The rain forest


**The photos here are courtesy of big Carl who we spent time with on the Rio San Juan, and who was kind enough to let me upload some of his photos since I left my camera up a volcano a few weeks back.

One of the countries high up the list of places I've always wanted to see is Costa Rica. Like the name Borneo is evocative of primeval forest so dense and remote you might never find your way out again, so Costa Rica to me is synomynous with verdant green rain forest home to lots of unlikely looking creatures like sloths and toucans. Spider monkeys and tiny luminous green tree frogs with bulging red eyes and comedy suckers on the tips of whatever it is that frogs have instead of hands and feet.

But in the end we decided against going for of a few reasons. One being that the closer we got to Costa Rica the more reports from other people who had recently been there regarding the cost of things chilled me to the bone. Not just the cost of trips into the national parks which are world famous so are always going to be expensive, but the day to day cost of simply just being in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica was the first of the Central American countries to be marketed as a tourist destination. It's very popular today, verging on crowded. So its more expensive to visit than it's neighbour Nicaragua where we are now.

But the main thing that swung the decision not to go was a conversation I had with our guide for the day we walked around the craters of Mombacho volcano outside of Granada. He told me Nicaragua has much the same rainforest as Costa Rica. Similar flowers, plants, trees, bird and wildlife etc. And this makes sense because there are no great distances involved in crossing these countries. The main difference is Nicaragua doesn't have the glossy brochures advertising its natural assets, the slick tourism machine as operates in Costa Rica.

Looking again at the map of Nicaragua showed a large part of the Western side of the country with what looks like nothing in it. A Nicaraguan told us that this vast area is all rainforest as yet untainted by mass tourism. There are very few inroads, or very much of anything really other than wilderness, sounds ok to me. Most of the lines on the map of this part of the country indicate rivers. One of these and the most accessible to us being in Granada was the Rio San Juan that stems from the Southern tip of lake Nicaragua. Much of the path the Rio San Juan follows marks the natural border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. There are one or two places you can visit on the river and Lynn found us the Monte Cristo River Lodge on the internet,

All of the best nature experiences you have to work hard to get to. I don't know why it has to be that way but that's just the way it is. And the trip from Granada to the Rio San Juan was typical of this. The day started for me with a trip to the port office at 9am to find it closed, then a trip back at 11am to be told I couldn't buy ferry tickets without passports. Then a final final trip back with Lynn, the backpacks and the passports. But now close to mid-afternoon departure time with the queues in the port warehouse and the heat
and hassle that comes with sorting things out in all stations here when you only understand less than half of what's being said.

The ferry was an overnight journey. There were optimistic rumors floating about amongst the other Europeans we spoke to in the queue of seats you could stretch out on and get a few hours sleep. But as the cabin filled up I could see that this was just a fiction based on a whisper, and if you wanted to lie down at all it would have to be out on deck in the elements.

Once the ferry left the port the obligatory B movies cranked up on the TV for the passengers pleasure. Lethal weapon 124, any old shit with Steven Segal in it, anything with guns, explosions and fighting really. These were followed at about midnight by Mexican music video's from the 1970's that were utter wank, total shit you couldn't even give away at car boot sales, even in the 1970's. I nearly lost the will to live when a Nicaraguan woman came back from the toilet and happily turned the TV up still further to a volume way beyond the capacity of the TV speakers. She didn't appear to notice, they never do in Central America! But I could see all the non Nicarguans looking depressed at the thought of a long night of men on the TV with ridiculous mustaches belting out heartfelt songs of love and loss in Spanish half the night.

The ferry took 15 hours overnight from Granada to the port of San Carlos on the Southern tip of lake Nicaragua. And just in case anyone were to think we were slacking it was a further 2 hours up the river to the Monte Cristo. I've been on longer air flights in the past, but nothing as grim as this journey.

But it was worth it! The Monte Cristo is set on the banks of the Rio San Juan and surrounded be rain forest. We and a real gentleman named Carl who's photos I'm using here seemed to be the only people who thought it was worth the trek. Most tourists on the ferry were heading to Costa Rica. Barring the brief appearance of some people from Luxembourg we were the only guests. Me and Lynn scored and got the only cabin with a veranda facing the river. I woke up just after dawn each morning to watch and listen to the sound of all the resident birds waking up and troops of howler monkeys remonstrating with each other across the forest. Howler monkeys don't really howl, its more the sound of a pack of heavy set dogs like rottweilers barking all at once. It's all to do with territory and it sounds quite intimidating, these warlike sounds echoing around the jungle. But in fact its purpose is to deter confrontation with other groups of howler monkeys.
It makes me think of rival sets of football fans chanting across the terraces about what violent acts they are going to commit on each other after the final whistle. Only for everyone to run off home for their tea before the fighting starts.

The Monte Cristo had an offer on, your room, all your meals, all your drinks and activities for $50 US dollars per person per night. If you wanted to you could ride horses all day long in the jungle, kayak or fish for tarpon on the Rio San Juan. Or if you felt like it drink your own body weight in cervezas and rum and coke. And the price would still be $50 US dollars per person, that's only 30 English pounds.

First day we went riding horses in the jungle, it was my first time on a horse and I was surprised I actualy liked it. I may enter myself in a rodeo before this trips out and see how it goes. I've never fished before and we went fishing from a boat up the river. I caught zero, but there was much excitement when Lynn hooked a mighty beast from the deep that put up a hell of a struggle. Her fishing rod was bowed over almost to breaking point and we were encouraging her to hold and don't let go no matter what, until the boatman realised all she'd caught was a log on the river bottom, which eventually snapped the line.

But the highlight for me was the kayaking. They would take us and the kayaks up a tributary of the Rio San Juan where the jungle hemmed in over the river, it reminded me of Borneo a little, only in Borneo there was always the sound of the outboard engine. But this was much different, no engines, no people, and as the waters are high at the moment because of the rains there'd be no real need to paddle so we'd just glide back to the Rio San Juan and then the camp which would take about two and a half hours. I made sure I did this every day I was at the Monte Cristo.

While floating by one afternoon I noticed a large pair of eyes looking straight at me from on top of the water almost close enough to touch. I was initially confused as to what I was dealing with as the rest of the body was obscured under an overhanging bush but then I noticed its long snout and I realised it was a caimen, a relative of the crocodile that can grow up to three metres in length. They are supposed to be non aggressive and shy of humans, but I still wouldn't like to get into the water with one. There are rare sightings of bull sharks on the Rio San Juan that make there way up from where the river empties out into the Caribbean and they are supposed to be dangerous to humans.

From the caimen experience I worked out the best way to see wildlife was not to use the paddles if I could help it, so as to make no sound in the water whatsoever. Using these tactics I managed to scare the living daylights out of a whole range of nesting water birds. Tiger herons in particular seemed particularly aggrieved by the appearance of a human floating by unannounced and would cannonade out of the reed beds screeching and skwalking as though they were been indecently assaulted.
Other animals we saw were a white faced monkey, a spider monkey, the guide saw a sloth although I couldn't really make it out against the tree trunk high up in the tree. And we caught a glimpse of a toucan although it was a little too far a way for me to see it's colours. A great few days but all too soon it was back to the freakin ferry again only this time we broke the trip up by stopping off at the Isla de Ometepe where we are now.

I'm amazed by the diversity of wildlife in Nicaragua, it has much more than the countries we've visited so far in Central America. During the ferry ride to and from the Rio San Juan I noticed large brown bats flying over the water at some of the ports the ferry stops at. It's a bat indigenous to the islands and possibly the only bat in the world that fishes, it trawls the surface of the water to catch small fish much like a sea bird would.
The Isla de Ometepe seems to have one or two strange phenomena of its own. One being for some reason different species of butterfly seem to amass in places by puddles or water. Its like walking through a shower of rose petals or coloured confetti.
And one of the strangest things I've ever seen happens as dusk darkens to night at the guesthouse were staying at. Small orange glowing lights flicker on and off randomly across the grass outside our cabin. It's like there is an invisible lattice of fairy lights on the lawn. Then the lights slowly move up out of the undergrowth and into the trees. Of course they are just fire flies, but it was an amazing sight the first time I saw them.
And army ants. I noticed on our first day here in the open air restaurant an exodus of different types of panic stricken insects falling from the rafters and scurrying down the walls behind the optics. In a far corner of the bar I saw the reason why, 100,000's of army ants swarming around one of the posts holding up the roof. Army ants launch seek and destroy raids from the jungle on buildings in the area and nothing will stop them. They cover every inch of ground and roof space eating all insects that get in their way, grass hoppers, scorpions, spiders. Then they make off with the larvae from the insect kingdoms they've vanquished to use at a later date for food. I had a beer and when I looked again at where they'd been there wasn't a single ant, they'd moved on to the next conquest. Walking in the grass I gotten a couple of bites on my feet and legs off them, you wouldn't want to live in a world where these ants were much bigger.


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