My destination was El Castillo on the Río San Juan. After the initial humiliation of being weighed we crawled in to our eight-seater plane and flew over Lake Nicaragua and her magnificent volcanoes Madera and Concepción on the island of Ometepe to the totally unappealing town of San Carlos which straddles the end of the lake and the beginning of the river and serves as the gateway to numerous thrilling spots. The public river boat delivered us in three hours to the adorable Luna del Río with little wooden balconies and pink hammocks dangling over the river.
Potted History from the safety of my pink hammock:
It was so easy to sit gently rocking on my pink hammock chair and imagine the sequence of territorial grabs that have passed through my line of vision: The conquistadores “discovering” Nicaragua, founding Granada at the North end of the lake and 100 years later, in an attempt to keep out the stream of pirates who were drawn like magnets to the wealth of the city of Granada, building the Fortaleza de la Limpia, Pura e Inmaculada Concepción – or more simply El Castillo.
Or the heroic Rafaela Herrera
who, in 1762, fired a cannon at a lead pirate ship which was conveniently slowed down by the Raudal El diablo rapids outside my bedroom – and all this in her nightdress. (they were different in those days - obviously!)
A couple of decades later our very own Horatio Nelson tried his luck at conquering the castle.
Reputedly, his gang had no maps, two days provisions and the madness to drink the river water. The Spaniards retreated with indecent haste and left the Brits to the fate of living in what turned out to be a breeding ground for the mosquitoes that supplied the bull sharks with tasty British bodies to fortify them on their way to the lake.
Rivalry and Greed:
Approximately a hundred years later a sinister liaison was formed between the reprobate William Walker (1824-1860) and the unmannered brute Cornelius Vanderbilt.
The latter, considered to be the richest man in the world, was a business magnet par excellence in railroads and shipping and the former a philibuster and self-appointed president of the Republic of Nicaragua. Walker wanted Nicaragua having failed to acquire the state of Sonora in Mexico. Vanderbilt wanted Nicaragua in order to build a canal from the Caribbean, up the Río San Juan, into Lake Nicaragua and across the twelve miles of land to the pacific. This journey would be vastly superior to the practice of travelling across the isthmus of Panama – a much longer route and more distant from San Francisco. However, the Río San Juan was treacherous and Walker even more so! These two greedy men came to blows resulting in Walker facing the firing squad in Honduras but Vanderbilt reputedly died of exhaustion only at the ripe old age of 82.
The canal project is still a realistic proposition. In 2016 a Chinese company proposed the construction of a canal 276 kilometres long and between 230-280 meters wide, two ports, an airport, two artificial lakes, two locks, a free trade area and tourist facilities. The total destruction of wild life, river communities and subsistence fishermen seems a folly with the Panama Canal so close.
An equally fierce predator in the muddy waters of the Río San Juan and Lake Nicaragua is the bull shark.
This creature has confounded scientists for centuries as it was not believed that any organism could adapt to salt and fresh water and, therefore, it was perceived to be a species which existed purely in the lake. However, scientists in the twentieth century have revealed that sharks do indeed have the physiology to switch from salt to fresh water environments. By a clever ability to adapt their processes of osmoregulation bull sharks possess several organs with which they can maintain appropriate salt and water balance. They can jump along the rapids of the San Juan River (similar to salmon) and tagged sharks inside the lake have turned up in the ocean and vice versa. Super clever fish (yes, he really is a fish not a mammal) and from the safety of my desk in Islington I do ask myself why I spent so much time swimming in both the lake and the river.
My final personality who navigated the Río San Juan in 1866 was Mark Twain.
He wrote a series of letters to the Alta California newspaper which were eventually published in 1940 Mark Twain’s Travels with Mr. Brown being heretofore uncollected sketches. Mr Brown, serves Twain as Sancho Panza did to Don Quixote. Twain travelled on a Vanderbilt steamship and refers to the “melancholy tidings” brought about by a serious epidemic of cholera to which many of his fellow passengers fell prey. His derogatory observations regarding the indigenous population are hard to justify. Babies are seen as “vile, distempered, mud-coloured native brat[s]” and women reduced to "filthy heifers, dirty both physically and morally". This, intermingled with commentary through his mouthpiece, Mr Brown, who contributed more lustful and salacious comments. Shame on you Mr Twain!
My friend and I were originally of a mind to paddle down to the Caribbean from El Castillo (approximately 72 kilometers). However, after a two-hour night trip in a three-seater paddle boat we radically adjusted our plan due to the very poor resilience of our derrières! We settled for a one-night camping trip down the Río Bartola, a tributary of the Río San Juan and in the centre of the Reserva Indio Maiz.
Unknown to me, my friend for the past 50 years was an expert on bird spotting and where I would be gazing at a blank tree she could identify the great egret, snowy egret, little egret, tri-coloured heron, bare-throated tiger heron, great and little blue herons, boat billed heron, straited heron and an equally baffling array of kingfishers, flycatchers, hummingbirds, vultures and ducks, to mention just a few. It was awesome. Apart from the outstanding bird watching opportunities we saw monkeys of the howler, and spider variety and quite wonderfully a three-toed sloth swam with perfect doggy paddle alongside our boat
and exited the river with a great deal of huffing and puffing extending his terrifying talons and massively long arm half way up a conveniently placed tree. I am told that the sloth is the laziest creature on earth and instead of evolving to eat more he evolves to do less. What a great philosophy – especially in view of the poor cuisine in much of Nicaragua.
Nicaragua is said to be the poorest of the Latin American countries but it is also reputedly the safest country in which to travel. Whilst the grinding poverty impacts on every aspect of the nation’s well-being, these marvellous trips were unfettered by the usual trappings of tourism. Every pound we spent (except flights) went directly in to the hands of those who were making our journey of discovery possible. Step in to this country before the river gets turned into a canal and before the locals learn to speak English and sell tat from China.