An American Abroad

Nicaragua 2008: Down the Rio San Juan from San Carlos to El Castillo

Following our miserable night on the Lake Nicaragua ferry, we arrived in San Carlos, a town our guidebook charitably described as “scummy.” Situated on the southeastern tip of the lake not far from the Costa Rican border, San Carlos indeed seemed to have nothing whatsoever to recommend it, except for its being situated at the source of the Rio San Juan.

As I shivered in the pre-dawn light and made inquiries about a boat heading downriver to El Castillo, Spencer set off in search of coffee. He brought back two small paper cups of watery lukewarm Nescafé into which had been poured several heaping tablespoons of sugar. It was vile, but I drank it anyway. It did nothing for my chilled, sleep-depraved state.

We found out that we could get passage aboard a riverboat that would leave in several hours. With nothing to recommend San Carlos to us, we made for the nearest hostelry we could find in hopes of getting a morning nap.

I don’t know the name of the place we stayed. I don’t know if it had a name. But it was as scummy as the rest of the town, complete with damp dirty beds, insects, and river-rot. It was built up on stilts over a filthy stagnant stream that slithered into the river at some point.

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It was actually colorful and cheerful-looking, so long as you didn’t peer too closely. Of course, we arrived on wash day; the clothes hanging everywhere hid things that I’d just as soon not see.

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Our room had a Sandanista slogan painted on its door.

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I slept fitfully, occasionally wondering what I had gotten myself and my son into.

We were here:

Near noon, we checked out and went back to the docks. Along with a couple dozen other passengers, 300 cases of beer, sacks of mail, some chickens, sheep, and a goat, we boarded the riverboat.

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At the appointed time, we shoved off and headed down the river and into the jungle.

We passed by jungle hamlets here and there, places marked by a dock and a few wooden buildings, but without roads. At some of them, we stopped to drop off a passenger or two, some beer, and a sack of mail.

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The day turned to night and we continued on, more slowly though. The boat’s searchlights cut a sliver of visibility down the river, but otherwise everything was black on both banks.

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It grew late. Finally, after about fifty miles, our destination was announced: El Castillo. The boat docked and we stepped out onto a dock shrouded in darkness. We could see no artificial lights anywhere. We struggled to get our luggage together in total blackness. We were here:

We wandered around until we heard the thrum of a generator and saw a few gleams of light coming from a two-story building with porches up and down on the front. It seemed to be a guesthouse of some sort, so we knocked. A middle-aged woman answered and answered yes to our question about beds for the night. We were delighted. She then led us up a flight of stairs, down a hallway, and out to the porch, where two hammocks hung from the porch beams.

Spencer and I looked at each other, unsure and disappointed. But then the woman let loose a deep laugh — just kidding! — and led us back into the hallway and into a dorm-style room with real beds. Maybe showing us the hammocks first was just clever product positioning on her part, because by the time we got into our spare but clean bedroom, I was incredibly grateful just to have a mattress under my body, a comforter draped over me, and a roof over my head.

I fell asleep almost immediately, wondering what the jungle would have in store for us come the morning.


  1. Sounds like a long and trying day, but I’m glad you found some clean beds at the end! That woman sounds like quite the character; I was immediately reminded of a woman who ran a guesthouse with her husband in northern Thailand. She was hilarious, always playing jokes on people and mocking them when they believed her.

    Thanks for the read and the pictures as well!

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