- Where to Go
- The Best of Nicaragua
- Nicaragua’s Best Surfing
- Hiking Nicaragua’s Ring of Fire
- Nicaraguan Arts & Crafts
- Nicaragua’s Great Green North
- Sportfishing in Nicaragua
- Down the Río San Juan
- Nicaragua’s Celebrations & Fiestas
- Volunteering in Nicaragua
- Diving & Snorkeling in Nicaragua
- Managua’s Revolutionary Driving Tour
The fortress of El Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepción de María was strategically placed with a long view downriver, right in front of the shark- and crocodile-infested Raudal el Diablo (still a navigational hazard).
Now dark, moss-covered ruins, the Fortress of the Immaculate Conception is the one place in this region you should not miss.
The town (pop. 1,500) has neither roads nor cars—reason enough to visit. Its residents work on farms in the surrounding hills, fish the river, commute to the sawmill in Sábalos, the palm oil factory up the Río San Juan, or one of the new resorts up and down the river.
In between harvests, a lot of folks cross illegally into Costa Rica—an easy 45-minute walk. El Castillo celebrates its fiestas patronales on March 19.
Ruy Díaz, on the first Spanish exploration of the river in 1525, built the first fortification to defend Granada in 1602, on a section of the river he called “The House of the Devil.” In 1673, Spain commissioned the building of a new fort, which, when completed two years later, was the largest fortress of its kind in Central America, with 32 cannons and 11,000 weapons. Granada, at long last, felt safe.
But in 1762 Spain and Britain began the Seven Years War, prompting the governor of Jamaica to order an invasion of Nicaragua. An expedition of 2,000 soldiers took all the fortifications until they reached El Castillo, where a massive battle commenced on July 29.
Rafaela Herrera, the 19-year-old daughter of the fort’s fallen commander, Jose Herrera, seized command of her father’s troops and succeeded in driving off the British, who retreated to San Juan del Norte on August 3.
Eighteen years later, 22-year-old Horatio Nelson entered the Río San Juan with a force of 3,500 men. He captured the fortification at Bartola on April 9, and then, two days later, El Castillo via a surprise, landside assault. Nine months later sans reinforcement, the soon-to-be Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson and his handful of surviving soldiers—all rotting from sickness—pulled out and went home.
Fishing and Recreation
Asociación Municipal Ecoturismo El Castillo (AMEC) can help with boat rental ($10 per hour for two people) and fishing (rods and lures for $5 per day, $10 to replace a lost lure), or charter fishing (from $140 per day). These prices keep rising as El Castillo becomes more popular, so be sure to check at the caseta near the dock.
The AMEC caseta can also help you arrange full- or half-day river and tributary tours and hikes, jungle tours (popular, $75–90 for up to six people), canoe trips ($10 pp for two people), horseback tours ($15 pp), or a nighttime caiman-watching tour ($45 for a group of four). Unfortunately smaller groups pay the same minimum price.
Visiting the Fort
Celebrating 500 years in the Americas, the government of Spain restored the fortress at great cost, building both a historical museum and lending library, plus the nearby school and Hotel Albergue. The museum (open 8 a.m.–noon and 1–5 p.m., $2) is pertinent and interesting, showing the history of the fortress and a collection of arms and other items dating as far back as the 1500s, including a pile of cannon balls and early rum bottles. A nearby mariposario (butterfly farm) was also built by the Spanish, although much more recently.
Hotels and Resorts
Most hospedajes are downstream from the dock. The ones closest cost $4 a night but don’t offer much. On a side street there’s Nena Lodge and Tours (tel. 505/8419-8158, nenalodgeandtours [at] yahoo [dot] es, www.nenalodge.com, $10), with 10 rooms and a streetside balcony, and Hotel Richarson (tel. 505/8644-0782, $15).
The most comfortable of the budget options is Casa de Huespedes y Restaurante El Chinandegano (tel. 505/2583-0191, $4 pp shared bath, $2 extra private bath).
The two-story, wooden Hotel Albergue El Castillo (tel. 505/8924-5608, minar.calero [at] yahoo [dot] com, $15 pp) was built in 1992 with the help of the Spanish government. Its comfortable double balcony overlooks the town, the river, and rapids beyond. It sleeps up to 35 people, with shared bath, and the $15 per person price includes an excellent breakfast, bottomless cup of coffee (legitimate coffee, not instant—a rarity in these parts), and 30 minutes of Internet time. The bar and restaurant are roomy and classy.
Hotel Victoria (tel. 505/2583-0188, $20 pp includes breakfast) is newer and cleaner than some of the cheaper hotels, and has hot water. Many of the rooms have bunk beds, however, and most have shared baths. Victoria is at the very end of the road leading downstream from the dock.
Travelers on a larger budget will want to treat themselves to Posada del Rio (on the left side of the walkway down from the dock, tel. 505/8616-3528, $70, includes breakfast). In Granada, Hotel Colonial is owned by the same family, and the luxury is similar. The rooms are well decorated and all have private balconies overlooking the water, private state-of-the-art bathrooms, hot water, and air-conditioning. Laundry service available.
There’s delicious and frighteningly large river shrimp at El Cofalito and steaming bowls of soup at Soda Conchita, served on a nice second-story deck. El Chinandegano is the best value ($2 for basic meals), but there is lots of similar fare down by the dock.
Border’s Coffee (open 7 a.m.–10 p.m. daily), located across the dock from El Cofalito, has an espresso machine, tasty pastries and desserts, fresh juices and milk shakes, all in a great ambience.
Getting to El Castillo
Lanchas colectivas (to El Castillo $3.50, three hours or $1.50, five hours) depart San Carlos daily at 8 a.m., 10 a.m. (fast boat), noon, 2:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m., and 4:15 p.m. (fast boat). The last fast boat makes part of the journey after dark, which is more dangerous. Returning, boats leave for San Carlos 5 a.m.–2 p.m., with two fast boats at 5:30 a.m. and 11 a.m.
To go downstream, ask around the dock or at the Albergue. Boats for San Juan del Norte pass through on Tuesday and Friday around 9 a.m. They head upstream on Thursday and Sunday, passing El Castillo in the early afternoon. It costs $11 to get to San Juan del Norte from El Castillo and $17 on the fast boat, which is more than worth it for the six hours it saves you.
© Randall Wood & Joshua Berman from Moon Nicaragua, 4th Edition