- This article is an itinerary.
Ruta de Tránsito is in Southern Nicaragua, traversing the country from coast to coast through the jungle along the San Juan river and past one of the largest lakes in Latin America — Lake Nicaragua. The route crosses the Rio San Juan Region as well as Southwestern Nicaragua.
This route was one of the two primary modes of reaching the West Coast of the USA prior to the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, most importantly during the 1848/49 California gold rush. The other route to the West Coast of the USA (apart from arduous and dangerous overland travel that was the only thing left to those not wealthy enough to take the boat) made the overland stretch through what is now Panama.
While the route was tremendously important during the 1840s and 1850s, it has since been almost forgotten, as has the Rio San Juan region in general. The once bustling harbor of San Juan del Norte/Greytown has reverted to a quiet village with few attractions beyond the breathtaking nature close by. In the route's heyday, the water stretches were done by steamer on the most direct route with few if any intermediate stops and the short overland stretch was done either by horse or carriage. Today hay and coal as fuels won't get you very far, as the boats are modern diesel types and overland transport is predominately by bus. Horse rental is still possible for recreational purposes, but if you want to actually get from one place to another on horseback, you would most likely have to buy a horse. When Mark Twain traveled the route in 1866/67 (described in a series of letters to a California newspaper only published in book form in 1940 as the now hard-to-get "Travels with Mister Brown"), the stretch crossing the isthmus took him three days. While you can probably recreate or beat this time today with careful planning or money to burn, you would miss all of the interesting spots on the way, and thus you should probably budget at least a week, or better yet two or three weeks.
In recent years the Nicaraguan government has made considerable efforts to promote tourism, and the "rediscovery" of this route is part of this effort. If you want to follow on the footsteps of Mark Twain and Cornelius Vanderbilt while at the same time passing spectacular volcanoes, Spanish forts and untamed jungles, this is just the itinerary for you.
Of course not all travelers along this route traveled the exact same route, and while most just wanted to go to California (and its gold fields) as soon as possible, some did indeed take the suggested side trips and a few lucky or unlucky travelers are buried in the cemetery of old Greytown or elsewhere in the country as they decided to or were forced to stay in Nicaragua and died there.
For the relatively straightforward visa-procedure for Nicaragua see here. While Nicaragua is slowly being "discovered" as a major tourist destination, it is still a developing country and as such you have to be prepared physically and mentally for what that entails. Your vaccinations should be up to date, especially for rabies, hepatitis A and B and all the diseases your doctor recommends you to be vaccinated against anyhow. Discuss with your doctor or an expert on tropical medicine what special preparations are necessary before going on this trip. As the eastern leg of this trip goes through an area where malaria is endemic, you might consider taking medication with you, just in case. Dengue fever may also be a problem, but in general just covering your skin and using mosquito nets at night should be enough to protect you from both malaria and dengue.
If you want to do this route from east to west, take enough cash (preferably US dollars in bills no bigger than 20 dollars) with you, as there are no ATMs east of San Carlos and credit cards are rarely accepted. If you intend to use any type of transportation other than scheduled public boats and buses, make preparations well in advance. In general, domestic boats and buses cannot be reserved more than 24 hours in advance (if that) and you usually have to show up in person to do that. If you are taking the first bus/boat in the morning, it might be wise to go to the dock/station in the evening before the bus/boat leaves and get your tickets. For boats there is usually a list with the name of each passenger and, if you are not on that list, you won't get on the boat. Note that Nicaraguans have to provide their ID number to get on the list, which is noted on their government issued ID, so you will probably have to present your passport or some form of ID to get your name and number put on the list.
For domestic flights, booking in advance comes highly recommended, though even that does not necessarily protect you from an overbooked flight denying you boarding if you arrive "late" (less than two hours before departure).
From Managua you can take a domestic flight to San Juan Del Norte leaving twice a week. If you want to start from the west, there are several buses daily to Rivas and from there onwards to San Juan del Sur. From Costa Rica there are sadly no border crossings east of San Carlos (Nicaragua) / Los Chiles and the border crossing west of lake Nicaragua at Peñas Blancas will thus probably be the better option, especially if you want to travel from the west to the east. Peñas Blancas (Costa Rica) / Sapoá (Nicaragua) itself is only a short taxi-ride away from Rivas and San Juan del Sur, making it a good starting point as well.
Reportedly there is also a boat going from Bluefields to San Juan del Norte once a week, but this may leave you "stranded" there for a week if you are unlucky. Unfortunately they do not have a website.
Visa procedures, and how to get to Nicaragua (or Costa Rica) in the first place, are dealt with in the respective country articles.
As this route is now only traveled in its entirety for leisure and not to get from some point to another, slight variations from the original route have been made, to make it doable with publicly available scheduled transport. For the purist, though, chartering a boat, horses or a carriage are certainly doable if sometimes time-consuming. The part on the Rio San Juan can be (and has been) attempted by kayak and takes approximately one week that way. Some operators are able to pick up your boat in San Carlos that you rented in San Juan del Norte or vice versa. Entering the open Lake Nicaragua with anything but a seaworthy ship is not a good idea, as the waves can get high and there are points in the lake where no coast is visible. The route is described as going east to west, but it can certainly be done the other way round.
Unless otherwise noted, the locations from which boats and buses depart for the next town are quite evident; for example, buses normally leave from a stop at or quite close to the local market.
From 1 San Juan del Norte to El Castillo
San Juan del Norte has a storied history (of which surprisingly little remains, besides an old cemetery) and is thus known under its old name "Greytown" as well as the name "San Juan del Norte". The town draws visitors mostly for the nature and the excellent fishing in close proximity. Reportedly even president Ortega goes fishing in San Juan del Norte from time to time. To get from Greytown to El Castillo there are two types of boat: slow and fast. The fast boat is a bit more expensive and a bumpier (not to mention wetter) ride and might not be available in the dry season (roughly November to May) when the water runs low. The entire trip all the way to San Carlos can be done in a single day, but than you would miss the beautiful eponymous castle of El Castillo. Along this stretch the Rio San Juan is the border with Costa Rica, but belongs to Nicaragua in its entirety. You will see a new road on the Tico side that has recently been constructed and caused tensions between the two countries. At the north of the river there's the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve reportedly featuring a higher number in species of trees, birds, and insects than all of Europe. It is a good place for seeing different kinds of monkeys and poison dart frogs, among others. The reserve is usually visited from El Castillo.
From 2 El Castillo to 3 San Carlos
There are several departures daily both by slower and faster boats. You can be dropped off at various points along the route (just tell the operator of the boat beforehand) and in fact some hotels even have their own pier and the boat can drop you off basically at their doorstep. The main draw of this part is the jungle that can be accessed from El Castillo but also from several smaller hamlets and private reserves along the river. If you are doing this trip west to east, San Carlos is your last chance to stock up on essentials and also the last place with an ATM. El Castillo itself is a rather small place (there are no cars, for instance) and besides the eponymous fortress (and a butterfly farm "Mariposario"), there is not all that much to the town of El Castillo as such.
San Carlos has always been less a place where travelers stay and more a place where they pass through on their way from or to somewhere else. However, it also serves as an ideal place to stock up on essentials before heading east as well as a place to check emails or social media one last time with reliable internet. That being said, San Carlos has superb views of lake Nicaragua and if you can, you should definitely take in a sundown at the malecon (lakefront). San Carlos also has remains of an old Spanish fortress that while not all that impressive by itself does give a good view of the town, the lake and the river.
Side trip: 1 Solentiname
While the Solentiname islands were not part of the original 19th century route, they offer attractions in their own right. From San Carlos there are public boats to a number of the islands, but you can always ask around if somebody is going anyway and hitch a ride on their boat. Unfortunately there is no scheduled onward transport from any of these islands, so you will have to head back to San Carlos to continue your trip. Solentiname are very tranquil islands (until quite recently running water and electricity were unique selling points of pricier accommodation) and they are famous for being the retreat of Ernesto Cardenal, a famous Liberation Theology proponent, priest, poet and erstwhile politician in the Sandinista administration of the 1980s. The other big draw of the island is the painting and balsa wood figures that are produced there, but can now be bought in most parts of the country.
From San Carlos to Altagracia
Unfortunately, the boat connection between San Carlos and Granada via Ometepe has been subject to cancellations in recent times. As of this writing (early 2017) the latest information was that it was cancelled "temporarily" due to low water levels in the lake during the dry season. This would mean that during the rainy season, which roughly corresponds to the Northern Hemisphere summer the service might be up and running again, but don't count on it. It is important to understand that the boat that used to be a vital link to the Rio San Juan region in times when the Juigalpa-San Carlos road was little more than a strip of dirt and buses would take the better part of a day to get to Managua and there was no airport on Ometepe is now one of several transport options and for getting from San Carlos to Granada it is neither the fastest nor the cheapest. It has entirely lost its use for connecting San Carlos and Managua, as the bus now does the trip in six hours that would take more than double that by bus and boat. Similarly, the introduction of flights between San Carlos, San Juan del Norte and Ometepe has decreased the demand of tourists to take the boat. However, in the past the boat also carried freight from Ometepe to the Rio San Juan region, so the boat may be kept running for that reason alone. The Nicaraguan port authority meanwhile continues to list the boat and its prices as if nothing ever happened
While the travelers of the mid 19th century usually bypassed Ometepe and only saw it from the boat, you are likely to at least stop there (in the port of the town of Altagracia) on the way to Granada if you take the public boat. (The Altagracia stop is sometimes cancelled, however, due to weather conditions).
Leaving the boat and spending a few days on the island comes highly recommended as the relaxed atmosphere and (almost) untouched nature of the volcanoes is truly a sight to behold and explore. Altagracia's harbor is a bit out of the settlement and as you arrive at night, having someone to pick you up may be a good idea. Hotel owners often meet the boat and offer you a ride to their hotel provided that you choose to stay there. There are a few taxis, but they can become full quickly.
It is also possible to fly from San Juan del Norte (SJN) or San Carlos (SCA) to Ometepe's only airport (OMT), which is located near Moyogalpa. The service is provided by La Costeña; as of 2016, their planes fly this route twice a week.
While Granada is not part of the original 19th century itinerary, it is a beautiful colonial town that is worth one or two day's visit. If you want to skip Ometepe altogether, getting to Granada is easy, as the boat from San Carlos simply goes on to Granada after about one hour in port. The trip to Granada takes about three hours and you arrive a bit out of town, from where you could walk or take a taxi downtown. After you have had enough of Granada you can either take the bus to Rivas or go back to Altagracia and continue from there.
From 4 Altagracia to Moyogalpa
While Altagracia is only served by the San Carlos to Granada boat, frequent ferry service connects Ometepe's two other ports (Moyogalpa and San José del Sur) with San Jorge (the port of Rivas).
A fairly straightforward bus ride (several departures daily, roughly 1 hour travel time to San José del Sur or 2 hours to Moyogalpa) takes you to one of these two ports. The locally preferred mode of private transport on the island isn't the car but rather horses or motorcycles and you can certainly rent either. Returning them at another point than you rented them can prove complicated, however. It is certainly possible, however, to bring your own motorcycle or bicycle on a ferry to one of Ometepe's ports and to take it out of the island from another port.
A boat (roughly 45 minutes to an hour travel time) gets you across the narrow stretch of water to San Jorge, the port of Rivas. In San Jorge itself there isn't all that much to see or do, so you should take a taxi (there are no buses and it's too far to comfortably walk) on to Rivas. The ferry can also carry a car (with plenty of advance notice). They should technically be able to accommodate a horse as well, though whether they are willing to do it can only be guessed. As the locals have gotten horses onto the island somehow there will possibly be a way, but you may draw funny stares, as "Cheles" (the Nicaraguan word for foreigners and white people) don't usually use horses for utilitarian purposes (the locals very much do, all across the country).
The original 19th-century route makes landfall a couple of kilometers south from where the harbor is today, to cut down on the overland distance. However, there is hardly any evidence of this history in the hamlet of "La Virgen de Rivas" (which technically belongs to Rivas as does San Jorge).
From 6 Rivas to 7 San Juan del Sur
Rivas itself is not entirely ugly and actually quite nice, but it doesn't compare to the beauty of Granada or León, and as it doesn't have a beach of any kind few tourists decide to stay longer than absolutely necessary. From Rivas you can take a bus (or if you must a horse or carriage, though that would certainly be both more expensive and difficult to organize) to surfer's paradise and endpoint of this itinerary, San Juan del Sur.
Nicaragua is considerably safer in terms of criminal activity than its neighbors to the north and on about the same level of safety as Costa Rica. Most crime in the country happens in Managua, which is not part of this itinerary. That being said in places like San Carlos or Rivas it might be advisable to take taxis at night, as you should when off the beaten track in or around San Juan del Sur.
Both the Rio San Juan and lake Nicaragua have bull sharks (scientific name: Carcharhinus leucas) a species of shark that can survive in both salty and fresh water. Although they are known to attack humans and some attacks have even resulted in fatalities, rigorous hunting has almost exterminated them in Nicaragua, so probably humans are a bigger danger to them than the other way round. That being said, holding a bleeding hand out of the boat is never a good idea. The river also sees several species of caiman and alligator, that while theoretically able to hurt humans usually confine themselves to eating fish. However, they are a good reason to take a camera with you. The deadliest animals are actually those you wouldn't think of: mosquitoes and dogs. Mosquitoes can cause malaria and dengue, and both diseases are endemic to the area east of San Carlos, with a big nationwide dengue outbreak having last occurred in 2014. Dogs are dangerous because they can become aggressive and aren't 100% rabies free. Should you get bitten by any animal, particularly a dog, seek medical attention immediately. Getting a rabies shot before you go to Nicaragua is a good idea in any case.
While this is only the shortest part of the original East Coast USA to West Coast USA route, there is no scheduled service of any kind from either endpoint of the journey to North America proper. San Juan del Sur sees a number of cruises every year, but they usually cannot be boarded there. San Juan del Norte, on the other hand, is hardly ever visited by international vessels of any kind, as Rama and Bluefields are today Nicaragua's most important Caribbean ports. If you want to stay in San Juan del Sur, make sure to check out the surrounding beaches as well, as they are often better suited for surfing and some of them are a lot less crowded. If you are feeling particularly adventurous or are out to prove something or other, freighter travel might be an option, but be advised that Nicaragua's harbors are among the least busy in the freight business - this of course may change if and when the Nicaraguan Canal gets built.
In a sense this route is part of history of the California gold rush and thus the Old West.