Published: March 7th 2011March 7th 2011
a perfect natural rope
Reserva Biológica Indio-Maíz
I’m back in El Castillo, sitting in a hammock on the balcony of the charming Casa de Huésped Chinandegano, with the rapids that almost defeated a young Nelson in 1780 off to my right. I feel a little guilty for not going back to the pretty Nena Lodge that did me so well last weekend, but this place is right on the river, the French-Argentinean couple I’ve run into from time to time this week went out of their way to recommend it to me, and I was already going to come back here for dinner tonight, with the mouth-watering memory of its “camarones en salsa”…
Did I really think this morning that the San Juan del Norte-San Carlos “rápido” could stop here and I would be able to resist the temptation of Yamil’s “bom-bom” coffee – not to mention the pretty charm of this river-side town and its majestic fortress, its tranquil water-dominated audio backdrop, its total absence of motorised road traffic – and manage to get back on the boat to San Carlos? I’d deliberated for much of the four hours since leaving San Juan del Norte at 5 am what to do: to keep going and get
downriver from the fortress
La Forteleza de la Limpia Pura e Inmaculada Concepción, El Castillo
as far back towards Managua as I could, contacting my Nica friends in the hope of meeting up with them over the weekend, maybe visiting some of the towns and volcanoes closer to the centre of the country that I had not yet seen… or to get off at El Castillo and see the Fortaleza which, thanks to its unexpected lunchtime closing on Sunday, had frustrated me last weekend… and, if I got off, would I then get a later boat on to San Carlos (with the advantages of internet connectivity overnight) so as to be able to leave for Managua first thing tomorrow… or would I stay overnight (better mobile phone reception here), putting myself through another 4.30 am start and get the first “rápido” up the river tomorrow?
Renee Zellweger tells Tom Cruise, “You had me at hello…” El Castillo had me the minute Yamil’s face broadened into a wide, surprised grin at my re-appearance at the top of the steps to his harbour-side Borders Coffee. No way was I getting back on the San Carlos boat without another night here… not to mention several of his “bom-bom” coffees (happy memories of early mornings in Cambodia: as
there, this coffee is served, wickedly deliciously, with condensed milk), and a brunch of his “huevos con vegetales”… and that’s even before I’ve got to tonight and my hoped-for platter of enormous river shrimps…
Yamil himself was leaving on the mid-morning boat for San Carlos and thence to Managua, but one of his henchmen kindly let me leave my holdall at the café while I scampered up to the Fortaleza. And I was ecstatic, for the Fortaleza alone, that I had decided to stay in El Castillo a second time. There had been showers on and off for most of the last week, including one while I was finishing my coffee, so I had taken a waterproof with me, but this time the sunshine was here to stay. If the Fortaleza looks impressive from the river, the river looks even more stunning from the Fortaleza. Being posted here in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would have been no walk in the park: malaria was rife, the ground was swampy, what provisions there were often rotted, and there was the small inconvenience of regular invasions and pirate attacks… but at least they had a great view…
The upper level
of the Fortaleza is now, to my surprise, the public library. Not a bad way to incentivise children to read, putting their books in such a dramatic location. I photographed the rapids and the town below from every conceivable corner of the ramparts, and daydreamed this embattled fortress’s past. The exhibition that now stands near the Fortaleza’s ticket office picks up on a recent trio of Holywood blockbusters, “The real “Pirates of the Caribbean” were here,” one of the information boards proclaims: those in pursuit of the gold and riches allegedly to be found here. There’s the obligatory element of romance: the young Spanish princess who, on the death of her father, rallied his troops and defeated the English; in some versions of the story, she was even the one responsible for firing the gun that sank the lead vessel. And for the Brits, there’s the story of how the 22 year old Nelson, “the most famous almiral [sic] of the world” according to the exhibition, with his men weakened and reduced in number from waterborne diseases in their progress up the river from the Caribbean, successfully navigated the Río San Juan’s challenging series of rapids to defeat the incumbent
Spanish garrison and take the fortress. (Or, as the year is summarised succinctly in the exhibition: “1780 Tumbledown after the English passing through”.) The Spanish version of events emphasises the degree to which the garrison was only too ready to leave, sick with malaria and chronically low on rations; the British were to find out for themselves just how challenging this environment would be; a year or two later, the Spanish would walk back in unimpeded. The river’s unusual bull shark population would have been feasting well.
But romance and history is not all that draws visitors to El Castillo. It is also less than half an hour upriver from the Reserva Biológica Indio-Maíz, Nicaragua’s second-largest and most accessible tract of intact primary forest. Here was my first opportunity to get up close and personal with Real Rainforest: the kind I associate with David Attenborough documentaries from my childhood – with an orchestra of insects, birds and monkeys, neck-craningly tall trees, their tops disappearing beyond sight, and mud, lots of mud. I’m not talking the “temperate” rain forests of Tasmania or New Zealand, or the mountain rainforest of the Rwandan gorillas, or the “cloud” forests of northern Nicaragua and
Laos; I’m talking the real Tropical bugs’n’leeches’n’mud version. And I couldn’t wait.
Sayla and a pair of size 38 gum boots came to meet me on Saturday morning. There appeared to be a small takeover of El Castillo by the Bustos family: Yamil (he of the divine coffee) was her brother, my hosts at Nena Lodge were her parents, and her sister had checked me in the day before. Sayla has been guiding here for the last ten years. Originally one of two, she is now the only female guide out of twenty or so working in the Indio-Maíz. While she claimed her English wasn’t great, I found out later that it was a lot better than my spoken Spanish, but in the meantime she appeared to be one of those Nicaraguans who speaks incredibly clearly, and I think I picked up most of what she was saying.
We puttered off down the river, and, almost immediately, I had my first brush with Nelson’s rapids (as I – probably alone – had decided to name them). The boatman carefully swept the narrow panga (equivalent to an African mokoro, though confusingly with the same name as an African machete)
round in an arc, heading initially upriver and then over to the far bank. From there, he gingerly made his way in a gentle diagonal across the rapids. (My “rápido” to San Juan del Norte the next week would take a similarly gentle approach heading downriver, but the same captain was a great deal more bullish coming back upriver today, barely altering the boat’s speed, thumping us up the rapids before finishing with the nautical equivalent of a handbrake turn to loop us round to the El Castillo dock.)
Sayla turned out to be immensely knowledgeable about everything we encountered. Since picking the brains (and bird book) of the wonderful Olivia on Isla San Fernando earlier in the week, I had accumulated a few more what-was-that’s and Sayla quickly identified the suspects from my photographs. From the outset, I had said emphatically that I was interested in “todos”, so the first thing she showed me when we got off the panga at the Agua Frescas tributary was an ant colony. I thought termites in Africa were pretty impressive, but that was nothing compared to these guys. The colony must have covered a couple of dozen square metres, each entrance
and the ants “manning” it specialised for one particular purpose: digging, cleaning, fighting, obtaining food for the colony, servicing the “queen”, etc. When I encountered the same kind of ants in the Esperanza Verde reserve (part of the Refugio de Vida Silvestre los Guatuzos) the following week, my guide there, Julio, took great delight in stamping up and down on particular entrances, until their oversized occupants emerged, seemingly intent on fighting World War III.
I had already donned my size 38s, and was immediately grateful for them. While the mud didn’t reach the knee-depth that the Book had described (more for effect, I’m sure, though I won’t argue the point), it certainly got to reasonable ankle depth and I was relieved not to be faced with the prospect of cleaning my own hiking boots on my return. It was all I could do to get my trousers at least partially mud-free later. I had brief wistful thoughts of dust in the desert of northwest Namibia… But this was what I was here for.
The vast majority of the 2,606 km2 of Reserva Biológica Indio-Maíz is dedicated to research, and only a tiny fraction, along two 3-4 km long
paths, is accessible to tourists, and only then with a guide. Some people are incredulous that the walk is scheduled to take three hours, but one look at the terrain – slippery, muddy and, at times, relatively steep – should be enough to convince them otherwise, and that’s even before you take into account the novelty of the environment and the likelihood of things to stop and examine and watch.
Within minutes, I was enchanted. This was the stuff of David Attenborough. Here was impenetrable forest. Here were mysterious creepers and vines, and vast great trees, even their first level branches emerging impossibly high above our heads. What hardwoods lack in root depth, they make up for in above-soil root height. Julio showed me a tree where he and his colleagues often spend the night if working late – the two roots that provide the “walls” for their slumbers must have been 3-4m high at the point they joined the trunk. There were strangler figs that, in time, kill their host, creating a perfectly twisted rope of fig and young tree. There were “monkey staircase” vines, almost flat in cross-section, but with bulging “steps” at regular intervals. (Mind you,
these vines curve up and down and around, so that any monkey trying to “ascend” one will rapidly find itself somewhere other than where it wanted to be.) I met the “palma que camina”, a palm tree that, in its quest for sunlight, seems to walk through the forest, sometimes as much as a metre a year. The individual “branches” of its semi-aerial root system can be discarded or grown as needed to support the head’s twists and turns for light.
In amidst more shades of green than I thought possible, I lit upon a blast of red – but this is no flower: simply leaves so coloured to attract the attention of hummingbirds to the flower they protect. The flowers of those I saw in the Indio-Maíz seemed to be over, but I found one in Esperanza Verde, an unnatural shade of bright blue. Surely the combination of colours would be of magnetic attraction to a hummingbird amongst all this green.
As we walked, we heard bursts of raucous chatter from some distance away: the howler monkeys were out in force. A couple of hours’ later, a different chatter, accompanied by tell-tale breaking of branches, attracted our
attention: a couple of troops of spider monkeys were loudly contesting territory. When Julio and I heard this kind of racket in Esperanza Verde, he took me off the track, hacking his way through the undergrowth with his now-unsheathed machete. (Only a few metres away from the track, and I doubted I would have been able to find it again on my own.) He tracked the monkeys to the distant reaches of an ancient hardwood, and we watched them awhile before I became aware that we too were the subject of curious interest. Who was watching whom, I wondered.
Birds were, not surprisingly, more often heard than seen in the depths of the forest itself, though we did catch sight of a couple of different varieties of colourful trogon, a parrot or two, and a flycatcher-type-thing that I have yet to identify. The avian highlight of the trip for me had already appeared: Sayla had spotted a chestnut-mandibled toucan from the boat – my first toucan in the wild, and I encounter the largest of the three species here.
Every so often, Sayla would pause and poke at the leaf litter with her sheathed machete. She struck (relative)
gold twice. First, a leaf frog, the size of the upper joint of my thumb, almost invisible against its background; and second, a hyperactive red poisonous frog. The size of my little finger’s nail, it hopped only briefly into sight before disappearing, surprisingly effectively for its dramatic colouration, back into the leaves from which Sayla had stirred it. On another occasion, a reptile required no stirring. Just ahead of me, Sayla jumped back in horror: a small black snake had reared its head ominously at our approach. Fortunately, it was harmless and swiftly slipped away, but it brought back echoes for her of a similar encounter with one of its less friendly relations.
There are mammals here apart from monkeys, but they are hard to find with many being nocturnal. Early on the Indio-Maíz walk, Sayla spotted an agouti. A little like a very oversized rat (without the tail), it nervously shuffled around the undergrowth, allowing us only brief glimpses of its russet brown fur. At Esperanza Verde, I was introduced to a quartet of pacas, with the memorable description that “some peoples think they are like mouses and others like porks.” Certainly, they are an odd looking animal,
with a propensity for gnawing wood, white spots on their brown hair and huge eyes. As they have been hunted out in this area, they are being bred for re-release in the reserve.
I knew there wasn’t a hope in Hades of seeing any of the cats, and was prepared to content myself – for the time being – with those I had seen in Managua zoo, but, in Esperanza Verde, Julio showed me what would be one of the highlights of my rainforest experience: two set of recent jaguar prints (mud has its uses!), the second of which was of an adult and younger animal. To put this in context, I didn’t see lion spoor in the desert of northwest Namibia until the very end of my second trip there, and counted myself extraordinarily lucky to see a small pride on what I think was my eighth trip.
By the time Sayla and I rejoined our patient boatman at the confluence of the Río Bartola and the Río San Juan, my head was exploding with new sights and new experiences. I have to admit I paid only cursory attention to the river’s birdlife on our way back
Reserva Biológica Indio-Maíz
to El Castillo. My first rainforest experience was one to savour for many hours yet.
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