Nicaragua: Coast to coast

Once the watery heart of colonial Central America, the Rio San Juan in Nicaragua was the main corridor between the Caribbean and Pacific. The Panama Canal reduced it to a sleepy backwater, but this mighty waterway remains an unspoilt haven for wildlife

By Lydia Bell
Published 19 Apr 2015, 11:00 BST, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 17:17 BST

It's an overcast afternoon on the vast, spectral Río San Juan, and we're zooming across the peaty-hued, wide waters in Manuel's boat, the wind in our hair.

It's the tail end of the rainy season, the tourist months yet to kick in. There's not a visitor in sight, and barely any Nicaraguans either. It's not difficult to imagine Spanish galleons sailing by in this ends-of-the-earth place. In the two hours we motor downstream from San Carlos, headed for the rapids-perched pueblo of El Castillo, we pass a total of three pangas (motorised canoes), all ferrying locals.

Instead, we go spotting for birds. There are thousands of them, drawn by the swampy flooded wetlands that form the riverbanks. Great blue herons with vast wingspans, a beautiful bat falcon, a noisy gang of yellow nape parrots, a smattering of kingfishers, and endless egrets. Some are perched on floating logs, others, in flocks, like daubs of cotton wool on the branches of distant trees. We disturb a flock of black-bellied whistling ducks and discover their shrill call is distinctly un-quack like.

Occasionally, a bohio (wood hut) appears at the side of the river, or a tethered horse, or the boat has to navigate round a tiny islet in the water. We spy a stout, orange iguana sporting a Mohican and a white-faced monkey with an old man's face. We are bellowed at by a group of howler monkeys, the first of many dozens. Vicus, kapok, Spanish cedar, almond and mahogany trees line the banks, as tall as tenements, most overgrown with vines that lend them an otherworldly emerald silhouette.

The Río San Juan is effectively the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, which splices through the eastern side of the country, connecting Lake Nicaragua with the Caribbean Sea. They call it El Desaguadero: the drain. Strategically important, it has a dramatic history of disputes and attacks from outside Nicaragua and within.

The Spanish discovered the Río San Juan in 1536, 30 years after the establishment of the colonial city of Granada on the other side of Lake Nicaragua. Until 1615, the galleons navigated the river easily enough. Then an earthquake created the rapids at El Castillo. Before the Panama Canal was built, the river was everything, a major conduit from the Caribbean to the Pacific. African slave ships passed through, and later, California-bound Gold Rush prospectors on steamboats trying to avoid the perils of America's Wild West.

Alongside the lake, it was part of a proposed route for a Nicaragua Canal in the 19th century, but Panama won out in the end. The river slumped back into obscurity. Still utterly unspoiled, this peaceful waterway surges powerfully for 124 miles through thick, tropical jungle and wetlands, the biggest swathe of rainforest this side of the Amazon; it's a powerhouse of pure oxygen, where efforts are being made to encourage sustainable eco-tourism. This is a haven for the elusive jaguar, three kinds of monkey, the three-toed sloth, and birds, including 11 kinds of hummingbird.

It's a precious place, genuinely uncorrupted by the machine of tourism.

Into the biosphere

The jumping-off point for the region is the commercial town of San Carlos, perched on the banks of the river where it empties into Lake Nicaragua. I'm travelling about halfway down the Río San Juan (about 60 miles), to El Castillo, a sleepy pueblo of about 1,500 people built over the Raudal del Diablo rapids, just four miles from the border with Costa Rica.

A domestic flight used to be the only practical way in. I arrived on a 15-seater Gran Caravan propeller plane, gliding over volcanoes, lakes and an uninterrupted canopy of green before bouncing down onto a dirt runway. Then a year ago, San Carlos was connected to Managua by road. This has brought a gently quickening flow of mainstream tourists, mainly Managuans who pop down for a long weekend, and backpackers who don't want to book a flight. It's a lifeblood for a rural outpost plagued by Mormon missionaries and surviving on cattle, subsistence farming and the dreaded African palm plantation.

Edging closer to El Castillo we pass Boca de Sábalos, where locals wait at the boat stop much as one would wait for the number 63. These communities are accessed only by boat, and for much of my trip in Nicaragua, this is how I get around too. It's a perfectly freeing way to travel.

Finally, we arrive in El Castillo, a bend-in-the-river beauty. Settled in 1673 as a defense point to ward off pirate attacks on Granada, it is topped with a fort once held for nine months by the ambitious 22-year-old Horatio Nelson. The fortress itself — El Castillo de la Immaculada Concepción — was built in 1765.

Mark Twain steamed down here and wrote about his Nicaraguan jungle adventures in Travels With Mr Brown. I can't imagine it's changed much since then. There are still no roads or cars and the community lives to the rhythm of the magical river. Luna del Rio, where I'm staying, is a newly built, dinky timber bolthole-on-stilts owned and run by charming Spanish-Nicaraguan couple, Marga and Manuel. It's solar powered and supports the local school. You sleep with the rapids rushing underneath you, as soothing as a lullaby. My next door neighbour is amusing himself by surfing the rapids on a plank of wood tethered to his house.

I check out the brilliant little museum, which explains the movement of indigenous cultures in Nicaragua — the Chibchas of Colombia and the Mesoamerican culture that came down from the north and pushed the Chibchas into the swamps and jungly bits of the country. Plus the local history of swashbuckling European pirates and corsairs. Indigenous culture in this largely mestizo country was close to decimated by colonialism.

The next morning, in Manuel's boat, we head downstream once more. Our destination is the primary rainforest of the Reserva Biológica, the second largest nature reserve in Nicaragua. It's a 116sq mile pocket that boasts more species of trees, birds and insects than the whole continent of Europe. It only receives about 6,500 tourists annually, but this number is slowly growing.

The reserve's rich ecosystems support everything from jaguars, spider monkeys and tapirs to manatees, harpy eagles, crocodiles and the fluorescent poison dart frog. Birdwatchers are agog at the 600-plus bird species here, including the endangered green macaw, which feeds off the wild almond trees.

At the visitors' entrance to the reserve, some bored-looking soldiers are waiting in the shade of the flame trees. In a country that still uses its military in a plethora of different ways, they are here to protect against environmental violations such as logging — 30% of the landmass in Nicaragua is protected against environmental changes. Here, Spanish environmental organisations Bosques del Mundo and Fundacion del Rio are working with the Nicaraguan authorities.

I plunge into the jungle with my guide, Orlando Ruiz Torrente, one of 16 in the area who depend on small-scale, environmental tourism to bolster the local economy. The air feels soft to breathe and sweet to smell: the jungle is the richest producer of oxygen in Central America. Orlando knows every animal and plant. The first thing we see is the tiny dart frog whose poison the natives borrowed to dispatch their enemies.

We step over a pile of fur and maggots on the path where a harpy eagle must have killed a sloth, Orlando tells me. There are vast networks of leaf-cutter ants transporting leaves to their underground lairs, so many it's difficult not to tread on them, especially when various lines form a Spaghetti Junction, arterial road kind of situation. The soldier ants are three times the size of the others; their job is to protect and chivvy.

Plant power

Orlando shows me butterfly eggs laid under leaves and the nest of the 'child runner' wasp (that's how fast you run when they chase you). He says to watch out for patches of sunlight on the muddy path, in case of sunbathing snakes. He points to the tracks of the agouti and the armadillo and bangs on the nest of the oversized, carnivorous bullet ant and they come trouping out. They call them the 'Ormiga 24' (the 24-hour ant), he says, because that's how long it stings for when they bite you.

He reveals which plants work for malaria, toothache and kidney infections and makes me bite on a pepper that anaesthetises my mouth and turns it into a saliva-production factory. He indicates the vines that can be macheted open to access a good supply of fresh jungle water and the almendro trees whose fruit support the endangered green macaw. In March and April, milions of shells are discarded by munching agoutis and pacas and the locals use them to make crafts. A patch of sun alights on a golden orb spider in his glittering web. I ask about jaguar and puma, but they are elusive and nocturnal, and probably slumbering in hollows in the ground.

Then there are the hollow trunks of tamarind trees used as a bush telephone: one knock for 'todo bien', two for an afternoon meeting, and three for enemy approaching. We see, right above our heads, a large family of spider monkeys. They're so close I can hear one scratching his knee and sighing. Orlando points out the alpha male and the tiny baby. He seems as fetching as a soft toy, until Orlando points out that they sometimes poo and pee on you if you get too close. They use their tails like a third arm, coiling around branches and tree trunks.

"Even when they come down to drink ground water, they still hold onto the branch with their tail, ready to spring back up again and away from predators," Orlando tells me. Their main predator is the harpy eagle and the crested eagle — they can rip a monkey's fur off with their claws.

The enchanted jungle reverberates to the spooky sound of the howler monkeys as a green ibis glides past. We wind our way back to the boat through giant ferns, elephant ears, vast kapocs and ceiba. As we leave, we encounter an indigenous family in a dugout canoe. A tiny population lives here — about 80 people comprising 12 families.

"Just remember," says Orlando. "Your visit benefits the reserve and everyone, from the hotel and boat owners to the guides, restaurant owners, water collectors, chauffeurs and nest spotters."

On the way back to El Castillo — just after spotting a dusty turtle sunbaking on a log — we catch sight of a caiman wallowing in a cloud of wet leaves. Along with freshwater bull sharks, these are common critters in these waters. Manuel moves in for a closer look and suddenly, in the manner of a Nicaraguan Crocodile Dundee, grabs the caiman by the gullet, demobilising him. He holds him there a while, explaining that each alligator's belly is like a fingerprint, each one unique, then lets go. The reptile thrashes and hisses as he makes his escape, while Manuel beams, unperturbed.

A common excursion is to take a trip down the river by night to spot caiman, their eyes glowing in the dark. Unfortunately, the waters are still too high. It's the end of the rainy season, and although we enjoy sunshine every day, the week before it had rained torrentially, washing away houses in the capital Managua, killing residents.

We arrive back at Castillo just before dusk, climb to the top of the fortress and gaze over the riverscape. It's an amazing vantage point over the snakes and bends of this epic thoroughfare. Standing here, you know you're in the regal presence of the one of the great rivers of the world, and there's nothing to feel but awe.


Getting there
There are no direct flights from the UK. You have to fly via the USA to either Houston or Newark, with United Airlines. Or you can fly American Airlines via Miami; both from Heathrow.
Average flight time: 15h.

Getting around
As Nicaragua is relatively small, overland travel is the norm, but there's a new airport at Ometepe Island, from where you can fly to the capital Managua and San Carlos. If you wish to hire a car, a good grasp of the Spanish is essential.

When to go
The dry season — the best time to travel — runs November-May with temperatures around 25-30C, although April and May can be very hot. The wet season, when roads can flood, is June-October.

Need to know
Visas: None for UK citizens, but a passport with more than six months' validity is required.
Medical: Check with your GP for the recommended vaccinations. Malaria and dengue fever are present.
Currency: Nicaraguan Cordoba (NIO). £1 = NIO40.
International dial code: 00 505.
Time: GTM-6

How to do it
Journey Latin America offers an eight-day group tour visiting Managua, the Río San Juan region, Granada and Ometepe island, cost from £2,596 per person based on two people sharing. Includes flights, all transfers, B&B, excursions and some meals.

Published in the May 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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