River Journeys and the best Camarones!

Trip Start Nov 15, 2006
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Flag of Nicaragua  ,
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

It takes 15 grueling hours to reach the port of San Carlos, the last 8 in an old bus on a rough road with a breakdown lasting an hour, and another delay of 15 minutes while the driver maneuvers out of a deep rut. When we arrive it feels as if we've earned some decent isolation.
 
The Rio San Juan runs from the Caribbean to Lake Nicaragua. In the past it was a route for steamships carrying prospectors west towards the Californian goldfields, and also for Pirate Nelson (yes, the very same one perched on a pole in Trafalgar Square) who attacked El Castillo on the river for Spanish gold.
 
The next morning we leave San Carlos and Lake Nicaragua. The launch goes east along the river towards the tiny village of Boca del Sabalos passing small villages and farmland. Boca del Sabalos is located at the mouth of Rio Sabalos where it meets the Rio San Juan. This is the village where Irma grew up (my teacher from Granada) and where her family still lives.
 
It's the kind of place that tourists normally skip, and the only foreigners are a long established Chinese family running a grocery store. The standard means of transport is by water, and boys will row you across the river for 1 cordoba. In the late afternoon hundreds of small fish leap out of the water to catch insects that collect near the surface. We share a drink with Irma's sister, and meet the family. A faded sepia photo of Irma's brother is attached to the wall. He died in the civil war.
 
There are two foreign owned hotels near Sabalos, and already Americans and Europeans are snapping up land along the river. The locals do understand the importance of tourism - there are bins in the boat for rubbish and signs asking them to care for their inheritance. I hope high-impact tourism does not come to this region.
 
Next day we travel to El Castillo by launch. The fort stands on the hill above the town situated on the south bank of the river near a broad run of rapids. Our hotel for the night is a wooden building on stilts above the river with round windows. It feels as if we're in a ship's cabin. That night we share dinner with Andy (from the Midlands) and Christine, professional wedding photographers living in the US. Without exaggeration I can say that the camerones (river crayfish) in garlic and cream are the best crustaceans I have ever eaten.
 
From El Castillo you can access Nacional Parque Indio Maiz, a vast area of virgin rainforest. Our guide is Orlando, and Secondino the navigator of our "bote" (basically a hollowed out tree trunk with an outboard). We spend the day on the river, paddling and wading in the river, watching birds, iguanas, otters, blue morph butterflies, red frogs, and Orlando lounging in the water kept afloat by his Wellingtons (gumboots). This is one of the most personal and beautiful experiences we have had in any rainforest anywhere.
 
Probably the highlight for me is Rodolfo. At the park entrance from the boat we glimpse a small wild cat, spotted and graceful. I madly scramble for my camera, 10 metres, 8 metres, 4 meters and he's still there. The prow runs aground and the wild cat calmly steps on the bote, runs between my legs, sniffs our navigator, passes back through my legs and then jumps onto land, all in the space of 10 seconds. I take a hurried blurred photo of my leg with half a spotted cat's tail.
 
It turns out that "Rodolfo" is a young, semi-tame Ocelot and started his visits to the guardhouse when he was still a kitten. He has a voracious appetite for play-fighting, and sharp claws to match (about a centimeter in length). One of my most memorable and unique experiences is to have this spotted, furry ball, wrapped around my leg, claws drawing blood. Every slap and swat is treated by Rudolfo as a request for more fun, and I have deep scars on my leg as a result for several weeks after.
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