SAN JUAN DE NICARAGUA – Just off the central concrete walkway in this sleepy village in southeast Nicaragua, a sign in front of the mayor’s office boasts: “With the arrival of tourism, poverty recedes.”
It is an axiom that’s increasingly making its way to even the most remote corners of Central America. Now talk of tourism is arriving here, in a tiny town on the eastern Río San Juan. As a river dredge deepens and cleans the waterway for more traffic, villagers on the north side of this disputed border anxiously await the tourists they hope are not far behind.
On the south side of the river in Costa Rica, however, residents are skeptical.
“Tourism?” María Arce asked as she stood on the porch of her humble wooden shack near where the Río Sarapiquí joins the Río San Juan in Costa Rica. “I don’t think this dredging is going to bring us much tourism.”
“Maybe on that side of the river,” she said as she looked across the wide, brown river. “I don’t think there will be much tourism on this side.”
Still, the idea has caused quite a stir recently. Could Costa Rica use Nicaragua’s dredging project, headed by former Sandinista Comandante Edén Pastora to bring tourism to the south side of the river?
“When the river is completely clean, the ones that are going to have more tourism are the Ticos,” Pastora said recently (see interview Page 1). “They are the ones that are better versed and more able to manage the science of tourism. The Ticos should be thrilled.”
The truth may lie somewhere in the middle. The San Juan River is Nicaraguan territory, but Costa Rican boats have the right to navigate there. A boat captain docking on the river’s south bank would be in Costa Rican territory. A deeper, more navigable river would likely mean that with more tourists, both countries could benefit from an influx of real tourist spending in an economically depressed region.
“I don’t have the slightest doubt that a major touristic project would benefit both sides,” said Claudio Monge, a legislator for the Citizen’s Action Party who recently visited the region. “It seems to me that a community tourism project could favor the poor communities there. Both sides of the river could benefit much from tourism, as long as the members of the communities are included in the developments.”
The Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) would not answer questions from The Tico Times about the ongoing border conflict and potential tourist development in the area. The Costa Rican National Tourism Chamber (Canatur) was also reluctant to give detailed responses to questions.
“Canatur doesn’t have any registered tourism businesses that are established or run in the [Río San Juan] area,” wrote Mauricio Céspedes, executive director of Canatur in an e-mail to The Tico Times. “There must be more development of infrastructure to facilitate the appearance and growth of touristic activity in that region.”
When asked if Canatur representatives had been in contact with tourism promoters in Nicaragua to discuss the possibility of bringing tourists to both sides of the river, Céspedes said that no such effort had been made, and until the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, issues a ruling on the dispute collaboration is unlikely.
“Despite the fact that the region should develop strategies to compete as a multi-destination touristic location, Canatur hasn’t spoken with Nicaraguan authorities about the idea,” he wrote.
A Majestic Frontier
For tens of kilometers, thick vegetation and dense rainforest line both sides of the eastern Río San Juan. Blue and white herons, howler monkeys and crocodiles populate the area. Human dwellings are sparse.
“This is the last place of pure, authentic ecology,” Yaró Choiseul-Praslin, the Nicaraguan owner of Sábalos Lodge, told the Nica Times in 2004. “Civilization, in all its magnitude, has not arrived here yet” (NT, Nov. 12, 2004).
It is an appropriate description still. A smattering of thatched-roof homes, small farmhouses and tiny towns also line the river. But mostly, the Río San Juan is isolated.
“I’d say Corcovado National Park in the Osa Peninsula and [the Río San Juan] region are the two places where you can still find pure, untouched primary forest,” said Alfredo López, owner of the Río Indio Lodge in San Juan de Nicaragua. “The Indio Maíz Biological Reserve [in southeast Nicaragua] has been protected and is still almost entirely virgin forest. There are rivers and lagoons in this area that have never been seen or touched by humans.”
The dredging of the river to bolster tourism is an indication that Nicaragua understands what the Río San Juan, could offer visitors. Upon the completion of the dredging project the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR) plans to install a “Ruta de Agua,” or “Water Route,” that would take tourists from San Juan de Nicaragua up the river to Lake Nicaragua. There, tourists can visit the Ometepe Islands prior to continuing on to Granada, on the northwest corner of the lake.
“The Río San Juan is a Nicaraguan gem,” said Lucy Valenti, president of the Nicaraguan National Tourism Chamber (also known as Canatur). “It is a vital part of Nicaraguan tourism, and as of right now it isn’t navigable year-round. So, one thing we have demanded is that the government take the necessary steps to make the river navigable for tourism purposes.”
Costa Rica and Nicaragua share 140 km of the river border before it winds north into Nicaragua. The dredging, which began near the mouth of the river on the Caribbean, started in the east and is making its way west, along the shared segment of a 200-km waterway.
“We are very excited to have tourists come and share our village with us,” said Dario Sánchez as he rested his elbows on a shoddy wooden window frame in his home at the tiny river town of El Jobo. “We are happy that our government is dredging the river and providing us with the opportunities that come with tourism.”
When asked about Costa Rica, Sánchez shrugged his shoulders.
“They’ve made so much noise about the dredging that they haven’t looked at the benefits. They are poor just like we are, but instead of preparing for the prosperity of tourism, they are fighting about the dredge in The Hague. I don’t think they understand that this could be positive for both sides,” he said.