Down the Río San Juan – Nicaragua’s waterways

 Ometepe sunset

I stood on the volcanic black sand of Nicaragua’s San Juan del Sur, a sleepy fishing village bordered by cliffs and fringed with palms, watching the Pacific Ocean stretching to South-East Asia and Australia. I turned my back on it, my intention to head east until I hit the Atlantic. It would be a historical journey, where pirates once roamed, transport companies reigned and political careers were made and broken.

From San Juan del Sur I took a share taxi to the shores of Lake Nicaragua and was ferried across the choppy brown water to Ometepe, the largest fresh-water island in the world. Rain clouds clung to its twin volcano cones. A rickety bus carried me across the island, through tropical forest and lush farm land, to the dock where the boat left for San Carlos on the opposite shore. As I ate the local salty guapote fish with rice and tortillas, a crowd jostled for position, stepping over cane baskets of corn, potatoes and green bananas. I tossed my scraps to a desperate dog, scrambled aboard, staking out some floor space under insects hovering around a flickering light, and tried to get some sleep. In the middle of the night we stopped on the eastern shore of the lake. Women sold coffee and tortillas from the jetty while men carried heavy sacks of cheese onto the boat. At dawn, from a rain-lashed deck, the lights of San Carlos sparkled.

The town lies on the northern shore of the mouth of the Río San Juan, 190 kilometres upstream from the Atlantic Ocean. From a hill that had been a fort in the 17th century designed to stem a flood of pirates, I wondered how the notorious commander of the buccaneers, Henry Morgan, sailed passed the vantage point and on to Granada where he ransacked the colonial city, stealing booty worth half a million pounds sterling.

I drank cold Toña beer in a wooden shanty above the water while waiting for a panga to take me further downstream. The vessel crammed in 50 passengers and we motored through cleared land where timber homes on stilts stood in hilly fields of corn while on the swampy riverbank, pigs and chickens scavenged amongst horses and cattle. A woman selling cooked fish from a dugout canoe pulled alongside as we paused midstream. Further east, the forest grew thicker and some passengers got off, wandering into the jungle in rubber boots, supplies in one hand, machetes in the other. New passengers flagged down the crew who stood on the bow watching for tree logs bobbing in the muddied waters.

We had passed the last roads into the jungle when we arrived at El Castillo, a small village hugging the riverbank. I found a hotel and walked to El Cafalito Bar, ordering the half metre river prawns in garlic sauce. A Spanish couple ordered Flor de Caña rum and the restaurant owner joined us at the table, telling us about his enforced separation from his wife and children during the war between the Sandanistas and the US backed Contras, more than twenty years earlier.

The Rio San Juan from El Castillo

The next morning, in steamy, humid heat, I walked up to the ruins of the Fort of the Immaculate Conception. Also built to thwart pirate raids, it is perched on high ground alongside a bend in the river where rapids roar. In 1762, the British attacked the fort, killing the commander. His 19-year-old daughter assumed command, firing a cannon that killed the British Captain. At nightfall, her troops soaked sheets in alcohol and set them alight and adrift toward the enemy. The sight frightened the attackers into retreat, stemming a British invasion of Nicaragua. Rafaela Herrera’s skill and bravery made her a national heroine. But within 20 years Horatio Nelson (prior to becoming Admiral Lord) surprised the fort, losing an eye in the process, yet taking a short lived control of the strategic waterway.

With local farmer Angel Alfonso, I rode a horse into the hills where a natural spring makes El Castillo one of the few places in Central America with potable tap water. We rode through forest and farmland, close to the Costa Rican border, monkeys as common as pigs. Alfonso pointed out a sloth sitting motionless in the crook of a tree, its coarse grey hair like lichen, a black face peering down at us. We drank from coconuts and collected mangoes, watched by Alfonso’s milking cows.

The next morning, with a packed lunch of gallo pinto (rice and beans), I boarded an early morning boat heading further downstream, the primary rainforest of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve impenetrable on both sides, covered in vines and abundant in wildlife. Over the next nine hours I saw tortoises, kingfishers, toucans, egrets, water fowl, swallows, cormorants and snakes. Iguanas perched in tree canopies, high above the water. Howler and spider monkeys swung in the treetops while alligators sunned themselves on the river bank. I watched for the bull shark, these waters the only place in the world that sharks have adapted to freshwater.

Late that day a breeze blew over the boat as we swung north-east and went up the Río Indio where the trees made way for wetlands. I caught a glimpse of the Atlantic before heading into waters sheltered behind sandy islands of coconut palms. At San Juan del Norte, a crowd had gathered to welcome the twice-weekly boat. One of the wettest places north of the Amazon, with 5000mm of rain per year, I waded around the swampy streets, dampening the effect of humidity by drinking beer and playing pool in a noisy bar. In the main street, a footpath with several wooden shacks bordering it, a young woman served me my, by now, twice daily gallo pinto. A Rastaman sat and drank a beer with me.

Greytown cemetery

The next day I hired brothers Raul and Norbert to take me in their boat through the jungle-fringed lagoon to where the one time British trading port of Greytown had been razed to the ground in 1980. We got out of the boat into a shin-deep swamp, the mosquitoes ferocious, tombstones all that was left in the jungle. Norbert pointed out where he had recently seen a jaguar.

dredge from the 1800´s

A dredge can still be seen rising 25 metres out of the water. American businessman Cornelius Vanderbilt, ran steamships from Greytown to the lake when the waterway was a popular route from New York during the gold rush in the mid 1800’s. From the western shores of Lake Nicaragua, mules carried passengers to San Juan del Sur from where a ship sailed on to California. It was a more economical trip than sailing around the tip of Patagonia; and still quicker and safer than going overland through the hostile North American west. It would be more than 50 years before the Panama Canal, several hundred kilometres further south, became the principal route between the two oceans. The Río San Juan had been first choice for the canal before political machinations reversed the decision.

I walked across to the beach where muddy waves dumped heavy driftwood along the black shoreline. The Atlantic spread out in front of me, Africa over the horizon. I had crossed the isthmus of Central America, a narrow stretch of land that barely separates two great oceans. There was nothing to do but turn around and head back upstream, this time for Granada, nearly four hundred kilometres of fresh water away.


~ by Drifting, Rambling on February 8, 2008.

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