- 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
Surrounded on three sides by a watery horizon, San Carlos’s sky is frequently pierced by bright rainbows sparked by afternoon showers. San Carlos, a town of about 10,000 people founded in 1527, is one of the oldest towns on the continent, and has served as a raucous and spirited way station for many travelers over the centuries.
San Carleños are a lively bunch. Many were born elsewhere in the country and ended up here on their way to somewhere else—field hands on their way to Costa Rican harvests, border soldiers on leave from remote posts, and lake and river merchants trading with Chontales cattlemen.
All foreign travelers in the Río San Juan region are obliged to pass through San Carlos, the departmental, economic, and transport hub of the region. The city has cleaned up its act and greatly improved in the last few years, with a new waterfront park, new bus station, improved airstrip, and an increasing number of services (the region’s first ATM was installed in 2009).
In the words of one reader: “It’s a bustling, cheerful place, and in spite of the odd rough spot, it may be the cleanest city in Nicaragua.” Indeed, there are garbage cans on every corner, street sweepers, and newly painted homes, giving San Carlos a whole new look and feel.
Getting to San Carlos
By Air: Due to its remote location, we recommend taking a flight to San Carlos. There are two daily 50-minute flights from Managua on weekdays, one at 8 a.m. and one at 1:30 p.m. The view as you arc over the lake and volcanoes is stunning. Only the morning plane leaves on Saturdays and just the afternoon plane makes the flight on Sundays. The return flight departs San Carlos immediately after landing and unloading.
The round-trip costs $120. Contact La Costeña in Managua (tel. 505/2263-2142). In San Carlos, the La Costeña office is run by Doña María Amelia Gross out of her home (one block west of the BDF bank, tel. 505/2583-0271). Always reserve your spot as far in advance as you can, as flights fill up fast. Getting on the waiting list and trying to go stand-by works more often than you would think for a 12-person plane.
By Land: While a highway project connecting Managua and San Carlos is in the works, for now the second half of the journey remains rough. Buses leave Managua’s Mayoreo market, starting at 5 a.m. with the last night bus leaving at 6:30 p.m. The first of the seven buses to Managua is at 6:30 a.m., the last at 10 p.m. The 300-kilometer trip costs under $10. In San Carlos, buses for all destinations leave from the terminal near the municipal dock. If driving on your own, be sure to have a spare tire and jack, plus water and provisions, as you will need all of them.
By Boat: There are three weekly boat runs between Granada’s municipal dock and San Carlos. The older ferry leaves Monday and Thursday at 2 p.m., making stops at Altagracia, Ometepe at 6 p.m. and Morito and San Miguelito before arriving in San Carlos around 6 a.m., $10 for padded first-class seats with air-conditioning, and hard wooden seats below. There is also a VIP suite for $110. The same boat departs San Carlos bound for Granada on Tuesdays and Fridays at 2 p.m.; be there at least an hour in advance to get your ticket. This boat passes Ometepe around 1 or 2 a.m., where you can get off at Altagracia.
The boat gets crowded at times, especially around Semana Santa, when the hot easterly winds chop the lake into steep swells, and the voyage degenerates into a 16-hour puke-fest. Get there early and be aggressive to stake your territory topside. At other times of the year, the ride is long but generally pleasant, and sailing west is always easier than sailing east.
A third boat, the Barco Turistico, leaves Granada Fridays at 7 p.m., stopping only in Altagracia, then arriving in San Carlos the following morning at 6 a.m. It departs San Carlos Sunday evening at 6 p.m.; cost is $20 for first class (includes coffee and drink service), $13 for economy. For more info, contact Empersario Portuario (tel. 505/2583-0256).
© Randall Wood & Joshua Berman from Moon Nicaragua, 4th Edition