Life along the Río San Juan
By Adam Williams
The majestic San Juan River, which runs 200 kilometers from Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean coast, is one of the region’s best imitations of South America’s Amazon River. Though much smaller and more narrow than the Amazon, the Río San Juan is in its own right still very raw, very untouched and very rife with bountiful rainforest life. Small birds and large herons hover across the top of the water trying to keep pace with an occasionally passing boat, Jesus Christ lizards sprint atop the waters of the muddy banks, mammoth crocs sunbathe on sand bars, freshwater bull sharks swim upstream into Lake Nicaragua, and dense virgin jungle lines the river without any signs of civilization for dozens of kilometers at a time.
“Corcovado National Park in the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica and the Río San Juan region are the two places where you can still find pure, untouched primary rainforest,” said Alfredo López, owner of the Río Indio Lodge in San Juan de Nicaragua. “The Indio Maíz Biological Reserve (located in southeast Nicaragua) is about 4,500 kilometers of protected virgin forest. There are rivers and lagoons in this area that have never been seen or touched by humans.”
While people are sparse along the San Juan, failed attempts by humanity to populate the region still linger in the obscure waters of the far southeast. In the town of San Juan de Nicaragua, the last river town before the Caribbean, the region’s closest brush with development is found just north of the river. There, in a glassy opaque lagoon surrounded by marsh stands the mast of a large, rusted river dredge, which was brought to the mouth of the San Juan by U.S. steamboat entrepreneur Charles Vanderbilt in the mid-1800s. During a five year stretch from the late 1840s and early 1850s, Vanderbilt used the San Juan to transport over 52,000 U.S. citizens across Central America looking for a faster route from the U.S. east coast to California, where the gold rush was booming.
As demand for travel along the San Juan increased, Vanderbilt decided to attempt to dredge the river and create an inter-oceanic canal across the Central American isthmus. As soon as work began on the project, however, funding abruptly fell through. As quickly as the gringos arrived in San Juan de Nicaragua - at that time known as Greytown - they left, leaving behind only large vessels to rust away in the region’s waters.
And while the commercial boom of the mid-1800s never materialized, small populations in the region have continued to rely on self-sustaining traditions that have been endemic to rural river life for hundreds of years. Along the San Juan, which serves as the international border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, small towns of thatch-roof homes built on stilts can be found along the banks of the river. They have no electricity, televisions, cars, super markets or iPods. Residents depend on the land and the waterway to provide food, transportation and materials for shelter.
In the tiny village of El Jobo on the Nicaraguan side of the river, around 60 people have erected a community of dilapidated wood-framed homes, a small central sidewalk, a soccer and baseball field and a one-room school. All the food for the town is supplied by the fruits and vegetables cultivated in the jungle, eggs from the village chickens and fish caught along the river.
“We do not need outside foods or resources to sustain ourselves,” said Dario Sánchez, a resident of El Jobo, from the windowsill of his home. “The jungle is the perfect spot for us to grow all the fruits and foods that we need, and we tend to them daily. At times the rain is so heavy that the crop is lost, so we always make sure to store enough beans and rice and dry foods to make it through the rainy season.”
For residents that live near El Jobo but not in the village proper, commuting to the tiny town can be a daunting task, particularly when travel requires paddling against the eastbound river current. Children from homes located further east down the river have to make the commute to El Jobo for school five days a week, piling all of their supplies into the hull of a wooden boat carved from a tree trunk and rowing against the flow of the San Juan. (When these students grow old and nostalgic they won’t be saying, “when I was your age I walked to school uphill through three miles of snow.” They’ll remember, “I used to row miles upstream against the current to school in a wooden boat on a river full of crocodiles and freshwater bull sharks.”)
“It’s a little different than a school bus,” López said as his tourist boat passed several children making their voyage to school one morning. “And they do it every day, rain or shine. It can be pouring rain and they are still on the river, rowing away.”
In the next few years, the Nicaraguan government will attempt to bring tourism to this region; it has recently begun dredging the river to make it deeper and wider. When this task is complete, the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR) hopes to develop a travel route from San Juan de Nicaragua, where the San Juan River empties into the Caribbean, to Lake Nicaragua. The route will be ordained the “Ruta de Agua,” or “Water Route,” and will guide tourists along the bends and turns and natural beauty of the San Juan River.
“We are thrilled with what our government is doing to promote tourism along the river,” said Misael Morales, the mayor of San Juan de Nicaragua, which has about 2,000 residents. “We want to show people this region and the beauty of the San Juan River. We also hope that it will bring more attention, more commerce and more opportunities for some of the people that live along the river.”
With the hopes for tourism and commerce high again along the San Juan River, people here hope that history will not repeat itself, and that the big ideas for development will indeed actually come to fruition this time around. If they do, who knows, maybe soon the kids of the region will soon be riding a modern, motorized “school boat” to and from class each day to replace the labor-intensive canoe.