On the San Juan River, Nicaragua

Posted by Jonny Bealby 20th November 2023
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On the San Juan River, Nicaragua

Jonny continues his journey in Nicaragua taking to the San Juan River, uncovering tales of alternative gold rush routes and pirates, accompanied by lots and lots of birds...

Okay, so here’s an interesting fact for you. In the 1850s, at the height of the California Gold Rush, the fastest way to get from New York to San Francisco was via Nicaragua. I kid you not.

Eying an opportunity, the famous American entrepreneur, Cornelius Vanderbilt, created a route by steamboat down the east coast of America to the entrance to the San Juan River in Nicaragua. There, passengers transferred to flat-bottomed vessels to travel 135 kilometres upriver to Lago de Nicaragua, and the lakeside port of Rivas. Here they would disembark and then take a carriage the short distance down to the Pacific coast, to a place called San Juan del Sur where another steamer would be waiting to carry the hopeful prospectors north. 

A journey that would take around four months overland – if you didn’t come a cropper en route (which, let’s face it, many did) – took just 35 days. Because of this natural river route across the continent, those who first conceived of a shipping canal connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, thought Nicaragua, and not Panama, was the best location. Even today, there is still talk of creating such a route.

Going further back, to the 17th century, the Spanish were so fed up with pirates, usually British ones – think William Dampier and Henry Morgan – travelling up this river for a bit of plunder, that at the one point where rapids make passage tricky, they built a fortress to defend the river. But in 1750, a twenty-year-old (not quite Lord yet) Nelson, captured the fort and raised the Union Jack. Now gathered around the base of the still impressive fort, there is a small town called, naturally, Castillo.

Anyway, I digress.

Since my last blog, we spent a couple of days on the island of Ometepe, where we swam in Lago de Nicaragua, climbed halfway up volcano Concepcion and visited the island’s excellent museum. Stuffed with all manner of ancient tools, jewellery and ceramics, the most fascinating artefacts were a series of 3000-year-old funeral earns shaped like a pregnant woman’s belly, with a wiggling sperm and what looked like a fallopian tube clearly moulded onto the exterior; how did they know such things? 

From here we took the ferry back to the mainland and drove to San Carlos where we climbed into a narrow motorboat and sped up the San Juan River.

To quote Joseph Conrad, ‘Travelling up that river was like journeying back to the earliest beginnings of time when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.’ On either side, dense vegetation lined our route. Huge trees, prehistoric ferns, and tangled creepers made an impenetrable wall of vegetation. 

But what there were, were birds, lots and lots of birds.

Many years ago, while writing my second book, I lived in a hut on the beach in Goa, where I don’t mind admitting I became something of a twitcher, and I have loved spotting birds in the tropics ever since. Their dazzling colours and varying shapes and sizes are a delight and identifying them does become addictive. 

Staying at a wonderful eco-lodge on Rio San Juan, we went on a nature walk through the rainforest and then paddled a canoe up a narrower tributary. I won’t list all the birds we spotted here – we must have ticked off well over 40 different species – but the highlights were a yellow-throated toucan, blue herons, three different kinds of kingfishers and a brace of scarlet macaws. We also saw howler monkeys, spider monkeys, hundreds of colourful butterflies and a giant iguana, sunning itself high in a tree. 

In Castillo, we visited a small chocolate cooperative, and an excellent coffee shop and looked around the fort and its adjacent museum, which explained the stories of Vanderbilt, Morgan and Nelson.

Most looking for a holiday focused primarily around nature in this part of the world head to Costa Rica. While I am sure that is a wonderful country to visit, the more adventurous should think about Nicaragua. With a fraction of the tourists, but equally good wildlife and some very interesting history and culture, this country has a great deal to offer.

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