When the bus arrived at Juigalpa so many traders got on that there was no space for the passengers! Eventually the chaos subsided and we found some seats. Four hours later we arrived at San Carlos where we broke the journey overnight. Not much was happening on a Saturday evening.
San Carlos is a small, quaint town, even though it is the hub from which travellers must access this fairly remote area. In recent years the road has been improved and there is even an airport. The buildings retain their traditional charm but the Parque Centrale has recently been transformed into a welcoming playground complete with benches and free wifi!
Two hours on the slow boat got us to our destination early on Sunday. The river is wide but fairly shallow and sluggish. Hotel Sabalos overlooks the point where the smaller Rio Sabolos runs into Río San Juan on it’s way to the Atlantic.
We took a boat further down the river and into the rainforest in the protected Indio-Maiz reserve. On the way we passed one corner of a massive palm oil plantation, said to extend over 100,000 hectares and providing employment for 980 people. This may be good for the workers and the local economy but such huge areas of deforestation are hugely damaging to the fragile environment and wildlife corridors
From here on the river bank forms the border with Costa Rica and the military presence is evident in an area which has been much disputed by the two countries over the years.
It was raining in the rainforest which started off being fun but had two drawbacks. First, Julio, our excellent guide, had difficulty hearing anything over the sound of the rain. Second we were soon up to our knees in mud! But amongst the plants, trees and insects we saw a poisonous frog; these used to be attached to arrows by the rainforest residents as an easy way to deal with their enemies.
On the return journey we stopped at the strategically important town of Castillo above Raudal el Diabolo (the Devil’s Rapids). Accessible only by river, the town takes it’s name from the fortress, built by the Spanish in 1675. It was one of a series built to protect the Spanish vessels, returning to the old world loaded with precious goods from the newly discovered colonies, being attacked by pirates. These were the original pirates of the Caribbean. Chief amongst them, for hundreds of years, were the British who wanted a share of the booty. In 1572 Sir Francis Drake led an expedition that seized a cargo of gold in Panama. In 1780 the fortress was taken by an English expedition of 200 men and 50 vessels that were rowed up the river with many fatalities. It was led by Horatio Nelson, hero of the Battle of Trafalgar. The men were exhausted by the conditions on the river, the climate and the conflict and the majority succumbed to dysentery. It is claimed that Nelson himself barely survived!
Next day we glided up the smaller Río Sabalos to a cacao plantation where we learnt all about the organic cultivation of this precious crop by a co-operative of local farmers, all selling to the German Ritter-Sport company. We could tell you all about the way the beans are fermented and processed ready for export – but we won’t!