Drifting Through Eden
WALL STREET JOURNAL, March 22, 2013
THERE WAS ONE SEAT LEFT ON THE RIVERBOAT, and a chicken snagged it. I slouched in the aisle, trying to make my bag look oppressively heavy on my shoulder. We were on the midmorning "slow" boat, about to embark on a long day's drift down Nicaragua's Rio San Juan. I needed that chicken's seat.
The San Juan slices across Central America for some 120 miles, beginning at Lake Nicaragua, forming a good stretch of the border with Costa Rica and ending at the Caribbean Sea. It was nearly the site of the interoceanic canal, and 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."
Nicaragua's richest man, Don Carlos Pelas, is opening Nicaragua's first luxury hotel next month, courting the Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton crowd. WSJ's Andrea Petersen and McCabe World Travel president Anne Morgan Scully join Lunch Break with details. Photo: Andrew Kaufman.
But Panama beat Nicaragua in the canal race. The world's ships went south and the San Juan passed through the 20th century in a hush. No roads carved up its marshy banks. Only local boats plied its waters. The San Juan's destiny was sealed in the 1990s, when the Nicaraguan government turned 640,000 acres of pristine rain forest along the river's homestretch into a nature preserve.
It was this untamed area in the southeastern corner of Nicaragua that my father and I were aiming for in December. Most people who explore the San Juan start in the bustling lakefront city of San Carlos, head about three hours downstream to the town of El Castillo and turn back—what lies ahead is astonishingly remote. We set aside four days to travel the river's length, using local ferries and hired boats to explore backwaters that carve into a jungle that rivals the Amazon for wildness.
The trip was made somewhat simpler last spring when La Costeña airlines began offering service from the river's final port, San Juan de Nicaragua, to Managua. Travelers can now reach the edge of Nicaragua's map without having to double back to get home—if they make their plane.
As my father reminded me many times when we embarked on Wednesday, there were only a couple of flights per week. If we didn't make it to the sea by Sunday, we would be stranded for several days in San Juan de Nicaragua, a sliver of civilization on the coast.
I had managed to displace the chicken on our panga boat—a long dugout that seated as many people as a city bus—and tried not to fret about our slow pace as we slinked away from the bottom corner of Lake Nicaragua, a hub of the country's tourist activity. We sent the gentlest eddies through the olive-green waters. We had the river to ourselves; for mile after mile, we saw no human imprint whatsoever.
El Castillo came as a shock when we reached it midafternoon, its rapids sudden and loud. High on a hill, crowning the turquoise- and red-roofed homes across the waterfront, sat a stone fort that was once a lookout for pirates.
There is one street in El Castillo, and it led us straight to Hotel Victoria, a handsome two-story house wrapped in porches. After a morning of staring at the jungle's edge, I was dying to see what lay beyond. This wetland tract of Nicaragua, after all, is said to boast more biodiversity than all of Europe. But night fell early, and by 6 p.m., there was only one way to explore the backwaters—by signing up for an alligator hunt.
The night air was slick and cool as our motorboat set out across the glassy black tablet of the river. The North Star was as legible and unwavering in the water as it was in the sky. No one else had signed up for the hunt, which meant a private journey chartered by Juan Aguilar, who wasted no time spotting a gator, asleep in the reeds mid-river. Its yellow eye caught the glare of Mr. Aguilar's headlamp—our cue to kill the engine and drift.
The sonic landscape of the jungle took over. The chirps and buzzes of countless critters surged, and the gator made a fluid escape—as would many others. We stole down some of the San Juan's narrowest veins, where the river felt more like a flooded forest and palm fronds hung low over their reflections. Our sharp-eyed guide parted tree fronds to reveal a drowsy kingfisher, tugged an iguana away from its midnight snack and borrowed a red-eyed tree frog from a banana patch.
I struggled to figure out what Mr. Aguilar had spotted as we floated up to a towering sota caballo tree. The branches looked crowded with white ornaments—egrets that had gathered together to sleep. Mr. Aguilar eventually pulled a young gator from the river bottom, and I snapped a photo. But what stayed with me was the sight of dozens of snowy egrets in one tree.
We awoke the next morning to a dilemma: We were out of cash. You can get many things in El Castillo—freshwater shrimp, cacao milkshakes, thick tortillas, but we were some 40 miles from the nearest ATM. Dad and I took our time admitting there was only one option—returning to Lake Nicaragua and beginning our journey anew.
But this time, we opted for the fast boat and made it back to El Castillo by afternoon, cash in hand. With 86 miles to go and a full two days to get there, we bought tickets for the Friday morning panga boat. It pulled up on time, if precariously full of burlap sacks, backpacks and a classroom's worth of kids.
It was pure jungle from there on—a roughly eight-hour journey through a nature preserve nearly twice the size of Mexico City. Once we penetrated the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve, the trees started to look like giants furry with vines. Some Nicaraguans call this sanctuary "the lungs of the world," proud of its contribution to clean air. When something man-made at last appeared, everyone on board perked up. It was a foundered steamship, poking its rusty cylinder above water.
To travel the San Juan is to ponder what might have been had the canal come—locks and container ships instead of lush, sleepy banks. From where I sat in the riverboat, watching the elegant liftoff of herons and hearing the splash of a tarpon fish, it was hard to feel that Nicaragua had lost out.
Cool rains pelted our riverboat and everyone scrambled to unspool plastic tarps over the boat's sides. I only knew from the sound of splintering wood that we'd made an ungraceful arrival at the Caribbean, banging up another boat.
In San Juan de Nicaragua with one day to spare, we set out in torrential rain, chartering a motor boat to explore the soupy brown tributaries that split off the San Juan. Rain filled my rubber boots, pruned our fingers and fried my father's iPhone. The captain was scooping rainwater from the hull as he steered, so when the nose of our boat turned toward a pair of sagging trees, I wondered whether his hand had slipped. But to Norberto, this narrow space was river. We helped push bloated branches out of the way until we reached a hidden lagoon where, in fairer weather, manatees are said to show their noses.
The rains intensified and we had to turn right back, but just before we did, I pictured myself on the map. It was hard to imagine ever going deeper into the jungle.
THE LOWDOWN: Rio San Juan, Nicaragua
Getting There: Several airlines, including Delta, American and United, fly from the U.S. to Managua. San Carlos is about a 3½-hour drive away via the new Acoyapa-San Carlos highway. La Costeña airlines also runs a few flights per week from Managua to San Carlos ( lacostena.com.ni ).
On the River: Riverboats—"fast" and "slow" pangas—leave many times a day from San Carlos for El Castillo. The slow panga from El Castillo to San Juan de Nicaragua runs less frequently. Buy tickets the day prior if possible, as boats sometimes sell out. La Costeña currently offers two flights a week from San Juan de Nicaragua to Managua.
Staying There: Hotel Victoria is the most elegant option in El Castillo, with a cozy bar and one of the best restaurants in town (505-2583-0188). Rio Indio Lodge situates you right at the door of the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve and arranges guided hikes (therioindiolodge.com ).
What to Pack: Bring rain gear and binoculars, as the bird-watching is exceptional. Rubber boots are necessary for outdoor activities in this marshy region, but they're sold in most towns along the Rio San Juan. Luggage space is limited on boats, so pack light. And carry sufficient cash, so you don't have to double back as we did.