Although I didn’t fall in love immediately with Nicaragua, it was love at first sight with the San Juan River.
For my Holy Week vacation (the week before Easter is a national holiday here), six other Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) and I headed down to that rugged, little known and slightly wild place known as Río San Juan (San Juan River) in the south of Nicaragua. The river starts at the enormous Lake Nicaragua (Largest Lake in Central America) and snakes along to the Atlantic coast, forming the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It is one of the most isolated areas in the country and therefore, one of the most intriguing. The river was used by Aztec traders beginning in the 1200s and has since been the battleground for Spanish conquerors and pirates. During my days there, I became enamored with the river, the scenery and the people – I would transfer my site down there in a minute if I could!
However, transportation there and back is a different story. To get there, we took a tortuous 15 hour ride on a small ferry that was holding about three times as many people as it should have been. (If you’re from Southeast Alaska and are familiar with that Alaska Marine Highway System, then imagine riding on something half the size of the LeConte with the passenger load of the Columbia). We camped out, spreading out sleeping bags and hanging up hammocks outside to try and sleep during the overnight ride (see photo below). We made one brief stop on Ometepe Island, the famed hourglass shaped island with two volcanoes (one of them is currently erupting!) and dropped off/picked up passengers, as well as piles of green plantains and a tangy small fruit called jocote. Like my hometown in Southeast Alaska, most foodstuffs arrive by boat to the Rio San Juan. We arrived groggy, but excited at 6 am in San Carlos, Rio San Juan – the department capital.
From there, we visited a volunteer named Jill in her amazingly quaint town down the river. It has 1,000 people and only is accessible by water (there may be a road, but apparently it’s too beat up to want to use). We enjoyed hanging out with her and seeing the “Casa Materna” – a boarding house for pregnant village women to come live at right before they give birth to reduce complications. Jill is working on a project there to start a women’s cooperative where they sell earrings and handicrafts and have tourist information. Several tourists pass through the little town on their way to start the trip down the river. Starting a little business there would benefit the women by providing extra money to help buy nutritious food. Most of the time they subsist on rice and sometimes beans.
After bidding Jill farewell, the seven of us went to a town called El Castillo (The Castle). Positioned directly on the banks of the Devil Rapids, it is named for the Spanish fortress that overlooks the town. The fort was built between 1673 and 1675 and used primarily to attack pirates, who were forced to slow their boats as they navigated the Devil Rapids. One of Nicaragua’s dearest heroes, Rafaela Herrera, led a successful attack on a British fleet from the castle in 1762, when she was just 19 – becoming a feminist legend in the country. El Castillo is beautiful and arguably the friendliest Nicaraguan town I’ve ever been in. Tourism is just beginning in this area – most of the hostels are just a year or so old and the local charm has not been lost. If I had to pick another town in which to live in Nicaragua, this would be it.
From El Castillo, the seven of us rented two kayaks and two canoes to start the big river trip to the Atlantic Coast. We were planning to do it in three days. We rented our boats from a local guide named Miguel who is AWESOME, check out his website at www.firststepecotours.com Miguel lived in the U.S. for a while, so his English is great and he is quite a character… He showed me crocodiles at night (their eyes glow red!), made me some beans and rice, and treated me to some dark Nicaraguan rum mixed with coconut water from trees in his front yard. Try it - delicious.
Due to a variety of reasons that I will refrain from going into in this blog, mostly because of space (but trust me, it´s pretty hilarious), we didn’t up doing the entire trip all the way to the Atlantic coast. We did one day of paddling and then decided to hang out on the river the rest of our vacation. I was happy to just sit and watch the water go by from our hostel in El Castillo. It was nice to be around water again. It rained every day we were there. Rio San Juan is full of life. The rain forest, lush jungle, rivers and islands are part of the Rio San Juan Biosphere Reserve that harbors macaws, toucans, hummingbirds, parrots, great blue herons, egrets, giant river shrimp (they have huge crab-like claws and can easily weigh a few pounds), turtles, crocodiles and bull shark (!) Also, lots of mosquitoes. Unlike the mosquitoes in my site that are used to me and refrain from biting, on this trip my legs and feet were covered in red bites.
At the end of our very relaxing Holy Week trip, we took an 8-hour night bus back to Managua. I took a sleeping pill and was passed out the whole way, unpaved road and all. I’m already thinking about when I can go back to the river. I can still hear the water rushing in my head…