Rio San Juan Series #1 of 11: San Carlos (Nica Nugget #67)

There is so much to see in Nicaragua and so much to experience. Those of us who live in San Juan del Sur are occasionally lured outside of our beachside paradise. This series is an account of one such very recent trip with the hope that it will lure you too.

The San Juan River which runs on the other side of the country, eastward for 125 miles (200km) from its source in Lake Nicaragua (Lago Cocibolca) along the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica to the Caribbean Sea. Much of the river on the Nicaraguan side is bordered by the grand, remote and mostly-inaccessible Indio Maiz Biological Reserve.

John and I have been anxious to kayak this river but there hasn’t been a lot of information available about it so it has been easy to put off until mañana. Thanks to our friend JoAnne Stoltz who set a date and invited us along, and our friend Eve Kohlman who graciously joined us, we finally and successfully ran the river this last week.

San Carlos, where Lake Nicaragua flows into the Rio San Juan enroute to the sea.

In short…
It was otherworldly.
It was stunningly beautiful.
It was a physical challenge.

And at its core it was a step back in time into a culture of skilled, self-sufficient river people where families live without cars or refrigeration while enjoying the flights of Scarlet Macaws.

The entire trip lasted 10 days from September 25 to October 4, 2019 :
1 day driving from San Juan del Sur to San Carlos
6 days paddling the 125-mile river from source to sea
1 layover day at the end in San Juan de Nicaragua
1 day riding the panga ferry back upriver to San Carlos
1 day driving from San Carlos back home to San Juan del Sur.

Getting permits for our kayaks.

We hired a guide, Juan Aguilar, and his business Ardilla’s Tours out of El Castillo, to guide us from Sabalos to San Juan de Nicaragua, and to facilitate our initial paddle day from San Carlos to Sabalos (port permits, military permits, Nicaraguan flags for our boats, rental kayak for JoAnne and Eve for Day 1).

We highly recommend him. He can be reached via WhatsApp +505 8938 8552 and on Facebook (Juan Ardillo).

San Carlos sits on the southeast corner of Lake Nicaragua (Lago Cocibolca) right where the lake empties and forms the Rio San Juan, flowing east to the Caribbean.

It is colorful and quaint with most of its activity focused along the river and the port. Ferry pangas ply the broad river, carrying passengers and cargo back and forth along the river’s 125-mile distance.

Juan brought a double sea kayak upriver by panga ferry for Eve and JoAnne.

Fishermen in wooden dugout canoes toss their nets or cast their lines. Colorful wooden boats fade under the glaring sun and lapping waters. Herons, cormorants, vultures, watch and hunt for food. A river otter dives alongside the wharf, surfaces, dives again.

We met our guide Juan as he arrived on the 4 pm ferry from El Castillo, bringing with him the double kayak he located and rented for JoAnne and Eve to use on our first day on the river. And there at the port with his help we started the process of permitting our kayaks for our journey. We also arranged and paid to park our rental car under cover at the port for the duration of our trip.

We then dined overlooking the river and the park’s carnival rides. And watched the sunset drop over the lake.

The sunset across Lake Nicaragua.

That night we stayed at the Hotel Grand Lago, the fanciest hotel I’d found in town and the only one I could find with air conditioning. The hotel isn’t fancy, but simple and clean and the owner is incredibly nice.

The next morning we woke up early, in time to catch the morning light on the fishermen along the town pier.

We found a German bakery that was open early and served coffee, then returned to our hotel for breakfast before joining our guide Juan back at the port to continue with the permitting and preparations.

We were anxious to get on the river early since it was going to be a very long 27-mile paddle to our night’s lodging.

Wooden canoes are a common mode of transportation.

We had a mad scramble at the last minute when John noticed that the rental kayak’s rudder was broken. Fortunately he knew how to fix it and we found the parts at a nearby hardware store. Meanwhile our guide Juan was figuring out how to attach the required Nicaraguan flags onto the back of our boats.

To be continued…

Video of arrival at San Carlos