Jungle adventure at Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge in Nicaragua

I started my travelling in Costa Rica and then continued to Nicaragua, a charming country relatively untouched by tourism. The highlight of my trip through both countries was three days in Los Guatuzos, a protected area consisting of tropical wetlands, forest, and wildlife refuge on the southern border with Costa Rica.

Not many tourists go through this part of Nicaragua because of a long trip to get there and mostly because it is off the main tourist path, but that is a mistake. After a 3 hour boat trip from San Carlos, you find yourself off the beaten track in the jungle. You can see different species of monkeys and sloths hanging off the trees, rich bird life, as well as iguanas, agouti and caimans which are also common in the area.

This is definitely the place not to be missed for true nature lovers.

Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge

Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge (Refugio de Vida Silvestre Los Guatuzos) has an area of 437.5 km2 and is located south of Lake Nicaragua and west of the San Juan River in Nicaragua. The site has been catalogued by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve. It was the first national wetland to become a Ramsar site (international treaty for the environmental protection of the wetlands) in 1997. And is the only tropical wetland that is internationally recognized in Nicaragua. The reserve is named after the community of Los Guatuzos, an indigenous tribe that lived here and disappeared.

Los Guatuzos is a territory occupied mainly by the tropical rainforest. Here, the wetland ecosystem is predominant due to the 18 rivers, creeks and small lagoons located in it. The Reserve is also known for its rich variety of flowers, trees, and animals. Wildlife Refuge contains high populations of caimans, jaguars, panthers, families of howler monkeys and white-faced monkeys. There are also water turtles, iguanas, snakes, lizards, and other animal species. In the Papaturro community, you can find two breeding places with fresh water turtles and caimans.

There are 389 different species of birds that have been recorded and can be viewed between the months of February and April. You can see great egrets, blue and green heron, kingfishers, hummingbirds, ducks, parrots, hawks and cormorants as well as parakeets and many other species. This number does not include thousands of migratory species that visit this area.

The fauna at Los Guatuzos is also varied and interesting. In addition to the great number of species of orchids, there are a great number of tree species and plants, like the Poponjoche, and Oaks. The vegetation of the swamp is abundant in the area.

Getting There

From La Fortuna (Costa Rica)

You can cross into Nicaragua from Costa Rica with bus or by boat. We went to San Carlos from La Fortuna in Costa Rica with buses. We took a bus from La Fortuna to Muelle at 9.00. After 45 minutes we reached the bus station at Muelle and hopped on a connecting bus to Los Chiles (Tablillas – border), where we arrived about 1.30 hours later. The cost of both buses was around US$7.

On the Costa Rican side, buses drop passengers off right at the border. After passing through Costa Rica immigration you have to walk a 100 meters to the Nicaraguan immigration office. The exit tax for Costa Rica is US$5 plus US$2 service fee. The entry fee for Nicaragua is US$12 plus US$1 for the municipality tax. Not many people use this remote border crossing, which means it is empty and very fast and easy to go through immigration procedures on both sides.

After the immigration procedures, you just walk down the road to the mini-vans drop off / pick up point which takes you to San Carlos. They depart when full, generally they departure every 30 minutes and arrive in San Carlos bus station after 50 minutes.

Another option is to take a bus to Los Chiles, there you can cross into Nicaragua by boat. The boat leaves at 13:00 from Los Chiles and arrives in San Carlos around 15:00. It costs C$7000/US-$ 14. Before leaving you have to pay an additional port tax.

From Managua/Granada

If you are already in Nicaragua you can take a “chicken bus” from Managua or Granada. The buses from Managua departure from the Mercado de Mayoreo bus station. The journey takes 6-7 hours and costs C$150/ US$6.5. Departure times are: 5:00, 6:00, 7:00, 9:15, 10:15, 1:30, 17:00, and 18:30. It is better to double check these departure times. Some buses from Managua go direct to San Carlos, and some just go to Juigalpa where you need to change the bus.

Buses from Granada run on Mondays and Thursdays at 11:00 and 14:00. The bus station in Granada is at the waterfront and does not pass through Managua.

You can also catch a flight with La Costaña to San Carlos from Managua on Thursday and Sunday at 11:30 (~US$150 round trip). The airports in Sun Juan del Norte and on Ometepe have scheduled flights to and from San Carlos as well.

There used to be a ferry (twice a week) from Granada which final destination was San Carlos and had a stopover in Ometepe Island. For the last 3 years, the ferry isn’t running but according to the State sources, it will be reactivated soon.

Boat to Los Guatuzos (Rio Papaturro)

To get to Los Guatuzos you need to take a boat from San Carlos pier. The boat leaves at 9:00 on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday and costs C$105/ US$4 (one way). You can buy a ticket on the day of departure on the pier. I recommend to be there at least at 8:00 to buy a ticket and do not forget to put your name on a passenger manifest. We were there at 7:30 and the best seats were already taken. So we put our backpack on a wooden bench (seats) and went for a Nicaraguan breakfast to a waterfront restaurant. After breakfast, we went back on the boat which was now completely full of cargo and people sitting shoulder to shoulder. Thankfully our backpacks were still reserving our space on a bench in the middle. We were the only non-locals on board so all eyes were on us.

Typical Nicaraguan breakfast

The journey takes around 3 hours. Halfway there on Lake Nicaragua, a small boat ties up to the Papaturro boat and you can buy fried fish with a plantain from the island’s inhabitants for C$40.

The last part of the boat trip, as you enter the Rio Papaturro into the heart of the Nicaraguan jungle, is stunning. You can see a variety of tropical birds, monkeys, iguanas, and caimans. At the Papaturro station, your passport will be checked and thorough search of all luggage.

Rio Papaturro station

If you don’t want to take the slow and busy public boat you can arrange a pickup in San Carlos with Armando from Cabañas Caiman (price is US$150). But taking the public boat is much cheaper and also an interesting experience.

Where to stay & eat

There are two accommodations available in Los Guatuzos:

  • Centro Ecologico Los Guatuzos
  • Cabañas Caimán

Centro Ecologico Los Guatuzos is a research centre that offers guided excursions and lodging in the park. It also has a butterfly farm, a meteorological station, turtle and caiman nursery and an orchid display of 92 different species. Cheapest room there is $15 per person in a dorm. To make a reservation send email to the Centro Ecologico: info@losguatuzos.com.

We stayed at Cabañas Caimán with Armando & Aillen. We made a reservation prior to our visit, so Armando was already waiting for us at the boat dock. The accommodation was US$20 pp per night including breakfast with coffee or tea. To make a reservation you can just send an email to aillenm@hotmail.com. Our cabin was by the river and we had our own spacious clean room with bathroom and mosquito netted bed.

There are not many options for food which makes it expensive. There are 3 restaurants in the village and two small shops to get basic stuff.  You can eat all meals at Cabañas Caimán. Another restaurant is across the bridge. In both, each meal costs US$10. If you go a little further down the road towards the border you will find a restaurant, where other locals eat. This the cheapest option in the village. The meals cost around C$100/US$3.

Tours in Los Guatuzos

Los Guatuzos is very isolated so you really are in the middle of the jungle. You do not need to go far to see wildlife. You can just sit outside the cabin at the waterfront and you will spot the majority of animals. Many animals are easily spotted all over the village and there are also guided walks available through the Centro Ecologico or Armando with Cabañas Caiman.

The best way is to combine the tours that Centro Ecologico and Cabañas Caimán are offering with self-guided walking’s. Centro Ecologico had a guided hike and the option to rent a kayak to explore the River Papaturro. Cabañas Caimán offers 3 different tours: night tour by boat, walking tour at the crack of dawn and afternoon boat tour. Each tour costs US$60. The tour is cheap if you are in a big group or you can find someone there to share it. Unfortunately, we (me and my boyfriend) were the only tourist in the village during our stay, which made those tours expensive.

Below is a list of activities for a budget traveller and for those who want to get the most out of their stay in the jungle.

Walking tour at the Centro Ecologico

At the Centro Ecologico there is a hiking trail through the rainforest and hanging bridge. The tour is guided and cost $10/person and last for 2-3 hours. The Centro has a caiman and turtle nursery, orchid and butterfly farm. We were exploring forest early in the morning with our guide Hernesto, who really made an effort to show us different animals. It is a small trail but you can spot all the main animals in the jungle. Just be aware there are a lot of mosquitos.

Walking tour at crack of dawn with Armando from Cabañas Caimán

You can also do the jungle walk with Armando at Cabañas Caiman. The tour cost US$60/tour and last about 4 hours. We start this tour just before dawn. We started with a river cruise, spotting caimans along the way, followed by a 3 km trek into the jungle. Along the way, we swung like Tarzan, saw poisonous blue jeans frog, giant ants, loads of other animals, and trees that are over 500 years old, a cacao plantation, and achiote tree. Don’t forget to take a water bottle with you.

Armando is an expert when it comes to wildlife. The only downside is that he only speaks Spanish.

Night tour by boat with Armando from Cabañas Caimán

This tour is a must when in jungle cause it gives you the opportunity to see the most animals. During the 3 hours night tour, you can get very close to sleeping birds, caimans and also see the red-eyed tree frogs. Most people describe this tour as the most movingly magical experiences of their life. The tour cost US$60/tour.

Afternoon boat trip with Armando from Cabañas Caimán

We also booked the day boat trip with Armando. The tour went along the River Papaturro into the wetland and down to Lake Nicaragua and back. We saw monkeys (howler, spider and capuchin), large iguanas, Jesus Christ lizards, snake, Butterfly bats, turtles, and lots of birds. You can also try wooden boards for wakeboarding behind the boat on the Lake Nicaragua. The tour last for 4 hours and cost US$60/tour.

Kayaking the river by yourself

If you want to avoid paying for the tour and want to be more adventures, you can rent a kayak at the Centro Ecologico for a half day trip along the River Papaturro. Price for a single kayak is US$10 and double US$15. You can also take the guided night kayak tour for US$45/group.

Walking by yourself

You can walk up to the Costa Rica border (around 7 km round trip) and you will view various monkey groups, sloths, variety of birds and we even spotted red-eyed tree frog. The walk with lots of stops takes about 2 hours up and down and it is free.

Basically, you can go on several hikes by yourself, just note that during the day it is very hot and humid.

Watch wildlife around your cabaña

You don’t need to go far or spend money to see animals. You can just relax outside you cabaña and watch the wildlife come within eyesight. We saw howler monkeys, white-faced monkeys and spider monkeys in the trees across the river and around our cabaña. There were iguanas too. Caimans and turtles were passing by in the river and of course, lots of birds. I was trying to take a good photo of hummingbird in flight. Even Jesus Christ lizards came very close while we were sitting in front of our cabaña.

Getting back to San Carlos

The boat returns to San Carlos on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday at 8:00. On the return trip down the river, the boat would be equally full of people and cargo.

From San Carlos bus station you can take a “chicken bus” to Managua. Buses leave San Carlos at 2:00, 6:30, 8:00, 11:45, 14:30, 18:00, 20:00 and 22:30 and cost C$150. “Chicken bus” is a long distance bus for locals, so it stopes at every 2nd tree to pick up or drop off passengers. At least you will have plenty of leg room and the seats are reasonably comfortable. On our way to Managua, there was only one 15 min stop to get some food and to go to the toilet (behind the tree). You can also buy food and drink from people selling it on the bus through the journey.

“Chicken bus” to Managua

We took the first bus available after coming back from Los Guatuzos at 12:45 with bus change in Juigalpa, and arrived in Managua at 20:00.

Direct bus to Granada is on Tuesday and Friday.

Flights with La Costaña to Managua are on Thursday and Sunday at 13:15.

 Practical tips:

  • About mosquitos. There are way too many mosquitos in the morning and evening. Nothing can keep them away, not even DEET. You cannot protect yourself from them, they just bite through it all. Still, I recommend you to wear permethrin-treated long pants and shirts, a plentiful supply of DEET and head nets. Also, bring a head torch.
  • Double check the bus and boat schedules with your host. There are no regular or fixed bus schedules, so you need to check everything in person at the bus station.
  • If you are a budget traveller then these tips are for you: stay in a bunk room at Centro Ecologico for $15 per person, bring some food with you or eat down the road in a restaurant, watch wildlife around your cabaña and take hikes by yourself. A cheap option is to include a guided hike with Centro Ecologico (they will point out and find all sorts of animals plus they have caiman and turtle nursery) for $10 and to rent a kayak for $10. A best guided tour worth investing money is the night tour with Cabañas Caimán, and the cheapest way to do this is to organise the guided night tour with the kayak at Centro Ecologico for US$45 for one to three visitors.
  • Try local chocolate. There is a small shop 20 metres from Cabañas Caimán down the road where they sell locally made chocolate that is delicious and cheap.

I can not recommend this destination enough, it is a must see and it should be in your itinerary, is the ideal destination to have direct contact with nature as you travel through pristine tropical forests. On your journey, you will see Nicaragua’s exotic animal life, and in addition, it also offers other activities such as hiking, kayaking, boat trips, walk on a suspension bridge, and others.

In the end, I do hope that this place stays quite small and quaint and untouched by mass tourism.