El Castillo History


El Castillo 

El Castillo is a town of about 1,500 built into the bank of the Río San Juan and named after its principal attraction: El Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepción de María. The fortress—dark, moss-covered ruins that still loom above town—was strategically placed with a long view downriver, right in front of the shark- and crocodile-infested Raudal el Diablo (still one of the biggest challenges for upstream vessels). 

The Fortress of the Immaculate Conception has more successfully attracted tourists than repelled English pirates, and if you’re in the area, this is the one place you should not miss.

The town of El Castillo is a happily isolated river community within earshot of the rapids, and with no roads or cars—reason enough to visit. 

Its residents work on farms in the surrounding hills, fish the river, commute to the sawmill in Sábalos, the palm oil factory up the Río San Juan, or one of the new resorts up and down the river. In between harvests, a lot of folks cross illegally into Costa Rica—an easy 45-minute walk—and work there.


Ruy Díaz, on the first Spanish exploration of the river in 1525, built the first fortificatoin in 1602, on a section of the river he called “The House of the Devil.” In 1673, Spain commissioned the building of a new fort, which, when completed two years later, was the largest fortress of its kind in Central America, with 32 cannons and 11,000 weapons. Granada, at long last, felt safe.

  In 1762, Spain and Britain began the Seven Year War, prompting the governor of Jamaica to order an invasion of Nicaragua. An expedition of 2,000 soldiers took all the fortifications until they reached El Castillo, where a massive battle commenced on July 29. Rafaela Herrera, the 19-year-old daughter of the fort’s fallen commander, Jose Herrera, seized command of her father’s troops and succeeded in driving the British off, who retreated to San Juan del Norte on August 3.

  Eighteen years later, 22-year-old Horatio Nelson entered the Río San Juan with a force of 3,500 men. He captured the fortification at Bartola on April 9, and then, two days later, made a surprise attack on El Castillo by circling around on foot and storming it from the land. Nelson’s attack was successful, and he took 270 Spanish prisoners. Alas, retaining his new possession proved more difficult than taking it, and in 1781, after nine months in El Castillo without any reinforcement, the soon-to-be Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson and his handful of surviving soldiers—all rotting from sickness—pulled out and went home.

Visiting the Fort

As part of its celebration of 500 years of influence in the Americas, the Spanish government initiated an expensive renovation of the ruins of the old fortress, installed a historical museum and library within the structure, and built the nearby school and Hotel Albergue. The museum costs $1 to enter and is a must-see if you’ve made it this far. Consider spending some downtime sitting in the surrounding grass fields and contemplating the river. Ask about the Centro de Interpretación and the alleged mariposario (butterfly farm).


Return to the Nicaragua Home Page

Created by Charles W. Buntjer - San Francisco

Published on 2008.02.20