Welcome to El Castillo……you can check out anytime you like but you can never leave

Firstly I’ve got to say it’s very peaceful right now, it’s 8 am and I’m sitting on a deck at the Hotel Victoria looking right over the Río San Juan with a splendid view of the fort of El Castillo on the hill that overlooks the town. I’ve gotten a decent shower for the first time in four days and slept in air conditioning, breakfast is included in our room price so things are looking pretty good.

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My view from the deck at Hotel Victoria, the Fort of El Castillo top left

The Rìo San Juan was one of the original locations looked at for a route between the Pacific and Carribean and was used for awhile as a major trade route. When the Panama Canal opened all major shipping operations moved there and the towns along the river went into decline. El Castillo has started to promote tourism however of the people still make their living fishing and doing other agricultural work.

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An old map from the museum display at the fort

Our boat ride here took just over three hours due to the boat stopping at whatever dock along the river that someone needed to get off at. These boats are like the buses of the river so to speak. When we arrived we were told that all the rooms in the town were full. All of them. It turns out we were in this very small town the same weekend as a binational festival between Nicaraugua and Costa Rica was taking place. To celebrate and endangered green parrot. Apparently 200 additional people flood the town until Sunday. We decided to try our luck and ask anyway and luckily found a place that had a room open……for one night. For $70. While still only under $20 pp it hurts the pocketbook knowing that the places could be had for less if the occupancy rate wasn’t at, oh, 100%! The two ladies who run the Hotel Victoria are very cool, very friendly and the place is clean, nice and has AC.

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A view of El Castilo from the river

So now our real dilemma begins, the ferry back to Ometepe leaves on Tuesday from San Carlos not on Monday like we thought which would get us to the island at midnight on Tuesday with only Wednesday to check things out before having to to roll directly to Managua the next morning. Our next option is to catch a flight from San Carlos to Managua and then from there perhaps head to León. There are however no available flights. On any of the days we need. So now it looks like we need to catch the 5 am boat from El Castillo to San Carlos and then catch a 6 hour chicken bus ride to Managua and then from there the plan is on to León for the last few days of the trip. It’s going to be another long day of travel ahead of us.

Luckily for us the ladies at our hotel talked to the place right next door and got us rooms for the night somehow, $16 a night for a private room with its own bathroom. Beats sleeping in a hammock like we had planned.

We spent the early park of the day walking around town and then went to the main landmark, the fort of El Castillo. The fort was constructed in 1675 to resist the pirate incursions that we’re taking place at the time. El Castillo was attacked several times while pirates were on the way to loot Granada. Both Sir Francis Drake and Captain Henry Morgan were said to have tried taking the town.

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La Fortaleza de El Castillo

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Harmony walking up the path to the fort

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Harms and I on the fort – El Castillo in the back

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El Río San Juan. – flowing from Lake Nicaragua to the Carribean

The fort itself is at the top of the hill overlooking the town and the river, unlike other forts we’ve seen on other trips not too much reconstructive work has been done here. It costs $2 entrance fee and $1 if you want to take pictures. I didn’t see any staff the entire time we were there, nor any other tourists. You can get a 360° view from the top of the town and river stretching in both directions.

We found a pepper bush growing at the top of the fort and being a pirate myself, liberated a pepper to share among the few of us who love the spice. This turned out to be kind of a bad idea and our lips were burning for about 15 minutes after biting into it.

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The mighty pepper bush

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What we are about to do, let no man repeat

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14 hours and counting

We officially started our trip from Isla de Ometepe to El Castillo via San Carlos at about 4:30 yesterday afternoon. Our taxi driver Jorge picked us up in Moyagalpa in front of the shop we rented scooters from earlier. The drive to the port at Altagracia took about 45 minutes, most of it on paved roads but once we got on the road to the port it was gravel, rocks and potholes. We waited for about an hour before boarding the ferry that would take us to San Carlos and from there we needed to catch a riverboat up the San Juan River.

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The ferry itself was pretty nice, 2nd class (Planta Baja- lower level) tickets were just over $3 however we decided to splurge and go for the $7 tickets (Planta Alta – upper level) which was definitely the right move. The upper level had a large deck area to hang out on and to sweeten the pot there was an air conditioned room with padded benches and a tv showing movies, much better than the wooden bench seats below decks. We had planned to have drinks and play cards however drinking booze on board was forbidden so my huge bottle of rum will have to wait for El Castillo. They were selling food and sodas on board so it’s nice to know that we wouldn’t be lacking for refreshment if we needed it.

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The ferry from Puerto de Gracia to San Carlos leaves twice a week and we chose the overnight ferry to save money on a hostel and so we wouldn’t burn daylight traveling. I knew Lago de Nicaragua was huge (fun fact, only fresh water lake to have sharks in it, bull sharks. Oh, and shark in Spanish is tiburòn) but didn’t fully grasp that fact until the realization that a ten hour ferry ride was ahead of us…it took more like 12 hours from port to port. Luckily the stars were out which made for some good skyward entertainment, and even luckier, we had claimed a couple of benches with our backpacks so when it became too dark to see anything but the stars we headed inside the AC to stretch out and watch American movies dubbed into Spanish.

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I eventually crashed out for awhile but woke up at 10:30 to realize that time goes very slowly on a ferry when you’ve got a lot of it ahead of you. Luckily for me they were showing a little movie called….John Rambo. I eventually got back to sleep off and on until the sun started rising around 5 am as we neared the port at San Carlos.

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The first small boat up the river leaving at 6:30 was already full so we had a couple of hours to kill until the 8 am boat. San Carlos is a small town so we decided to take a walk around and find somewhere to eat breakfast. The local market was in full swing and we spied a pretty busy outdoor cafeteria at the local bus station and opted for food there. Both Harmony and Laura got Gallo Pinto, a tortilla and coffee for the princely sum of $1.50. Having finished breakfast with an hour to kill we walked around a bit eyeballing the stalls and stopping at the outside market to buy some fresh produce for later. Guacamole made with fresh avocado, tomato and limes is amazing, just saying.

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I’m currently writing this as we’re heading up river to the town of El Castillo, three hours up from San Carlos. We don’t think the ferry leaves until Monday so we’ve got about three days to see what this area of Nicaragua is like. All I know is that there’s a fort, giant river shrimp to eat, and there’s no ATM and none of the hotels appear to take credit cards so….hope we brought enough cash!

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