We had woken up early (before 5:00 AM) to catch the first bus from San Jose, Costa Rica to the border town of Los Chiles, unsure of how far we could get in one day. Our “direct” bus gave a new meaning to the word; “direct” does not mean that the bus goes straight from arrival to destination city, it simply implies that you don’t have to transfer buses. During the six hours we were on the bus it must have detoured to a dozen towns and stopped over fifty times on the side of the road to pick-up or drop-off passengers. Our bus (like most buses in this part of the world) was a converted school bus and the seats are not meant for anyone taller than 5’5” (i.e. foreigners) and don’t have air conditioning making the stops even more painful as the wind ceased blowing.
When we finally arrived in Los Chile we were expecting to catch a “panga” (small open boat/ferry) across the Rio San Juan to San Carlos in Nicaragua. We were dropped off at immigration and between exiting Costa Rica and entering Nicaragua we had our passports checked a dozen times and our bags thoroughly searched on each side. This was all within 200m of walking in the middle of nowhere (it was literally only a road in the middle of the jungle where you had a clear line of sight between checkpoints)… not sure what the necessity for all the checking was.
Across the border we aimlessly looked for a panga before learning that there was a new highway built all the way to Managua with a bridge over the river. We hopped in a collectivo van that dropped us off in San Carlos an hour later. From the price of the van, we happily noted that we were back in a cheaper country and back on track to meet our daily budget.
It was only 2:00 PM and we probably could have gotten further north that day but we decided to stay a couple days in the Rio San Juan area and explore the area where Captain Morgan rowed his boat up the river to Lake Nicaragua and onto Granada, hoping to visit El Castillo. Our van driver had handed out brochures for the “Grand River Lodge” – normally, we say no to brochure handouts but these were in English and we had nowhere to stay. The place looked nice and sounded like a good experience – it was an hour downstream from San Carlos and advertised getting to experience “the real Tica lifestyle.” From the pictures the private cabins looked spacious and clean, plus it advertised that the private room price included free horse riding, a swimming pool, free internet, free kayaks/canoes, free jungle tours and kitchen use for only $20 USD for two people.
For that price we couldn’t resist, we hopped on the next panga downstream and an hour and a half later we had arrived at the Grand River Lodge. From the river, it was a 5 minute walk along the boardwalk up to the main area. Looking around and up at the surroundings it was clear we were in the jungle (although the main area had been cleared for the grazing cattle – the place doubled as a farm). We were a little unsure if there would be room for us but upon arrival we realized the place was completely empty, except for a Dutch couple, for once we were travelling in low season (we later learned it’s packed to capacity in high season). Travelling Nicaragua in low season would definitely be our saving grace over the next few days.
There were a lot of locals (working?) at the lodge but not a lot that seemed to want to help us, they were just kind of there – the kids watching TV outside, the men drinking beer and the women behind the bar chatting/cooking. And no one spoke English, contrary to the English brochure. Eventually, we were shown our room where our bed was beautifully done up with flowers. The rest of the room could be described as a traditional jungle hut – complete with holes and cracks in the floor and an open-air concept bamboo roof leaving countless places for all the night creatures and bugs to enter our room. Thankfully, we had a mosquito net. The guy who showed us our room, Samuel, is learning English and proudly explained they have water in the shower 24 hours a day! Freezing cold, but that’s exactly what was needed after a hot day in the beating sun.
We asked if they made dinner and said we would order later. Supposedly there were multiple options but not too long after, two plates of chicken with rice and beans appeared in front of us. I don’t think they wanted to cook later…They sold beers for a decent price and we helped ourselves to a few.
That night, we joined the Dutch couple on a free tour to go see the nocturnal caimans (basically small crocodiles). Samuel spotted a few right away – he shone a light in the water until it reflected off their eyes. Upon closer inspection we realized they were all babies and not bigger than a foot or two long, as well as quite slim. The babies live in a small pond/lake off from the main river until they mature enough to venture back into the large river. Supposedly, caimans have large fish predators. After a few minutes spotting caimans and watching them swim through the water without making a single wave or splash we returned to the main lodge.
Before bed we inspected our room for unwanted creatures and found a MASSIVE spider on our wall (and then later realized he had friends on our ceiling as well). Kyra was terrified and asked the staff to kill the spider. Of course, they missed when aiming at it with a broom and the spider escaped only to haunt our dreams all night. We quickly got ready for bed and then hid under our mosquito net. Throughout the night we woke up to sounds of howling monkeys. Shortly before sunrise, we woke to hear something large circling our protective net. Literally, flying around in fast circles not further away than two inches. (Dan originally thought it was the giant spider running around our net, more of a nightmare than reality.) We concluded it was a bat, later realizing it was two bats. When the sun rose we assumed the bats would leave us alone; however, when we got up we were dive-bombed by the bats. Terrified we hurried out of our room.
For our only full day in the area, we attempted to get to El Castillo. We had checked the morning before with the staff and (mis)informed that the boat came by around 9:30 AM. We waited at the dock at 9:15 AM. Half an hour later we were still waiting when a large heard of cattle came by to graze and play by the river – our morning entertainment.
Just after 10:00 AM Samuel must have spotted us still waiting and came running down to say the boat coming from San Carlos must have had mechanical problems and wasn’t coming – we should bus to a near-by town instead where we could supposedly catch another boat to El Castillo. We sped-walked up to the road in time to catch the 10:30 AM bus which was, typically, overloaded and packed with people and bags. When we reached the town, we walked down a path and took a very tiny boat across the small creek to the other side where it appeared the pangas picked people up. After waiting around an hour and seconds before we hopped on the panga (which was taking off), someone informed us that there were no return boats in the afternoon from El Castillo. Therefore, if we went, we wouldn’t be able to get back. GREAT. Disappointed, we got off and after caught a boat heading in the other direction back to the Grand River Lodge.
By this time we had learned that the free horse riding didn’t seem to really exist although it was offered, there was no internet, pool was still under construction (nowhere near complete), the owner had yet to purchase the free kayaks and canoes (they actually arrived the morning we were leaving), and there didn’t appear to be a kitchen to use (or any groceries to purchase). In good news, they offered $5 USD cocoa tours!
Samuel offered to do the tour with us in the afternoon, so we had time to grab lunch. The small brochure that we still had (although I don’t know why we still read) mentioned a handful of restaurants in a town “2 km” town the road towards San Carlos. Luckily, a truck picked us up hitchhiking (as recommended by Samuel) as it was far more than 2km… and when we arrived, we couldn’t find any restaurants. We settled for an avocado and two beers before hitchhiking back.
We had been talking about doing a cocoa tour or chocolate making course since we first saw them offered in Peru; however, they were always quite expensive ($35 – $40 USD pp) so we never did one. We weren’t quite sure what we were getting for $5 but it didn’t really matter for that price. As it turned out, we got both a tour of their cocoa farm and a mini chocolate making course! While touring their cocoa tree farm we learned about the growing process, the different types of trees, the pests that eat the cocoa beans (squirrels, birds, ants), and got to try the fruit. The white part around the seeds used for making chocolate is a delicious sweet tasting fruit. This yummy fruit is also what attracts the pests ruining the seeds.
Following our tour in through the trees, Samuel explained the seeds for roasting were already picked and dried and after dinner we would make chocolate (the fire was currently being used to make our dinner). We were served chicken with rice and beans – a Central American staple meal.
The first step in our chocolate making process was to roast the seeds over the fire at a very high heat. This resulted in a slightly burnt tasting chocolate but I’m sure it was intended to speed up the process so it didn’t take too long. After roasting, we allowed the seeds to cool a bit before peeling off the outside (roasting makes this step a lot easier). Then we brought the seeds over to an old-school hand-powered grinder and ground them into a paste. The taste was chocolaty with a burnt bitter flavor. The last step was to put the paste, milk and sugar into a pot and roast it over the fire until all the ingredients combined. We explained Kyra couldn’t have milk but supposedly the chocolate making process is much more difficult if you don’t add milk and in this case wasn’t possible – so we added a very small amount. To sweeten up the chocolate we needed way more sugar than we expected (almost twice the amount of chocolate paste), surprising given how bitter it still tasted at the end. Once the ingredients had mixed, the oil from seeds separated and we removed our chocolate. Still very grainy, bitter and burnt it was delicious nonetheless!
That night, sleep was difficult as the two bats were back and our walls were once again crawling with spiders, cockroaches, mosquitos and other unknown insects. We could deal with all the bugs (our mosquito net nicely protected us) but the bats were terrifying. The only sound we could hear was the swooshing of their wings as they circled us all night and morning occasionally dive bombing near-by or flying under our bed. We have no idea what they wanted or even why they were in our cabin. We tried shining our flashlights at these nocturnal creatures which just made them go even crazier instead of leaving as we had hoped. Finally, 5:00 AM sunrise came around and shortly after Kyra made a dart for the door to open it and escape. We got two staff members to tell them about the bats but by the time they came to our cabin the bats had hid and they told us not to worry, bats only ate insects and didn’t come out in the day. They didn’t listen when we said the bats were present during the day yesterday. We were leaving early that morning and dropped the subject, quickly grabbed our bags and never returned to our cabin.