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Rio San Juan

Waterway to the Caribbean

In search of a water route across Central America, Spanish explorers sailed up the Rio San Juan from the Caribbean to Lake Nicaragua. Although the lake terminates at the Isthmus of Rivas, eleven miles short of the Pacific Coast, the idea remained in the global consciousness. The Rio San Juan was proposed as the original route of the inter-oceanic canal in the 1820s. Cornelius Vanderbilt operated a land-river transit concession here beginning in 1851. Mark Twain made this journey in 1866, en route from San Francisco to New York City.

Today visitors can retrace this route, beginning at Lake Nicaragua and sailing 119 miles east to the Bay of San Juan del Norte. The river is lined by pristine rainforest—precious habitat for toucans, Harpy Eagles, caimans, howler monkeys and a rainbow of colorful frogs. Most of the route passes through the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. The reserve protects hundreds of avian species, 176 reptile species, and an estimated 200 varieties of mammals. Crocodiles, manatees, sloths, and rare freshwater bull sharks can be observed here.

The Rio San Juan forms much of the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica; territorial disputes ebb and flow, but heat-induced torpor generally keeps the peace. Rio San Juan can be reached by air from Managua to the town of San Carlos (40 minutes) at the river's mouth. Travelers can also cross the border from Los Chiles via a 40-minute boat trip on the Rio Frio.

The Rio San Juan transit is usually operated as a four-day, three-night journey. Tours of the El Castillo fortress, visits to riverside communities, tributary canoe trips, rainforest hikes, and nocturnal caiman-spotting excursions compliment the voyage.

Mosaico Travel Services arranges accommodations and private boat journeys on the Rio San Juan. Contact us at 801.582.2100 for more information. Speak with a Mosaico travel planner today at 801.582.2100. We’ll take care of the details.


" It is not down in any map; true places never are. "

Herman Melville