Sunday, February 19, 2012

Visiting El Castillo de la Concepción in Nicaragua

(Photo by Diver Dave)
Located on the southern shores of the Río San Juan, approximately 45 miles from the city of San Carlos, is a historic fortress reminiscent of a Mayan temple. Known as El Castillo de la Concepción or El Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepción, it was built by the Spanish in 1675 as one of several forts to deter pirates from entering the river from the Caribbean Sea en route to the wealthy city of Granada. Due to its relatively navigable waters, the Río San Juan offered an easy trade route between Granada and the rest of the world. Unfortunately, it also provided pirates with easy access as well as escape routes. After Granada was pillaged and burned several times by pirates, the Spanish royalty ordered that this formidable-looking structure be built at one of the river’s narrowest bends.

(Photo by Diver Dave)
And formidable it was. According to Nidia Herrera Obregon, the director of the site, “It had dozens of cannons facing all directions with four bastions as well as a fully stocked armory of more than 10,000 weapons. Even the British Navy tried several times to seize control of it in hopes of dominating the trade route.” After a botched attempt in 1762, the British tried again in 1779 under the command of Captain Horatio Nelson. As strange as it sounds, they actually succeeded by attacking from the jungle side of the fortress instead of the river. Once Nelson departed after the triumph, the fort eventually succumbed to disease and it was completely abandoned by the survivors in a mass desertion.
Today, the fort is one of the most important historical attractions in the region. As stated by Obregon, “In 1993, the castillo became a museum attraction and it includes a number of panels where visitors can read and learn about the history of the site as well as its variety of objects.” Its location on top of a hill provides excellent views of the surroundings and its overall appearance remains relatively the same as it was more than two centuries ago. It stands as a quiet reminder of how important this river was to the Spanish colonials and the British Navy.

Transportation to El Castillo de la Concepción
From Managua, there are three modes of transportation: 1) a short and fairly expensive flight on La Costeña Airlines  ( that lands on a dirt runway in the port city of San Carlos; 2) a 15-hour ferry ride from Granada: and 3) a nine-hour relatively direct bus ride. After arriving in San Carlos, it is important to remember that there is no road access to the fortress. So the only way to reach it is by the boats that depart from San Carlos near the mouth of the Río San Juan. The travel is provided by small speedboats, known as pangas, and the trip takes approximately two hours. Most visitors choose to hire a panga with a guide or simply book a tour from a reputable tour company. Further information about tours by two reputable companies are provided below.

Exploring El Castillo de la Concepción
Once at the fortress, it takes approximately two hours to fully explore. While touring the site, most visitors also enjoy the excellent views of the surroundings, which include the rapids to the east. According to tour promoter José Miguel Sandoval, “the museum is special to both domestic and foreign visitors and that it takes good care of the historical objects, educational tools, and property. The success of the site also helps to create jobs for our local citizens.”

The layout of the fortress is approximately 161 feet in length and 66 feet in width with four corner bastions known as Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa, Santa Teresa, and Santa Ana. Its interior consists of three barracks, a chapel for officers as well as enlisted soldiers, a hospital, a prison, and a number of storage areas and workshops. The site is fairly easy to get around (except for the slippery moss) and there are only portions where the steps are fairly narrow and steep. For those wishing to climb to the higher levels, the addition of metal walkways provides easy access.
To add to the overall historical appearance, the dark stone walls are covered with moss and the appropriate placement of artifacts such as cannons and cannonballs with smaller details such as rum bottles offers visitors a glimpse into life within its walls. In addition, the views from the four bastions provide four different perspectives where watchful troops once stood guard.

Tours of El Castillo de la Concepción
For those visitors who prefer a more structured and guided tour of the site, Servitours is a reputable tour company that offers trips to the fort. Most importantly, they also include roundtrip transportation, which removes the issue of finding a guide and a panga in San Carlos. The three-day, two-night Río San Juan-El Castillo tour includes all land and water transportation, a roundtrip flight from Managua to San Carlos, two night's accommodations, all meals and beverages, a bilingual guide, and admission fees. More information about Servitours and be found at their website: Servitours.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Exploring Laguna de Apoyo in Nicaragua

Located between the cities of Masaya and Granada, Laguna de Apoyo is a volcanic crater lake formed by a volcanic eruption more than 22,000 years ago that left a hole in the shape of an inverted cone approximately 650 feet deep. Slowly, over thousands of years, the crater filled with a combination of underground water and rain to form one of the country's cleanest and deepest lagoons.

Since its establishment as a nature reserve in 1991, Laguna de Apoyo (also known as the Reserva Natural Laguna de Apoyo) is shared by many entities including the districts of Masaya and Granada. As a result, it is roughly divided into four sections with the districts of Catarina and San Juan de Oriente overseeing the northern and southern areas and the districts of Granada and Diría regulating a portion of the southern and eastern segments. The remaining pieces of this "pie" are divided up by Diriomo (Diría's twin town) and Niquinohomo (the Spanish colonial village and birthplace of Sandino). To complicate things, they are all under the jurisdiction of MARENA (the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources).

Getting to Laguna de Apoyo

(Photo by Jesús Jiménez)
The easiest way to get to the lagoon is by car where you can use one of four access roads in the towns of Catarina or Diría. Both towns have spectacular vantage points, called miradors, and should be visited once before heading down to the lagoon. Even though the four routes are marked with signs, they can be very easy to miss. They include: 1- The highway heading south from Managua to Masaya; 2- The paved road from Masaya to Catarina; 3- From the village of Catarina; 4- From the mirador in Diría.

Accommodations In and Around Laguna de Apoyo

(Photo of Monkey Hut Hostel by Globekeiter)
The following are affordable hostels located in and around the lagoon. Each are reputable and offer a variety of services ranging from renting kayaks to hiring local guides for hikes. They are listed in no particular order or ranking: Crater's Edge, La Orquedia Hostel, Monkey Hut Hostel, La Abuela Hostel, Norome Resort, San Simian Hostel, Spanish School/Hostel, Estancia de Adriano, and Puchas Inn Hostel.

What to Do at Laguna de Apoyo

Most visitors are simply pleased to view the lagoon from either of the miradors while enjoying a cold drink at any of the small restaurants scattered around its upper rim. But more serious adventure-travelers who take the time to explore the lagoon itself can enjoy any of the following activities:

Hiking: For serious hikers who enjoy exploring, there is a somewhat chaotic network of trails located around the slopes, which are mostly within the reserve itself. To fully enjoy what the lagoon has to offer, it is best (at least the first time) to hire a guide. Several hiking tours have knowledgeable guides that can provide information about the wildlife but most importantly, they can also lead you around private property, which can sometimes avoid problems. The wildlife includes many species of birds along with howler and white-face monkeys (heard every morning at sunrise). A reputable tour company known as Oro Travel offers daily tours in and around the lagoon. More information can be found at their website: Oro Travel.

(Photo by Sol Jaguar)
Diving: The blue and somewhat clear waters of the lagoon provide a great place for scuba diving and snorkeling. With its conical shape and the way the water changes into sudden darkness, serious divers can have a spectacular time. There is an ecological research station, known as Proyecto Ecologico, which also offers a Spanish Language School, Research Conservation Education, and an affordable hostel, in addition to activities such as scuba diving, kayaking, and birdwatching. More information can be found at their website:

Paragliding: Private paragliders have been enjoying Laguna de Apoyo for years. But some companies are beginning to get in on the financial interest of this extreme sport. Paracrane Tours based in Costa Rica have frequented the lagoon (at least once since 2009) due to its excitement, view, and excellent launching potential on the crater's edge. But they regularly offer tours in Costa Rica.

Watersports: Aside from bringing one's own gear, there are several hotels and hostels at the lagoon's edge that offers small sailboats, catamarans and kayaks. Although there are the occasional jet-skis, they are illegal, but not enforced.

Conservation Issues of Laguna de Apoyo

The Laguna de Apoyo is generally known as Nicaragua's most accessible and easiest nature reserve to enjoy. The negative side of this characteristic is that it is so unevenly protected.
Fortunately, the overall institutional authority of the reserve is the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA), but along with this organization, there are too many other districts involved that each have their own set of regulations. According to, a reputable Nicaraguan travel-based website,  there are a number of problems that the Laguna de Apoyo faces in its future:

The Water: The lagoon itself is self-sustaining and does not have natural exits for its waters. This makes the ecosystem extremely fragile and easy to contaminate. A good example of lagoon degradation is the Laguna de Masaya, a heavily polluted crater lake located nearby. In recent years, several attempts of commercial fishing have harmed the waters. For example, in 1997, a discontinued Tilapia production project approved by MARENA caused great concern when the fish were able to escape, contaminate the lagoon, and affect algae production due to their appetite.

Gasoline Powered Watercraft: According to a 2004 report by MARENA, there were 32 registered motorboats that used approximately 80 gallons of gasoline per month. Their findings showed that these boats added both fuel and oil contamination to the waters.

Properties: As of 2010, there are eight different hotels and hostels at the bottom of the crater. This does not count the number of private houses in the surrounding area. Without any regular public system for waste disposal, most of the septic tanks are slowly leaking and contaminating the lagoon with human waste.

Deforestation: A problem in many areas of the world, the area surrounding the lagoon is not immune. Deforestation and haphazard construction is harmful to the soil since forests act as a natural filtration system for rain water. Without this "filter," the water simply washes anything down the slopes and into the lagoon. Again, examples of this slow death in natural lagoons can be seen at Laguna de Masaya and Laguna de Tiscapa in Managua. Both were slowly contaminated and are now considered irreversibly damaged. Fortunately, there are organizations now primarily focused on replanting the hillsides with seedlings and small trees.

Today, with the resurgence of the tourism industry in Nicaragua, plans are slowly being created to protect this natural wonder. AMICTLAN (Asociación de Municipios Integrados por la Cuenca y Territorios de la Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua) is a strong organization that is fiercely working to protect the long-term future of the lagoon. As of 2010, after pressure from foreign investors and AMICTLAN, MARENA has begun an enhanced management plan for the lagoon. Perhaps with continued support from other environmental organizations in Nicaragua, the clear, blue waters of Laguna de Apoyo can be enjoyed for generations to come.