San Juan de Nicaragua, San Juan del Norte, Greytown – this town with three names in the remote part of Nicaragua has some distinctive charm. It doesn’t receive many tourists and many of those who come here will continue their way without stopping. Even though it doesn’t look that charming, it’s worth for a couple of nights’ stay. If just for its historical sights.
The streets of San Juan de Nicaragua are actually concrete pathways above the marshlands on which this town is built, as late as in the 1980s. There are marks left behind by the colonialist past that its geographical location bears and behind the airport’s runway there are four different graveyards which all have a story to tell.
Getting to San Juan de Nicaragua
The easiest way to get there is to take a domestic flight from Managua by the Nicaragua’s only domestic airline, La Costeña. You can find their timetables from here. They have only two weekly flights to San Juan de Nicaragua (also called San Juan del Norte Nicaragua) at the time of writing this, which means you have to plan your schedule accordinly.
The flight takes about 1,5 hours and it’s flown by little Cessna planes with only 12 seats. So the flight can be a little adventure in itself. You’ll arrive at the tiny airport of San Juan de Nicaragua in the middle of a lush river jungle view. To get from the airport to the town itself, you have to organize a pick-up by boat with your hotel, because there isn’t any public transportation. Try to arrange it as 100% proof. We thought we had all arranged, but still ended up stranded at the airport and eventually the staff gave us a ride in their boat when they left home at the end of their shift.
Where to Stay And Eat in San Juan de Nicaragua
There are few nice options to stay in San Juan de Nicaragua, Hospedaje como en Família and Jardín de Ramas. The two best rooms of the hospedaje are in a separate wooden house, standing on stilts above the river. They are simple but cozy and cost 20$/night. Beware a bit of this place, though, even though you’d have a confirmed booking with them, they can give it away if some bigger group appears and wants to stay there. This is what happened to us.
We had agreed with them for a new stay for one night on a later date, but when we came back they had given our room away and just gave us a “no room” -shrug! Clearly they don’t respect reservations, which is bad karma for them. From the owner, doña Martha, you can get much information about the area, if you speak fluent Spanish. Their restaurant serves good food, except the breakfast which was poor. But the hospedaje has a good value in general.
Jardín de Ramas has nice separate cabins few hundred meters away from Hospedaje como en Família. They’re also located on the river shore. A cottage costs 20$/night and offers more space. Neither of these places has a website, so you have to practice your Spanish skills and call for a reservation. For Jardín de Ramas you can also ask for “Fish” when you’re in town. He speaks good English, and his nephew owns the place.
One other place did the same thing to us than Hospedaje como en Família and didn’t respect our reservation – the Cabanas de Monkey. So beware them, too! Maybe trying to pay your reservation beforehand would help. Or it won’t, but you can always try.
Then there are the really shabby and run down places in town, like the Hotelito Evo, which I wouldn’t recommend to anybody. Unless you like to sleep with a lot of different bugs! Soda Tucán was also too shabby for staying a night (I speak from experience), but it serves very decent food at low prices. Note that there isn’t hot shower in any of these places, either. The only place having one is the super-expensive Río Indio Lodge.
Because the town of San Juan de Nicaragua is remote, you have to be prepared for some other inconveniences that it may cause. There are power-outs regularly throughout town in the evenings and sometimes even the running water may be cut off all of a sudden. So I’d suggest going for a dinner quite early in the evening to avoid a situation when there’s not electricity and restaurants cannot cook anything. Also, don’t leave from your accommodation without a good flashlight! When it gets dark around there, it’s really pitch black darkness, and you don’t want to misstep from the walkways into the marshlands!
Sightseeing Around Greytown/San Juan del Norte
There are some interesting sights to see around San Juan de Nicaragua. Among the best of them are the four separate, little graveyards located just behind the airports’ runway. They have built the airport in the middle of the ruins of the old Greytown.
To get to the graveyards, you have to go with a local guide because they’re behind a military checkpoint. There are own cemeteries for Catholic, British, Americans and the Freemasons. The last is the most interesting one. It has been for the members of the St.John’s Lodge.
People buried in these graveyards were mainly officers and their family members who lived here during the days when Greytown was a busy trading post and pirates sailed along Rio San Juan. Nowadays they provide a glimpse into the past with their crumbled, old headstones standing there, forgotten and grassed.
Other interesting sights are the “Blue Lagoon” and a stretch of a sandy shore where you can see all the way to Costa Rica and where the river and the ocean meet. There is also a manatee lagoon a few hours’ boat ride away that you should go to see if you just have the time.
To all these sights a guide is mandatory, but these places are usually included in a single tour (except perhaps the manatee lagoon). The prices of the tours vary but prepare to pay something around 50$ (max). I could recommend you one good guide with whom we went. His name is “Fish”. He used to work in the expensive adventure lodge nearby, and he speaks very good English. Ask for him when you’re in town, everyone will know him and will get you in contact (and say hello to him from Piritta & Niina from Finland).
Guides are mandatory in this area because there are many military checkpoints around. You can’t get far without them stopping you and asking where and why you’re going. Drug smuggling is a big problem around this area, and that’s why the presence of the military is so extensive. The army’s job is trying to prevent the smuggling and protecting the local people.
Gateway to Reserva Biológica Indio-Maíz
The main reason why people come to San Juan de Nicaragua is that it’s undoubtedly the best place to start a journey deep into the jungles of the Reserva Biológica Indio-Maíz – one of the most remote, wild and beautiful places of Nicaragua.
But it’s not actually near Indio-Maíz, though. Even the shortest of journeys into the Jungle Reserve will take about 6 hours’ boat ride from San Juan del Norte, along the Rio San Juan and further away along the Rio Indio. This is the deal if you want to visit some genuine places like Canta Gallo, where some of the indigenous people of Nicaragua, the Rama Indians, live. Their areas are hard to reach, but it will be worth the journey and the money. There is the real, wild, and genuine jungle!
This little and remote town with three names has some weird charm. Many people will just pass through it on their way to Reserva Biológica Indio-Maíz, but it’s worth a short stay. Local people were very friendly and helpful. Just try your best to secure your accommodation bookings and you’ll have an excellent experience.
The original plan in the 19th century (by Accessory Transit Company & C. Vanderbilt) was to build a canal all the way through Nicaragua in here, Rio San Juan. This tower was for building that canal. But because of the Nicaraguan civil war and the American government deciding it didn’t want to give the canal to Nicaragua after all, it was never completed. The canal was built in Panama instead.