We decided to visit Nicaragua for our second vacation. My mother was staying in Costa Rica for a while, so she would be coming with us. This meant, I had to be sure we didn’t select an itinerary that would be too physically challenging, as she has problems with her lower extremities. There is one formal border crossing that can be driven through into Nicaragua, and I had heard because of that, you can spend a lot of time waiting. That was not my idea of vacation time well spent! So, back to the map and Google-ing. In the middle of the Costa Rica northern plains, there appeared to be a road that went straight up to Los Chiles, a town that looked to be not far from the border. Turns out, you must leave your car in Los Chiles, get your passport stamped and take a water taxi up the Rio Frio to San Carlos, on the southern shore of Lake Nicaragua. San Carlos sits at the confluence of Lake Nicaragua, Rio Frio and the San Juan rivers.
I’d looked for hotels in San Carlos online and found very few options. All of reviews of people traveling through San Carlos were full of horror stories…dingy eateries, dirty hotels and even a tale of swarms of insects like locusts filling the air! Really. I persevered though and learned of a unique hotel another boat ride from San Carlos up the Rio San Juan. The Rio San Juan flows out to the Caribbean. The Sabalos Lodge is a little over two hour water taxi trip from San Carlos, and boasts jungle cabins on the river’s edge. Most of the Tarzan-like bamboo and palm thatched cabins are built high up off the ground, are simply adorned, open air, but with mosquito nets for the beds and even bathrooms with showers! Each cabin is unique with names like The Jane, Tarzan, “Chita.” The website said, “This is the place for the true adventurer and our goal is to give each of our visitors a genuine experience that will last for a lifetime.”
At the immigration office in Los Chiles, we were told of a place we could safely park our car in a nearby yard while we would be gone. We bought our tickets for the boat ride to San Carlos and waited for the next departure. There seem to be at least three per day, so we were able to catch the one o’clock, which we hoped would allow enough time to ultimately make it to the Sabalos Lodge. The taxis are the primary mode of transportation. The long narrow taxis are old and bare bones and seem to be held together with multiple coats of paint. Everyone tries to seat themselves in the front so they will be the first in line at the immigration window on the dock in San Carlos. There are a few humble shacks built along the water’s edge and the residents lives are centered around the river, fishing, swimming, washing clothes and just laying in hammocks watching the boats pass by.
Stately white egrets pose frozen on the river’s edge waiting for their next meal to swim by and the branches of the huge trees bend down to brush the water’s surface. It is magical! This is the jungle cruise at Disneyland on steroids!
Howler monkeys call from the dense foliage and turtles bask in the sun on logs protruding from the water. Huge bromeliads, too numerous to count, grace the tree limbs and colorful fallen blooms float on the calm brown river water.
We encountered a couple of quick downpours so we lowered the visqueen rolled up on the upper edge of the boat for just this eventuality. A few minutes later we tucked it back up so we could continue to enjoy the view. The engine droned on, and everyone seemed lost in their thoughts. My mom, never one to miss a photo op, is rapidly snapping pictures with the true trigger-finger of a grandma. We stop at a border station about 20 minutes up river and Nicaraguan soldiers in blue camouflage look over the passenger list and one comes aboard for the balance of the trip to San Carlos.
The immigration office is located on a tiny dock and once we disembark, we are herded down a narrow rickety walkway where we line up to wait our turn to get our passports stamped. Everyone has their belongings with them and it’s a little tight. Locals weave their way through the herd to offer cold drinks and bags of mangoes for sale.
We eventually make our way up to the window and the officer is a very nice fellow who we have come to know since that time, and enjoy our brief visits with him each trip. We were greeted by a woman wearing a shirt with the Sabalos Lodge logo. We followed her to a small office down a cobblestone street where we would wait to be taken to the next water taxi going up the Rio San Juan. It was far too hot to sit still, so we took the opportunity to take a short walk around town and get a lay of the land. San Carlos is a small, sleepy, port town where residents of nearby isolated communities come to get supplies. It has a spectacular view of Lake Nicaragua and its’ islands crowned with volcanoes. There are very few tourists, so we were greeted by quite a few “mobile retailers,” as we wandered around town. We found a restaurant on a hill overlooking the lake where we grabbed a cold beer before we headed off on the next boat. This time we loaded up from a muddy, rubble covered stretch of “beach.” We stopped a number of times to let off men hauling large bundles of food and supplies back to their families. Three quarters of the way to our destination, we stopped at a large cement dock which was the tiny river side village of El Castillo. We would stay here for thirty minutes to give passengers time to disembark and load. Many of those that got off, then boarded small canoes and other tiny paddle powered crafts that would take them up tiny arteries that branched off the mighty Rio San Juan. These river communities offer an amazing glimpse of a simple life in isolated jungles.
We finally set off again and before long, we saw the thatched roofs of the Sabalos cabinas. There was a white haired man and two young Nicaraguan woman waving to us as we made our way to their dock. We had arrived just before sundown, so we briefly looked around and got settled into the Family Cabin. We were given fresh squeezed grapefruit juice and asked what we would like for dinner. The proprietor, Yaro, is a gentleman who looks to be in his early seventies and he introduced us to his Nicaraguan wife, a mere twenty year old, if that. We went back to our cabin to watch the sunset from our porch on the river. It was beautiful.
The gravel walkways are lit with oil lamps and the whole scene is very rustic and was a great adventure for the kids! We were the only guests at the lodge and enjoyed an exciting dinner in an open air covered patio with bats flying overhead while we ate. The food was delicious, and not surprisingly, the service was very attentive. Our sleep was sporadic because we were so enthralled with the jungle sounds that surrounded us.
The next morning we discussed our options for activities that day with Yaro. The water of the San Juan runs much too rapidly for swimming or kayaking especially for children and seniors. Going for a hike to explore Fort El Castillo was out given my mom’s physical limitations, so we opted for horseback riding. Unfortunately, our host said he had to go fix something at a business he owned in El Castillo, so it would be late afternoon before he could put a ride together for us, and he didn’t know how many horses he could get. With limited activity options and WARM temperatures setting in, we reassessed our plans. We thought we might spend another night at Sabalos, but the cost of another night plus meals lost out to an explorative jaunt over to Volcan Arenal for the night. This really is a perfect place for the adult adventure traveler and is well known for the amazing fishing, but was not a great fit for this group.
We asked when the next boat would come by heading to San Carlos, and were told that we had missed the only morning boat at 5:30 am, and we’d have to wait until the afternoon for the next. The only other option would be to have Yaro take us to San Carlos on his boat, but that would be almost $200.00 because gas was so expensive at the time. We were up against a time constraint as the trip back to San Carlos was over two hours, then we needed to get back to Los Chiles before nightfall. Yaro quietly insisted there would be no boats to take us back to Los Chiles if we got there after three, which we most certainly would. I was starting to get cranky. It felt like this fellow was trying to keep us here so he could make ends meet until the next fishing derby came along at the end of the week! I decided to push and find out exactly what options we had. It turns out there was a boat coming shortly that would take us to San Carlos, but we would still miss the last boat to Los Chiles. At this point, I was ready to leave this jungle hideaway and see what awaited us on the next leg of this vacation. Yaro was a nice enough host and it sounds like he is charitably involved in the Rio San Juan area, I was just ready to go. We easily waved down the boat that came around 11:30 and when we arrived in San Carlos, found that there were actually a few boats leaving through the afternoon. We got back to Los Chiles and picked up our car then drove over to Volcan Arenal, easily making it by dusk.
We did return to the beautiful Rio Frio a few months later and found a wonderful lodge across the river from San Carlos, Hotel La Esquina Del Lago. We anxiously look forward to making this trip every few months now. It is so relaxing, and so removed from our everyday lives, it’s really a treat! More on our most recent trip in a future post…