Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge

The 438-square-kilometer strip between Nicaragua’s southern border and Lake Cocibolca is a protected wetlands and wildlife reserve replete with myriad species of animals and inhabited by some 1,700 fishermen and subsistence farmers in 11 small communities. The locals are descendants of the Zapote and Guatuzo (or Maleku) peoples as well as the mestizos who arrived in the late 19th century to cultivate rubber. These same huleros reverted to the slave trade when the world rubber market crashed, selling Guatuzos for 50 pesos a head to the gold mines of Chontales. Today, only a handful of full-blooded Maleku exist, mostly over the border in Costa Rica.

Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge. Photo © Elizabeth Perkins.
Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge. Photo © Elizabeth Perkins.

In the 1930s, settlers introduced cacao to the region, which, because of the crop’s need for shade, preserved much of the area’s original forest canopy. When plummeting cacao prices and a deadly fungus wiped out the industry in the 1970s, hardwood logging ensued. Only military conflict in the 1980s stopped the logging, but it also drove nearly the entire population of Los Guatuzos into Costa Rica. When families returned in the early 1990s, the area’s ecosystem was still largely intact, and the new government quickly acted to protect it from destruction.

Today, residents count on the richness of their natural surroundings to attract visitors and scientists. No fewer than 411 species of birds have been observed here. Between February and April, flocks of migratory species fly through in spectacular concentrations. Los Guatuzos contains dense populations of crocodiles; caimans; feral pigs; jaguars; and howler, white-faced, and spider monkeys. This is also home to a rare, ancient species of fish called the gaspar (Actractoseus tropicus), a living, armored relic of the Jurassic age that uses its snout and fangs to eat other fish, crabs, and even small turtles.

Caimans are plentiful along the river in Nicaragua. Photo © Elizabeth Perkins.
Caimans are plentiful along the river in Nicaragua. Photo © Elizabeth Perkins.

The narrow river’s fauna-rich jungle gradually swallows you as you approach the community of Papaturro, located 40 kilometers from San Carlos, up the Río Papaturro, which drains the slopes of Costa Rica’s northern volcanoes. Arrange birding safaris, fishing trips, kayak excursions, nighttime wildlife safaris, boat trips in the wetlands and lake, and tours of local villages (tours $30-40 pp). In Papaturro, a multiplatform suspension canopy bridge behind the Centro Ecológico research station allows for incredible bird and wildlife viewing in the upper reaches of the rainforest. Ask your host for tours, or at one of the comedores. Bring quick-drying clothes and adequate protection from the sun, rain, and especially bugs.

Where to Eat and Stay

Howler monkeys and birdcalls will wake you bright and early in Los Guatuzos. In the river community of Papaturro, Cabañas y Comedor Caiman (immediately west of the main dock, tel. 506/8676-2958, armandogcarballo@hotmail.com or aillenm@hotmail.com, $12 pp, $18 with breakfast) has a cozy two-room cabin right on the river. It’s solar-powered and nearly mosquito proof, quite a feat in the middle of the jungle. Owners Aillen and Armando will make you feel right at home, and can lend boots for trekking through the muddy paths around the community. Armando offers an incredible wealth of knowledge and passion for nature from over 20 years of working in the jungle.

Arrange your meals in the surrounding community. Locals ask that you divide your business as best you can between the three comedores ($8 a plate). It’s a little pricey for your standard Nica fare, but you get quantity and quality for your money.

Another option is only a five-minute boat ride from San Carlos. Hotel La Esquina del Lago (tel. 505/8849-0600, travelangler@gmail.com, $30 s, $40 d, with breakfast) grew from a French expat’s world-class sportfishing trips and area nature tours. Despite cold water and some broken fixtures, the rooms are homey and charming. Accessible only by boat, the jungle lodge feels incredibly remote, with views of surrounding volcanoes and all kinds of tours and water activities. They offer all transfer services, boats for your use, 24-hour electricity, Internet, and package deals with meals and tours included.

Getting There

From the west dock near the CANTUR office in San Carlos, colectivos leave for Papaturro Monday-Wednesday and Friday 9am (4 hours, $4 pp); the trip stops at the small island of Chichicaste, where fried fish and soup are available ($2). The boat returns to San Carlos Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday, leaving Papaturro at 8am. The fast boat ($6) takes half the time. It leaves Tuesdays and Saturdays 10am from San Carlos, returning Monday and Friday 9am. Or you can rent a private panga ($120), which can take up to 10 people to Los Guatuzos in only 1.5 hours.

Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.