After the virtually endless drive from Drakes bay at the Southwestern end of the country all the way to Los Chiles at the North Eastern end. Costa Rica is small but nevertheless the drive took some ten hours through all types of topography and climate zones.
Arriving at our prebooked hotel Wilson in Los Chiles we tried to get some information about the border crossing. Nobody seemed to understand much English. A middle aged blond drunk lady from Kentucky sat at the bar. She came here to build a church and was excited to hear that we are from Israel. She did her best to act as a translator before tumbling back to her room with a huge drink that spilled over with every unsure step she did. The hotel was very decent with spacious rooms and comfy beds at a very reasonable price. The best part of the hotel was however the private parking where we could leave our car for the duration of our stay in Nicaragua.
In the morning after walking down to the river for some great bird sightings we walked to the bus station and took a bus coming from San Jose heading to the frontera (border).
We found out that very recently the border can now be crossed throughout the day and not only once per day with a boat. After passport control and paying $9 on the Costa Rican side we walked to the Nicaraguan side and for a further $12 got our passports stamped to enter.
From here a small minibus took us to San Carlos. While Costa Rica has no army in Nicaragua the army is everywhere and controls are omnipresent. You have to fill out your passport detail every time you board a boat or buy coke…
In San Carlos we got some local currency from an ATM and some food in the market and boarded the boat down the San Juan river to El Castillo. The scenic trip down the wide river took about four hours and was pure delight.
White Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons as well Neotropic Cormorants stood on rocks or branches in the river. Large flocks of Cattle Egrets gathered on dead trees along the banks. Most of the banks were lush jungle and small villages or houses were occasionally visible.
El Castillo is a large village and has several river front hotels. Our first stop was at Mildreds tourist information by the dock. Mildred is very efficient and knowledgeable and seems to be the only English speaking person in town. She sent us to a nice hotel at the end of the village. Unfortunately this hotel is very close the nightclub district of El Castillo which got very noise at the time we wanted to sleep.
We spent the afternoon strolling through the village to the edge of the jungle. We stopped under a huge Manzana De Agua tree that was in full purple bloom and was teeming with humming birds.
Cute children of all ages played in the streets in front of the houses or did homework together. A group of girls assembled a large kitchen while boys played with cars on a sand mount. . Maybe the fact that there are no cars makes for a friendlier street environment. There was a power cut (a very often event) so that the kids had no electronic alternatives for the good old games.
The next morning we were collected from our hotel by the proprietor of Refugio Bertola, an ecolodge in the jungle about half an hour downriver.While we waited for the boat we had ample time to enjoy the best part of the hotel – the huge tree in front of it that had yellow-orange flowers and attracted dozens of hummingbirds, parrots, Blue-grey Tanagers and plenty other species of birds. Most of the life here takes place on the river right in front of us.
The large wooden buildings were located in a beautiful garden surrounded by dense jungle. It turned out that we were the only guests in this lovely place.
For the fear that we will get lost we were not allowed to explore the jungle paths on our own. A friendly young man with excellent English served as our guide and took us for a couple of hours through the forest. He was particularly skillful at finding Poison dart frogs.
He told us that he wanted originally to become a teacher but that this is a very political job and will require him to praise the government, which he doesn’t want to do. He told us that as his family is not considered a supporter of the regime he doesn’t get an ID card and can’t vote.
After the trip we took two canoes and paddled up the Bartola river. It took us a while to master rowing the canoes as they seemed to have a will of their own. Rowing under the tall canopy was however exceedingly beautiful. At one point monkeys tried to pelt us with stones or fruits. We saw plenty of Kingfishers and other birds.
After returning from our wet adventure we were served excellent dinner on the veranda overlooking the river. For a starter we were served delicious Zapote fruit from a tree in the garden. The whole place was teeming with song birds who were very active as the sun set and it got dark.
After returning from our wet adventure we were served excellent dinner on the veranda overlooking the river. For a starter we were served delicious zapote fruit from a tree in the garden. The whole place was teeming with song birds who were very active as the sun set and it got dark.
After a lovely breakfast we took again the canoes for a trip upriver. We saw a large troop of howler monkeys. Throughout our trips in Costa Rica and Nicaragua we heard howlers almost every evening. The first time was a bit creepy but as Noa warned us in advanced we were not scared. This was however the first time we could observe them from such close range. After lunch we got a lift back upriver to El Castillo.
As it got absolutely dark a huge white full moon climbed slowly through the silhouettes of the tree branches on the opposite bank. As it managed at long last to lift itself above the tallest trees it painted a silvery path across the wide river.
For our last day here we booked a chocolate tour with Mildred who, joined by her young son, served as our guide. We were collected by a boat that took us to the Talaleguala farm on the river.
The owner showed us the fruits of the Cocoa tree and many other fruit trees growing on the farm. He cut down one of the large orange fruits and opened it. Inside were the
beans covered in white and sweet pulp that we had to chew to get the beans. Cacao beans have to undergo a complex process of fermentation, drying and roasting. We got a thorough demonstration and were allowed to grind our beans and form 100% chocolate balls.
After a good rest in hammocks on the veranda of the rustic farmhouse we were shipped back to El Castillo. Here were visited the cooperative cocoa factory that prepares the beans for Ritter Sport. Mildred further gave us a thorough tour of the village.
Later in the afternoon we climbed to the top of the castle, which gave the place its name. It was built by the Spaniards who tried to protect the country from Pirates and other invadors. The place of the castle was chosen above the rapids who serve as non-perfect natural barrier. It seems this place saw many bloody battles and young Lord Nelson began his career here fighting the Spain.
On our last stroll along the river we saw a huge gathering of hideous Black Vultures.
The next morning we took the rapid boat that leaves in pitch darkness at 0515 in the morning. It takes about an hour is very fast most of the time. However due to the draught and global warming the river is at places very shallow so that we had to slow down and be very cautious. When it started to become lighter the riverbanks appeared in the fog like surrealistic Turner paintings.
From San Carlos we returned to the border crossing to get re-united with our car that waited for as in Los Chiles for the second part of our trip in Costa Rica.