Its difficult to imagine as you stroll down the ‘main street’ of El Castillo, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth century this village was at the centre of a global conflict between competing European nations that saw bloody battles between English fleets and Spanish defenders. The reason for those conflicts was a fortress built by the Spanish to prevent pirates from sailing up the Rio San Juan from the Caribbean to attack the fabulously wealthy city of Granada.
Granada was sacked and looted three times by pirates between 1655 and 1670, including famously by the Welsh pirate, Henry Morgan. In response, the Spanish built a fort on a bend in the Rio San Juan between two sets of rapids that slowed ships down and allowed the fort to train its cannons on them.
The site is spectacular. From the battlements you can see for miles down the river and over the top of the vast tropical rain forest that surrounds it. It is hard to take in what it must have been like to be a Spanish soldier posted to this remote site in the forest, surrounded by hostile indigenous tribes and subject to malaria and other tropical diseases.
Today it still feels remote – to reach the village involves a one and a half hour boat ride from San Carlos at the entrance to Lago Nicaragua where the river begins – but the effort to get there is well worth it. El Castillo is a sleepy place where you can relax for a few days between trips to surrounding natural wonders, including the extraordinary Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, a vast and pristine tropical rain forest.
Perhaps the most famous incident in the history of El Castillo was in 1762 when Rafaela Herrera, the teenage daughter of the dead fort commander, rallied the troops and defeated an English fleet headed for Granada. Although El Castillo’s true moment in the sun was during the California Gold Rush from 1848-55 when it was an important staging point for prospectors trying to reach San Francisco.
This was pre-Panama Canal and a decade before the US transcontinental railway, making it the quickest way to get from the East Coast of the US to the West Coast. Ironic then that the Nicaraguan government is conspiring with Chinese investors to build another transcontinental canal to rival the one in Panama. One possible route will be the Rio San Juan, something guaranteed to destroy both the natural environment of this region and the main reason for tourists to come here.
We spent a few days here absorbing river life and watching the world go by in small boats. El Castillo is another place where geography and history have conspired to keep it free of motor vehicles, so the world goes by much more quietly. The region is famous for giant river shrimp, much to our disappointment this wasn’t the season for shrimp – seriously, this is the sort of information a guidebook should give you!
The village is very welcoming and is starting to build a solid tourist infrastructure. Things will change in the next few years, but currently it feels like you have fallen off the tourist trail. People in the village genuinely want to encourage tourism, a guide we hired to take us to the forest put it very simply: before tourism many people in the village worked illegally (and cheaply) picking fruit in Costa Rica. Tourism, he implied, had restored a sense of pride in El Castillo.