As those who have followed my blog from the start know, I was in Nicaragua 29 years ago. The old centre of the city was then in ruins after an earthquake in 1973 and under the Somoza regime little were done to rebuild houses and so on for the area near the bay of Lake Managua. In 1980 the only thing remaining of buildings in this area was the Bank of America and the shell of the cathedral, together with the Parliament. All these buildings stand like they did last time, only that the cathedral has been more damaged due to decay, there is no Bank any more in the Bank of America building and the Parliament building is today a museum. Around it the ruins are no more found though most of the new constructions since 1980 has been done in other parts of town which is considered to be more secure of earthquakes. In the old centre you find a park, a theatre, the presidential palace (which is not used by the current president, Daniel Ortega, which also was president in 1980 after the sandinist revolution in 1979) and other public or governmental buildings. The Plaza Hotel, in the near outskirts of this area, is the same more or less. This was the place Somoza stayed in the last days before he fled the country, and also the place from were the international journalists followed the events in July 1979.
What else is changed is the atmosphere. In 1980 I could walk around both day and night without feeling insecure and there was a generally friendly atmosphere. Most of the people are still just as friendly, I have to point that. But Managua has also got their amount of people who seem to live of extorting money from tourists. I guess one could argue that this come from the poverty in the country, and to some extent I can agree. But there was more poverty in 1980, so there has to be other explanations too. At the moment the unemployment rate in Managua is high, and I also guess that it for some may pay more to extort money than a lot of jobs will do.
But all in all, I had some nice days in Managua. I spent some time to find out how to go to San Juan del Norte, a small village I visited in 1980 and spent a couple of weeks in. It was not to easy, until I finally found out where the official tourist information was. They did not know at my hostel, even if it showed to be only two blocks from there.
A little about my travel in Nicaragua in 1980.
To get to San Juan del Norte at that time was not easy. There was a ferry crossing the Lake Nicaragua to San Carlos at the beginning of the San Juan river, I was a night ferry where you hung up your hammock on deck and slept there. From San Carlos I had to ask for boat heading down the river. After a day there was a small barge going to El Castillo, some way down the river. I spent some days there, and was told that every fortnight there was a cargo barge going to San Juan del Norte. They were not sure if it was coming the week I was there or the next week, but I was lucky so it came the week I was there. I got the lift and it took two days to get down there, at the end of the San Juan river.
After almost two weeks there I wanted to go to Bluefields, the only city on the Atlantic coast at that time. Today I guess you can also call Puerto Cabezas for a city. To get there I could ask for a ride with a fishing boat, but there was none available at the time, so after a short ride with canoe to Cocal, where I also stayed for a day or two, I started to walk to Rio Maiz, which was a walk along the beach, with just one river crossing. From Rio Maiz I hoped to get a boat to Bluefields, but because of rough sea there was no boats going into Rio Maiz, After some days I followed some locals to the Punta Gorda river which was one days walk from sunrise to sunset through the rain forest. This walk is some of the hardest I have ever done. From this river we borrowed a canoe to get to the Punta Gorda. From there I got lift with a 25 feet cargo boat that first went to Monkey Point where we stayed overnight, and then started before sunrise and came to Bluefields at 4 in the afternoon, almost 12 hours after we left Monkey Point. In Bluefields I spent a week, including Christmas Eve, and went back to Managua by boat to Rama and bus from there to Managua, This is about the same way to travel and same time as you will use on this trip now.
The Atlantic coast of Nicaragua
I went the other way this time, because else I would have had some days waiting for a boat to San Carlos and San Juan del Norte. I did not fancy an8-10 hours bus drive to Rama so I took a plane. There is one domestic airline in Nicaragua operating an old Short SD360 that takes 33 passengers and has a max speed of 390km/h and a couple of Cessna Grand Caravan that takes 12 passengers and has a max speed of 317km/h. It is the Short that goes to Bluefields.
The Atlantic regions in Nicaragua is inhabited with creoles (black people that inherit from former slaves that moved to the region after the emancipation in the Caribbean islands), various indigenous people (indians, in the Pearl Lagoon it is mostly Miskitos and Garifunas) and of course also mestizos (Spanish speaking, both inherited from Spain and mixed people). The creoles speak English, or creole English or pigeon English as it is also called), while the different indigenous groups all have their own languages. They all can speak Spanish though, the indigenous groups very often speak both Spanish and English in addition to their own languages. It is not uncommon that some of them use four languages, for instance Miskito, Garifuna, English and Spanish.
During history the area has been central in the struggle between the Colonial Powers Spain And Great Britain. In periods of British dominance it was called the Mosquitia Kingdom and had the status of a British protectorate, until the independence of Nicaragua in ….. where it became a part of Nicaragua. But due to these historical reasons there has always been a lot of opposition and resistance against the central governments. Today the two Atlantic regions, north and south, has an autonomy, the only part at this coast that hasn't is the area nearest the boarder to Costa Rica where you find San Juan del Norte. This belongs to the region of San Juan which stretches along the San Juan river and a part of the east and south side of the Lake Nicaragua.
Bluefields has changed a lot since 1980. The hurricane Joan in 1988, one of the strongest hurricanes ever seen, almost destroyed the city (and other parts of the Atlantic coast in Nicaragua). In 1980 the vast majority of houses were wooden houses, today the city is rebuild in mostly concrete and bricks. It has become a bigger city though it is more in area then in number of inhabitants. What also have changed is the atmosphere. In 1980 the terraces of the houses went directly to the street, people where sitting there and I was often stopped for a chat, and invited to something to drink. Today the houses are behind chicken wire and grids. The people are still friendly when you make contact, and also helpful, but Bluefields has also got a number of people living of extorting money from the tourists, which the town was totally free for in 1980 (at least I did not meet any).
Pearl Lagoon and the Pearl Cays
After some days in Bluefields I went to Pearl Lagoon. This is about one hour by boat, an open river boat (pangas) with a 200 horsepower outboard engine, with those engines the boats only occasionally are in touch with the water. The Pearl Lagoon is a big brackish water lagoon, connected to the Lagoon of Bluefields through a canal partly natural and partly man made. You will not be able to see where it is man made, because the rainforest and mangrove is covering the river banks all the way. The annual rainfall here is considerable, though it is quite dry from end of September until December. I had mostly sunny days, but usually there was a shower or two during the day.
The first day I took a tour to the Cays or the Pearl Cays which is the official name. There are no regular service to the Cays, so I had to buy a tour from one of the local tour operators (which usually means a man that owns a boat that can take you there). This was also an open boat with an outboard engine, 23 feet and a narrow boat built for rivers and lagoon, but wide enough to do the sea water if the weather is not too rough. The Cays are placed about 19 nautical miles from Pearl Lagoon. Traditionally these islands have been used by the miskitos. They do a lot of fishing around the islands, they are used as a safe shelter when the weather turns bad, and they have harvested from the coconuts and other fruits growing there.
But some 10-15 years ago a Greek-American real estate businessman named Peter Tsokos, claimed to have bought the islands from some locals that produced a document saying they had the ownership. Tsokos resold several of these islands to foreigners for more than ten times the price he bought it for, and the miskitos suddenly found that their access to the islands were denied by armed guards and dogs. This lead to an ongoing legal dispute in the Nicaraguan tribunal which it seem clear will end up in the supreme court at last. The attorney of the Miskitos, Maria Luisa Acosta, has even got her husband killed in this conflict. The murder was committed with a gun registered on Tsokos lawyer, and after a lot of trouble under the investigation, due to judicial misconduct and persons in the legal system possibly not interested in investigating the murder, two men were arrested and convicted for the murder.
There are built some houses on the Cays, some not finished, and as far as I could understand only a British woman and her kids actually live on one of them (I coincidently met them in Pearl Lagoon). On one of the island I was told it was forbidden to take pics of an unfinished house there. I did take a pic of it though – when we were out in the sea.
I later search a bit about the Cays and the legal conflict, and found that Tsokos at the moment has three more of these islands for sale, the prospect is found on the internet, and there is not a word about the ongoing legal conflict and that his ownership is disputed, not only has the miskitos raised a legal case, but now also the government through the general state attorney has questioned this ownership according to the Nicaraguan laws about foreign ownership and the legal rights of the indigenous people in Nicaragua to maintain their collective ownership and common use of their traditional areas. This should give you an idea of how serious Mr Tsokos is.
But enough of this... the islands are just beautiful. I can understand why someone wants to own islands like that – but cannot support it. I have grown up and is raised in the Norwegian tradition of right of access to uncultivated land, though it is also unfortunately threatened in Norway. Besides I also support the right of indigenous people of maintaining their traditional collective ownership to land where this has been the situation.
Besides the Pearl Cays I also visited a nearby Miskito village, Awas, and took a trip to a part of the Atlantic Beach which meant I had to take a boat through the swamp area inside the river banks, and also walk a bit through the swamp. When we moored the boat to walk we saw two caymans (small crocodiles) just beside the boat, one disappeared before I got the camera in position, but the other one remained to pose for my camera. The Atlantic beach stretches almost along all the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, from where I was you can almost walk along the beach all the way to Honduras, there is just some river crossings on the way you will have to deal with. As you can see a gorgeous beach, though sometimes (as when I was there) there are a lot of flees which might make your stay there not so pleasant.
Bluefields to San Juan del Norte
While I, as I told used several days on the reversed trip in 1980, this time I made it by boat in less than 4 hours, including half an hour at El Bluff for the bureaucratic paper mill connected to trips like this. The regular service from Bluefields to San Juan del Norte (which now has the official name San Juan de Nicaragua) is run by an open 27 feet boat with a 225 horsepower outboard engine. It goes really, really fast, but a very pleasant drive it is not! You better hold yourself tight to the wooden board which is your seat, and preferably bring something soft to sit on. I did not, and was rewarded with some blisters and galls in my ass, one of them got infected later and developed to an abscess which needed medical treatment. I also discovered, some time after arrival to San Juan that the screen on my mini computer had been broken during the trip, even if it had been packed in all I had of clothes.
We only had one stop on the way (except for El Bluff where you go out in open water) and that was Monkey Point. After a short stop there we went in a straight line to San Juan, if you have a look at a map you will see that we then are partly quite far from the coast which meant navigating by GPS. There were two crew on board, one in front and one skipper, the one in front had a small hand-held GPS and shouted the directions to the skipper when he got a bit too close to the Caribbean islands and too far from the coast.
San Juan del Norte
The first attempt to build a canal between the Atlantic and the Pacific was done here. It was an American businessman, Cornelius Vanderbilt, that took the initiative and wanted to build the canal here. The building of the canal started in 1849, a long time before the Panama canal (opened 1914), and there are built some km of canal here. A lot of incidents, political unrest, struggle between interests of the British and the Americans, and also different interests within the US, led to that the plans were postponed, the final end of it was the plans to build the Panama canal. Into this is also the period of the invasion of the American soldier of fortune William Walker, which there is made a film of some years ago that some of you might have seen. His invasion started in San Juan del Norte or Greytown which was the British name of the town. Later the Nicaraguan nationalist president, Zelaya, forbid the foreign ownership of Nicaraguan land, which probably made the US more interested in building the canal in Panama.
Though the canal plans never where realized, Vanderbilt started a route from New York to San Francisco with boat from NY to San Juan del Norte /Greytown, river boats to San Carlos and from there another boat to La Virgen in the Lake Nicaragua, from there railway or stagecoach to San Juan del Sur and the boat to San Francisco. This was in fact the only public transport from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast of US at that time. Due to the invasion of Walker and other incidents it did not operate for several years and was shut down when the Atlantic-Pacific railway in the US was completed in 1866. An earthquake in 1893 changed the formations in such a manner that San Juan del Norte no longer where placed in the bay, but is now found along the Rio Indio, which is more a lagoon than a river.
But about 6 km of the canal is there, this part was supposed to be a short cut to the San Juan river, which mainly was meant to lead the route for the canal. Some of the equipment used for the building of the canal is still there. But the end of the canal plans and the route from New York to San Francisco also ended the great times of San Juan del Norte and it has never had the amount of inhabitants it had in those days.
During history San Juan del Norte has not been located on the same spot. The time of British influence and control and time of the starting of the canal it was placed at the start of the canal, where you see the old wreck (from the period of the canal building) on one of my pics. Also the smaller wreck inside of the rainforest you will find on this spot, together with a few other remains of the town from this period. On the other side of the canal you find the five star hotel which I also have some pics from.
But the village has also been moved after I was there in 1980. Some years after the sandinist revolution in 1979, just about a year after I was there, the US financed and supported “contras” started their armed struggle to overthrow the sandinist government, and they were especial active in the Atlantic regions. Mostly they had their base in Honduras, but a former sandinist comandante, Eden Pastora, broke up with the sandinists and formed a contra group operating from Costa Rica. His operations in the border area made it impossible to live in San Juan del Norte, and he burned it down in 1982 and made an airstrip there which is the grass coated area you see on one of the pics. The people there either went at refugees to Costa Rica or settled down other places at the Atlantic coast like Rio Maiz and Bluefields. Eden Pastora must be the incarnation of an opportunist as he has now joined the sandinist party, FSLN, again and has become a minister in the government of FSLN. I would say that to me it does not point in the favour of FSLN that he has been taken into the party and even the government again.
Today's San Juan del Norte, or de Nicaragua as it now is named, is placed some km further up the Rio Indio, and while there in 1980 was just about 200 inhabitants, there is today between 2 500 I was told. It look totally different, and today there is almost none of the creoles living there, in 1980 they were about 50% of the population there. But the people there are just as friendly as they were in 1980, and there is almost nothing of the chicken wire and grids as in Bluefields. At the former location for the village there is now only the old, historical graveyards left, an American, a British, a Catholic and one for the so called Freemasons (from the St. Johns Lodge in Delaware).
Rio San Juan
There are some boat services from San Juan de Nicaragua up the river to San Carlos at the beginning of the river, one takes 6-7 hours and one take 11 hours, each having two weekly departures. I took the slowest one, so it would be easier to take pics. The boats are very narrow, like most river boats, but these also have to pass the very narrow river that connects the Rio Indio with Rio San Juan. If you don't know where this river start, you will not find it, because it is almost hidden of the reed and mangrove.
The Rio San Juan is beautiful, and I hope to be lucky to see some of the amazing wild life in this river. The river has since the 1960's been known to contain creatures you normally just find in sea waters, like bull shark, dolphins, sea turtles and rays (skates and sawfish). The bull sharks is also often seen in the Lake Nicaragua (so if you thought you don't need to fear sharks in fresh water, well.. think otherwise).
I did see two dolphins, but was not fast enough to take a pic of any of them. But I got a lot of pics of birds, which Rio San Juan also is famous for. And I got some turtles as you see, though I don't think it is sea turtles.
My trip ended at San Carlos, where I stayed one day and took a plane to Managua, this time the Cessna.Jo Jenseg Web-album by Jo Jenseg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Norway License.
Based on a work at picasaweb.google.com.