In the primary forests of Central America, there is a river that acts as a natural border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. What makes this location so unique is its history. This 200 km long river has borne witness to the Spanish conquest, British pirates, and Mark Twain along with thousands of other passengers traversing Nicaragua during the California Gold Rush. Today, the people that live there are the Ramas, who still follow a relatively rudimentary lifestyle and have retained their own language. The only way to move around is by boat with locals and chickens, making this route an exhilerating journey into the captivating past of Nicaragua.
I recommend going during the dry season (November-April). That said, I travelled in July (right in the middle of rainy season) and only experienced rain a couple of times! Travelling outside of November to April is not a problem at all, but might change your plans should it rain, so stay flexible.
Estelí and Granada are best explored during the day and avoided at night (especially when travelling solo). Keep your stuff close to you and stay alert when walking around.
The villages and communities on River San Juan are known as some of the safest places in Nicaragua. Be careful if you are at the port town of San Carlos, however. This is the only village which might be a bit dodgy. Make sure you have your stuff with you at all times. Keep hold of your belongings at all times; this means not leaving them on the ground or handing them over to anyone. Always be aware of your surroundings.
This route is suited for everyone. I travelled to Estelí and Granada as a solo female traveller, but had a male buddy join me for the river San Juan, and this is what I recommend.
It would be cheaper to do the river with a pal and split accommodation costs, since all room prices are for two people. Equally, many tours require a minimum of 2 people before they will set off. It might be possible to join another group once in El Castillo, though.
ATMs are widely available in Estelí and Granada.
For river San Juan: You MUST take your money out in SAN CARLOS at the latest. There are no more ATMs to be found anywhere else on the river. Best to bring extra money!
Bring jungle clothing (long trousers, boots, rain jacket) for any tours that you might do around the river San Juan. Additionally, bring a mosquito repellant and clothes you do not mind getting dirty.
Life down the San Juan River is very simple. Locals follow a rudimentary lifestyle. The accommodation will be vrry basic and so will be the food (although still tasty). If you prefer luxury then aim to stay at lodges, instead of the hospedajes in town centres.
Nicaragua uses the Nicaraguan córdoba (C$). 36 C$ are equivalent to 1USD, while one euro amounts to around 37.5C$.
If you are on a budget, comedores are the cheapest places to eat. Street food is also inexpensive. One item will cost you around 20-40 córdobas, making stalls perfect for snacking. Restaurants are more expensive than comedores and stalls, and mostly serve foreign food. Expect to pay around 100 córdobas for dinner at a local restaurant.
Guest houses (hospedajes) are available throughout the country and generally charge around 300 córdobas (8-9 USD) for a two-person room. Along the San Juan River, you won’t find any hostels. Elsewhere in Nicaragua, a hostel bed would be around 430C$ (12 USD) a night.
Buses around Nicaragua are cheap and mostly reliable during the day. They take a long time, but will always get you to your destination. Locals are very helpful, helping you find the terminal and the right bus, as well as ensuring that you’re getting off at the right destination.
The only way to travel down the River San Juan is by boat. There are a lot of boats running every day. Asking around at the port or pier is the best way to find out about boat timetables. It is also best to turn up early, so you can secure a better seat for the trip. The boats are usually filled to the brim with passengers, animals, cargo, and luggage. Be warned, these boats aren’t the most comfortable, particularly when they’re full. The spectacular scenery and interesting interactions with locals more than make up for this, however!
You can choose between fast and slow boats. Faster trips are, of course, more expensive, but they do save a lot of time. If time is not a restraint, it can be nicer to take a slow boat. Overall, it’s a great experience: the boats are reliable, and it is easy to get around both with or without a little Spanish.