Rio San Juan Series #3 of 11: Sábalos to El Castillo (Nica Nugget #69)

Our guide Juan Alberto Aguilar Gomez and his daughter Andy met us at our hotel in Sábalos the following misty morning. They live in El Castillo, ten miles down river, and had come up in Juan’s panga, pulling one of their three-seater fiberglass canoes behind.

Hotel Sábalos

For the remainder of our river journey – five days and ninety-eight miles to go – instead of staying in their rented double sea kayak, Eve and JoAnne would be paddling this canoe down river, with a guide in the third seat at the stern. John and I would continue in our sea kayaks.

Juan’s daughter Andy would be in the back of the canoe for this first stretch. Then Juan would be coming up alongside us later in his panga and would trade places with Andy to guide us through El Castillo’s main rapids called El Diablo (the Devil).

Eve and JoAnne join Juan’s daughter Andy in the canoe.

We finished our coffee and yummy huevos rancheros – with Nicaragua’s requisite gallo pinto – while Juan procured our next set of military-issued transport permits (Sarpes).

The military controls the Rio San Juan. I’m guessing it’s because the river runs along the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica and there’s a historical dispute between them over control of the water resource. These Sarpes will allow us to travel on this next particular section of river, from this checkpoint to the next military checkpoint. There, another set of Sarpes will be needed.

With Sarpes in hand, we were ready to go.

John and me in our kayaks.

Once in our boats, we decided to take a quick look at the town just up the Rio Sabalos from our hotel which sat at its mouth, so we paddled a short ways up.

The town was busy with people, and boats and wooden buildings lined either side of the river. We passed women washing clothes in the river. And children jumping in and swimming. The wharf was busy. It looked like a bus had just pulled in.

This road was the last road we would see on the northern, Nicaraguan side of the Rio San Juan, all the way to the Caribbean Sea. And even there, in San Juan de Nicaragua (formerly known as San Juan del Norte, and a replacement town for the abandoned and demolished Greytown), there are no vehicles or vehicular roads.

Our hotel in El Castillo was right on the river below the rapids.

From here on out, we’d be immersed in a culture of river people: of a people whose children learn the turn of a paddle and the sway of a dugout before they ever step into a school; of a people whose adults know the river as both their grocery store and their only open road.

We were excited, and even the Rio San Juan itself felt different here at Boca de Sábalos.

Whereas before the river had been broad and flowed slowly past many a farm or deforested lot, here at Sábalos the river narrowed, picked up speed and formed the first set of rapids, El Toro. Well, they were really only ripples at this high water.

But it was great to see the river have some spunk and do its own wee bit of dancing, as if it too were excited about getting into the wilds.

The current was fast here actually. The fastest, in retrospect, that we experienced during our entire trip. And what a welcome relief this was after our long, slow, sun-scorched paddle the day before.

The view upriver from the fort at El Castillo.

Ten miles was all we needed to paddle today and it went by very quickly.

Juan came up alongside us, shot a quick video (see my next Nica Nugget #70) and zoomed off in his panga, disappearing around a bend that opened up to El Castillo.

It’s easy to know when you are approaching El Castillo.

El Castillo is both a fort on top of a hill with a magnificent long view up and down river, and a colorful town built snug tight to the shore with the rapids in front and the jungle behind.

We pulled over above the rapids at a wharf at the very start of the small town. There stood Juan, who quickly took Andy’s spot at the back of the canoe as soon as she jumped out.

“Hola, Juan,” was all we had time to say before he waved and turned the canoe, and Eve and JoAnne with him, out into the quickening stream. He ferried across the river above the rapids in search of the gentler passage favored by the pangas. John and I lined up not far behind him in our sea kayaks.

The car-less streets of El Castillo.

The river was high and so the rocks were all covered, but Juan, who probably knows this rapid like the proverbial back of his hand, knew exactly the path to take. In fact he had time to stop and shoot another video (see Nica Nugget #70).

If we knew this stretch of river and these rapids, it looked like it would’ve been fun to ride the wave train, but not knowing the rapid at all we followed the safer route of our guide. And on his route there were waves enough, especially when we ferried back across the river straight towards our hotel before the rapid even ended.

Our hotel, Hotel Posada del Rio, was another gem and we arrived there before noon. We had the whole afternoon to explore the town and the fort, and to eat, drink and be merry. Our only task was to stop by Juan’s house before the day was up, to try on rain boots in preparation for our jungle hike tomorrow.

The town has lovely pedestrian streets and alleys weaving alongside brightly colored, tin-roofed buildings. And boats and boats and more boats. And small hotels and restaurants, all waiting and ready for the flocks of tourists to return.

The fort was built in 1673 by the Spanish Crown after pirates such as Henry Morgan continued to loot Grenada of its gold and riches.

Looking up towards the fort and the rapids from our hotel.

It is officially known as the Fort of the Immaculate Conception, in honor of the Virgin Mary. It has a small museum and also a small entry fee.

The view from up there is commanding. We stood on the ramparts and gawked. Down at the river and the ferry panga which was churning its way up the rapids. Over the patchwork of multi-colored tin-roofed buildings to the patch of grass in front of our hotel and the two kayaks, pink and blue, there resting.

How many men, indigenous, mulatto, negro, stood on this exact same spot watching for pirates? In the museum I read that only three men, those in command, were actually Spaniards, and that since their men hadn’t been paid in three years, they were concerned that their men might mutiny. So, how many men stood in this exact same spot and thought of mutiny?

A view of our kayaks and hotel from the Fort.

How many stood here and then lost their lives to pirates, or later, how many to the British, and even later to the American William Walker? How many stood here as they were dying of disease or starvation, or right before they drowned in the rapids?

And how different really is the river now from then?

But back to the present and our task at hand. We went to Juan’s house, which was easy to find, and met Andy again, who fitted us for our rain boots.

That done, we needed a cold drink. (I don’t think I’ve mentioned the heat and humidity today, have I? Just know – it’s always hot and humid.)

Juan’s two daughters in front of his home and Ardillas Tours.

We stumbled upon a simple restaurant which stood on wooden stilts out over the river. There was a breeze and a beautiful view. There was an elderly man who served us fresh-squeezed lemonade. And there was a very tall African-American man from South Carolina, a lawn-mower repairman by trade, who was in El Castillo with his wife, son and nephew for two months on mission as Jehovahs Witnesses. He envied us our rain boots. Nowhere in town could he find a pair for himself and his size thirteen feet. He also wanted to move and retire to El Castillo, where the pace of life was so much easier. His wife, who was nowhere to be seen, appears to think differently.

Our stomach’s started growling. It was time to head back to our hotel for dinner and a couple of rousing games of Rummikub (seldom travel without it!) under a single, dangling shadow-casting bulb.

To be continued…