Monthly Archives: April 2016

Canoeing the Río Bartola

The Bartola Refugio is located right where the Río Bartola meets the Río San Juan and the Costa Rican border and is right on the boundary of the Indio-Maíz Reserve.   They have lots of hiking trails and a couple of canoes for guests to use, so I headed out onto the river both mornings I was there to explore.

Unlike our tank of kayak in Solentiname, these canoes were very light (so much easier to maneuver) and very unstable (much more interesting to get into and out of).   But the good folk of Bartola were there to help me get started at 5:30am, and even though I sank up to my knee in mud the first time I went to get in (it would seem that the river bank was quite muddy), no further mishaps after that.

canoeing rio bartola

The Río Bartola is very small in comparison to the Río San Juan and, in this extreme dryness, very shallow.   I probably only paddled about 1-2km up the stream and had to get out and drag the canoe up 2 sets of rapids – just like all the locals.

canoeing rio bartola

Actually these two guys, Adonis and Moesis, were from the Army camp just across the river and hung out chatting with me for about 1/2 hour.   Also spent a bit of time chatting with a family that were having a picnic just above the first set of rapids. Love being able to speak spanish 🙂

Others had done away with paddles all together and just used poles to punt their way up and down stream, to and from their small communities.

canoeing rio bartola

And some used a mixture of very small motors (which were only used in the deepest parts) and poles.

canoeing rio bartola

Didn’t get to see a lot of birdlife (turns out wearing a red t-shirt doesn’t help with birdwatching – black is better) but it was really beautiful just being out on the very peaceful water.   Stayed out 3 hours the first day and 1.5 hours the second day and only almost came a cropper once – turns out canoeing back down the first set of rapids is tons of fun but also a bit panic-y when you end up headed straight for a massive log!  All good in the end though 🙂

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Hiking the Bartola Reserve

Although I couldn’t get all the way down the Río San Juan, I wanted to go as far as possible.  So from El Castillo I headed down to the Refugio Bartola (about 8 km further on) where there is a rustic hotel, plenty of hiking trails and the Río Bartola to explore.  It is right on the boundary of the Indio-Maíz Reserve – one of the best preserved natural reserves in Nicaragua – something to explore in a future trip when it is not so dry!

After spending the last week or so on and off boats, I was pretty keen to do some hiking and so headed out on both my days there with Bismark (one of the locals who knew the trails) to see what we could see and get a bit of exercise.

refugio bartola

It was so hot and humid (even at 4pm) that sweat was running off me before we started moving (no, I don’t understand how Nicaraguans can bear to wear jeans and long sleeved tops all the time!), and although I borrowed gumboots for the hike – it was so dry that they really weren’t needed (though clearly they would be if the weather was more typical – there would be a lot of mud).

Although Bismark wasn’t strictly a “guide”, as we walked around, he explained what he knew about the trees and was pretty good a spotting animals as well!   Favourite moments:

Spotting poisonous frogs

refugio bartola

Learning about the Almendro tree (this is the seed) – an ecosystem within itself.

refugio bartola

Spotting birds and animals

refugio bartola

Getting chased by some very territorial spider monkeys!
refugio bartola

And relaxing on the terrace back at the hotel.  Gorgeous view of course 🙂

refugio bartola

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Travelling the Río San Juan

My original plan in coming to the Río San Juan was to travel the whole length of the river from San Carlos to San Juan del Norte (alternatively known as San Juan de Nicaragua or Greytown).  What I didn’t count on was that after 3 years of drought, and at the end of summer, both Lake Nicaragua and the Río San Juan are very, very low.  As an indication, there is currently a 1.5-2m jump up to the lowest level of the main dock in San Carlos.  Yes, we had a step-ladder in the boat!

Río San Juan

It was still pretty certain to be able to get from San Carlos to El Castillo, but there are a large set of rapids there which used to give pirates some grief and are currently all but impassable, as well as other sets of rapids the further down the river you go.   So my plan changed to:  take the boat from San Carlos to El Castillo and spend a night.  Head further down the river to Bartola for a few days, head back up to the Boca de Sabalos for a few days and then back to San Carlos to fly out to Ometepe.

Caite and I decided to catch the 8am slow public panga (boat) from San Carlos down to El Castillo – a trip of 3 hours.   We all loaded onto the boat and had to put our lifejackets on (trying to ignore the black sweat marks around the neck-holes) before leaving the dock.  But as soon as we’d pulled out – not 2 minutes later – the boat-dude came through and collected them all back off us and stored them once again above our heads.

Río San Juan panga

The trip down the river was wonderful!  Loved being on the river and seeing it operate as a main thoroughfare.  Saw plenty of other passenger boats (some with many, some with only one person), several goods boats (carrying mostly crates of softdrink, beer and gas bottles) and even saw a barge carrying a truck!

Río San Juan panga

Loved having the time to relax and not think about anything, or alternatively, contemplate everything.

Río San Juan panga

Loved the views of river life – something very different to my experience.

Río San Juan

Río San Juan

Arrived in El Castillo which, as the name would suggest, is famous for the 17th Century Spanish fortress that sits above the town.  This stronghold was used to protect the major cities of Nicaragua (ie Granada and León) from pirates and invaders who used to come up the Río San Juan and across Lake Nicaragua for access.

Río San Juan el castillo

The fort has a really interesting museum attached (definitely worth a visit) and some amazing views out over the river.

Río San Juan el castillo

Río San Juan el castillo

Although El Castillo looked like a really cute place to hang out, to be honest, neither Caite nor I thought it had a good vibe.  The people just didn’t seem as nice as all the other Nicaraguans I’ve ever met.  Plus, for a town where every second building was either a place to stay or a place to eat or both, it was very deserted and nothing seemed like it was open.  We ended up eating dinner at the Hotel Victoria (actually the fillet steak was incredible!) and then the next morning, though we tried 3 places beforehand, we ended up back at the Hotel Victoria for breakfast.    Both of us decided to only spend the one night there … unfortunately the town really didn’t gel with either of us.

 

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The Southern Cross from Nicaragua

Did you know that you can see the Southern Cross and Pointers from Nicaragua?

I was really very, very surprised to discover this the other night!   Very, very low on the horizon – but there they were, peeking out from between the tree branches at the Albergue Celentiname where we spent the night on the Isla San Fernando in the Solentiname Archipeligo.

Can you spot them?

southern cross from nicaragua

The orange glow you can see are actually several fires burning.   Minor (our guide) was telling us that people deliberately set the fires to flush the deer (and other animals) out of the forest so they can kill them for their meat the skins 🙁

Also saw the Southern Cross and Pointers from the verandah of the Hotel Sábalos, partially reflected in the water of the Río San Juan (much easier to spot!).  If you  look closely, you can even see the Coal Sack nebula and the start of the emu in the sky 🙂

Southern cross from nicaragua

Not a patch on what you can see from the Southern Hemisphere, but somehow really special for me to be able to see it from here.

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Visiting the artisans in the Solentiname Islands

Apart from kayaking around the Solentiname islands, the other thing I was keen to do was visit the artisans who are renowned for their balsa carvings and primitivist paintings.   The main population of artisans is found on the largest island – Isla Marrancón – so we visited the first afternoon we spent in the Archipelago.

To be brutally honest, it was a huge disappointment!  I’m very glad we were also doing the kayaking and this was not the only reason we visited the islands.   For a start – where was everybody?   We saw a fancy hotel and about 4 hostels but I think we were the only tourists on the island (OK – so it wasn’t one of the days that the boat from San Carlos arrived) and there were very few locals to be seen as well.

We walked the circuit of the community and only saw 2 families working at the artesanía.  We ended up spending most of our time with the Peñas Ponce family who had a sign out the front inviting guests in and were working on their front patio.

Jose was turning blocks of balsa wood into crude animal shapes with a machete.  These he would later refine with a sharp knife and sandpaper.

artesan Solentiname

Nicaraguan men certainly know how to handle a machete!

 

Olga was painting the final animal shapes with the bright acrylic colours this artesanía is renowned for.  These colours are painted over a base so that they remain bright and vibrant.

artesania Solentiname

Caite had spied an unpainted balsa angel figure and decided that she would paint her own while I chatted with the family.

artesania Solentiname

Some of the many finished products that were for sale.  I ended up buying a butterfly (for Zara) and a small toucan that Olga had just finished painting.

artesania Solentiname

Unfortunately, we didn’t find anyone making the primitivist paintings which I really like and which typically depict idealised community life and nature executed in bright colors and intricate detail.  But it turned out that the owner of the Albergue Celentiname was a bit of a painter herself – this is the business card for the Albergue.  Love this style of painting!  Reminds me a little of the Magical Realism of Ecuador.

primitive artwork solentiname

There were also a whole bunch of primitivist paintings in the Art Gallery back on Isla San Fernando.  Unfortunately, couldn’t take pictures of them, and couldn’t really afford to buy one either (there were a few really beautiful ones there going for US$1000!) – and I finally convinced myself after a bit of umming and ahhing that I really didn’t need another piece of unhung artwork…  Even a very small one.

The Art Gallery also had a wonderful display of the brightly coloured balsa-wood animals for sale.  Loved how they had set it out.

artesania Solentiname

artesania Solentiname

Actually, one of the coolest things I saw on Isla Marrancón was the church of Ernesto Cardenal.   Couldn’t actually enter it (the lady who had the keys was in San Carlos), but peeking through the window I loved its simplicity and the painted decorations behind the altar.  Would have loved a closer look!

iglesia solentiname

So if you are planning to visit the Solentiname Islands specifically to visit the artists, maybe ask around about how to get the most out of the experience before arriving.  The artwork is amazing, but it really wasn’t clear to us where everyone was.   Probably we missed something fundamental – so come prepared, or perhaps on the day when the tourist boats arrive?

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Kayaking the Islas Solentiname

The Solentiname Archipelago (36 volcanic islands in the south-eastern part of Lake Nicaragua) is a little off the beaten track.   As the Lonely Planet puts it – you need either time (there are only a couple of public boats/week) or money (private boats are expensive) to explore them.   Instead, we arranged with Philippe at La Esquina del Lago Lodge to do a 2 day kayaking trip to the islands.

Minor was our guide for this trip, which started out motor boating across the ~14km that separates San Carlos from the main part of the Solentiname Archipeligo.

kayak solentiname

We initially had our kayak tied up behind the boat towing it, but about 1/2 way across we realised that it was actually full of water so Minor hoisted it up into the boat with us for the rest of the trip.

kayak solentiname

Our first stop was the Albergue Celentiname on Isla San Fernando where we would be staying the night.  US$25 for a basic but clean room with private bathroom (yet more cold showers), amazing views and fantastic food!

Albergue Celentiname

After a quick drink, Caite and I were keen to head out in the kayak.  We decided we’d do about an hour or so paddling to the north-west of the Hotel. It was a traditional Nicaraguan type of double kayak – quite heavy and seemed to be influenced a lot by the wind, waves and currents.

kayak solentiname

I’d never kayaked before so thank goodness Caite had some experience!   Admittedly we weren’t kayaking in the best conditions for a novice (it was quite windy), and so it took us a few hours to get the hang of going in a relatively straight line … sort of.   Most of the time we were pretty much “tacking” (to borrow a sailing term) along our route – trying to go straight but ending up heading left and then right.  I reckon we paddled twice the distance as we actually ended up from our starting point.

The other thing I discovered was that while it might be difficult to take bird photos from a motor boat, it is even harder from a kayak!  This was my favourite from this first paddle (no, I have no idea what bird it is 🙁 )

solentiname bird

After lunch, we visited the artisans on Isla Mancarrón (see upcoming blog post) and walked up to check out the art gallery on Isla San Fernando.   Then we just hung out relaxing and watching the amazing sunset.

Albergue Celentiname

View from the dock of the Albergue Celentiname. Minor is fishing – unfortunately unsuccessfully.

Albergue Celentiname

Our first kayak was up in this direction. These ladies seemed to have much better control over their canoe than we did our kayak.

The next morning we started out very early (5:30am) and headed the other direction.  We agreed with Minor that he would follow along after us in the motor boat (stopping to fish for most of the time and only approaching to keep us in sight) and when we got sick of paddling (or the wind became too strong), he would hoist the kayak into the boat again and we could head back to the mainland.

kayak solentiname islands

Turns out kayaking is a lot easier when its not windy and there are no waves.   And absolutely beautiful!  Loved being in the kayak, despite being incredibly wet (no kayak skirts so the water would run off the paddles into my lap).

kayak solentiname islands

We paddled for about 3 hours then checked in with Minor who suggested that if we wanted to get to Isla Zapote it would probably be a good idea to head there.  45 minutes later, we arrived.  No mistaking why they nickname it “Bird Island”!

Isla Zapote Solentiname

There were thousands and thousands of birds of many different types perched in the trees!  Minor dumped the kayak out of the boat again and Caite and I went off for a final paddle around the entire island.   A particular highlight for me was to see the Roseate Spoonbills up close.   When we went for our aborted walk out to see the pelicans the other day, we could also see pink birds in the distance and thought they must have been flamingos.   Turns out not.

roseate spoonbill

The other really incredible highlight was the moment when pretty much all the birds decided to take off at once and fly.  Even more impressive than the pelicans the other day!

Isla Zapote Solentiname

The other interesting thing was that all the birds were only on the windward side of the island.  Once we turned into calmer waters (thankfully from a kayaking perspective), the number of birds dropped off to almost nothing, though we did see a few of our friends from the Río Frio there.   Left ourselves to drift most of this quiet side of the island and then back into the wind and waves to re-join Minor in the boat.   He’d managed to catch 3 fish (which we ended up eating for lunch) and most of the birds had left the island.   Seems like we turned up just in time!

The Solentiname islands are really beautiful and kayaking allows you to get to know them much more intimately than other modes of transport.   Gotta admit – my first taste of kayaking (despite the issues) has me wanting more!

 

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Río Frio birdwatching

Another of our adventures at La Esquina del Lago Jungle River Lodge was to head up the Río Frio to the border with Costa Rica spotting birds and other animals.   We left very early in the morning (Jackson was again our guide) with a beautiful mist over the river.

Río Frio Los Guatuzos Reserve

The following are just a selection of the birds that we spotted, including: Anhinga (Pato Aguja), Ringed Kingfisher, Snowy Egret, Passerinis’s Tanager, Great Kiskadee amongst others.

Río Frio Nicaragua birds

Loved the Bare-Throated Tiger Heron with the truly impressive neck stretch.

Río Frio Nicaragua birds

And the Great Egret – which seems to be the most common bird in these parts.

Río Frio Nicaragua birds

We also saw 2 of the 3 species of mokey in Nicaragua – Howler Monkeys (top) and White-headed Capuchins (bottom).

Río Frio monkeys

And an iguana.

riofrio-1034 - Copy

But it was more than just animals.   We also passed several homes and people going about their daily business.

Río Frio Nicaragua rier life

In total, we were out on the river for almost 3 hours, and although it would have been better without the noise of the motor – it did allow us to travel quite some distance!  Beautiful morning 🙂

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Flor de Sacuanjoche

The Flor de Sacuanjoche (a frangipani) is the national flower of Nicaragua.  The trees flower around May each year and I finally saw my first tree in full bloom on Isla San Fernando in the Solentiname Archipeligo.  Love the smell!

flor de sacuanjoche

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Caiman night tour

One of the things Caite and I did at La Esquina del Lago Jungle River Lodge was the Caiman (reptile similar to an alligator) night tour.   We headed out in a boat with no running lights (nobody has running lights down here yet they all move around at night) with Jackson on the front with the headtorch spotting and one of Champa’s sons (aged about 8) driving.

This is what we were searching for, though this one was only a baby.  Apparently they can grow up to 5 metres and one of the biggest ones they’ve spotted hangs out near the Lodge itself!

caiman

While Caite and I were enjoying the beautiful night sky, Jackson was shouting instructions to his novice driver over the sound of the motor and absolutely determined to catch a caiman for us.  Which he eventually succeeded in doing!

caiman

Several times in fact, and getting larger and larger each time.

He took great delight in getting us to hold them (I don’t think he thought we’d do it) and I was surprised at how warm and soft their skin was.

caiman

They were quite funny actually – after putting up a very brief struggle (one or two wriggles, 3 for the largest one he caught) they reverted to “deer-in-headlights” mode until we released them back into the water.

caiman

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La Esquina del Lago Jungle River Lodge

First port of call on the Río San Juan was the La Esquina del Lago Jungle River Lodge for a few days.  It’s located in the Los Guatuzos Nature Reserve and although it is one of the key fishing lodges in the area, it also offers some other interesting options as well.

la esquina del lago jungle river lodge

Entrance to La Esquina del Lago Jungle River Lodge

The Lodge is just across the river from San Carlos and a much nicer place to stay than in the town – especially when you can ask at any time to be ferried across to the shops if you do need to get something.  Philippe, the owner, has created a place that again fosters that sense of community that I so love, with a wonderful patio with tables and chairs where we all ate together, as well as other common areas with hammocks.

la esquina del lago jungle river lodge

The patio where I spent a lot of time hanging out and where we ate all our meals together

The staff are all wonderful and the food is really amazing – the fish carpaccio and the baked snook (freshly caught by some other guests) we had on our last night there was absolutely brilliant!  What you would pay at least AUD$50 for in Australia was only $10!

Unfortunately Lake Nicaragua and the Río San Juan are both very dry at the minute after 3 years of drought, but it did mean that we could walk out to a sand bar directly from the Lodge.  There were lots of left-over vestiges from the large crowds that descended on the sandbar during Semana Santa the first time I went, and a truly incredible sunset.

sunset on lake nicaragua

The second time, Caite and I tried to hike across to where the pelicans were all sitting but sank up to our calves in mud and had to turn back.   We ended up sitting down on the lake shore to watch the sunset and were treated to the most spectacular sight!    The pelicans had decided to come to us!   All several hundred of them!

pelicans on lake nicaragua

A fraction of the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pelicans that flew right overhead as we sat watching the sunset on Lake Nicaragua

The below are all pelicans, and it still does not capture the magnitude of the migration – this was one of several waves of birds heading off to another part of the lake I assume.  They flew directly overhead and just kept on coming.

pelicans over lake nicaragua

A really beautiful thing to witness.

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