Río San Juan: Nica’s Wild, Wondrous Waterway
RÍO SAN JUAN, Nicaragua – Theearly morning mist hangs thick over thejungle banks of the Río San Juan.Large individual raindrops splatter onthe giant banana leaves outside mythatched cabina at Sábalos Lodge. Howlermonkeys, parrots and a medley of otherchattering birds greet the rising sun withloud song.Just 10 feet away, the mystic San JuanRiver flows silently by, carrying floatingislands of vegetation that the locals call“water lettuce.”Large prehistoric-looking tarpon–some weighing more than 150 pounds –jump and splash against the current.Underneath the surface and out of sight,fresh-water sharks glide upriver to deeperwaters, seeking refuge from the motorboatsand people.THE Río San Juan is savage – it’sNicaragua’s answer to the Amazon.For centuries, the river has formed thebackbone of Central America. It is one ofthe hemisphere’s most historically importanttrade passages and trans-oceanic waterroutes, used since the 16th century byexplorers, pirates, merchants and crusaders.One-third of the way down river, theimpressive ruins of El Castillo still overlookthe famous river bend where folklorecredits Rafaela Herrera with defeating afleet of British invaders in 1762, when shewas only 19.Beyond El Castillo, the landscape isuntouched borderland jungle – protectedon the Nicaraguan side by the Indio-MaízBiological Reserve – until the river arrivesat the Atlantic Ocean, some 80 kilometers away.DESPITE the history and lore of theriver, tourists – both national and foreign –are only now beginning to “discover” theRío San Juan and all it has to offer.Until five years ago, tourism was virtuallynon-existent here. Today, supportedby several new eco-adventure lodges,anglers, nature lovers and tourists seekingsomething rustic and new are traveling tothis river that divides Costa Rica fromNicaragua.“This is the last place of pure, authenticecology,” said Yaró Choiseul-Praslin,the jovial Nicaraguan owner of SábalosLodge, which recently was certified as aprestigious eco-lodge by the CentralAmerican Green Initiative.“Civilization, in all its magnitude, hasnot arrived here yet,” he said.HUGGING the north bank of theriver, as it winds through the municipalityof El Castillo, Sábalos Lodge offers abrand of eco-tourism that makes mostplaces in Costa Rica look like petting zoosin comparison.What began as a reptile export businessin the 1990s has now become a seven cabinaoperation that can hold up to 27people. The cabinas are made with caneand thatched palm to model traditionalIndian dwellings, with the added amenitiesof running water and electricity (albeitlimited). Energy is provided by solar panels,with plans to install a hydro-poweredturbine.An open-air restaurant offers fresh fishand meats, as well as hearty breakfastswith homegrown fruits. Nature trails windthrough the surrounding forest and flowergardens, and horses are available for noadditional charge.Sábalos Lodge also has plans in thenear future to build a small marina for fishingboats.U.S. Ambassador Barbara Moore, whorecently visited Sábalos, called it a “lovelyand truly imaginative lodge.”Prices start a $5 a night per person andrun up to $50 for a pleasant family cabinfor five.CHOISEUL-PRASLIN dismissespopular misconceptions regarding the SanJuan, such as the presence of “mosquitoesas big as birds, and sharks as big as submarines.”While mosquitoes, in reality, are not aproblem on the river, even the most exaggeratedreports of chuyules are probablyunderstated. Chuyules, a type of gnat ormayfly, do not bite, but swarm near thewater at night and will penetrate any andall orifices on the human body.They are drawn to light, forcing motorboatsto navigate the river at night withoutrunning lights, which would attract thebugs and blind the drivers. As a result, motorboats plow up and down the San Juan at night in pitch darkness, with drivers navigatingby memory aided by familiar shadows on the riverbanks and heat lightening.In the morning, a thin film of dead chuyules can be seen floating on the river’s surface,providing breakfast for the tarpon.MONTE Cristo River Resort, San Juan’s pioneer fishing-adventure lodge, is severalkilometers downriver from Sábalos, toward the town of El Castillo.Set on the hillside overlooking the river, Monte Cristo occupies a large farm with horsebackriding trails, Jacuzzi, bird watching, a bar/disco and a tasty open-air restaurant.The resort has several motorboats that are available to rent – with driver included – asfishing boats or for tours of the river and nearby El Castillo.Monte Cristo also offers water sports such as tubing and water skiing, which becomesa true adventure sport on a river that is home to sharks.The lodge’s simple, yet comfortable cabins start at $45 for a double room and run upto $180. Renowned international sports anglers and area celebrities, including former revolutionarySandinista President Daniel Ortega, have visited the lodge in the past – evidencedby signed plaques lining the stairs up to the lodge.Monte Cristo also offers adventure tourism packages of three-day, two-night visits(including air transport from Managua, water transport, lodging, food, horse riding andriver tours) for $235 per person. Or three-day, two-night complete fishing packages, includingall transportation, lodging and food, for $400 per person.For more information on Sábalos Lodge, call the Managua office at (505) 278-1405 orthe lodge at (505) 283-0046. Or visit www.sabaloslodge.com.For information on Monte Cristo River Resort, call Managua at (505) 839-7558, ortheir San Carlos office at (505) 283-0197. Or visit www.montecristoriver.com.Getting There:By Air: La Costeña offers twice daily flights (45 mins) from Managua to San Carlos,leaving from the international airport in Managua. Tickets cost $80. Call for flight timesand reservations (toll-free from United States or Canada 1-800-948-3770, San Carlos: 283-0271). Price $85.By Land: Daily buses leave from Managua (10-12 hours).By Boat: Boats leave from Granada daily (15 hours).
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