León was the furthest point north on our trip. After Managua, the plan was to travel south round the other (eastern) side of Lake Nicaragua, and then cross back into Costa Rica. As often, we were handicapped by the difficulty in finding out information about travel options.
Bus to San Carlos
From Managua to San Carlos is seven hours by bus. While minibuses operate on a ‘go when full’ basis, long-distance buses do have some kind of timetable, but finding out what that is can be problematic. In this case, the only timetable we could find was posted on Trip Advisor two years ago, and we had no way of knowing whether it was still up to date. The staff at our hotel could not help, and the bus station was some distance away. We just had to take a chance, but we were lucky. Waking early anyway, we had a quick breakfast, took a taxi to the bus station and were in perfect time for the 7am bus.
We even got numbered seats, which was just as well. Based our travels in South America, and in Costa Rica, we did not expect to have people standing on a long-distance bus. But the aisle was crowded, all the way. There were so many people standing, some were almost sitting on our laps! And of course there were the vendors, squeezing their way onto the bus at every stop, shouting their wares. Some actually travelled on the bus to the next stop, and then presumably returned on a bus going in the opposite direction.
Just after we set off, a man got up and began haranguing the passengers. We thought at first he was preaching a sermon – this happened fairly often in Ghana – but then realised he was selling some kind of miracle pill. And not long afterwards, another man gave a similar performance.
Boat to El Castillo
San Carlos is a small unexciting town. The main purpose of our visit was to do the river trip to El Castillo. Once again, we had difficulty finding out when the boar ran, and indeed if it ran on Sundays. (One notice we saw indicated Monday-Saturday only.) Finally we established that there was an 8am boat, and were told that we could buy tickets at the port office at 5pm the previous day. This seemed odd – why not earlier? – so we thought maybe we’d misunderstood the Spanish, and needed to buy tickets before 5pm. But no – arriving at 4.30 (just in case) the office was empty; at 5 a man appeared, and we bought our tickets.
When we boarded the boat, we had to put on life jackets. Oh no, we thought, not again – and for a river trip? However, we had not gone far before our life jackets were collected in and carefully stored in the roof spaces. Apparently the port authorities want to see you wearing them when you leave – after that, it doesn’t matter.
Our guidebook enthuses about all the wildlife you can see from the river. In this respect, the three-hour trip was disappointing. The Rio San Juan is quite wide, so it would not be easy to see animals on the banks, even if they existed. We saw several birds, but nothing else. However, the trip was relaxing, and interesting in a different way. We made lots of short stops to drop or pick up passengers and goods. Usually there was no landing stage, just a muddy bank, and no sign of habitation, though there must have been villages hidden out of sight.
The village of El Castillo was bigger than we expected. The restored fort itself is not terribly impressive, but the location is superb – on a bend in the river, by some rapids, so you can navigate the ricer in either direction, but you cannot sail past. And the views from the fort were stunning.
Our return boat reached San Carlos just before 5pm. By then, we had solved a mystery. The ‘mate’ on the boat also sold tickets, and when the afternoon boat arrived, he went straight round to the office to sell tickets for the next day!
Transfer to La Fortuna (Costa Rica)
Our next destination was La Fortuna in Costa Rica. Enquiries had indicated ways of getting to the border, but it seemed that the bus journey to La Fortuna was not straightforward. So when we heard about a direct transfer, we decided to take the quick and easy (if expensive) option.
How wrong we were! A guide took us to the border, and we completed the Nicaraguan formalities very quickly. We’d been told that another guide would be waiting for us on the Costa Rica side. We located the right bus, with a driver but no guide. To cut a long story short, it transpired that we were to travel to La Fortuna with a group who had been on a morning tour, but we had to wait two hours – in the middle of nowhere – for them to finish. When they finally appeared, we travelled a very short distance and then they stopped for lunch. And when we complained to the guide, he was unbelievably rude and offensive. The sickening thing was that, due to so much waiting around, we could have done the journey by public bus in much the same time, and at a fraction of the cost.
We planned to stay in La Fortuna because it is the base for visiting the Arenal Volcano National Park – though after spending two weeks in Nicaragua, we were beginning to feel rather blasé abut volcanoes! La Fortuna, we discovered, is a real tourist hotspot, crammed with tour operators competing for custom. But most of the tours offered are designed to appeal to adrenaline junkies. If you don’t fancy ziplining, spelunking or whitewater rafting, there are few options. Such things do not appeal to us; maybe we’re too old, or maybe we’re just wimps.
The weather changed dramatically when we were in La Fortuna – hard to understand as we’d not really travelled a great distance. It was cloudy and cool when we arrived; during the night the rain started and it lasted all next day, alternating between torrential and heavy drizzle. After more than three weeks of hot, dry weather, this was a shock! Apart from a few forays to shops or cafés, we spent the morning in our room. It was a good opportunity to catch up with emails etc, but we really did not want to stay there all day. So in the afternoon we did a group guided hike on the lower slopes of Arenal. Apart from the rain, this was disappointing, as the guide rushed ahead and did not bother to explain much. And of course there were no views of the volcano – or anything else.
Next morning there was more rain, but then it stopped, so we decided to take a chance and visit the La Fortuna Waterfall. We went by taxi, and walked back to the town. The waterfall was spectacular, and while we were there a wedding took place on the viewing platform! Back at the top we saw humming birds feeding at the flowers.
In the afternoon we took a ‘jeep boat jeep’ transfer to Monteverde, our next destination. This involves a bus (not a jeep at all) to Lake Arenal, a crossing by motorboat and another bus to Monteverde. It is the most efficient way of getting there, and is also supposed to give you great views of the volcano – but by then it was raining again, and the clouds were so low we could see very little. On the other side of the lake, the dirt road was steep, winding, narrow and potholed. We admired the driver’s skill, but didn’t envy him his job.