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Nicaraguan Frontier Journey Part I

El Castillo, NicaraguaThere are few, if any, roads on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. There are, however, many rivers that empy into the Caribbean. Moving from one town to the next means long boat rides. For whatever reason this appealed to me. Maybe it was because it was a departure from taking buses. Or maybe [...]

El Castillo, Nicaragua

There are few, if any, roads on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. There are, however, many rivers that empy into the Caribbean. Moving from one town to the next means long boat rides. For whatever reason this appealed to me. Maybe it was because it was a departure from taking buses. Or maybe because it gives me the best chance to not see herds of backpackers moving about. In reality it probably appealed to me for both reasons.

It also appealed to Tez as well as two others we met on Little Corn; Sean and Becki. So, the four of us packed our bags and set off to see some of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast. With nothing more than what our guidebooks gave us and talking with locals we made our way from the Corn Islands down to El Castillo. As soon as we started the guidebooks became almost useless and were filled with wrong information. Here is guidebook advice versus reality.

Corn Islands to Bluefields:
Footprints: Leaves Tuesday, 0900, US$12 5-6 hrs; and Fri and Sun 1200.
LonelyPlanet: Ferry 1 leaves Big Corn at 6:00 am on Sunday and arrives at Bluefields at 10:00pm

My Experience:
The real boat schedule for the Corn Islands can be found here. The guidebooks are just going to be wrong on these schedules every time.

Tez, Sean and I found a cargo boat leaving on Sunday night at 11:00 pm. We got on the boat early to claim our spots and string up some hammocks. Quite proud of ourselves for getting one of the better spots on the boat Tez and Sean celebrated by drinking some rum. As Tez said, “It may make me vilely ill but drinking rum on a boat just seems like the right thing to do.” It didn’t make either of them ill, but they did need to use the bathroom. The only problem was that by the time they needed to go there were so many people on-board sleeping on the deck of the boat you couldn’t get out of the hammock without stepping on someone.

Our plan on board was to get some sleep during the seven hour ride. Instead we spent a sleepless night swinging into one another after a misguided step of stringing our hammocks up too close together and a rooster on board that crowed for the last two hours of the journey.

Footprints: Dirty, chaotic yet curiously inviting, Bluefields, the most important of Nicaragua’s three Caribbean ports…Be prepared for frequent power and water cuts.

Lonely Planet: Bluefields, with its slow pace, ready smiles, decayed tropical charm, and slightly sketchy underbelly, is quintessential. …definitely worth getting to know…

The towns most striking building is the Moravian Church, a lovely building with characteristic stained glass.

My Experience:
Footprints was mostly right on describing this town except for the ‘curiously inviting’ part. Lonely Planet’s description has so many flowery adjectives to describe a place so unpleasant it’s a joke. There is nothing inviting about this town. After seven hours on a boat overnight we arrived in Bluefields to find out the town was powerless and waterless and had been for the last twenty-four hours.

Out front of the ‘striking’ and ‘lovely’ Moravian Church I found a human tooth and a starved dog that was ready to keel over and die any second. I can’t say this place is inviting or ‘definitely worth getting to know’, but it is memorable to say the least.

From Atlantic Frontier 2011-01
Emaciated dog that was near death out front of the Moravian Church in Bluefields.

El Rama:
Footprints: Nothing except you can go there on a panga.
Lonely Planet: About the same info as in Footprints. It exists.

My Experience:
Wanting to get out of Bluefields we grabbed a panga for El Bluff which is a fifteen minute ride across the river. If you need to stay in the Bluefields area for more than twenty-four hours this is where you want to go. It’s a small town. No internet access. There’s one hotel and one restaurant where you eat at a families living room table. There is a beach. Not the greatest, but it’s there.

We ended up spending four days waiting for a boat to take us to San Juan del Norte. The days were passed here with a lot of drinking, cards, watching movies and a stomach virus.

From Atlantic Frontier 2011-01
How we spent four days in El Rama; cards, rum and food.

BluefieldsEl Rama to San Juan del Norte:
Footprints: There is little chance of connecting with Bluefields, north of the Caribbean coast, unless you have lots of patience, cash and a strong, sea-faring stomach. You might hitch a ride on a fishing boat if your lucky, otherwise expect a challenging trip.

Lonely Planet: If you’re lucky you can find a cargo boat.

My Experience:
Patience is definitely needed but it’s possible and both books need to be updated. There are regular boats that make the journey between both towns.

Granted, these boats are pangas and they would be cruising in the open ocean so you can expect a rough three hour ride in the best of conditions and a wet, spine snapping five to seven hour ride in the worst of conditions.

We skipped the Monday morning panga being too tired for a rough ocean ride and moved over to El Bluff. We opted for the panga leaving three days later or a free ride on a cargo boat from a captain that Becki had met the previous day. He was 95% sure he was leaving the following day from El Bluff. Well, we didn’t leave the next day, or the day after that. We waited for four days (the same day as the next available panga) to take Captain Pedro’s cargo boat loaded full of gasoline down the coast for a ten hour overnight journey. Pedro and his crew were great. The stars were plentiful as well as the bio-luminescence.

San Juan del Norte
Footprints: One of the wettest places on the American continent with more than 5000 mm of rain each year, San Juan del Norte is also one of the most beautiful, with primary forest, lagoons, rivers and the Caribbean Sea.

Lonely Planet: No description I could find.

My Experience:
We arrived here at 7:00 am expecting to stay for around two days. An hour later we were on another boat out of town on our way to El Castillo. Why? The town is a cluster of houses on the side of a river without any type of charm. It’s remote (i.e. no roads, just boats connecting this town to the outside world) and there isn’t too much going on here. This isn’t so bad but the prices in town were absurd. I went from paying $3.50 for a room with a private bath and tv to a town wanting you to pay $35-$70 for the same room. No thanks. If you’re going to charge these prices at least they could install an ATM in the town so you can withdraw more money. This place left a bad taste in our mouths so we got out on the only boat of the day going to El Castillo. On the positive side it wasn’t raining when we were there.

San Juan del Norte to El Castillo:
Footprints: The Rio San Juan, running through deep jungles, drains Lake Nicaragua…it is the best area in Nicaragua to spot wildlife. This great river has played an integral part in Nicaragua’s colonial and post-colonial history and is one of the most accessible of the country’s many pristine nature-viewing areas.

Lonely Planet: The river that makes Nicaraguans hearts stir with pride flows 199km from Lago de Nicaragua to the Caribbean. For much of its length, the river forms the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica and has been a frequent source of tensions between the two nations.

A trip on the San Juan is a fabulous experience – it’s an aviaries paradise…

My Experience:
Yep, there are a lot of birds and thick jungle and it’s definitely a sore spot in relations between the two countries politically. I wish either book would have mentioned the frequent military check points you go through while moving along the river. I lost track of how many check points we stopped at (it was either five or six) for bag searches and passport checks. Also, as I personally found out you can’t take photos while viewing wildlife. If you try expect a visit from a military patrol boat in order to erase your photos.


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Filed under: Cubicle Ditcher, Nicaragua

About the Author:

Sam Langley left a comfortable and profitable job with an insurance company in the USA to travel the world. He has been going for years, and has not stopped yet. Keep up with his travels on his blog at Cubicle Ditcher. has written 147 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

3 comments… add one

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  • D January 11, 2011, 4:01 pm

    Ah yeah, that takes me back to crossing the Yememi desert from Hadramaut to Marib on the back of a qat merchant's pickup truck – back when Westerners still had a chance to make it through that sort of thing alive and unspoiled. The best stuff is what the guidebook people don't even think to do.

    Uncle D

    P.S. Missed you at Xmas – but you probably didn't miss the cold and snow.

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  • Wade | VagabondJourney.com January 18, 2011, 5:21 pm

    Wow man, getting out there. Good on ya!

    You can't take photos of the wildlife?

    It is amazing how so many countries really don't "get" tourism.

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  • Sam January 20, 2011, 3:30 pm

    Well, you can take the photos near El Castillo but not at the mouth of the river. There is a large dispute going on between Nicaragua and Costa Rica right now about the river. Nicaragua is dredging near the mouth of the river which violates some kind of international law and so they don't want anyone taking photos of them doing what they shouldn't be doing in the first place.

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