This was a long day, even by the standards of the previous two, but a strangely relaxing one. I think I’m finally getting the hang of traveling again, and of course this would happen on the final few days of the trip. But so be it. I’m smiling a lot, and I’m finding myself relaxed even in chaos and ninety-five degree heat.
Jorge and Celia woke me up at 5 a.m. to catch the early bus to the highway. They were continuing on to Managua, so we all took the bus together. It only took an hour to get down the hill (a relief after the previous day), and I thanked them and jumped off on the Rama Highway just as first light was starting to break. About ten minutes later, a big bus bound for San Carlos rolled up, and I was on my way to the Rio San Juan. It was a six-hour bus ride (Six hours? No problem!). When we stopped in Juigalpa I bought an ice cream from a vendor by leaning out the window of the bus. That was a first for me and I feel it deserves mentioning.
Just after noon, we hit San Carlos, which straddles the point where the 300-kilometer Rio San Juan meets Lake Nicaragua. It’s a hot, sweaty port town, and after making my way to the port, I found out that the next boat down the river wasn’t leaving for two hours. So I settled in, had lunch, and got to sweating.
This will be my last journey in Nicaragua, and it will be shorter than I expected. It’s going to have to be, because I only have so much cash on hand. I have plenty of money in the bank, but the problem I’ve run into is that only one bank in the country consistently works with my ATM card, so if that bank isn’t around, I can’t take out any additional money.
The bank in question was not in San Carlos, and the two banks that were wouldn’t give up the loot. So my river plans have been augmented slightly. I was going to cover the whole river, end to end. Now, I’m just going to focus on El Castillo and the fort there, which apparently has a great museum of the transit line across Nicaragua that Commodore Vanderbilt used to run (and which figures in my book).
Ah well. It’s just another part of the trip. But I need to make sure I still have the exit tax to leave Nicaragua, so this is going to be my last run. Then I’ll hop over the border to Costa Rica and fly out on Wednesday.
But on to the trip.
The boat I took left the San Carlos dock at 2:30. It’s known as a collectivo and can fit about 70 very cramped people inside. It’s a narrow thing, maybe 5 or 6 feet across, and about 25 or 30 feet end to end. I strapped my bag onto the roof (I wonder if that’ll be a hard habit to break when I get back to the States) and took a seat for the ride.
The boats on the Rio San Juan, with a couple exceptions, move pretty slow. The pace was similar to Boagart’s boat in The African Queen. Once San Carlos melts away, you’re heading into increasingly dense jungle as you go along. But with the climbing kudzu vines, the houses on stilts every couple of miles, and the peaceful movement of the black water, it reminded me a great deal of a Louisiana bayou.
The boat sits low, to the point where your chest is about level with the water, and it makes stops for everyone who lives and works on the river, whether that stop be at an isolated house or an open field the person is going to walk across. At one stop, a couple soldiers in full camouflage holding automatic rifles loaded a pair of mattresses onto the roof of the boat. God knows what that was about.
Around sunset, I realized that I’d been traveling for about twelve hours straight. This after long journeys the previous two days as well. But I didn’t feel tired or uncomfortable. I just felt relaxed. I kept looking over my shoulder to watch the sun set over the river and felt like I was traveling in exactly the way I am supposed to be traveling right now. I’ve covered a lot of ground the past couple days, and it’s all felt very spontaneous, but not as difficult as I thought it would be. I’ve felt like I know what I’m doing.
The boat hit the dock just before full dark and I walked up the hill to stay in a beautiful old Spanish wood building. This is the Hotel Albergue El Castillo, with its twin balconies overlooking the town, the river, and rapids just below. A bit pricier than the hospedaje in town, but that’s all right. It’s my last stop in Nicaragua, after all.