Friday, May 3, 2013

Up the River: Semana Santa in Rio San Juan

The paddles swished all but noiselessly in the dark brown waters as our canoe guide took Kathya and I up the tributary in search of wildlife native to Rio San Juan.

It was holy week and my fiancé and I had decided to visit a lesser seen area of Nicaragua. Rio San Juan makes up the Southwest corner of the country. The department is home to the last real rainforests of Nicaragua, as well as tons of history. Most people that pass through the region are on their way to Costa Rica, however they are really missing out on a true Central American gem.
                                                                                                                                           Kathya and I left Managua at seven in the morning on a bus bound for the department capital, San Carlos. The journey was a hot, packed bladder bursting ride through half the country. Our bus was a ruteado, which means they stop literally for anyone that needs a ride.  Before we even left the station, the aisle was full of people that were doomed to ride the whole way on their feet.

All the way there, the bus would stop to literally push more people on board. Just when we thought we weren’t going to make it, we pulled into the San Carlos terminal and were finally able to stretch our legs again.

Kathya’s family has friends from the church that we were able to call on to get nice prices for our hotels. We stayed at Hotel Carelys, which sits about halfway between the city park and the river front. The upstairs balcony offered quite a view of the roof tops and the lake beyond them.

After getting settled in, we went for a walk and found the cannon memorial that honored the victory of Rafaela Hernandez, 16-year-old girl, against a hoard of pirate ships that were coming up the river to attack Granada. Her father had been killed in the battle and she rallied the men to win. Legend has it that she fired the canon that sank the lead ship herself.

That night Kathya and I dined on delicious fish in one of the best restaurants in town, Kaoma. The service was surprisingly fantastic, and the food wasn’t left behind. I had the restaurant’s name sake plate, fried kaoma fish. The restaurant sits about a block away from the fishing docks so you know that fish was fresh. After that, we danced the night away in the clubs of San Carlos. But the morning would come soon and the pangas, small passenger boats, wait for no one.
This was only the beginning of our 3 night semana santa vacation. I couldn’t see a better way to start it off. The next day we headed out bright and early for El Castillo.

The day after our introduction to Rio San Juan, it was time to see the river that made this place so famous and important.

After a short stop in Los Sabalos, we approached the Devil’s Rapids as the Spanish name translates. They didn’t really live up to the name in my opinion, but we did have to slow down to a crawl so as to not hit the sharp rocks that would have left us gashed wide open.

Finally we arrived in the final destination, El Castillo. This is a tiny little hamlet where not a motor is to be heard by town ordinance. It is definitely the most secluded place I have been to in all of Nicaragua.

After checking into Hotel Victoria, we made arrangements for a canoe tour of a local tributary. But that was for later, the morning was for seeing the castle that made this tiny little pueblo so important.

We hiked our way up the hill and found the entrance to the fortress, La Concepción. After paying a small entrance fee we were free to wander the area. First there was a little museum with artifacts that covered the ages of the region. There were also pictures of the excavation and restoration of fortress.

Then it was time for the big show. Kathya and I were snapping pictures everywhere of the stone walls, the little courtyard and the cannons trained on the river, ready for another pirate attack.

When we made it back to the hotel, our guide was waiting for us. We made a quick change of wardrobe, I grabbed my long lens and we came out to the river front.

Rio San Juan is an animal lover’s heaven. The region has one of the largest bio reserves in the country, Indio Maiz. Everywhere, there are long necked cranes and other brightly colored water fowl. At the proper times of year, the river becomes home to many migrating birds of paradise.

The waters won’t be shown up by forests. Under the calm surface, huge tarpons swim alongside river otters. The river is also home to more frightening creatures. Our guide told us horror stories of child snatching alligators and fresh water bull sharks.

For the next two hours we paddled around trying to catch glimpses of some of these. We saw the basilisk also known as the Jesus lizard since it can run across water. We then saw another lizard that looked like an iguana crossed with a chameleon. For only a fleeting moment I managed to catch sight of one of the river otters, but as I focused my lens, it darted under the water and didn’t resurface near us.

In the shade of the groves, Kathya, our young guide and I sat back and sipped on ice cold coconuts, nibbled on fresh fruit and tasted the local product, handmade cacao fudge. Finally the waters became too shallow for us to make our way up any farther. We came about and began the forceful push to get back up the river to El Castillo before dark.

When we arrived, the lights were out but there was still enough sun to have dinner. So we sat down in El Chinandegano and had some fantastic jalapeño steaks and a few ice cold toñas to finish the night. Kathya and I sat in the dark after eating. We listened to the quiet murmur of the river and the less than quiet croaking of all the different types of frogs and toads.

The next day we had a quick breakfast and then made our way back up river. We spent a laid back day in San Carlos. We saw so much on this trip, but so much more was left out. As we got on the bus for 7 hour return, I remember thinking that we’re not done here.

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