Author Archives: Steve Barnes

Imaginary lines

imageBy Vicki Barnes
The towns along the Río San Juan are rough around the edges, as one might expect in the distant frontier of a country.
Sandwiched between the river and the rainforest on land that is Nicaragua, but which in some spots is claimed by Costa Rica, it is not surprising that the residents are strong and a bit boisterous. Continue reading

El Rio Tranquilo: life on the Río San Juan, Nicaragua

imageBy Vicki Barnes
The Río San Juan is far removed from just about everything in the cities of Nicaragua. The distance encompasses time as well as space.
The river is the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, stretching lazily between Lake Nicaragua and the Caribbean Sea. The water belongs to Nicaragua and the land south of its banks are disputed territories. Police from both sides patrol the area and there is no fighting, but both claim the land as their own.
On the river, life moves more slowly than in most places.
There are homes and cattle ranches and small towns from time to time. For the most part, there are vast expanses of undeveloped land.
The best, and in some cases, the only way to get from town to town is by boat. There are the slow boats and the slower boats.
Long motorized “taxis” operate on a regular, though limited schedule. The trip from the mouth of the river at San Carlos to the last stop at El Castillo takes about four hours with about a dozen stops along the way. The full ride costs less than $3 per person. If your destination is closer, you pay less.image
There are faster boats that take you directly to your destination, but you pay more for the convenience.
There is no wifi anywhere once you leave San Carlos. No one, save the internet addicted tourists, seems to miss the instant connectivity with the outside world. They have telephones and that seems to be enough.
You can’t be in a hurry here. The taxi comes by your stop two, or maybe three times a day. That’s when you go. Or, you can walk through the hills above the river. Or paddle along the shore.
The river, which drains 9 million gallons of water a minute from Lake Nicaragua to the sea, moves fast. The people here do not.
Julio and his family have been living for a couple of decades in Sabalo, a small town of a few hundred people at the place where the Sabalo River trickles into the Rio San Juan. He settled in this spot when he left Managua because of both the natural beauty and the history associated with the river.
In the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, the Spanish traveled the river, settling in

The rapids offered additional  protection at El Castille, where the Spanish defended their cities upstream from invading pirates

The rapids offered additional protection at El Castille, where the Spanish defended their cities upstream from invading pirates

Granada and Leon. The British and then buccaneers followed in an effort to lay claim to what they had. A fortress was built above the area where rocky waters form choppy rapids, slowing down the invaders and allowing easier protection.

Miners from the Gold Rush in California sometimes tried to get their treasure from the Pacific to the Atlantic through this part of Nicaragua. Some didn’t make it. At least two sunken ships with gold are said to be in the shallow waters of the rio.
In the 19th century, it was the Americans who came to river, wanting to build a canal. Cornelius Vanderbilt and others made grand plans for a cut through that would make it easier to move goods between the Atlantic and the Pacific. In the end, an easier political climate to the south opened the way for the canal to be built in Panama.
In the mid 20th century, tarpon fishermen came to catch the huge game fish. Some people say the fish could be seen jumping all along the river in those days. Today, they are still being caught, but their numbers are far fewer. One of the locals reported that last September, a whopper  – 140 kilo – tarpon was pulled from the river. It was so big, the town of Sabalo (which means tarpon) had a festival to celebrate the catch.
Nothing comes here easily. Yaro, who owns a small lodge along the river, said that if you want anything – from a nail to a bottle of beer to a can of beans, you must travel to San Carlos.
In the towns, locals sell fruits and vegetables they have grown to one another. A few shopkeepers will make the trek to San Carlos or even Managua to get the things – like American-style clothes or school supplies – that their customers want. They bring in a few items like Coca Cola and cigarettes that the few tourists ask them for. But they are, for the most part, self-sufficient and happy with the life they have.
And, so, life continues slowly along the river. There are restaurants and hostels, a few fishing camps and quiet eco lodges to serve the travelers who want a slower pace from the traditional tourist path.
Jobs are few and some of the younger residents are moving away to look for work. Julio said he made sure his children received a good education to prepare them if they felt the need to go. But, he also raised them in the family businesses – selling food and drink from a boat that travels the river and a small guided tour service of the river.
Business has been good as more people take the slower path on the river. Perhaps his children will be able to stay.
Residents are glad to see the visitors and welcome them warmly. Still they know that if the tourists come in too great of numbers, it could damage their river and their way of life.image

From the lake to the river: an adventure on the way to an adventure

By Vicki Barnes

The road to San Carlos and beyond on the Río San Juan is an arduous trip involving multiple modes of transportation. There is a more direct route, thought it is not for the faint of heart and it is the one we chose.
The ferry from Altagracia at the base of the Concepcion Volcano on the island of Ometepe, leaves under the cover of darkness twice a week. In the morning when you wake up – assuming you were able to sleep – you can see the sun rise over the mouth of the Río San Juan in San Carlos. Continue reading

Refrescos on the go

By Vicki Barnes

imageA warm breeze was blowing off the beach this afternoon as we made our way back to our room. Ninty degrees and dry. Thirst was demanding a my attention.

“Something cool and wet would be perfect right about now,” I said to myself.

And then, as if I had conjured a magical solution to the situation by simply thinking about it, a young man with a wooden cart with a door on top attached to the front of his canibalized bicycle pulled out of a driveway ringing a hand bell. Continue reading

Guest contributor Dave Quinn on Ometepe Island and traveling with kids

We are opening up Budget Nomads to other like-minded travelers who would like to share their experiences from the road. If you would like to become a part of our growing community, please send your stories and/or photos to If you have a blog of your own, we would be happy to do a link exchange as well.

We met Dave Quinn and his family at the Hacienda Merida on the Island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. Dave is the “Outdoors Guy” for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC). This is the story he prepared for the CBC, which he’s sharing with all of us.

By Dave Quinn

This week I will be checking in from Isla Omatepe in Nicaragua. Nicaragua itself is such a fun place to travel, for many reasons. It is relatively small – seven Nicaragua’s would fit inside BC – but the country is incredibly diverse (something on the order of 10 to 20 times the biodiversity of BC, depending on how you calculate it), with a Caribbean and Pacific Coast, a backbone of mountains and volcanos, and the two largest lakes in Central America. It has been long overlooked as a tourist destination, mainly due to US President Ronald Reagan’s illegal war on Nicaragua from the late 1970’s to the mid-1980’s. Continue reading

Showering here could be a shocking experience

By Vicki Barnes

Of the things we’ve done without on our trek – television, air conditioning, telephones, washing machines – there is one thing that Steve says he misses one thing more than any of those: a hot shower.

Frankly, with temperatures in the upper 90s most days, I find a cool shower feels far more refreshing.image

It is rare in a hostel to find hot water. A shower here is a place to wash off the grime you have collected during the day. It is not a place to luxuriate under a cascade of warmth.

It is not just hostels where hot water is difficult to find, most of the residents in Central America can not afford a water heater for their home, much less the electricity necessary to heat that cylinder of water and to maintain it at a high temperature. Continue reading

Top 10 things I learned in Leon today

By Vicki Barnes


Supervising repairs on your sidewalk

1. If the sidewalk in front of your residence is broken, you are responsible for fixing it – or hiring someone else to do it. And, you had better supervise their work to be sure it gets done. This 3 by 5 foot project has been going on for the four days we have been here. It was still unfinished  as of this evening. You don’t have to fix the walk, but you can’t make a call to the city to have the work done.

2. If you are riding a motorcycle with a pair of propane tanks strapped to the back, you need only honk your horn and everyone else in the  intersection will come to a grinding halt and you can pass though without even slowing down. Continue reading

Nothing to fear, but the volcano itself…

By Vicki Barnes

The crew of intrepid volcano boarders assembles at the foot of Cerro Negro

The crew of intrepid volcano boarders assembles at the foot of Cerro Negro

There, before us, is a half a mile tall pile of rubble and ash, a place where the earth rumbled and cracked open and spit out fire from its core. Fire and molten rock shot from this place and when it cooled, it left this beautiful thing we call a volcano. Continue reading

Don’t look up

By Vicki Barnes

It’s amazing that I have seen anything in Nicaragua.

Walking through town, one hops from sidewalk to street and back, depending on traffic, the placement of impromptu stores or where a group has gathered for a chat. Cars are sometimes parked on the sidewalk while the streets are clear.

A walk becomes a dance…a precarious one. Moving both forward and sideways simultaneously. Jumping while moving ahead. Stopping and going to the side…all at once.

All the while, there are hazards like this three foot deep hole, unmarked and without warning. You have to be prepared for these extra dancers on the way while still keeping an eye on the world around you.


Getting high in Granada

By Vicki Barnes

One of the best ways to experience the city of Granada in Nicaragua is to get high.

High, that is, above the city in the bell tower of the Iglesia La Merced.

The view of the cathedral from the bell tower at Iglesia La Merced

The view of the cathedral from the bell tower at Iglesia La Merced

The iconic church, just a few blocks from the central park, is a beautiful spot to see at ground level, but when you change your perspective, it becomes an even more amazing trip.

Only about six stories high, the observation platform is high enough in a city where only the churches rise above two stories. From the vantage point near the top of the bell tower, you can see the surrounding volcanoes, the central square and cathedral, Lake Nicaragua and every red tiled roof in the city. (It’s fun to try to guess under which roof you are sleeping that night as they are identical.) Continue reading