San Carlos (Nicaragua)
San Carlos is a local transportation hub. That doesn't mean there is a lot going on but if you travel the region you can't miss San Carlos. In November 2009 the municipality inaugurated the brand new Malecon which gave a needed face-lift to the city. With the construction of the new carretera to Managua (reducing the travel time from just over 12 hours by bus to 6 hours) and the completion of a bridge across the Rio San Juan just out of town there is bound to be a lot of development in the next few years.
- You can cross into Nicaragua from Costa Rica getting a boat in Los Chiles. (Leaves at 1 pm in Los Chiles and costs 5000 Colones / 180 Cordobas or US$9. Payable in either currency) You will arrive in San Carlos at around 3 pm (not so many options left to leave San Carlos on the very same day.)
- You can get into town by boat from Isla Ometepe or from Granada. The Ferry leaves Granada at 5 pm on Monday and Thursday. It stops by in Altagracia at the Isla Ometepe where it leaves at around 9 pm. As of February 2014, the boat from Altagracia was C$161.
- There are boat connections to Solentiname Islands and to the villages on the southern shore of the Lago de Nicaragua.
- There are buses to and from Managua. The trip takes 6 hours and costs 150 Cordobas.
- All buses to Managua stop in Juigalpa but some also do the San Carlos Juigalpa trip on its own.
- Please note that the buses that say "Los Chiles" on the windshield do not go to Los Chiles Costa Rica but rather to a small Nicaraguan village of the same name
- There are twice weekly flights from Managua (~US$120 round trip).
- The new airports in Sun Juan del Norte and on Ometepe have scheduled flights to and from San Carlos as well.
It's a small city - everything is in walking distance. A taxi is NIO10 all around town (double rates at night). A local bus exists but is not useful for tourists. If you arrive at the airport, taxis should be waiting for you to take you and your luggage into town.
There are really only two sights in San Carlos - the malecon, and the fort just above the central park. The malecon can be seen in about 10 minutes. The fort is interesting for those who read Spanish. If you don't, it's really only notable for its limited views of the lake and river.
Watch a baseball game. The stadium is close to the airport and although the local team has traditionally been abysmal and gets a pounding from pretty much the rest of the league, it's a cheap fun way to get in contact with the locals. Any taxi driver can get you there (it is quite some distance to walk).
You could theoretically swim in the lake at the malecon. The locals do. However, as a lot of San Carlos' untreated sewage used to be running into the lake until quite recently, use your own best judgment. If you do want to swim, there are several piscinas (i.e. a swimming pool and someone selling drinks and food) — nothing too fancy and not in walking distance, but any taxi can get you there. Admission should be around C$40 per person and food and drinks don't cost more than at a normal restaurant.
Around November the malecon comes alive with the Carnaval Acuatico, held mostly on boats on the lake and the Rio San Juan. Its seventh edition in 2015 was held on the weekend of October 17.
There is a national sport-fishing tournament, usually around September.
As of February, 2014, there are numerous ATMs and at least two banks around town. San Carlos does not have a Supermarket (yet, there are constant talks of building one but when is anybody's guess) but you can fulfill most of your daily needs at small ventas (also known as pulperias) all around town. The mercado has a decent selection of fresh fruits, vegetables, clothes and toiletries. Prices are slightly higher than in Managua and some prices (e.g. those of plantains) undergo a weekly cycle with the transports from Ometepe. As the rest of the Rio San Juan departamento is even less accessible, many travelers stock up on essentials before moving on.
Some shops accept Costa Rican Colones and there are numerous cambistas that will gladly exchange Dollars Colones and Cordobas. For Colones this is your last chance if you aren't headed for Costa Rica, so exchange them. Banks also change them though at worse rates and only during their business hours (remember to bring you passport if you want to change money at the bank). Be careful when changing money on the street as it only takes bad luck and lack of caution to meet the one dishonest cambista playing a trick on you.
Around the Malecon there are several little sodas where you can get decent food from 7 am in the morning. La Fortaleza, the last of the sodas on the raised platform right in front of the Malecon's central square, comes highly recommended with very friendly staff and excellent prices. Quick service and super close to the pier if you have limited time. They are happy to accommodate vegetarians.
At 11 am the more fancy restaurants open but don't expect to much. Fish is the thing to eat in San Carlos (if you are not vegetarian).
Above La Fortaleza, with an entrance on the nearest side-street, is Restaurant Kaoma. Nicely decorated with a great view of the water, this is the place to sit and spend an evening with a few drinks. The menu is in English and Spanish, but expect to pay C$150-300 for an entree.
Attached to Hotel Cabinas Leyko is Restaurant Don Leo. They also have a Spanish&English menu, but more reasonably priced than Kaoma (though without the atmosphere) and with excellent WiFi.
- Restaurante El Granadino, Frente a Cancha Alejandro Granja, ☎ +505 25830142.
- Restaurante El Mirador, De la iglesia Católica 1 y ½ Cuadra al lago, ☎ +505 2583 0377. nicely located with great views over the river and decorated with Spanish cannons (supposedly from El Castillo and supposedly used by Rafaela Herrera repelling the English pirates in the 18th century) but the food more often than not can't compete with the view.
San Carlos has two places where the young locals go to party drink and dance. both close to the malecon El Kaoma has an air conditioned (read: freezing cold) disco downstairs that really gets going on Karaoke nights (usually Thursday). Lots of fun to be had, just don't expect to know the songs.
La Champa is a place where you can go to dance. It is usually packed on Saturday nights but half empty on Friday evenings. It closes at 2AM but you can take out a beer.
As San Carlos is a port town some of the bars can have a bit of an unsavory feeling to them. the two discos mentioned above are save however.
Close to the malecon there is a place selling fruit drinks (called Siembras y Cosechas) that aren't your typical water and sugar sad excuse for fruit. The price for a big drink was C$50 (with C$40 for a almost identically sized small one) in early 2014 but prizes have been rising steadily and very fast in the recent past, so this might be outdated. The drinks are very good, however, and they are perfect to cool you down on a lazy hot afternoon waiting for your connecting boat or bus.
There are several budget Hospedajes all around the Malecon and in the streets leading up the hill, but San Carlos is only a place to stay if you arrive late at night with no forward-transit options.
- Hotel Cabinas Leyko, Casa Cural, 2 cuadras al Oeste, ☎ +505 2583 0354, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. nice option with parking, friendly staff, and free water - though not particularly cheap by Nicaraguan standards. Clean rooms with complimentary soap and shampoo. Rates include breakfast. They can also arrange tours throughout the area. double w/o bath $20 triple w bath $36.
- Hotel Gran Lago, De Caruna, 25 metros al Sur. San Carlos, ☎ +505 2583 0075, e-mail: email@example.com. The location of this hotel right at the Malecon is a blessing and a curse at once. On the one hand almost everything is in close walking distance, on the other hand during the frequent events at the Malecon it will get loud. Single $35 double $40.
- Hostal Santa Lucía, Sector 3, Frente a Quinta Santa Rosa, ☎ +505 2583 0385. Single $10, Double $15, Triple $20.
San Carlos might look like a sleepy town but crime does happen here as well. If you have to go longer distances at night, take a taxi. Besides that it should all be just common sense.
Cybers abound in San Carlos Internet is C$10 per half hour and usually charged after you leave. The quality is pretty much the same everywhere but MniCyber Ortega is right at the Malecon with beautiful lake-views and there are also headsets which might or might not be working and the owner has a side business repairing computers. Locals generally say that Claro has better service in San Carlos but Movistar is better for the surrounding countryside.
There is free Wi-Fi in the Parque Central just below the Spanish fortress (as of July 2014).
San Carlos is one of the only places in this part of the country that has a post office. However the opening hours are short and not posted officially anywhere, so come in the morning and bring some patience.
- Every Tuesday and Friday the boat to Isla Ometepe and Granada (via San Miguelito and Morrito) leaves at 2 pm.
- There are two boats leaving for Los Chiles in Costa Rica. One leaves at 10:30 and gets to Los Chiles at around noon. The other boat leaves San Carlos at 4 pm. (180 Cordobas ~ USD9 ~ 5000 Colones payable in either currency). Remember that you have to pay a border tax upon leaving in either Cordoba or US Dollars and the border officials may or may not have small change. the trip itself is scenic and passes through the rain forest to both sides of the Rio Frio. You are allowed to take pictures of everything, just not of the armed Nicaraguan border post about halfway through the trip.
- Boats to El Castillo leave San Carlos Boats at 6:30 am, 8 am, 10:30 (high season), 12:30, 2:30, 4:30.
- Boats to the Solentiname Islands leave on Tuesday and Friday around 11 pm. (70 Cordobas ~ 2.5 US$) If you happen to get into San Carlos at another day ask around in the harbour if there is a boat from the islands - they might give you a ride.
- Boats to San Juan Del Norte leave Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at 6 am. (duration: 6 - 12 h, depending on the boat and season)