Rio San Juan

Nicaragua Travel Blog

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the two dimensional Sandino overlooking the Hotel Intercontinental

"I had no desire to die and felt tempted to say something about his mother."

-Che Guevara, Pasajes de la Guerra Revolucionaria

 

Granada had an imposing look to it. All the houses and tiendas were huge, speaking of a conservative spaciousness that had been lost as the country left Spanish colonialism behind. The best way to describe Granada is a balding, pot-bellied man smoking a cigar while observing the world through narrowed, suspicious eyes.

Granada
He is behind a great oak desk, immobile, and has been there for generations. Revolutions may come and go, but he is Granada.

Though I only had a half inch of hair, a barber shop I passed by had such an inviting atmosphere that I decided to get a haircut. The middle-aged barber who sat me down was a master of his trade, meticulously evening out my hair with electric clippers, and then touching up with scissors. For shaving work around the ears he brought out the straight razor, which he handled with an effortless grace that suggested a lifetime of practice. After two different lotions and a powdering, I smelled like an aftershave factory. Pleased with my new look, I paid him the three dollar cost and left, leaving him shaking his head and wondering why I refused to let him shave the ghastly tangle of hair on my chin that called itself a goatee.

The following afternoon, as I was waiting at the Granada docks with a nervous young British traveler who gave the appearance of being frightened at his own shadow, a slightly ragged and amiable man walked up to us.

a billboard in Leon of captured CIA cargo handler Eugene Hasenfus shot down resupplying the contras
He offered the warning in English that the ferry contained thieves who would knife apart our gear at the first instance we stopped watching it. The ferry was our transportation to San Carlos, a town on the southeastern edge of Lake Nicaragua that sat at the entrance to the mighty Rio San Juan. Striking up a conversation with the man, I discovered that he was a Miskito who had fought with the Yatama contras from 1981 to 1986 before being captured in March or April of '86. Only this year David had gotten out of prison, and he was enjoying his freedom by traveling as far away from his captors as he could.

From Bluefields he came down by boat to Greytown - on the border with Costa Rica where the Rio San Juan empties into the Caribbean - all the way up the one hundred and eighty kilometer stretch of the Rio San Juan to San Carlos, and then on the ferry up to Granada.

Granada
At the best of times his adventure would have been a hell trip, but even more so at the end of dry season. The waters of the Rio San Juan were at their lowest. When I asked him how the trip had been, his only note of complaint was that he'd had to canoe much more of the distance than he liked.

Though he had been hoping to cross into Costa Rica illegally, he'd found all the entry points along the Rio San Juan to be too heavily patrolled so he decided to stay in Nicaragua a bit longer. Costa Rica attracted him because it didn't have an army and people seemed to be friendlier there, or at the very least less abusive toward their costeños than Nicaraguans were.

"Nicaragua is not a safe place for my people," he said sadly.

He seemed a quite intelligent man, and well informed of world events for having spent the last twelve years of his life fighting or in a Bluefields prison.

Noel the Sandinista
Among the languages he spoke were English, broken Spanish, a smattering of German, and some sixteen different dialects of Miskito. His father had died during the war, and he hadn't seen his mother for twelve years. She had gone to Europe as a refugee during the early years of repression on the Coast, and he didn't think it likely that he'd manage to get that far any time soon. He professed a great admiration for George Bush, who was a heroic figure to him for having treated the Sandinistas so badly. Any enemy of the Sandinistas was a friend of his. He couldn't really understand why we Americans had voted Bush out of office, when he had stood up to the forces of evil throughout the world. I tried to explain to him the phrase "the pot calling the kettle black". He was reserving judgment on Clinton because he thought Clinton wasn't the same sort of man as Carter, who he said his people hated for having given money to the Sandinistas.

When I mentioned my visit to Tasbapauni, he grinned enthusiastically.

putting flowers on Ben Linder's grave, an American engineer killed by US-supported contras

"You've been to Tasbapauni? I was there! Do you remember the church there? There was a big battle at the church in Tasbapauni..."

He trailed off and a frown appeared on his face.

"...no, that was in 1987, I was already in jail."

David wanted to get to San Jose to talk to Amnesty International about his brutal treatment while in prison. Besides having lost four teeth and suffered permanent damage to his spine, he'd been a victim of electrical shock torture. Lowering his shirt collar, he showed us the electrode mark where they'd attached it to his chest, and told us he had one to match it on his testicles.

"The Sandinistas, they no get no better.

John gone a little too native
They just killing my people one by one now. They don't understand what Miskito people want. They think we're primitive, that they need to civilize us. We don't want their health care. We don't want their education. You know what their education is? Their kind of math? They ask '16 grenades divided by four AK's = ?' We don't need that."

 If I made it to Bluefields again, he told me to look up Dexter Rigby in the Moravian Church. As we parted, he told me he would pray for me and wished me luck in my travels. I was aware I had met a remarkable man. I didn't share his religious faith nor his hatred of the Sandinistas, but it was an eye-opening encounter. The Sandinistas had done remarkable things in freeing the Pacific side of the country from dicatorship, but their track record on the Caribbean coast left much to be desired.

The ferry ride across the lake was a twelve hour odyssey on a reasonably modern, double-deck ferry, which even featured a television set on the upper deck.

A friend's bra drying on the window
I followed David's advice and picked out a space on the floor of the upper deck where I could wrap myself around my possessions. As far as I could tell, I was the only chele on the boat. The sky was dark grey throughout the afternoon and evening, and a brilliant lightning storm to the south looked as if it was going to collide with us. After night fell, I slept restlessly, waking at one point to see the sheets of lightning illuminating the small archipelago of the Nancital Islands. A marker light flashed on and off on one of the islands to warn of their proximity. The next time I woke up we were at the Morrito dock, loading and unloading passengers from the dimly lit structure.

A large part of this village seemed to have turned out for the ferry's arrival, and it was strange to see so much activity anywhere in Nicaragua in the middle of the night. For a good part of the time while I wasn't sleeping, I talked to Mario Morales Zamora. He was the twenty-eight year old son of Rosa Zamora, brother of the sixteen or seventeen year old María Mercedes Zamora, and had two other brothers and two sisters whose names washed through me.

San Carlos docks in the pre-dawn light
Families were an important part of Nicaraguan life. They seemed to be one of the first topics of conversation one dwelt on when getting to know another person. Because he came from an eight person household, he categorized his family as quite a small one. Mario lived in San Carlos and was returning there from a trip to Managua with his teacher, a professorial man of about 45 years of age. We talked some about the United States, and he told me he hoped to visit his mother's friends in Brooklyn as soon as his English got better. Encounters with people like Mario gave me a special appreciation for traveling, because they reminded me of the innocence and awe I felt toward the rest of the world before I left my own country for the first time.

        "Clinton is a very young man, yes?" he asked while we were talking about my country's new leader.

I confirmed that, indeed, he was the youngest US president to have existed in either of our lifetimes.

cargo boat on the Rio San Juan
Having seen the wreckage that old men had heaped upon his country, the idea of a young man running America seemed very comforting to Mario. Clinton had his wholehearted approval.

At around three or four in the morning we arrived at the San Carlos docks. A few people wandered off in the darkness to their homes, but the majority stayed on the ferry in the same places they'd been since Granada. I followed suit, wrapping myself more snugly around my possessions and snoozing until the first light of amanecer crept over the horizon. Without so much as a cursory glance at the town, I departed the ferry and walked fifty feet over to one of the boats bound to El Castillo. My destination was a village forty miles down river on the Rio San Juan, the last village along the river accessible from the San Carlos end. It seemed to be as far away from Managua as I could get in this part of the country.

The five to six hour ferry journey to the village, which was described in the Lonely Planet guide based on unconfirmed information as a marvelous trip that passed through "dense jungle", was unfortunately far different in reality.

schoolboy in El Castillo

In the early stages the river was wide and slow moving, flanked on either side by wetlands. Tall, graceful egrets hunted for fish along the banks, while colorful wetland birds flitted in and out of the rushes. Beyond the marshy areas, though, the unmistakable deforestation from cattle raising was evident.

As the wetlands gave way to more hilly country, a few patches of jungle remained untouched along the river, but the deeper we went the more severe the deforestation became. I was in the Heart of Beefness. Though the destruction of the jungle had been taking place in the region for years, the problem had been exacerbated in the last few years with the area being used as a resettlement zone for contras.

self-portrait on the river
As part of the Nicaraguan peace settlement, many contras who accepted the amnesty were given land to farm in this region. This agreement sparked a great deal of controversy, both from environmentalists who foresaw the accelerated destruction it would cause to the region's natural resources, as well as from the tens of thousands of demobilized Sandinista Army soldiers who were not offered any similar compensation at the end of the war. By the time I reached El Castillo, there were scarcely any untouched patches of forest anymore.

The old Spanish fort was the first striking feature I noticed as our boat approached the small village. Built in 1675 to fend off British and French adventures up the Rio San Juan - through which they had to pass to attack the cities of Granada and Leon - the Fort of the Immaculate Conception had seen many battles throughout its history. They had ranged from the attack in 1762 by Henry Morgan, leading 2000 men and 50 British ships, to more recent battles during the 1980's when the fort operated as a Sandinista Army post.

happy baby

It was in this area that the contras were led by Eden Pastora, and the fort was the site of a number of skirmishes between the two sides. The La Penca base camp where Pastora nearly lost his life in 1984 was not far from here. Life had returned to normal along the Rio San Juan with the contras gone, and history was finally coming full circle for the village of El Castillo. While the blue and white Nicaraguan flag flew over the partially restored fort, it was the government of Spain which was providing most of the money for its restoration. This same source of international aid was responsible for the majority of funding of the Rio San Juan Development Project, an ambitious effort to raise the local standard of living along the entire length of the river in addition to promoting ecotourism.

         After the long journey through deforested lands, thankfully there was still hope waiting down river.
Albergue El Castillo
Close by to El Castillo, the Rios Indio-Maiz Biological Reserve began, an enormous tract that covered a significant portion of southeastern Nicaragua. The reserve was the centerpiece of the fledgling ecotourism industry in the country, and though getting there required some effort, the government had already built facilities to accommodate the anticipated tour groups. These facilities
came in the form of the Albergue El Castillo, a hotel that was built as part of the Rio San Juan Development Project. The hotel was the second landmark of the town, blossoming brilliantly out of the hillside.

When my German friend Peter - newly made on the boat ride - and I disembarked from the boat and walked up to the hotel, I was surprised to find that the inside more than matched the outside.

boy on a cargo boat

The woodwork was the best I'd seen in Nicaragua, beautiful varnished floors and walls displaying the wood's natural beauty. Though the normal rate for rooms was fifteen dollars a night, they offered them to us for ten because the place was empty. Sadly we had to decline, being on such limited budgets that we could only afford the charming little fleabag of an hospedaje that fronted on the river at the bottom of town. Finding such an opulent yet simple hotel in so remote an area was disorienting enough, having it be such a bargain was even more curious, but having it be a government project seemed the most unusual part of all. I was impressed that the RSJ Development Project, which was largely supervised by the government environmental agency IRENA, had put together such a cohesive and alluring infrastructure to encourage ecotourism. Now they only had to figure out a way to get people there.

For the next few days I wandered around the friendly little village, exploring the fort, watching the water churn through the rapids, talking to locals, and watching the colorful sunsets each evening.

El Castillo at dusk

The influx of aid money had turned El Castillo into a model village of sorts, with neat concrete walkways linking the entire place together, nice school buildings, and many new and reconstructed houses in which a high quality of craftsmanship was apparent. The Bank of Materials was responsible for the home improvements, a part of the RSJDP that gave locals access to precision woodworking tools as well as paint and roofing materials. One evening while I was enjoying the sunset, a worker from the fort approached me and we traded pleasantries about the beauty of it.

"It is much different now," he said contentedly. "Five years ago you would not have been allowed to sit here. The Sandinistas wouldn't let anyone near the fort. People didn't leave their houses after dark."

"The country's gone through a lot of changes," I agreed.

church in El Castillo

       
"This is my first time on the Rio San Juan, but I was here in '87 and '90."

"So you were here during the Sandinistas," he said in a tone that acknowledged a shared memory of difficult times, "during the war."

I had never suffered through the hell of living in a war zone, though, so I felt the respect undeserved.

"Peace is always better," I observed, to which he enthusiastically agreed.

egret on the Rio San Juan

"But," he added with a frown, "there are people here who don't like the peace. They would rather be fighting."

Changing the subject, I asked him how work on the fort was coming.

"Much of it is done," he said, walking over to a pile of bricks and picking one up. "But these bricks are no good."

"Why not?"

"They're too delicate..." he smiled, "like the peace."

Though the villagers along the river had an "out of sight, out of mind" attitude toward garbage and threw everything in the river, this seemed to have a relatively small impact on the ecosystem.

El Castillo at dawn

The river flushed itself very rapidly. Giant sábalo, or tarpon, thrived in the river just above the rapids, and
fishermen stood in the middle of the rapids each day with long spears waiting for them to pass by. When they harpooned one, the spear head detached from the pole and they let the fish swim away. They kept track of its whereabouts by a float connected with line to the spear head. After anywhere from fifteen minutes to a half hour, the fishermen got into their dugout canoes and went in pursuit of the fish. With the smaller sábalo weighing about thirty pounds and the larger ones going up over a hundred pounds, it was wise to let the fish tire itself out. Often the fishermen would be towed around the river for awhile by the fish before they were finally able to boat it.
El Castillo
A forgotten chapter of the river's history is the time when sport fishing for tarpon brought tourist anglers to the river, to a lodge upstream from El Castillo called Tarpon Camp. I came across a 1977 travel brochure for the place in some of my parents' old travel paraphernalia, the camp soon thereafter having become a casualty of the war.

The family who ran the hospedaje was vibrant. The vaquero father, Paco, with pale skin and turtle-like features, had a buxom wife, with an equally buxom daughter in her early twenties. Clari, the daughter, worried me continually with her lusty leer. They also had a quiet and handsome ten year old, as well as the Largest Baby in the World. The baby was a wide-eyed giant in diapers who could go no longer than five minutes at a time without feeling that another injustice had been committed against him.

view through the gun slots at El Castillo
When he felt this way, he sat down on his ample backside and screamed at deafening volume:

"MA-MI! MA-MI!"

They ran the hospedaje as if it were their home, which it was.

Around five in the morning we were often awakened by the distorted sounds of obscenely loud romantic music playing on the tape deck. Aided in effect by the variable speed of the deck, the mournful wails were drawn out to absurd lengths. At certain times of day the cacophony reached extraordinary heights between the music, the screams of the hapless baby, and the ear-splitting screeches of the family's pet parrots. To make me feel further at home, a projectile from an AK-47 fell out of the rafters onto my bed.
Rio San Juan seen from the fort
One day when we were observing the peaceful flow of the river, Peter jokingly commented that all he wanted to do now was a find a Nicaraguan woman to marry and settle down to the simple life. With one of her trademark leers, Clari announced from the kitchen:

"Necesita una muchacha como yo!"

The thought was worrisome. Clari was too much woman for both of us put together.

Though unfortunately I was too low on funds to hire a boat to take me into the heart of the Biological Reserve, I did manage to hitch a ride down river with Paco, who periodically made short trips to where the Rio San Juan began to form the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and brought Costa Ricans (legally or illegally, I wasn't quite sure) back up the river to El Castillo.

hunting tarpon in the rapids
On the way to our destination, he took me for a short side trip up the Rio Bartola, which demarcated the western edge of the reserve. The dense tropical rain forest appeared untouched by man, and magnificent bromeliads sprouted off of ancient limbs. We stopped briefly at the mouth of the Bartola, where there was a nearly completed set of cabins, and talked to the owner of the complex.

He planned to open his facility in another two weeks, a private hotel catering to ecotourists, and I marveled at his optimism. There were as yet scarcely any visitors to the area, and there was already competition for them. As the Amazon rapidly diminished, though, this vast rain forest reserve in Nicaragua was undoubtedly going to become a more popular destination. When we got a few miles further down river, the contrast beneath the sides of the river was extreme. The Nicaraguan side was the thick, virgin jungle of the Reserve, whereas the Costa Rican side was heavily deforested cattle country.

boat drawing
A dirt road ran into the interior here, and a nice two story house fronted the river with a few high-powered boats out front. The house had a small store within it where Paco bought a few cases of Imperial and Heineken beers as well as a case of cookies, and we sat for an hour in rocking chairs, eating cookies and drinking coffee while waiting for our passengers to arrive. A small village was beginning to grow around the location. It was an enviable place to live, so seemingly remote yet with access to the Costa Rican interior as well as immediate access to the Rios Indio-Maiz Reserve.

With my money running out, I decided to take the Monday afternoon boat back to San Carlos and hook up with the Tuesday ferry to Granada. Peter left at dawn on Monday with Paco's panga, which cost ten cordobas more than the biweekly afternoon service to San Carlos. The sign down at the dock said that the boat departed at five in the afternoon, so when the clock at the hospedaje read 3:30 I told Paco's wife that I wanted to pay my bill.

sunset over the Rio San Juan
When she tried to figure Monday night into it, I told her I was leaving that afternoon. She looked at me curiously, and then looked out at a boat full of passengers going by in the river.

"That's the last boat until Thursday," she said, pointing out at it.

I suffered one of my most severe fits of instantaneous depression since the border crossing of the previous journey. There was no room in my plans for this development. Seventeen hours by boat and an hour by bus from my money source, fifty cordobas to my name, and now I was stuck in El Castillo for three more days. I very badly wanted to cry. I had purposely put myself out on a limb by coming to such a remote location with so little money, and now I was watching what happened when the limb fell off the tree. I sat and stared blankly at the river for an hour while Clari looked on sympathetically. Finally I threw my backpack over my shoulder and started to walk out the door.

"You're leaving?" Paco asked.

"No puedo quedar. I don't have enough money to stay here anymore."

"No se preocupe. We have plenty of room here. Quedese. "

I returned my gear to my room and gratefully accepted the offer. For the next three days they treated me like an additional member of the family. At first I didn't want to eat because I couldn't pay for that either, but they made it clear the meals were free as well. Usually it was gallopinto with plantains, and I relished them like I never had before. When Thursday came I made sure to take Paco's dawn service, thanking the family profusely for their hospitality before boarding the crowded panga. The river was so low that we had to weave back and forth to avoiding hitting underwater rocks, and the engine kept dying out in the early stages of the trip. I was only cautiously optimistic at best of my chances of making it to Managua.

When we reached San Carlos, I checked into a large and seedy two-story hospedaje overlooking the market sprawl. I stayed there for thirty minutes and walked out again, giving up hope of ever getting the attention of the dueña so that I could pay her and get a room key. I asked around the bus terminal about buses to Managua and was told that the direct buses weren't running because the road was washed out near San Miguel. The best bet was to take the ferry to San Miguel and then take a bus from there. Nevertheless, there was a bus that supposedly ran to San Miguel at one in the afternoon and I crowded my way on to it when it arrived. The road up the eastern edge of the lake was in horrendous condition. I stood in an uncomfortable stoop for hours as we jolted our way along at a pace that rarely exceeded five miles per hour. Eventually we reached the washout and the bus came to a halt. Everyone unloaded and crossed over to get on a bus bound for Juigalpa, a major town about half the distance to Managua. After an hour or so of waiting and not allowing people to board, the driver of the Juigalpa bus mysteriously decided to cross the river and head back to San Carlos.

I was getting very depressed. I couldn't afford a place to sleep, I couldn't afford to eat, and Managua still seemed worlds away. Black Dimas and his band of recontras called this part of the country their own and had been regularly robbing buses and passenger vehicles along the road. I had nothing left to steal so that was hardly a worry. Just when my view of the world was approaching a dimness just a shade brighter than a black hole, a big IFA bus came barreling up the road from the south. Painted brightly across the front of it was the magical word, MANAGUA. It charged across the river bed like a bull seeing red, paying the deep muddy ruts and flowing water no heed. Though it wasn't scheduled and its origins were unknown, its propitious timing made it like a chariot from Zeus sent to snatch me away from the gates of Hades. We rumbled up the long and dusty road toward Juigalpa, picking up speed as the road progressively got better.

Timber trucks rolled by occasionally, headed for nearby sawmills. The countryside was dry and dull, the larger trees all harvested. What passed for forest resembled what Managua would look like if the buildings were replaced by equivalent sized flora; a one story sprawl of assorted shrubs, stumps, and small trees. By the time we hit pavement, I was coated head to toe in dust, had a cramp in my side, and was half blind. I was happy. We stopped in Juigalpa for dinner as darkness set in, and I spent my last cordoba on a potato pancake. By ten-thirty or eleven we rolled to a stop somewhere in southeastern Managua, and I wearily climbed off the bus and into a nearby taxi.

Dead to the bone but with my wits still about me, I asked the driver how much the fare to the Meza would be.

"No se preocupe," he replied.

The words were familiar, but I was in a different world now. Instead of putting me at ease, as they had so recently done, they put me on edge. When a taxi driver told me not to worry about the fare, I got worried. Especially one who reeked of Eau du Miami Boy, with a nice taxi and a pretty young tart in the front seat whose makeup glowed in the dark. Her black dress was so tight that it fit into grooves on her thighs. As we sat waiting for the driver to roust more passengers into the vehicle, she turned toward me and spoke softly.

"Quiere una compañera este noche?"

"No, gracias," I said with a tired smile. Managua had definitely changed a bit. The taxi drivers used to just act like pimps. Now they were pimps.

"Porque no?" she queried, giving me her best pout. She was about sixteen.

"I'm tired," I said simply.

There were a number of other reasons that I didn't feel like giving for my disinterest, among them the fact like I smelled like a one hundred pound sábalo left out in the sun for three days, I was incapable of sex regardless of the most outrageous attempts at stimulation, I never paid for sex, and I didn't like her pimp.

"Is there something wrong?" she asked.

If my bones hadn't been so weary, I might have laughed at the irony of it all. Five years before the girl might have had a shot at a future, before the hopes and dreams of the Revolution had been utterly sunken to hell by a quagmire of rhetoric, corruption, "pragmatism", and the inability of factions in the countryside to halt their love affair with the power of the AK. I remembered Bertha's children, Jorge, Carolina, and Lesbía, and the marvel that those kids from the dusty back streets of Estelí should all become doctors. They were probably lucky now if they even had a hospital to work in. And here was a prostitute scarcely older than the Revolution itself, asking me if something was wrong.

"Tu país, chica," I muttered softly. "Your country is ill."

The pimp tried to charge me thirty cordobas for the ride.

sybil says:
wow -- weeks! that should be an amazing adventure. you have a kayak/boat large enough to fit you? ;)
Posted on: Apr 18, 2008
Hurch says:
I'm inadvertently gearing up for it, actually. Once I get my kayaks and all my adventure gear in Huatulco, it's a relatively easy drive from there to Nicaragua. I'm planning to spend weeks paddling the vast uncharted rainforest of the SE of the country, using El Castillo as a base.
Posted on: Apr 18, 2008
sybil says:
i think you should still go back. so what if it is not technically 20 years?

oh, ... and publish it! wold love to read it.
Posted on: Apr 17, 2008
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the two dimensional Sandino overlo…
the two dimensional Sandino overl…
Granada
Granada
a billboard in Leon of captured CI…
a billboard in Leon of captured C…
Granada
Granada
Noel the Sandinista
Noel the Sandinista
putting flowers on Ben Linders gr…
putting flowers on Ben Linder's g…
John gone a little too native
John gone a little too native
A friends bra drying on the window
A friend's bra drying on the window
San Carlos docks in the pre-dawn l…
San Carlos docks in the pre-dawn …
cargo boat on the Rio San Juan
cargo boat on the Rio San Juan
schoolboy in El Castillo
schoolboy in El Castillo
self-portrait on the river
self-portrait on the river
happy baby
happy baby
Albergue El Castillo
Albergue El Castillo
boy on a cargo boat
boy on a cargo boat
El Castillo at dusk
El Castillo at dusk
church in El Castillo
church in El Castillo
egret on the Rio San Juan
egret on the Rio San Juan
El Castillo at dawn
El Castillo at dawn
El Castillo
El Castillo
view through the gun slots at El C…
view through the gun slots at El …
Rio San Juan seen from the fort
Rio San Juan seen from the fort
hunting tarpon in the rapids
hunting tarpon in the rapids
boat drawing
boat drawing
sunset over the Rio San Juan
sunset over the Rio San Juan
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