Pirates, Chocolate, and Bats: Adventures on Rio de San Juan

As we rode north on the Rio Frio, we saw a white-faced monkey, a sloth on the ground, and the intimidating-looking military men that searched our boat as we entered Nicaraguan territory.  Immigration formalities were handled when we arrived at the port of San Carlos, the town where the Rio Frio and the Rio de San Juan, and Lago Nicaragua meet.  The vast lake stretched away to the west, but we turned the opposite way in town to find the speedboat that would carry us east, toward El Castillo.  After arguing with a couple ticket agents and getting lost in the market, we finally got into the speedboat that would take us to our destination.  We managed to score some of the drier seats, thank goodness!  The spray was incredible.  And so was the view.  Thousands of snowy egrets and great blue herons lining the banks and, at one spot, a huge flock of moths hovering over the water like a living mist (and they hurt when they hit us going top speed).  Twilight was setting in just as we finally pulled up to the dock, within sight of the massive rapids that mark the river at El Castillo.

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I was instantly and utterly charmed.  The town is the epitome of every romantic image I had ever held about what “Central America” looked like.  It could have been a set for a Caribbean pirate movie…then again, it was the locale of many real skirmishes between Spanish and British soldiers and the pirates that sought to flout both.  There are no cars.  Everyone gets around on foot or by bicycle, and there are horses and donkeys for longer trips out to the farms.  Colorful wooden houses jut out over the river on stones and stilts and flowers grow everywhere between the cracks.  Perched high over it all is the Fort of the Immaculate Conception, completing the perfect tableau.  That night, we had dinner in the creaking second floor dining room that gave us a view over the cobbled street and the passing locals below.  Again, the worn wood and dim lights and deafening insect chatter all added to my sense that I had now stumbled into one of my old daydreams of becoming an explorer in some quiet colonial corner of the world.

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The next morning, we met a local cacao farmer and he led us up the country paths, through a steep hillside pasture, and up to his farm tucked high on a mountain that overlooked the town and afforded a view over the forests to Costa Rica.  He dreams of crossing those seven kilometers and seeing it one day…a country rick enough to turn on so many lights that they make a glow on the night sky.  On his porch, he introduced us to his animals and cut open coconuts for us to refresh ourselves.  Next, we toured his cacao trees and he explained how to cultivate trees that produce quality cacao pods and all about the challenges they face from weather, animals, and the ever present ghosts of Nicaragua’s fraught past.  Many of these small farmers are finally being able to cash in on the fact that their cacao is organic and sustainable…not because they were “forward thinking,” per se, but because necessity forces them to farm it the old-fashioned way.

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Back at the house, he treated us to a bunch of fresh tangerines and showed us the brand new baby rabbits that were hunkered in a burrow in the yard.  From there we walked back down the mountainside to the cacao cooperative that he belongs to.  Once inside, we were shown the fermenting and drying processing that was going on.  No fancy machines here, just old-time wood boxes and screens under tents.  After a few weeks being fermented and dried, they roast it on metal plate over a single flame and then grind the cacao very fine through a handheld grinder.  After that, 99% of it gets boxed up and sent off to make chocolate bars…the last 1% is kept to make into chocolate that they sell on the premises or in nearby markets.  Who gets that 99%?  Rittersport.  They buy all the chocolate from this area.

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In the afternoon, we walked up to the fort and entertained ourselves for an hour inspecting all the battlements, stone arches, old cannons and enjoying the unparalleled views over the river and its rapids all the way to the surrounding low mountains.  In the museum on the grounds, we learned that Horatio Nelson took this fort from the Spanish when he was merely 22…but then left it, anyways, as the mosquitoes and unhygienic conditions drove them back to sea.  It has been neatly restored in the past decade and the museum had a lot of interesting history about the pirates, Spanish, and British.  From our perch on the battlements, we spotted a baseball game starting down in the town, so we made our way there.  They take baseball very seriously, each man in a uniform (they might not all match, but oh well) and crowds gathered in the stands and along the third base line.  The “parking lot” consisted of two bikes, three horses, and an elderly donkey all leaning against the fence.

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After two nights in this hidden gem, we caught the slow Sunday afternoon ferry back towards San Carlos, but disembarked at the rickety dock with a large sign for Grand River Lodge.  We followed the 500 meter boardwalk over a dense marsh and up through a horse paddock to a row of thatched huts.  In the large central area, we checked in and were led to our own thatch hut.  There was the standard mosquito netting over the bed…with a thick plastic sheet affixed over the top.  We discovered why a while later…we were sharing our room with a whole family of bats!  The next day, we explored the road to the nearby village, the grounds around the lodge, and took a horse ride.  The last one was kind of sad, as I discovered after about 100 meters that my horse was lame.  His caretaker explained that he kept asking the owner of the lodge for money to fix the horse’s feet, but he kept refusing to pay.  I was shocked to hear that the owner was a Dutchman who had built the lodge as an eco-venture…and disappointed. Searching through the caretaker’s pack, we were able to find some medicine for my horse’s sores, but that would not fix the neglect of his owner. From what I heard, it sounded like the guy started the venture with great intentions, but just got lazy and stopped checking in on his investment. It took a soothing evening of watching the sunset over the river and the kingfishers hunting in the shallows near the dock to cheer me up.

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The next morning, we were out on the dock by 6 am to flag down a passing boat so we could get back to town in time to buy tickets for the afternoon ferry that would carry us further along on our adventure.

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