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Here’s a post from our friend Stewart about his travels on the Río San Juan just a week or so before we were there. Stew is a solo backpacker who has traveled to Central America and Asia with little more than a few pairs of shorts, a bathing suit and shoes. He has meditated with monks in mountain retreats for a week and bicycled from mountains to the shore. He knows how to experience the heart of a place.
I decided on full-bore pampering and went to Refugio Bartola. The food was excellent and every meal was included with lodging for $50 US a night, plus free canoes, free access to their private reserve bordering Indio Mais. Guide was $20 for a morning tour, awesome primary rainforest, saw howlers, caimans, paca, possum-like animals, a mountain cat called a “tida?,” and of course birds of all sorts, eg ospreys, egrets, great blue heron. Little tip: don’t let the Refugio staff or the tourist guides in El Castillo tell you you have to pay $25-30US per trip to get to the Refugio because the public boat to/from San Juan de Nicaragua goes right by it, 2 bucks or less.
Another thing that fired up my imagination was the little historical tour of the El Castillo fort and its interpretive centre, I didn’t realize that the fort was such a key location for Caribbean pirates and the Spanish.
I would add that a good place to stay in El Castillo is Posada del Rio, it is all warm wood and accommodating staff situated right outside the second boat launch in El Castillo, right by Hotel Victoria. Their room for one with bathroom was like $15 a night while I was there. Also there was a caiman about the size of a pre-teen lurking under the bridge as we crossed over to this hotel on the first occasion, a great introduction.
I also stayed at Luna del Rio for the night, it was really nicely appointed but Pricey, $35.00 for a large-ish comfortable bed in a single room. Good for honeymooners but not for a backpacker on a budget. The owner was nice but she kept claiming (after I’d told her twice) that she knew nothing about the cheap public boat to the Refugio Bartola, which was going to be $30 US for a 30-minute trip if I did things her way. I think that the proximity to Costa Rica and its tourists may have upped the prices in this one little slice of Nicaragua, El Castillo definitely seemed more expensive to me.
Oh, and I did have a good experience with Mildred, the English-speaking travel guide in the tourist office overlooking the main dock at El Cast. She was unfailingly pleasant, helpful, and honest and the one who gave me info about the public boats. The nature canoe tour she set up was more a jaunt down a stream flowing between cattle fields, pleasant enough for seeing birds but clearly not out in the wilderness either.The guide had some grand-faluting name for the stream that I don’t remember, Rio somethin-or-other, I started referring to it as the Rio Vaca because of the close proximity to barnyard animals.