By Vicki Barnes
The Río San Juan is far removed from just about everything in the cities of Nicaragua. The distance encompasses time as well as space.
The river is the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, stretching lazily between Lake Nicaragua and the Caribbean Sea. The water belongs to Nicaragua and the land south of its banks are disputed territories. Police from both sides patrol the area and there is no fighting, but both claim the land as their own.
On the river, life moves more slowly than in most places.
There are homes and cattle ranches and small towns from time to time. For the most part, there are vast expanses of undeveloped land.
The best, and in some cases, the only way to get from town to town is by boat. There are the slow boats and the slower boats.
Long motorized “taxis” operate on a regular, though limited schedule. The trip from the mouth of the river at San Carlos to the last stop at El Castillo takes about four hours with about a dozen stops along the way. The full ride costs less than $3 per person. If your destination is closer, you pay less.
There are faster boats that take you directly to your destination, but you pay more for the convenience.
There is no wifi anywhere once you leave San Carlos. No one, save the internet addicted tourists, seems to miss the instant connectivity with the outside world. They have telephones and that seems to be enough.
You can’t be in a hurry here. The taxi comes by your stop two, or maybe three times a day. That’s when you go. Or, you can walk through the hills above the river. Or paddle along the shore.
The river, which drains 9 million gallons of water a minute from Lake Nicaragua to the sea, moves fast. The people here do not.
Julio and his family have been living for a couple of decades in Sabalo, a small town of a few hundred people at the place where the Sabalo River trickles into the Rio San Juan. He settled in this spot when he left Managua because of both the natural beauty and the history associated with the river.
In the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, the Spanish traveled the river, settling in
Granada and Leon. The British and then buccaneers followed in an effort to lay claim to what they had. A fortress was built above the area where rocky waters form choppy rapids, slowing down the invaders and allowing easier protection.
Miners from the Gold Rush in California sometimes tried to get their treasure from the Pacific to the Atlantic through this part of Nicaragua. Some didn’t make it. At least two sunken ships with gold are said to be in the shallow waters of the rio.
In the 19th century, it was the Americans who came to river, wanting to build a canal. Cornelius Vanderbilt and others made grand plans for a cut through that would make it easier to move goods between the Atlantic and the Pacific. In the end, an easier political climate to the south opened the way for the canal to be built in Panama.
In the mid 20th century, tarpon fishermen came to catch the huge game fish. Some people say the fish could be seen jumping all along the river in those days. Today, they are still being caught, but their numbers are far fewer. One of the locals reported that last September, a whopper – 140 kilo – tarpon was pulled from the river. It was so big, the town of Sabalo (which means tarpon) had a festival to celebrate the catch.
Nothing comes here easily. Yaro, who owns a small lodge along the river, said that if you want anything – from a nail to a bottle of beer to a can of beans, you must travel to San Carlos.
In the towns, locals sell fruits and vegetables they have grown to one another. A few shopkeepers will make the trek to San Carlos or even Managua to get the things – like American-style clothes or school supplies – that their customers want. They bring in a few items like Coca Cola and cigarettes that the few tourists ask them for. But they are, for the most part, self-sufficient and happy with the life they have.
And, so, life continues slowly along the river. There are restaurants and hostels, a few fishing camps and quiet eco lodges to serve the travelers who want a slower pace from the traditional tourist path.
Jobs are few and some of the younger residents are moving away to look for work. Julio said he made sure his children received a good education to prepare them if they felt the need to go. But, he also raised them in the family businesses – selling food and drink from a boat that travels the river and a small guided tour service of the river.
Business has been good as more people take the slower path on the river. Perhaps his children will be able to stay.
Residents are glad to see the visitors and welcome them warmly. Still they know that if the tourists come in too great of numbers, it could damage their river and their way of life.