Published: March 5th 2011March 4th 2011
posing for the view
cormorant near San Carlos, with the funnel of a sunken "gold rush" ship in the background
Sitting here in my unexpectedly pretty room in the Hospedaje Familiar in San Juan del Norte, I feel a very long way away from anywhere.*
It’s not the remotest place on the planet, I’ll admit, and I’ve probably been to places that took longer to reach, but there’s something about being in a little town on a big continent which is only accessible by inland waterway – and even then only if you have half a day to devote to it, always supposing that you’ve already reached the head of the river, itself fairly remote by any standard – that somehow exaggerates the remoteness: a sense of “so near, yet so far” perhaps.
The only way out of here is the way I came yesterday, by boat; and there are only two directions, six hours by “rápido” back up the Río San Juan (about eleven hours if you get the slow boat) to San Carlos, or north, to Bluefields, further up Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. Neither boat runs every day.
Today I had hoped to catch the Bluefields boat, but it is only officially scheduled to run twice a week and, as it goes out onto the high seas,
it is highly weather-dependent. This could be seen as a bit of a technical hitch in this, one of the wettest places on the planet, where even brief showers are accompanied by strong winds, but its very possibility is an improvement: six months ago, there wasn’t even that. In fact, I wasn’t sure when I left San Carlos yesterday morning that the Bluefields boat even existed. It was one of two routes mentioned on the noticeboard outside Intur, the government tourist agency, but that wasn’t a guarantee of anything, and the possibility of its existence seemed to be news to almost everyone I encountered, whether Nica or gringo. So I wasn’t holding out huge expectations of the boat running today. And if it didn’t run, I had half an alphabet of alternative plans.
But then this leg of the trip was always going to be A Big Adventure, where nothing but what has already happened is guaranteed.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
A lifetime and nine days ago I left the comfortable sanctuary of La Mariposa Escuela de Español where, for a total of 24 hours over five days, a delightful quartet of patient Nicaraguans had
done their best to shovel into my sleepy brain a mountain of vocabulary, the long list of exceptions to the general rules about nouns’ gender, the complex uses of “por” and “para”, the seemingly perverse differences between the Spanish language’s two verbs for “to be”, and the rules and lengthy list of exceptions for two of its ludicrous number of tenses. (How I found myself yearning for my days studying French, a language where the irregular verbs have the grace to be consistently irregular. I swear someone somewhere at some time put all the Spanish verbs into a melting pot, and pulled out a new selection for “irregular” duty in different ways for each tense. Even FIFA’s rules for the World Cup draw have more logic...) One of the few things that has stuck is the very Nica phrase “no hay falla” (pronounced “no i fi-ah”), which always gets a surprised laugh. Imagine someone this new to the English language going to Australia and coming out with “No worries, mate!” and you’ll get the idea. Still, I religiously dig out my notes every evening, and try to conjugate a few more verbs, but it’s going to be a slow process.
At least I find that I can understand a reasonable amount of what most people say, even if my attempts to string a sentence together must be laughable. (Nicaraguans are mercifully patient people.)
As you may remember from the last blog, Amy and I had had the “north or south?” conundrum at the outset of our last trip. As we had headed north, this now left me with the logical starting point of “south” for what was to be my last ten days in Nicaragua before I went to Panama. Even though I prefer overland travel, I knew I didn’t have enough time to take the bus in both directions to San Carlos, the little town at the confluence of the Río San Juan and Lago de Nicaragua near the Costa Rican border, so I decided to fly there, though I had not yet decided whether to get the bus back, on a road that was reputedly bad at the southern end but which would then link up with the Chontales road that Amy and I had driven a month ago, or the overnight boat the length of the lake to Granada.
The little twelve-seater aircraft was an
eye-opener, being the smallest commercial flight I have ever taken. I had to bend over low to get to my seat, quickly realising why the large guys had taken the back seats. I very much doubt that they could have squeezed along the “aisle” (a couple of inches’ breathing space between the single seat on the left and the pair on the right), coupled with bending double to do so. Interestingly, there was a stewardess on board, apparently doubling as co-pilot, but she couldn’t even turn round in her own shotgun seat to see if we’d worked out the over-arm seatbelts correctly. Inflight service would be on a DIY basis, I supposed.
But it was a pretty flight, allowing me to appreciate quite how large the largest lake in Central America actually is. (I tend to take with a pinch of salt the “largest”, “longest”, “tallest” descriptors of geographic features in Central America. After all, this isn’t the biggest slice of the planet: how hard can it be?) But Lago de Nicaragua was pretty impressive from the air, its expanse dramatically interrupted by the cloud-sheathed volcanoes of Isla de Ometepe, and again by the pretty myriad of islands that
is the Archipiélago de Solentiname. Just as we were leaving the last of those behind, I noticed a tiny collection of houses, hugging a small peninsula on the mainland: this was San Carlos.
The plane bumped down onto the landing strip, turning to taxi back about thirty yards short of a horse which was grazing nonchalantly near the end of the runway. Inside the tiny aircraft building, our details, passport numbers and all (though this had only been an internal flight) were taken down assiduously… twice… perhaps to distract us from worrying if our bags had arrived. By the time we were reunited with them, the return flight to Managua must have been nearly halfway there. Outside, there was one taxi. Not surprisingly, when we had agreed the price for his taking me to my hotel, he disappeared back into the building to hunt out further fares.
At the head of the currently-contested Río San Juan and close to neighbouring Costa Rica, San Carlos has a slight edgy, border-town feel to it. To find out about boats heading downriver, I had to go through the heavy gates of the small port area and talk to military uniforms, automatic
guns hanging casually off shoulders. While waiting for the San Juan del Norte boat the following week, I watched nearly a hundred fully laden soldiers make their way off the Granada ship, and line up against a far wall. Was this an exercise, or had the Río San Juan dispute taken an ugly turn, I wondered. (On a lighter note, I was amused to see one soldier shouldering a second pack in addition to his own… and to see the only female soldier walking unburdened beside him. Chivalry is alive and well in Nicaragua!) The route down the Río San Juan is punctuated by military checkpoints on the Nicaraguan side. In a country of, reputedly, 60% unemployment, at least this is a way of creating jobs, but I could not believe that these guys ever had anything to do, other than check passing boats’ manifests or, occasionally, boarding the boat to make a cursory inspection of passengers’ luggage. On the Costa Rican side, I saw only two patriotic flags the length of the river, and no military uniforms. And this is the country that imposes visa restrictions on Nicaraguans entering. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
schedules are fluid here, and it’s as well to ask around, I found, rather than rely on anything in print, even if that print purports to be a timetable and is pinned up outside the offices of the government-run tourist agency. My query about the time of the “colectivo” boat to the Archipiélago de Solentiname received a different answer from every person I asked, and I ended up camping out on the lakefront for a few hours and watching out for appropriate amounts of people-movement. It turned out that it was due to leave at 1 pm, although that was a touch academic: it didn’t leave for nearly another hour. When I returned from Isla San Fernando too late for the 8 am boat to El Castillo, one of a number of daily services, I was bemused to find that the next boat would not be until 11.45 am, even though one of the uniforms had told me there was a 10 am boat. By this time I was inclined to believe the second answer I had been given as I was now in possession of a ticket with that time on it. I learnt later that space on the
intervening boat had sold out so quickly my informant didn’t even bother to mention it to me.
Even when you have a ticket for a particular boat, it doesn’t mean that it will leave at that time. I’d joined the usual ramshackle mass of people by the exit from the ticket hall at 5.40 am with a ticket for the 6.15 am “rápido” to San Juan del Norte in my hand. But most of this mass was joining the slow boat (needless-to-say, there is no such thing as a “departure board”), and I didn’t realise the two left at even vaguely the same time until my ticket was checked by a military uniform beside the slow boat. He then waved me over to another man who escorted me to what he said was the 6.30 am boat, despite the purportedly earlier time on my ticket. Of course, the “rápido” didn’t actually leave until nearly 7 am, and only then, it seemed, because one of my fellow passengers had got obstreperous about the continuing delay. And it then made three unscheduled stops on the Costa Rican side of the river to allow passengers on and off. Far be it from
room for one more?
the boat to El Castillo
me to suggest that the captain might have been incentivised to make those additional stops…
But the correlation between scheduled and actual departure time – or lack of it – works both ways. The “colectivo” I wanted to catch back from El Castillo was not due to leave until 2 pm on Sunday. I had boarded in good time and, despite the array of “bags-ing” luggage scattered liberally around, managed to find an empty seat. Those of my companions who had already boarded were tucking into polystyrene platefuls of food bought from the vendors on the lakeside. I had breakfasted late and well, but decided, twenty minutes before departure, to hop back ashore and find myself a Coke. Barely seconds after I had re-boarded, we set off… more than fifteen minutes early. I gulped at how close my bag had come to heading back to San Carlos without me.
When I discovered the possibility of a boat linking San Juan del Norte and Bluefields, I re-wrote my already much-scribbled-over plans. With these two points on the Caribbean coast seemingly unconnected by any realistic form of transport, visiting both would be a time-consuming exercise, even by plane. San Juan
del Norte does not yet have an airport – although one is in the process of being constructed in the middle of the rainforest and less than a wingspan away from the cemeteries of old Greytown, a now-ghostly ancestor of the modern-day town – meaning that the nearest airport is at the other end of that six-hour boat-ride back to San Carlos. Even from San Carlos, you can only fly to Managua (one flight a day in the aforementioned 12-seater), before you would have to turn round and fly back out to Bluefields (two flights a day, which, of course, don’t connect with the San Carlos flight). By road, it is six hours to the intersection with the road to El Rama, the nearest point to Bluefields on Nicaragua’s road network, another three hours further on; from there, you would have to take a boat downriver for a couple of hours to reach your destination. So you can see that the possibility of a boat linking these two points was extraordinarily attractive. I postponed my Panama flight; rang two Nica friends to change my plans to see them; booked a room at the Managua airport hotel to deal with my
late arrival from Bluefields the night before my early-morning departure to Panama; bought a ticket to San Juan del Norte; and warned my nearest-and-dearest that I’d be heading very off-piste for another week.
But it was always going to be a gamble. This morning, I set off for the dock in good time, and, when I got there, asked one of the boatmen which boat it would be.
“No hay,” came back the succinct answer.
Whaddya mean there isn’t one? It wasn’t raining, the wind had dropped… I asked someone else.
“No hay,” he confirmed with a shake of his head.
“¿Por qué?” I wasn’t going down without a fight.
“El tiempo,” came back the brief reply.
“¡Pero ’sta bien!” I gesticulated at the tranquil scene around me. He remained unmoved, though he agreed – more to get this gringa out of his sight than condoning my optimism – that I could wait around and see if anything changed. I took my bag over to the benches on the far side of the dock, and wondered what to do.
It was the middle-aged Dutch couple whom I’d seen at Hospedaje Familiar the
previous day who put me straight. They had been here a week, checking every day to see if the Bluefields boat would be running. That it only went twice a week was a fiction: in reality, it goes whenever it can, but that isn’t often. And it’s not a public service, just something set up by an enterprising local. Although he uses a sturdier boat than those that ply the Río San Juan, it wouldn’t pass muster for any kind of ferry duty in Europe or the US, and the owner was understandably cautious about the conditions it could tolerate. Although we looked out at a dead calm on the inland waters in front of the dock, the swell out to sea was still too severe, we were told. The Dutch couple had run out of time to wait any longer for conditions to change, and had already booked themselves on the “rápido” back to San Carlos the next day. I followed suit. It would be no hardship to spend another day here in San Juan del Norte, but, even if the boat ran tomorrow, I would no longer have time to do justice to Bluefields given the timing of
my already-postponed flight to Panama the following week.
On our way back to the Hospedaje Familiar, one of the boatmen called out encouragingly, “¡Mañana, las ocho!”
Could I gamble on it?
Would the San Carlos boat give me a refund?
How could I squeeze everything in?
My brain whirred again…
“Don’t believe a word of it,” counselled the Dutchman, “he’s said that to us every day, and he’s not even the owner.”
Perhaps, for now, Bluefields will be my Nicaraguan Kibuye, the Rwandan town halfway down Lake Kivu that eluded my threefold efforts to visit it. But I’ll get there. One day. Soon.
*By the time you read this, I will, by definition, be somewhere less remote. San Juan del Norte does not have even an accessible dial-up internet connection, let alone reception for my mobile which is on the non-president-owned network (Nicaragua only has two networks, though I’m sure it’s only coincidence that, if there’s any reception at all in an out-of-the-way place, it’s never for other than his Claro network…), so please forgive this small element of poetic licence.
There are more photos below