Hello Dear Family & Friends!
"Nakesman. Tutu Yamnesa"!
beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a
field. I'll meet you there."
Life on the river. We opened our hearts and minds, plunging into the 'newness' of a life far removed from our experiences. Along the ever changing rivers of life, time has somehow stood still here in remote SE Nicaragua. We hitch hiked then caught a 'chicken bus' bus, local style, for a bumpy ride from Upala to Los Chiles. As we stepped into the boat to cross borders from Costa Rica to San Carlos in Nicaragua we said good bye to land travel for over 6 weeks. Exploring the remote area called the 'Moskito Coast", where few venture, gave us an in depth look at life in this inaccessible part of Central America. The movie with Harrison Ford, boasting the same name, gave a pretty accurate look at this land apart.
During our 1.5 hour river border crossing we were stopped by machine gun toting soldiers at a remote outpost. Walking slowly through the boat - scrutinizing everyone passport by passport - this gorilla in camouflage spotted a woman in the back of the boat. To everyone's surprise he held her hand, kneeled down next to her and they prayed together. A lamb in lion's clothes. This was the first of our many shake downs while traveling down Rio San Juan. Never a problem but only annoying, our poor little bags were searched and re-searched. My usual, "There's nothing there" in Spanish made our ordeal briefer, unlike the torn apart duffle bags of our traveling 'compadres'. The government is trying to end corruption by rotating policemen and having the military take a more active role. Since corruption usually radiates from the top down it is not surprising to have everyone openly talk about President Ortega taking an over 1 billion dollar cut of a recent oil deal. A no nonsense woman police chief has implemented bi-lingual tourist police and many areas are now safe thanks to her tough approach. Like in many countries the security business is BIG business. Without crime they would be out of a job so that almost certainly guarantees that crime will continue worldwide; thanks to Wackenhut and their underlings in front of gas stations and stores toting sawed-off shotguns. The same rationale promotes war worldwide to sell weapons.
With the Nicaraguan government cracking down on the drug trafficking from South America through Central America and up into the U. S. this remote area of the San Juan River has become the last frontier to be cleaned out. Millions of dollars of cocaine and heroin have been confiscated recently in duffle bags or in vehicles and when they recently did a sweep of this secluded border area the only thing they found were organized camps with speed boats, laptops and other high tech equipment. No doubt tipped off by an insider, the drugs were far gone on some boat up the no man's land of the Moskito Coast.
We landed at the pleasant little port town of San Carlos. Our first two nights were spent with locals living life along the river. Like river rats we listened to the sloshing of the water under our floor, heard the toilets emptying far below into the water and ate with the family at a big table surrounded by hammocks, while we watched boats come and go. River otters frolicked and large water birds circled and fished. All the while we kept our eyes open for the infamous euryhaline sharks that make their way from the salt water of the coast to the fresh water of the lake.
The intense closeness, the noise, and the building being chewed apart around us sent us looking for a further 'habitacion'. Many of the places were so musty that I started sneezing when we walked through the door. We would get to know this dampness intimately as we worked our way down the long meandering Rio. Finally we found an airy place up on a small hill, catching both sun and breezes and we used Hotel Leyko to explore the surrounding town. We made friends with many people in the large, lively market, sat daily in a families river front living room enjoying our coconut and a slice of watermelon and frequented the pleasing water front town square where everyone congregated nightly amid music, break dancing and the usual lovers entwined as if the world were about to end. We met another one of our favorite "little people" in the market, daily crossing over to her for a hug. Finally she proudly came up with a papaya for us to purchase, amid smiles, laughter and more hugs. People saved choice produce for us, made special vegan meals or fresh plantain chips, or just called out to us as we walked the hills and streets of this sleepy little town. When we headed downstream one of our favorite street vendors ran a couple of our bags down the gang plank and plopped them onto 2 choice seats - preventing us from standing for the first 1/2 hour on the boat. Keep you fingers and toes in the boat around here, salt water sharks, tagged from the Caribbean to the fresh waters of Lake Nicaragua.
This feeling of warmth and genuine kindness continued and increased as we made our way down the river, over 170 kms. Villages accessed by only the river have retained a quaint old fashioned innocence, lost once the road finally goes through town. A hint of "Andy of Mayberry" latino style.
Rio San Juan has been important through history for supplying the large colonial towns on Lake Nicaragua, thus attracting pirates willing to the relieve the supply ships of their wealth. The fort atop the hill in El Castillo was an attempt to fight off the pirates, thus cutting short their 'shopping' trips. Literally hundreds of miles from 'civilization' of any measure one must be prepared to be self sufficient. Down here it is just you and the elements. In this wild place, where Nature rules supreme, it is possible to experience an area where man and nature still co-exist. Wild jungles have only a few sleepy little villages where people fish or farm, living off the land. Animals often make their way to the edge of the river for a drink. Surprisingly few sloths, monkeys, parrots, macaws or caimans venture out from the safe confines of the largest pristine jungle reserve in Nicaragua. This inaccessible area, set aside for preservation, fights for it's life against poachers and illegal loggers. Such is the fate of our natural resources worldwide.
It was not surprising that the Spanish conquistadors were repelled by the impenetrable jungles, tangle of waterways, disease, dangerous snakes and endless insects. They left this region for the hard core buccaneers. People today are a wonderful mixture of the indigenous Mikito, Sumu and Rama peoples, plus a touch of African, and European.
Having run across Marvin one night along the town square in San Carlos we decided to stop by his new resort for a look. Getting literally thrown off a slowly moving boat and climbing up onto the dock, we stood in amazement at the fact that we were really in the middle of nowhere. But we were not alone. The impressive boardwalk that stretched along the riverbank then headed up the hill, was home to our favorite snoopy howler monkeys, caimans (alligators), colorful birds, flowers and butterflies. With sharks and caimans in the river (we saw one over 8 ft long sunning on the bank while en route) we didn't go swimming. Doesn't slow down the locals though who know where to go for a successful return. The river jungle camp seemed deserted but slowly a resident family of locals emerged. We were shown to our hand hewn cabin and there we spent three nights gazing at the river below and observing life on a rural Nicaraguan farm, complete with cowboys, free horseback riding, hikes and fishing for your evening meal. Knowing the score we hauled in food for 4 days and cooked some tasty meals with Enua over the outdoor fire. This is young Marvin's dream. Slowly he is molding it into reality, a real work in process. When needed he returns to his job aboard a cruise ship to make repairs or additional infrastructure.
Like changing of the guards, the ever impatient and behind schedule river boats threw 2 couples off along the muddy bank as we clamored aboard for our smooth 1.5 hour trip downriver to El Castillo. This is where tourists end their journey before retracing footsteps back to San Carlos. Our slow pace allowed us to enjoy this quaint, charming little river town for 4 nights, once again getting to know many sweet, friendly folks where we bought our produce, drank coconuts or ate our daily 'sandia' or watermelon on the families' front porch. From here only the adventurous ventured on. Boats were few and far between so we 'booked' our passage on one the following Tuesday. This 'express' boat was smooth sailing for 3 hours, lingering in Sabalos, a place we would have stopped for a night. Everything was on the river in this little village which required a boat to even get from the 'hotelito', small hotel, to the store or over to the center of action dock and cafe. San Juan del Norte was a bit of an anomaly. We had arrived, I think. As we like it, not another western traveler in sight. Following the narrow cement strips we thanked God for cement sidewalks (no doubt a political ploy for which I would vote), the mud still caked on our shoes and pants from our previous jungle experience. We found a place right over the water, the familiar lapping of river lulling us to sleep nightly in our enormous wooden room, complete with hammock on our riverside porch. Indigenous Rama fishermen in dugout canoes paddled by. We started wandering around the village with it's eclectic double lane, 2 block long cement road in the center of town; all primed and ready to go if there is ever a road to connect to. In search of any vegetables or fruit we had our first taste of the sad new trend of river folk. Now instead of growing their own food they all crowd around Thursdays weekly boat from San Carlos, over 150 miles upstream, and buy up whatever produce they can get their hands on. Gone are the days of self sufficiency instead replaced by dependency on ever rising prices due to ever rising transportation costs. Luckily we only eat one cooked meal a day but the fruit for breakfast was a problem. We eked out the fixings for a couple of meals. We bought cooked beans from a Rama Mother in a thatched hut in the village behind town, and fresh tortillas from a wandering older woman - steam emanating from the basket on her head. A colorful local Rama man gave us the daily weather report amid gestures and grunts. An ample woman at a remote vegetable stand between the Rama village and the main 'town' promised us daily that 'manana' or tomorrow she would have whatever we desired. She even wrote down our order, knowing full well that the boat only came in once a week. We got daily coconuts from a private home where we had stopped to ask directions. Santos didn't know where the man was who worked on a boat that 'might' make the trip up the coast, but his yard was full of coconuts which he offered free. The son living here had lost one arm from the elbow down when he had come across an unexploded shell in the jungle, remnants of civil strife not long ago. Contras were camped at this end of Nicaragua. Many locals and soldiers lost their lives in yet another unnecessary war, sending this wonderful country spiraling down the drain for decades. It is just now recovering. They told us how it took wheelbarrows of money to buy groceries, but then again nothing was available for sale. How quickly these self sufficient folks have forgotten the key to freedom - self responsibility.
Down the river yet another 7 hours we found ourselves marooned. We prepared to batten down the hatches until news of a boat onward. Everyone said one left yesterday and one goes tomorrow but how could we leave our latest remote village so soon? After inquiring with everyone we crossed paths with from immigration officers asleep on the boat dock, to the riverside petrol pumps, to the local Aztec looking Rama Indians in dug out canoes, to a pleasant Rasta working with the local turtle wildlife project, to on and on. All dead ends. We eventually stumbled on to the infamous small coconut cargo ship which in fact hadn’t left. On the spot we struck up a deal with ‘El Capitan', shaking hands to confirm our hope. GOOD LUCK! Getting up the next morning in the dark without electricity was tricky. Off to our 6am rendezvous by boat we scrambled onboard and staked our claim to a seat on top of the bags of coconuts with about 20 other ‘boat people’, amidst the empty gasoline containers and propane canisters. A slippery, wet, oily affair Joseph slipped while handing a bag through the window and only getting caught in the window ledge by his wedding ring saved him from going 10 feet down the metal engine hatch and certain injury. His ring came shooting off which I miraculously caught as it went flying through the window, just after it flayed part of his finger off, shooting blood all over. Direct pressure and a resurrected band aid did the trick, good thing as the closest doctor was over 100 miles away.
After the usual delays and hurry up and wait we chugged down the river. The boat ahead guided us through an unbelievably pounding shore break out into the open ocean. Lightly drizzling, the clouds darkened as the swells and waves came up. The skies opened. We retreated into the steering house, the others were left to cover themselves and their hammocks with black plastic. For what seemed like an eternity we plowed through the heavy surf, most people, except the young ‘el Captain’ eventually losing their stomachs overboard during the ensuing 12 hours. (Going ‘pee’ consisted of pulling a door part way across the back of the boat and letting it rip on the floor which was being washed by the high surf). On top of everything else as the sun set the noisy engines all of a sudden went ghostly quiet. The gear box had given up as we bobbed like a apple on the rough seas, a full 2 hours from our destination. This Moskito Coast from San Juan del Norte north to Bluefield is almost completely uninhabited, a twisted maze of waterways and mangrove swamps. Appropriately called the Mosquito Coast with the Muskito Indigenous tribes people the only ones seen paddling along into inland villages. BAD LUCK!
The Capitan disappeared down into the hole from hell with an extremely worried looked on his otherwise happy, full of life face. Most passengers were considering jumping overboard to escape the sea sickness and had it not been for the shark infested waters and waiting mosquitoes in the mangrove swamps inland, probably a few would have tried it. After 30 minutes the young captain emerged with his sidekick, both covered in oil and grease. “Buenas Suerte” he proclaimed, “GOOD LUCK! He had temporarily fixed it and we should make it into the harbor safely. He hoped. It only killed one more time as we chugged towards the lights in the distance. As we drove right by the beckoning lights of Bluefield, a rather large town accessible only by boat from Rama or plane from Managua, we started asking what was up? “Que pasa?” Why were we passing our destination? Seems the cargo ship was destined for the nearby island of El Bluff so we carefully climbed off the bedraggled boat in the light rain and engulfing darkness as I blew a kiss to Mother Earth, terra firma and headed up the hill to the only 'hotelito' in town. Surprisingly clean and WITH a bathroom and electricity we took showers and slept like babies, the bed still rocking. I awoke famished, after not eating for 36 hours, to a big watermelon Joseph had found in the village. Seems the fishing village and island of El Bluff is the departure point for the remote Corn Islands, our next port of call, 45 miles off the coast. There was a boat leaving at 2am for the islands but it would have taken a threat of loss of life or limb to get me back on a boat. The one in 3 days will do. The storm has already cleared so hopefully that 4.5 hour crossing would be quick and painless. Let’s just say I won’t be packing a lunch this time.
I am currently enjoying looking down on the ocean rather than being on it. It’s been a long time since I suffered sea sickness like that. It made us appreciate the tranquil hours going down the rivers, minus the waves. Hopefully remote Corn Islands, with promise of white sand beaches, coconut palms, no cars and reefs teaming with fish will be worth facing the ocean once again. Maybe it was because the captain was eating bananas – "BAD LUCK" in Hawaii. Maybe some things are worldwide!
The 5 hour crossing was bearable . After the 12 hour tempest only days before I watched people offering gifts over the side with empathy - focusing on the horizon while listening to an African tale by Wilber Smith on my I- pod. Lost in the savannahs of my dear Africa. A whole group of young backpackers from Slovenia to London to Germany to Costa Rica to the U.S. were all rushing off to Little Corn Island to party! We enjoyed visiting with them and shared a great vegetable stew whipped up in the captains mess by the Slovenian chef, but parted ways hoping for a different island experience. We travel to learn about the culture and meet the locals, not hang around with other tourists. Don't get me wrong. We really do enjoy visiting and sharing ideas with other travelers but we have seen over and over as tourists surround themselves with other tourists, completely missing the experience awaiting them in the country they chose to travel to, often at great expense.
And so it goes.........................................Next continuing along the rivers and coast of Nicaragua's remote Moskito Coast. Until next month think of someone with who you have a battle of right and wrong going. Take the first step, try meeting them beyond the conflict. There is hope for your conflict and hope for the conflicts of the world. Share a smile. We are glad you stopped by. Thanks for keeping in touch! Take care!
Love, Light & Laughter,
$1.00US = 24 Cordobas
If you visit Rio Celeste (see August 2012) catch a bus to Upala from Bijagwa (on the road by 9:15). Must be up there by 11 am to get the midday bus to Los Chiles border crossing into Nicaragua. Upala to Los Chiles about 2-3 hours - through Cano Negras Park, a low lying swampy area full of water birds.
The border closes at 5pm and you must visit immigration before taking the 1 hour boat up. A boat amazingly is waiting for you at the dock. Walk 4-5 blocks to 'immigracion', then down to the pier, (on your way pay 600c to municipality), where someone will put your name on the list for the 3:30 boat to Nicaragua. Change money - grab some food or snacks as Nicaragua hasn't got much in the east, enjoy the quiet pretty trip except for the noisy, haha monkeys and birds. Immigration upon your arrival in San Carlos. Pay $12 for 3 month visa to the 4 countries.
Islas Solentiname - art is the focus
of the tiny communities. Very quiet, little
infrastructure. Possible to plan a trip via
ferries from San Carlos towards Ometepe.
The Grand River Lodge:
Marvin, the owner and creator, made this unique place rise out of the jungle and his helpful, positive attitude is what makes the experience. Marvin speaks 4 languages and has traveled with work on the cruise ships. It is currently basic, like going to camp, but improvements are under way. You leave getting a feel for Nicaraguan farm life along the river with cows and horses running free. Boardwalks along the water provide a place to view hundreds of tropical birds and howler monkeys. This is a work in progress but worth a stop for a couple of days. At only $10 a day pp with free breakfast and clean cabanas with private bath it is a good deal. Food is available for 100 - 120 cordobas with fresh fruit drink or you can haul your food in to cook also. Horseback riding, jungle walks and fishing are offered for free or a small fee. It is 250 meters from the river but you can request help with your bags if necessary. Five buses a day up the back dirt lane to the lodge- 4wd necessary in rainy season.
Take the boat from San Carlos about 1.5 hours towards El Castillo. Make sure to tell the conductor of the boat AND several people around you to let you off at the Grand River Lodge. It is a good idea to stay here and take a day trip down to El Castillo if you aren't going further down the river.
The boats run at 6,8,10:30, 2 and 3:30
from San Carlos. On to Castillo at 9:30 returning
Hotel Albergue El Castillo:
Straight up from the dock up the steps, on your right.
Phone # 8924-5608, Smiling Minar will help make
your stay enjoyable as you sit on the expansive balcony
overlooking the port. Only one room with a
bathroom this large wooden place is worth checking out -
especially if you are only staying a night. ($15pp
or discount for 3 or more days).
San Juan del Norte:
Marta and helpful husband try to make
your stay comfortable in this newish place. They
do their best in a town without supplies.
Vegetables arrive every Thursday.