Page 28: - No Return Ticket - Just a Ride Report /w Pics - From the beginning
San Juan River - Central America: Warning! - Tons of Pics -
With a new National Geographic magazine in hand I leave Heidi behind in central park Granada to head off on a week long adventure sailing down Rio San Juan.
My backpack has everything I need including the fishing rod. I march down to the dock on Lake Nicaragua, 2 KM away from central park.
People are already lined up at the ferry ticket booth in Granada preparing to board, the line is at least 100 meters long. A guy in a uniform starts searching bags of people standing in line with me. I overhear an officer ask a couple guys in front of me if they have a "cuchillo" (Knife). I feel the hair on the back of my neck rise and quickly shift my camera pouch to cover my big buck knife holster. The officer is two people in front of me. When he gets to me I bend down to open the backpack for inspection. He just smiles while he walks past to inspect other people, whew...
With ticket in hand I head out to find the boat.
It's takes 16 hours to sails across the biggest lake in Nicaragua, Lago De Nicaragua. The boat is expected to dock at the city at the far end of the lake, San Carlos by 6:30 AM. San Carlos is at the start of Rio San Juan (San Juan River). Rio San Juan is 120 miles long running between Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean Sea. Most of the river is a border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. This stretch of river is said to be one of the most remote regions of Central America lined with impenetrable rain forest and isolated people living along the river. My guidebook says traveling along this river is like taking a step back in time. It also lists this trip as being the best 'off the beaten track' adventure. Say no more, I am 'ON IT'.
The bottom deck is the cheap seats, $1.14. The upper deck has an air conditioned room with padded benches and an area outside to hang a hammock for sleeping, $12.00
Waves splash up onto the side upper decks so the smart guys have a plastic cocoon wrapped around their hammock.
The plan is to get to San Carlos and look for a boat that will take me the 120 miles up river. I'm searching for primitive villages, monkeys, exotic birds, sights, smells, sounds and the essence of my soul……
Embarking on something like this I must be prepared. Some of my youngest memories are of my father instructing me how to take stick matches and dip them in melted paraffin wax to waterproof them. At age 14 I can vividly see myself in our garage in Northern Wisconsin with -10 deg F outside. My farther stoking the pot belly stove so I could prepare my motorcycle to go out and explore the snowmobile trails. My father would quiz me to make sure I had all the proper survival gear including waterproof stick matches. This was a time before there were groomed snowmobile trails. I needed to be able to start a fire to signal a rescue and to keep warm if necessary. Anyway I've been prepared my whole life for adventures like this.
Here is the list of stuff I'm taking along:
- Small backpack
- Water hiking shoes
- Hiking pants, LS shirt, SS shirt, swim shorts
- Rain jacket - Camp towel
- Large bag of mixed nuts and dried fruit
- Book and National Geographic magazine
- 12" X 18" Thermorest pad
- Baggies, rubber bands and some duct tape
- Fishing rod and lures
- 2 cameras & tripod
- Small SW radio
- Spare batteries
- World quad -band cell phone /w world SIM chip
- Ultra sharp buck knife, switch blade & pepper spray (cavebiker carries two knives)
- Snake bite kit
- Sanitary wipes
- Mosquito spray
- Water purification pills
- Malaria pills
- Cipro, travelers diarrhea pills
- Flash light, head light
- Waterproofed white tip stick matches
This may sound like a big list but it all fits in an ultra small backpack, plus I have everything. I not sure what I'm getting into but I will be prepared.
Sunrise at port San Carlos
16 hours later the boat arrives in San Carlos just as planned. It's just starting to get light. I'm thinking of spending the night here to recoup from the long boat ride. Everyone disembarks.
We all walk out of the fenced in area. I find myself in front of a ticket booth with a sign saying 'Boletos (tickets) San Juan Del Norte'. The river boat was taking off in less then 30 minutes. I buy a ticket and jump on the boat.
I am mentally prepared to board…….. I think?
Waiting at the dock the scene is beautiful.
Just before the boat left the dock at San Carlos the order went out to put on life preservers. Everyone complied. There were officials all around the dock area at San Carlos and I figured this was some type of requirement. We were under way for less then 10 minutes when everyone started taking off their vests, so did I. Soon a guy working the boat started collecting the life preservers and tossing them to a guy on top of the boat. I was trying to figure out what this was all about but couldn't come up with any likely scenario. About a half hour later, up river we meet another passenger river boat. Both boats slowed down to a crawl running right at each other. When the boats were about 100 feet away the guy on the roof of our boat tosses overboard two big bundles of life preservers. The other boat fishes them out of the water and stows them. 'Light bulb' I get it……
About an hour down river from San Carlos I see a shark fin surface less then 3 meters from my side of the boat. This river and Lake Nicaragua is home to the only fresh water sharks in the world. I decided to curtail my vision of doing some serious swimming here.
After another hour we stop in the middle of the river to let a lunch boat come along side us to sell us prepared meals, snacks or pop.
The guy in the camo helps me get my meal of fish, rice, beans and fried plantains, $1.26
We arrived at the end of the river and the Caribbean Sea at dark. With a full moon it was easy to distinguish the surf of the Caribbean across a narrow sandbar as we approached the end of the river. The loud roar of the surf was even more dramatic. The captain pilots the river boat left, right, left, right around practically invisible stick and rock islands. He is one with the river. A few kilometers later and over 11 hours after we departed we ghost up to the dock at San Juan Del Norte. We are miles from any road.
Almost 80 people unload off the boat. There were 20 or more people waiting at the dock for the boat to arrive. The dock was a buzz of activity with cargo being unloaded onto a large push cart, people talking and reacquainting. There is a small store at the dock. I walk over and ask if they have beer. The woman first shakes her head no. I then ask is she has a bottle of water. No water either. She looks around a little then pulls me out an ice cold beer. Oh Yeah……
After the beer I ask if she knows of a hotel nearby. The town looked dark. From the dock you couldn't even tell there is a town here. The woman tells me to sit tight and whips out her cell phone. A few minutes later 3 little kids, the oldest no more then 10 guide me off. There are no roads in San Juan Del Norte, just sidewalks. We walk several blocks along the river past a park, then down 4 more blocks along some rustic residential houses. Bingo, we are standing in front of a little hotel. I tip the kids 5 cordobas each, less then 10 cents. They went running happily off into the darkness. Ricardo, from the hotel, greets me outside and shows me the room. $11 and I am liken' it.
While walking to the hotel we passed a woman cooking some stuff on a portable kitchen. After settling into the hotel I walk back to see what she has cooking. I point to some things she had on the grill and ask "?Que es ese?" (What is that?) "Empanadas" I repeat "Empanadas! Me gusto mucho empanadas!" Several women sitting there break out in laughter. This happens to me a lot. Heidi says it's the way I say things. ?? Anyway I order 2. A young girl puts them on the hot part of the grill while her mother wipes down a plastic chair for me to sit on. At first the girl starts wrapping the empanadas in a huge green leaf. The mother tells her something then she puts them on a small plastic plate. The mother piles a heap of coleslaw on top of the empanadas. I search around for a fork. A woman motions for me to use my fingers to eat the slaw. OK, I can do that. I enjoyed some of the best, fattest and most perfect empanadas ever.
A half a dozen or more young kids were all playing in a circle near where I was eating. An ice cream cart was parked there also with a few teenagers hanging around. This was the same ice cream cart on the deck of the boat that I came in on and the same guy who was selling ice cream to people on the boat. I end the night with a chocolate dipped Eskimo ice cream bar.
I'm up early the next morning and walk down to the dock. The boat I came in on is still sitting there. I'm wondering if it's going to sail back to San Carlos today. A guy in army fatigues knocks on the closed shutters of this little store (below) and whispers "?cafe?" I whisper "?Dos cafes por favor?
A few minutes later we both help raise and secure the shutters of the store and are served a great cup of coffee. I just hang out enjoying the scene, the coffee and reading my National Geographic magazine.
A merchant lancha (boat) sails into the dock with supplies for the town. It is delivering a bunch of goods to the little store. The workers of the passenger boat I came in on are rustling in their hammocks they had strung inside the boat. The kids sleeping inside the boat start cleaning up the trash left behind from yesterdays voyage. The merchant and the woman at the store figure out the bill using a notebook with hand written notes and a small calculator. After a while all the boat workers are up and at the counter with me and the guy in military fatigues. One by one everyone gets served a big plate of breakfast food. I ask "?Es posible conseguir desayuno para mi?" (Is it possible for me to get breakfast?) I get a friendly "Si" Soon I have a big plate of scrambled eggs, rice, beans and a couple tasty pieces of fried pastry. Some one brings me over a chair to sit down on, someone else hands me a jar of pickled hot peppers and onions. I feel like I'm part of the family. When everyone is finished I notice no one paid for anything. I deduced that everyone here is family. I ended up paying less then $3.00 for 2 cups of coffee, a big glass of juice and a big plate of food.
At the dock:
A fisherman bailing out his canoe using the paddle.
No people were coming down to the dock and nothing was happening with the boat. I ask the captain if he's running back to San Carlos today. He tells me "mañana" . OK, today will be devoted to fishing, reading and just chillen' in San Juan Del Norte, which is a good thing because I was toast from the 27 straight hours of boat travel the day before. After breakfast I found a quiet little spot on the riverbank and tried a little fishing. After a while a guy bicycled by and introduced himself. He told me there are no fish here but a few kilometers up the river in either direction near the sea there are a lot of big fish. He offered to arrange a guide and boat for me. Super nice but I wasn't here to bag a lot of fish, I just wanted to enjoy the river and life here in San Juan Del Norte. I fished for a little while (no fish?), crashed for a few hours and read, a perfect day in my book.
Later I went out to look for food. I found out the woman with the portable kitchen didn't make any empanadas today. I explore the town a little more and found a quaint little restaurant. While I was eating there a large group of people walked in and stopped to talk to me at my table. They said they recognized me from the boat yesterday and asked how I like it here. They gave me a real warm and friendly welcome, it was almost overwhelming.
San Juan Del Norte:
While looking around town I noticed a nice small bar right on the waterfront. I figure I better stop in and have one. It was like out of a movie complete with some loud and rowdy locals at the bar and a foreign guy playing tourist in shorts and white sandals buying round after round for some locals at his table. Sometimes I play the nice guy too long but not this time. Soon the rowdies at the bar learned my middle name is 'Big Bad MF' They respected me and left me alone after that. The guy in the white sandals buying the rounds was asking too many questions. I don't think he was what he was posing as. He soon left me alone also. I like this stuff way too much but I was smart and got out of there quick.
The river boat is scheduled to set sail at 5:00 AM. People are piling in. A large fishing boat pulls up to the dock in total darkness. It was like a ghost ship with no running lights and the bow so tall you couldn't see the operator. There were only 25 or 30 people on board when we started off. I was able to get a good seat where I could stretch out my legs a little. Again the captain has to know the river like the back of his hand. We took off at full bore dodging small stick and rock islands in almost total darkness. I couldn't tell the river was bending but soon we were turning sharp one way then the other. With no warning or obvious reason the boat would suddenly slow down to a crawl. I could feel the boat or outboards gently hit something. We continued on slowly for several hundred more meters before the engines were gunned again.
5:00 AM at the dock as we pull away:
As we were running down river and the sun was starting to come up I could see figures peeking out of almost every household. Little children, teenagers, mothers and fathers just staring out at our boat cruising by them. I wonder what they must be thinking. These homes have no electric power or TV's. I wonder if they can read. Even if they can there are no libraries near. I have to point out one observation I couldn't help notice about the young people I observed along the river. To put it simply their social skills are way advanced compared to kids I've known. While eating dinner at the restaurant in San Juan Del Norte a little kid about 6 years old comes marching in tall and straight and barks out to the store teller what he wants. His voice was pronounced and assertive and he held himself like a little Arnold Schwarzenegger. He grabs the bag of stuff from the clerk, pays him and goes marching off as if he is on a critical mission. I saw the same type of behavior from a kid about 14 on the boat. He walks up to a military person in the boat and starts conversing with him as if he was his same age and rank. The army guy pulls out a camo hat just like the one he was wearing and hands it to the kid. The kid thanks him at least 20 times, all the time standing tall, straight and looking the guy straight in the eye, joking and thanking him at the same time, like they are peers. I swear if this kid was a foot and a half taller and 40 pounds heaver and wearing military camo you would be convinced he was an officer. I know I'm not a writer and maybe I'm not spelling this out clearly but I noticed this so many times with so many kids it was just unmistakable. Not being polluted by video games, TV and I don't know what else has a definite positive affect on these river people. As for the adults I see a distinct pride that translates to a type of kindness to others that is remarkable. There is a gentle respect Nicos show to one another. Not the hugging and massive hand shaking we see in Mexico but a more subdued friendliness that seems to say 'we like you, we respect you and want things to go well with you' The more I see the real Nicaragua the more I like it.
Going up and down the river there are a half a dozen or more military posts. The River boats I think are required to stop at every post. Several times during the journey a boat worker walks down the isle of the boat and gets everyone's name and writes them on a tablet of paper. 2 or 3 times they also write down everyone's identification number. There were several foreign backpackers traveling part way up the river to get off at El Castillo where they cross into Costa Rica. Anyway all the backpackers would get their passports checked at the military posts by a military person who boards the boat. Of course I didn't carry my passport because I didn't think I would need it. Because the river borders Costa Rica half the passengers are Costa Rican and half Nicos thus requiring strict checking where people are coming from and where they are going. Anyway I must be starting to blend in a little because they never checked me, am I lucky! People who disembark at El Castillo really have their baggage checked. Toy eggs shaken, large teddy bears felt up and down for something hidden inside and huge sacks emptied out, interesting.
Surprisingly the best part of this adventure has been witnessing and being part of the pulse and rhythm of life on the river. There are no roads here. You either live on the river or live up a short foot path from the river. At one point the boat I was in was overloaded with over a 100 people, several had to stand. Soon the boat would pullover to a blind bank and people would jump off and/or more would jump in. The captain is on the roof in the back of the boat in a pilot house. I never observed any signal for when the boat needed to pull over to let people off, it just happens, like poetry.
More photos of Life on Rio San Juan Continued: ---> Page 29 <----Previous Page: <-