it allowed access to the rich inland cities, such as Granada in the 17th century.

In an effort to halt these marauders and their excursions up river, the Spanish built a fort, El Castillo, and on New Years Eve, this was where we decided to go.

We’d been advised that if we intended to head there, it was best we do so this day, and not on January 1st as it was unlikely that many boat services would be running, so our party of 4, along with a small German family of 3 all made sure we were down by the river nice and early, well at least 15 minutes earlier, than the scheduled 9:30am river taxi.

Given the time of year, none of us were too concerned when half an hour passed and no boat appeared.

As the minutes, then half hour blocks slipped by, we all began to wonder if perhaps there was no boat… still, all 7 of us decided to stick it out until after the next scheduled vessel.

By 11am however, about half an hour after the scheduled arrival of the 2nd vessel, we decided to give up, and began the slow walk back along the boardwalk and back up to the farm.

Having completed most of this return trek, we were roused from our disappointment by the small family of German girls who’d hung back just a little longer.

Believe it or not, a boat had just arrived, so there we were, after having sat idle for so many hours, now forced to run several hundred metres to reach this vessel!

Still we made it, and after a scenic but uneventful trip, rounded a bend in the river, and there sat El Castillo, both the castle and small river town of the same name.

Our first look at El Castillo

Our first look at El Castillo

Given our difficulty in getting here, we made sure our first port of call was the tourist office right on the harbour where we were able to query what time the final boat left to take us back up river.

When she told us 2pm was the last boat, that sounded okay, a whirlwind tour of the old fortress and the town, then we could head back to the farm, ready to celebrate the night.

She promptly scurried off, and we made ready to begin our exploration.

It was then we noticed our friendly lady from the tourist office hurrying back. Turns out there were in fact no more boats headed back up river today!

This really knocked the wind out of our sails a little, however a local boatman, the enterprising fellows that they are offered to ferry us back later in the day for a fee.

Turns out that fee was $80.00 US!

We tried to negotiate our way down from there, with no success and with no other option before us, reluctantly agreed that we’d head back with him at 4pm (we at least figured we’d choose a departure time that suited us all).

With our future sorted, it was time to explore the past, so on we went to El Castillo, after indulging in a delicious local lunch.

Built to repel the pirate incursions of Drake and Morgan

El Castillo. Built to repel the pirate incursions of Drake and Morgan

El Castillo was by no means huge, but its commanding position on a hill overlooking the river on a bend filled with rapids must have certainly provided all sorts of problems for pirates.

At least in theory… by all accounts many of its cannon were in poor condition, as well as its powder and shot.

Still, its views are nevertheless stunning in either direction.

Down the Rio San Juan. Sharing the same view as the Spanish defenders

Down the Rio San Juan. Sharing the same view as the Spanish defenders

4pm as you’d expect, found us back on the waterfront, ready to make our return up the Rio San Juan.

Minutes earlier, the town had been saturated by incredibly heavy rains, so this small, uncovered vessel left us confident we’d be rather wet by the time we got back to Grand River Lodge.

At least we had a nice big bottle of rum with us for the night ahead…

A chartered return up the Rio San Juan

A chartered return up the Rio San Juan

Incredibly, the rains somehow avoided us, and despite being $80.00 poorer (at least it was split 7 ways) we were now back, reunited with our packs, armed with a new bottle of rum, and ready to celebrate the end of the year 2014.

We were joined for these particular festivities by an Alaskan couple, Gareth & Laurie, & it was amidst these new friends that our evening began.

Many hands of cards, a couple of emptied rum bottles and a little embarrassing dancing later, we’d somehow slipped our way into 2015, all whilst none of our family and friends back home even knew where we were!

Celebrated in a great way. The New Year with new friends

Celebrated in a great way. The New Year with new friends

The final stanza of this tale, (which isn’t necessarily in chronological order) has a very unscripted conclusion.

By New Years day, we were all ready to continue our journey, and felt some time in El Castillo, that cute river town we’d found so difficult to get out of would be a great base for us to do some quick exploration of the Indio Maiz biological reserve.

Our hosts weren’t confident that the boats would be running, however our lady at the tour office in El Castillo the previous day had been certain that the boats would be back up and running, so we took our chances.

Surely a tour office would know, yeah?

Turns out our hosts were mostly correct.

After spending another period of hours on the dock (we did at least see some boats pass, just none would turn in as we waved), we were ultimately forced to abandon our plans, trudge back up the hill and re-check back into our rooms.

At least the area down by the dock is rather nice!

Exploring our surrounds...

Exploring our surrounds…

A colourful local

A colourful local

By this time we’d affectionately dubbed Grand River Lodge the ‘Hotel California’, as we’d thus far been unable to leave.

For a 3rd morning in a row (this being January 2nd), we again sat on the dock, patiently waiting for a boat to ferry us down river.

When, after sighting two boats (at various times) we abandoned the river option, instead prepared to take our chances with a bus down stream to the next town where we knew for certain that all of the boats do indeed stop.

Just a shame that we’d been given 3 different times for the bus departure!

Eventually, after a couple of rain showers, plenty of sun and a couple of hours, we were bouncing along the road, finally having left Grand River Lodge behind us…

Our own Hotel California... "You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave!"

Our own Hotel California… “You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave!”



* To get from Isla de Ometepe to San Carlos, we took an overnight ferry (runs twice weekly) for $163.00 Cordoba per person for what was ultimately about a 10 and a half hour voyage.

* With the riverboats for both 8am and 10:30am booked out, we instead opted to take the local bus for $40.00 Cordoba per person for the roughly 1 hour trip from San Carlos to Grand River Lodge.

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11 Responses to Ending the year on the Rio San Juan

  1. Rachel says:

    That’s the kind of situation that stresses me out when I travel. I find it hard to take that calm Zen approach you seem to have mastered.

  2. Lauren says:

    What an incredible story! That’s definitely a New Year’s that you’ll remember forever. I would definitely be more stressed out than you, but yes, I’ve learned that in these types of situations, sometimes you’ve just gotta go with the flow. At least you were in a beautiful place and enjoyed it! πŸ™‚

  3. I love the idea of starting the New Year with new friends! It sounds like you had some wonderful experiences at the Grand River Lodge. Congrats for taking it all in stride. You are a true traveller, Chris.

  4. Marta Grilo says:

    That was such a crazy, stressful but also awesome trip!

  5. Sometimes mishaps make the best stories, you certainly had enough for those kinds of stories here! πŸ™‚

  6. Tracie Howe says:

    You seem to run into a lot of bad luck on your travels! It sounds like you manage to make the best of it though, in most cases. πŸ™‚

  7. Kacy says:

    Quite a story, but I love your attitude. It sounds like a great experience and a good story you can tell over drinks for years to come πŸ™‚

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