So, Emily and I have realized that we have a penchant for undertaking activities that are just slightly outside of our ability level, or at least comfort zone, where we often find ourselves questioning our judgment at least a few times throughout the endeavor. We also like to try and suck as much marrow out of life as possible. Hence, our summiting of Volcán Telica was only one of the possibly-too-challenging adventures we took this Semana Santa vacation. Two days after sleeping on top of an active volcano we embarked from our dry, temperate, northern site of Estelí to the humid, tropical, southern-most part of the country to kayak the Río San Juan.
Full disclosure – This is a pretty long post, for two reasons.
First, my narrative style is generally a bit more detailed and list-y than Emily´s, as one of my most compelling reasons to blog/journal is to create an external memory bank of experiences to capture and preserve life moments from the infallibility of human memory.
Second, I had a heck of a time finding information regarding lodging and activities before we got there, so I want this post to be able to be a resource for others who’d like to know a bit more about what can be done down in this beautiful corner of the world.
Day 1 Stats (3/31/15)
Departed from Estelí: 5:45am
Arrived in San Carlos: 4:05pm
Distance traveled in bus: 243 miles
Average speed: 24 mph
Our plan was to leave Estelí as early as possible, as we didn’t know the schedule for the buses that left from Managua to San Carlos. At 4am when our alarm woke us up to catch the 4:45am express we realized that waking up anytime before 5am is a terrible idea, and must be avoided at all costs. We were treated by quite possibly the nicest bus ride we’ve had while in Nicaragua. The bus was beautiful, and had air conditioning! We made sure to note the time that this bus leaves Managua to return to Estelí (1:15pm for all you PCVs in the north), and prayed that our leg of the journey to San Carlos would be half as enjoyable.
It was not.
To be fair, our trip was much more comfortable than the 40+ people that stood in the aisles the entire way, but a seven hour bus ride where the driver stops for any sign of life on the side of the road, no matter how hot and full the bus gets, is not a pleasant seven hours. We were later told by a fellow TEFL PCV from San Carlos that we took the worst bus. Whoops! We weren’t too upset, though, as this whole trip was a brand new experience to a completely different part of the country that we knew very little about. We considered this a reconnaissance vacation, a trip to learn more about the awesomeness of Nicaragua, and to see if it was worth coming back.
Emily and I enjoyed a tasty, affordable dinner at La Fortaleza, which was located right on the waterfront park of the city. This didn’t really look like a place that Emily and I would walk up to and try. It’s not that it looked dingy or gross, more that it was mainly an informal collection of tables next to a kitchen that typifies many local Nicaraguan restaurants (of varying qualities). However, La Fortaleza was recommended by the PCVs in the area as a tasty, affordable place to eat. Since we tried to budget our food expenses to the $7.50 that is the Peace Corps per diem we receive while traveling, affordability was important! The fried fish covered in a fresh tomato sauce was quite delicious, and was accompanied by rice, beans, a salad, and fried plantains. As the sun was setting over Lake Nicaragua we called our hotel to send over their boat to ferry us across the river.
Hotel Highlight: La Esquina del Lago
Category won: Best Breakfast
Cost per night: $40 for double room with private bathroom.
We had reserved a room at La Esquina del Lago, located across the river from San Carlos on the corner of Lake Nicaragua, as the name suggests. They came to pick us up from the waterfront park just after sunset, and transported us the 5 minutes to the hotel. Even though we pulled up at night, we could tell that we were in a calm, secluded oasis at the confluence of the Rio San Juan and Lake Nicaragua. The room was comfy, with a nice sized bathroom, and was pretty much perfect after an exhausting, full day of traveling. We also learned that they specialize in offering guided fishing tours for the world-class tarpon that reside in the surrounding waters.
Day 2 Stats (4/1/15)
Departed from San Carlos: 8:30am
Arrived in Sábalos: 6:30pm
Distance traveled in kayak: 26.8 miles
Average speed: 2.68 mph
We awoke early to a chorus of bird songs, and packed up our things for our full day of kayaking. A key to our food budget were the included breakfasts provided by the hotels, and the breakfast from La Esquina del Lago definitely stood out above the rest! (See photos above for further proof.) Delicious gallo pinto was accompanied by eggs fried to perfection, crunchy toast, and a delightful side of tomatoes and cucumbers. Thank goodness the breakfast was so yummy, as we needed every calorie of energy for our journey ahead!
We met up with our guide, Elieser, in San Carlos, and were out on the water in our double kayak by 8:30am. We were put in touch with Elieser and his tour company through the Hotel Sábalos, and of the three groups I called they offered the best price ($110 for the two day journey with a guide and double kayak). We specifically asked for a Spanish-speaking guide, so that we wouldn’t be tempted to speak in English on our journey, and we had a wonderful time chatting with Elieser.
For about half of the trip from San Carlos to Sábalos we were battling a head-wind that was stronger than the helpful current, which made me very happy that we had decided to split up the trip to El Castillo into two days! Although the water did get a bit rough at times, taking a few deep breaths and looking around at the natural beauty that surrounded us was a constant reassurance that we’d made a great decision. We saw countless specifies of birds, howler monkeys, white-headed capuchin monkeys, gorgeous jungle vegetation, and even a cayman!
Elieser is from a small community along the Rio San Juan, and was a very informative, amiable guide. He was also incredibly patient with us and our slow pace, constantly reassuring us that it was more important to enjoy our journey than push ourselves too hard (although I don’t know if we could have pushed ourselves much harder). He gladly took breaks to share with us his homemade, homegrown chocolate from his cacao farm, and to show us small wonders of the river that we would have paddled right on by, like the “magic flower.” (Click here to see the magic happen.)
We pulled into the little town of Sábalos at dusk, and glad to see that the hotel was right on the river. We were greeted by incredibly friendly, attentive staff, and enjoyed an evening of showering, relaxing in hammocks, and reasonably priced dinner ($4.50 for the plate of the day). Although it was dark, and we would be leaving pretty early in the morning, we felt the pull of the river to slow down and breathe. The atmosphere of the relaxed, river side hotel brought us back to fond memories on the Ohio River, and we knew we wanted to come back to this place.
Day 3 Stats (4/2/15)
Departed from Sábalos: 9:30am
Arrived in El Castillo: 12:30pm
Distance traveled in kayak: 8.7 miles
Average speed: 2.9 mph
Good intentions to leave early turned into a second cup of coffee, meeting fellow guests and learning about cordwood masonry over a third cup of coffee, chatting with the friendly staff, and soaking in as much of the laid-back river vibes as possible. In due time we hopped back in the kayaks and set a relaxed pace towards El Castillo, physically rejuvenated from our rest and emotionally buoyed by the stronger current and lack of wind.
The three hours flew by, and we were there before we knew it, literally! As we pulled around a bend we saw a tourist fishing boat that had a HUGE tarpon on the line in the middle of quite the fight. Elieser explained that they often have to fight these fish for up to an hour to tire them out, as the catch-and-release laws means they can’t harpoon it to bring it on board. They had already had the fish on for ten minutes when we arrived, and we watched for another 15 minutes as we floated downstream, the fish pulling the boat from one side of the river to the other. With the fish and the current pulling our respective vessels farther from each other, we turned around and were greeted by a stunning view of the defining feature of El Castillo: the Fortress of the Immaculate Conception.
We had made it!
After docking our kayaks at the port, Elieser showed us to our hotel for the first night. As we walked on the path through the center of town, he explained to us that this was the main street of the city. With no major roads leading to El Castillo there are no cars in the town, hence the streets are all pedestrian paths. The river is essentially the only means of travel to and from the town. We said goodbye to Elieser in front of our hotel, El Chinandegano, on the the western edge of town, and settled in.
Hotel Highlight: Casa de Huesped – Restaurante El Chinadegano
Category Won: Best Food
Cost per night: $18 for double room with private bathroom.
The room, while small and adjacent to the restaurant dining room, was clean and worth the price. We freshened up a bit, and went out to explore the town. Tourism is definitely what keeps the quaint El Castillo alive, as every third building appeared to be a hotel, restaurant, tour company, or some combination of the three. We climbed up the hill to the fortress, and enjoyed the little museum of gorgeous views of the river. Looking down at the rapids of El Castillo and vantage point we had out of the river, it wasn’t difficult to imagine why they chose this place to build the fortress in the 17th century to protect the city of Granada from pirate attacks. We could almost make out skull-and-crossbone sails coming around the bend of the river.
After the fortress we walked to the far west end of town to check out Border’s Coffee, another spot recommended to us by PCVs in the area. There was definitely a relaxed, coffee shop vibe at their open air location. We each ordered a chocolate banana smoothie, and bought an espresso to share. We added the espresso into the smoothies, and enjoyed our coffee-choco concoctions!
For dinner we chose to eat at our hotel, and were we glad we did! We ordered the garlic fish fillet and grilled beef with jalapeño sauce, and were blown away by both. Homemade fries and a robust side salad rounded out the plates, and it was the perfect way to end our first day in El Castillo.
Day 4 Stats (4/3/15 – Good Friday)
Departed our first hotel: 10:00am
Arrived at our second hotel: 10:01am
Distance traveled: 10 yards
Time spent in hammock: 7.5 hours
When I reserved our rooms there was only one night available in El Chinandegano, so due to another trusty PCV recommendation (thanks again, Robert!) we booked a night at Hotel Victoria. Turns out it is next door to El Chinandegano!
Hotel Highlight: Hotel Victoria (and here’s the TripAdvisor link)
Category Won: Best Room
Cost per night: $35 for PCVs ($60 normally) for double room with private bathroom, hot water, and air conditioning.
Before taking us to our room, the staff showed us the balcony rest area, complete with three hammocks. Although we had originally thought we’d use our full day in El Castillo to tour the nearby Indio de Maiz Nature Reserve, looking at the hammocks overlooking the river we knew that today would be a day of rest. Hammocks, journaling, reading, quality talks, and relaxing became our agenda.
It was perfect 🙂
Day 5 Stats (4/5/15)
Departed El Castillo, in boat: 5:00am
Arrived in San Carlos: 7:30am
Departed San Carlos, standing on packed bus: 8am
Arrived in Estelí: 6:30pm
Total Distance Traveled: 278.5 miles
Average speed: 21 mph
Number of celebratory hot wings devoured upon arrival to Estelí: 12
As public transport shuts down in Nicaragua on Good Friday, we decided we should make it to San Carlos as early as possible, as Holy Saturday transport would be a bit extra crazy. We made reservations the day before for the 5:15am speed boat, and made sure to be at the port at 5am.
The voyage was supposed to last 1h 45min maximum, but due to some delays we didn’t make it to San Carlos until 7:30am. By that point the last seat on the 8am Managua bus was long gone, and we made the tough decision to stand for the long trip back to the capital city. After 3.5 hours of being squished, stepped & sweated on, Emily and I decided to try and see if we could find a bus with seats in Juigalpa, the capital city of the Chontales department. We got off the bus and made our way to the terminal, and to our great relief got seats on a bus that was leaving in five minutes!
We arrived in Managua right as a bus was pulling out for Estelí, and again we got seats! After five minutes into the journey we realized that in our excitement to leave for Estelí we had boarded a slow bus, which added another hour to the final leg of our journey. We resolved to treat ourselves to our favorite hot wings place when we finally made it home.
After 13.5 hours on public transport and a full week of adventure, those were truly the most delicious hot wings in the history of the world 🙂
Adventure is out there and we’re doing our best to live every second of it.
We would love to hear what you think about this guidepost:
+ What are your forms of play and rest?
+ How can we redefine self-worth?
Read/join the discussion here.