The Gringo Horseback Chronicles IV

Join Scott Stevens as he travels Nicaragua by horseback and explores off-the-beaten-path rural communities to see the country from a cowboy’s perspective. Chapter 4: river shrimp and unexpected guests on the Río San Juan

RÍO SAN JUAN—The express boat was packed to the gills. It was riding so low in the water there was literally about two inches of space between the gunwales and the water line, and any significant redistribution would have flipped the thing.

We charged down the river at top speed, the narrow boat splitting the water violently and throwing cascading walls of water that hang momentarily in the air. The faded Nicaraguan flag was flapping violently in the wind and I watched the sun setting lower and lower until it shone through for a brief moment, then clicked the shutter on my camera. Then the moment was gone. The sun set below the tree line and an obscure darkness descended upon the river as we pulled into El Castillo and disembarked.

sunset over Río San Juan (photo/ Scott Stevens)

El Castillo is an interesting little town, dominated by the castle built in 1675 on a promontory above the town. It’s built overlooking a bend in the river, positioned to defend against pirates.

Night falls quickly here, so we couldn’t see much of the town. We needed to find our way over to the other side of the river, so we asked a small boy, probably about 9 years old, how to get across. He immediately puffed out his chest with a sense of duty and proudly marched us through the center of town, pointing out the houses of his cousins and family members.

This a pattern I’ve noticed repeatedly in Nicaragua. People take great care to explain their extended family connections and always use their full and correct name to introduce themselves, or describe others to whom they are related. For example, if I were Nicaraguan, I’d shake your hand and say, “Scott Allen Stevens, nice to meet you.” However, being a gringo, it’s usually just, “Scott, nice to meet you.” I have a hard-enough time with first names, much less remembering people’s middle and last names—or even my own, for that matter.

We arrived at a small canoe landing, where an old guy was just shutting down for the night. But he agreed to take us across the river anyway, for $1.50 each. We set off across the river and up a small tributary, arriving at a very dark Hacienda. The night is pitch black in these parts, and the canoe slid slowly up the muddy bank where we could climb out into the slime.

We were not feeling too confident that this whole Hacienda thing was going to work out. Still, we picked our way up the bank to a dilapidated house, where we were greeted by the barking and growling of various dogs. There was definitely no one around. But since the canoe had already left, we shouted hellos into the dark night, hoping someone would show up. If no one did, we were going to have to sleep outside under a sky that promised rain. Neither of us fancied that idea and both could use a shower and a bed.

Our calls into the darkness were not in vain, however. All of a sudden, some cowboys appeared from nowhere. They were polite, but you could tell they were wondering who these strangers were sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch of their boss’s house. We explained to them that we had met the owner of the house in Comoapa, and he had told us we could stay the night. As we explained this, I realized we had forgotten the owner’s name. But the cowboys didn’t realize that, and kindly took us at our word and opened up the main house.

The gringo gets into some river shrimp

The head cowboy introduced himself as Carlos. He had that typical warm, Nica smile and we liked him immediately. There are not many places in the world you can just show up on a doorstop in the dark and say you met someone who said you can stay there and have people accept you at your word and extend their hospitality. For not the first time, Nicaragua impressed me with the graciousness of its people. Carlos even invited us back across the river for a dinner of river shrimp, which are massive—about the size of Maine Lobster, but thinner.

It was a welcome invite after a long dusty day that started in a barn in Camoapa and ended on this finca, across the river from El Castillo.

The next morning, I woke at 5 a.m. My schedule has been getting earlier and earlier and I found myself waking well before the light comes up. When I wake up on the road, I play this little game in my mind where I have to think for a minute and try to remember where I am. I love the thrill of not knowing right away. I trace myself back through to where I fell asleep the night before, and then I remember and smile.

Roy rides alongside Río San Juan (photo/ Scott Stevens)

I know these days of adventure are fleeting. Soon I’ll be parked in one place for an extended period of time, and I wonder if extensive wandering has created a restlessness in me that will never be satisfied in one place for too long. I thought about this as the light started to come in through the crack under the door, and as I climbed out of bed and pulled on my pants and a tee shirt and walked out into the cool morning air.

In the morning light, I was greeted by a mysterious scene: fog sitting low over the river. It was stunning, and I returned to my room for my camera. Soon everyone was up and we were treated—again—to a full breakfast of river shrimp by Carlos’ wife. While we were eating, Carlos invited us to tour the ranch by horseback. This was the second time someone has offered me a horse in as many days. Where else but Nicaragua does this happen?

They grow cacao here on the farm on the banks of the Río San Juan. And as we rode slowly up and down the hills overlooking the snaking river below, we ate the fleshy-covered cacao seeds that taste like mangosteens.

On top of El Castillo

Carlos invited us to stay that evening and hunt with him and his friends, but we felt a need to keep moving. I had left Confia back in Camoapa, hooked up to an IV, and I wanted to get back to her. Also, the goal was to travel by horseback, not by boat, and from here we needed a boat to go anywhere.

Still, we were so close to the Caribbean, you can almost smell it and it seemed like a waste to be so close and not go. But you can’t do it all, so we decided to head out on the 11 a.m. boat, giving us enough time to do a bit of touristy stuff first. We climbed the hill to El Castillo and took a few snapshots from the castle walls.

We called our new friend Carlos on the other side of the river and we could see him waving to us from his horse. We waved back across the rapids, which were boiling with tarpon.

It was silly, but it felt fun to be on the phone with him on his horse and waving across that river from the top of a castle. I looked down one last time at the river and wished we had had time to do some fishing.  

Next week: exploring the countryside outside on horseback outside of Comoapa.


Scott Stevens, from Shreveport, Louisiana, has spent the past 10 years living abroad in Thailand, Indonesia, Switzerland, and, most recently, Nicaragua. He traded the boardroom for the outdoors after the 2008 financial crisis and has been exploring ever since. Follow his stories on his blog,

  • Michele

    Love Castillo, love Nicaragua and her people and reading your blog too.

    • scott stevens

      Thanks Michele!