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The Rio San Juan

The Río San Juan slices through Central America for 120 miles, beginning at Lake Nicaragua, forming a long stretch of the border with Costa Rica and ending at the Caribbean Sea. As early as the 16th century, conquistador Hernán Cortés is said to have written to the King of Spain: "He who possesses the Rio San Juan could be considered the owner of the world."

View of the mouth of Rio San Juan at Lake Nicaragua and the town of San Carlos from the prop plane

At the height of the California Gold Rush, hundreds of thousands of people wanted to be on the West Coast, but the transcontinental railroad was still just a dream. Wagon trains crossing the United States could take months, and it would be another 63 years before the Panama Canal was built. Cornelius Vanderbilt, the shipping and railroad tycoon, managed to organize a route that would take people from New York to San Francisco in 20 days by crossing Nicaragua via the Rio San Juan and Lake Nicaragua.

Vanderbilt proposed a canal across Nicaragua, but couldn’t get it financed. For years, the U.S., British, and French governments all tried to control commerce by building a trans-oceanic canal. The U.S. won the race with the Panama Canal, but apparently now the Chinese have designs on another one in this country. Under Ortega, the country's Sandinista government has essentially given a Chinese businessman eminent domain over Nicaragua to finally build a canal here linking the Atlantic and Pacific. According to an article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, "In an era of breathtaking, earth-changing engineering projects, this has been billed as the biggest of them all. Three times as long and almost twice as deep as its rival in Panama, Nicaragua’s channel will require the removal of more than 4.5bn cubic metres of earth – enough to bury the entire island of Manhattan up to the 21st floor of the Empire State Building." Another good article on the canal is in Outside Magazine, "Nicaragua's Bizarre Plan to Bury the Panama Canal".

The canal is extremely controversial - not only for the disastrous environmental impacts and displacement of tens of thousand of citizens (with permanent destruction of indigenous territories), but whether or not it will provide the jobs and economic growth promised.

Proposed route of the Nicaraguan canal.

We have asked almost everyone we have met in Nicaragua about the canal and whether or not they think it will happen. Some doubt it will ever be completed and others think it is a done deal. There is no doubt however, that a project which proposes to cut through four biosphere reserves, a globally important wetland, and Central America’s largest body of freshwater will have a profound impact. Articles written about the canal report that it will change the lives of millions and the wildlife of a continent. So we decided we had to visit the river that sparked a centuries old idea that if or when it becomes a reality, will change this place forever.

No roads exist along the river so access is only by boat. We were having some battery trouble so we left the rig behind in Managua, and traveled first by plane to the tiny port town of San Carlos at the mouth of the river on Lake Nicaragua. Then it was a three-hour trip down the river in a crowded public boat to the town of El Castillo. Boats on the river are long narrow dugouts that seat as many people as a city bus. They are built to maneuver the shallow river. There is a fast boat but the motor broke 3 months ago and no one has the money to go to Costa Rica to get the part. Once on the river we passed only a few tiny villages perched along the jungle's riverbank, with occasional clearings for cattle pastures. The cattle are transported back up the river to Lake Nicaragua the same way we were coming boat.

Lunch in San Carlos before we boarded the boat. This is not an uncommon look in some towns...

Typical Nica lunch. Fresh caught fish from the lake.

Slooow boat.

Jungle river banks

Only one town exists before our stop.

This river is the border of Costa Rica so there is a large military presence, much of it left over from the war.

Unload and reload. These boats go only a couple times a day and are the only transport for the river.

Just east of this little river town is the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve, a 640,000-acre reserve of pristine rain forest. Beyond El Castillo, there is no other civilization all the way to the Caribbean Sea - an 8-hour journey by boat. I found myself thinking this river dodged a bullet hundreds of years ago - it would have been full of locks and container ships instead of lush, sleepy riverbanks. If this new canal gets built to the north, this river will likely get those locks to regulate the water levels of Lake Nicaragua, flooding much of this ecosystem.

El Castillo. The fort above was built in 1673 as a Spanish fortification to defend against pirate attacks on the city of Granada after it was sacked multiple times. Pirates traveled up the river from the Carribean.

View of the town of El Castillo from the fort.

It was SO hot. And steamy. Especially after it rained. That's John wiping sweat off...we wiped sweat the entire time.

Evening commute in El Castillo

Appetizers El Castillo style. Fried plantains, fried cheese.

This is the town's one street.

We hired a guide, Orlando, to take us hiking into the reserve and up one of the tributaries. Orlando was born and raised in El Castillo. Years ago, he used to leave to find work in Costa Rica in the sugar cane fields, and come home every couple of months. Tourism has picked up on the river in the last few years and since he is one of only two guides that speak English, he doesn't have to leave his family anymore to make a living. We asked Orlando about the canal on the public boat. He was quiet, and then said people don't talk much about the canal. He clearly didn't want to talk openly on the boat. Later, paddling down the river in a canoe with us to the reserve, he told us people who speak out against the government have many problems. Bad problems, he said, so there is not much talk of not liking the canal. This country has a long history of problems for people speaking up against the government and perhaps those tactics are at work with regard to the canal as well.

We stayed in a little 4 room hotel right on the river called Hotel Luna del Río and could hear the loud river rapids through our walls. We watched huge tarpons feeding in the water off our balcony. It was hot & steamy but we thankfully had air-conditioning in our tiny room. The town was quiet at night and we thought things would cool off, but it was just as hot & steamy. This kind of heat causes you to sweat just by the act of breathing in and out. A sweaty sheen sits on your skin all the time and any exertion is just plain suffocating. We spent one day hiking in the muddy reserve in rented rubber boots. Our feet sank deep in the mud, creating a suction that required deliberate footsteps or we risked losing a boot to the jungle. We saw tons of wildlife during our visit though,spider monkeys, frogs, even a sloth. It was our first sloth sighting in the wild and it was indeed sloth-like, barely moving and covered in a moss-like sheen from all the rain.

Our hotel is the one with the green roof

Listening to the rapids.

Morning fog. Ships couldn't make it up the rapids during the gold rush so the travelers got out, were taken upstream, and put on another boat.

We took a canoe down the river to the reserve.

The paddles were just like the locals use...wood. Our arms almost fell off on the hour+ paddle. We saw monkeys and a caiman though!

Trekking with Orlando. It was so wet my fingers got pruned.

A bit muddy too...

Tree bats

Poison dart frog

And our first wild sloth! We saw him just as we turned to head was exciting for us. Him not so much.

This tarantula was as big as my hand. And I have big hands...

Kids polling UP river.

Muddy and happy. It was a great day in the rain forest.

We returned to San Carlos to catch our flight on the slow boat again. The flights aren't timed with the slow boats so we had the owner of our little hotel call the airport and tell them to wait. And they did. In the end, the long slow ride back to mouth of the river was a good thing. We got to soak in life on this important river that travelers coming behind us may never get to see.

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