Mandy and Jon's Journey 2005 travel blog

One of many similar houses along the Rio San Juan. A gorgeous...

Young girls on Rio San Juan, Nicaragua.

One of many gorgeous flocks of birds on the Rio San Juan.Unlike...

One of our favorite places thus far, the tiny village of Castillo,...

Dusk in El Castillo, and one of the first times the sun...

Darling young man who stopped to chat with us, just thrilled to...


The relief that sight of land creates is tempered by the realization that San Carlos is not Gilligan´s Island. As we draw near it is obvios that we may be as happy to get on the next boat as we are to de-board this one. It is 6:30 am when we touch land.

We don´t say ´dry land´ because the whole of San Carlos is filmed in a thin mud. Near the port it is a deep green - a forest green - and what makes it so, we don´t know. We say a quick good-bye to the companions we met on the boat, sharing a final smile of truimph as we depart. Ben & Benny are off to investigate their options and may even get a hotel to attain some much needed sleep. (It should be noted that Ben, the senior, stood erect, wearing only a tanktop and shorts, for 6 of the 11 hours on the boat. Such stoicism we´ve never seen.)

Our other companions, Pete and Persis, are lost in the chaos of the dock. We´re on our, then, to find the ticket counterfor the riverboat and try our best to do so quickly. After a little stumbling and trepid investigation of the waterfront we locate the little office. Bad news, though, when we find that our minute hesitations have cost us the last seats on the 8 am boat. The next one´s not until 11, and after the night we´ve just had this fact hits us especially hard. In Jon´s mind, he´s trying to rise above the setback and pyschologically he´s able to ration out the truth that this is no big deal. His body, hoever, is not so keen on letting this truth suffice. ´This sucks. This ------ sucks.´ And he starts to look around at the town of San Carlos with a personal and precise disdain that it doesn´t really deserve.

Mandy, in her maturity, puts on a brave face and a matching demeanor and makes it ever clearer to Jon that he´s being a weanie. So deep breathe later we are off to find the thing we need second most to a riverboat - breakfast. A hike up the hill puts us atop San Carlos and we find El Mirador, not even yet open, to drop our bags and await rice and eggs.

Well fed and well adjusted to our state of over-exhaustion we make our way back to the dock to begin our wait for the eleven oclock boat to El Castillo. And wait we do....

(Jon´s Side Bar: It´s hard to articulate the experience of this hot waiting we became accustomed to in Nicaragua. The pain of it is hardly in the waiting itself, but runs closer to the feeling of frustration. Frustration that nothing leaves when it says it will, nothing leaves without fulfilling the explicit desire to have the vessel (boat or bus) absolutly packed to the gills overcrowded before you go anywhere. The operators, nice as they are, don´t communicate what any particular hold-up is, they just look here and there in seeming indifference. And often times, after long waits where nothing in the dynamics of the situation seem to change, Boom - you´re off, and the only question you want to know the answer to is, ´What just happened to cause this new-found motivation?´ No last minute passenger arrives to fit that last cubic inch of space, no forgotten or important cargo appears, yet all of a sudden, some divinity offers telepathic assurance to the operator that the trip is a go. Now there is certainly reason behind these things and I don´t mean to sound as though Central American bus and boat operators suffer a neurosis of anykind, but the simple matter is that to my careful observation it seems impossible to detect what these causes are. No doubt this is a reflection on my own ignorance, and it is equally correct to suppose, therefore, that the frustration that these waits arouse is certainly part and parcel to this ignorance. In conclusion to this aside, I should simply say that I should have payed more attention in Ms. Connell´s spanish class and I would be in a better position to get to the bottom of the hidden mysteries of Central American cultural nuance.) Ah, well.

....So we´ve waited, but finally, we´re not waiting and we find ourselves on a riverboat, cruising peacefully down the Rio San Juan. And perhaps the next question is - Was it worth it? Were the days of waiting on Ometepe, the overnight ferry, the muds of San Carlos, and the horrible intangibles of the previous 48 hours worth this boat ride to a remote town in the mountain-marshlands of El Castillo?

Yes, clearly, yes, and if given the chouce, we both concur that we´d do it again.

The river runs curving and lush 70km to El Castillo through some of the most prozed bird sanctuaries in all of Central America. Never have we seen such bounty and variety of birds, from common white cranes (gorgeous) to soaring birds of prey, huge fleets of colorless swallows (African swallows or European?) and small patches of brightly colored (and unfamiliar) birds. Everywhere and consistently they fly, dive, swim, or simply stand majestic on the riverbanks. Dotting the shoreline in between the protected lands are small villages or even a solitary wooden home, built on stilts or perched on a hillside.

Out boat makes several stops along the way. Sometimes in a small village to drop off some supplies and other times at a trail head on the river side where one person will jump off and head into the jungle to who knows where. We are both dead tired, though, and at some point, unfortunately, we are both overcome by patches of sleep . Nothing deep or comfortable, but even this riverboat´s stiff plastic chairs are beanbags compared to the hard steel of the ferry boat´s cargo deck. We lean our heads on our hands and catch a few interminent winks as the rain falls on the brown river.


At long last, now a steady rain pouring down, we arrive at El Castillo. It must be 2:30, and a full twenty four hours since our cab left Hotel Central in Altagracia, Ometepe. The town looks interesting and the Spanish fort, from which the town gained its name, can be seen through the rain perched on the hill that rises steeply from the river´s edge. We don´t think too much of anything, however, accept to find our hotel.

Hotel Alburque is the largest hotel in town with six rooms. There are a few moments when it seems as though they´ll not have room for us, but before our spirit´s reach their complete descent, we are assured the is, in fact, a room, #5, and we´re given a key. Ah.

After overcoming some financial woes (out of cash, no bank, saved by our hotel manager who accepts a traveller´s check) we are ready for sleep. Lying down never felt so goo. Planning on taking a simple, if not extended, siesta we both sleep through the night.

Wake to the pleasant heavy sound of rain. We enjoy the sound of the rain and discuss the bliss of our sleep before getting up to cash in on our free breakfast. We should probably not say ´free´ so much as ´inlcuded'. The Alburque is a bit pricey, but we sense that we deserve it although we probably don´t. Our plan is to check out the fort, but the rain keeps us put for most of the morning. When the clouds do break we a make a break for it, up the hill to see what we can see. On the way we meet the kindest old gentleman. He tells us how much he likes to meet Americans. He says how his daughter moved there some years ago and that it makes him feel close to her to meet people from there. He goes on to say (Mandy is translating) that she no longer writes to him and that this saddens him. But, he says, he likes to see tourists in El Castillo, and he wishes people to know that Nicaragua is a country of peace and he hopes that there will be peace on earth and soon. We take a couple of pictures with him and his smile and good wishes warm our hearts. He goes his way up the hill and we wonde why men like this don't forge the progress of man. Instead we get jerk after jerk to rule our governments and they do nothing but brutalize the nations.

We make it to the fortress and are told we have only twenty minutes before they close for lunch and siesta - what the heck, we say, it may be raining later anyway and go for the quick tour. The guide says that we can come back later if we care to. We're glad we did because the rain hit hard again and we were forced back to the hotel for a bit more card playing and book reading.

Later in the day the sun was kind enough to allow us a great walk around the town. We went up and down all the concrete walkways (there are no cars in El Castillo). The town isn't but a halfmile from end to end. We climbed the hill up to the village cemetery where we took some photos and sense the closeness of the town community. The day before there was funeral for a child in town. We had witnessed the procession near the town dock. We were startled when we came upon the fresh grave in the cemetery. We did not find out what the child died of, but along with the returning rain it created a pervasive melancholy in the town, and then, in us. All towns have their sadness and their cemeteries. Mostly those things pass in the shadows or are swept under rugs, but sometimes they appear clearly in front of you. Sometimes they punch you in the gut. In any event, this town revealed itself to us in a different way than others we'd been to.

That evening we were privileged to enjoy the town delicacy, camarones. These are large river shrimp and would easily be mistaken for small lobsters. They have a hard shell and a delicious meat. We ate in a little house on the river that served as a small restaurant. The boys from the neighborhood came and watched us play cards, getting a kick out of our George W. Playing cards. (These have been a hit everywhere we go. Thanks, Jen). We did our best to teach them how to play Rummy and while we ate dinner they borrowed the cards and played next door. Our waitress, too, was very sweet and the two of us agreed it was the nicest dinner we'd had. Something sad and yearning about that waitress. We felt tlike she wanted to come with us and was genuinely sad when we told her we were leaving the next morning. It is a mystery, of course, about what she was feeling, but we both got the strangest sense about the encounter. What nice people we met in Nicaragua, and in El Castillo, perhaps, in particular.

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