Rio San Juan Series #10 of 11: Layover Day in San Juan de Nicaragua (Nica Nugget #76)

Our layover day in San Juan de Nicaragua came about because JoAnne was going to catch a panga from here up the Caribbean coast to Bluefields and then on out to the Corn Islands to visit friends. The panga to Bluefields only goes one day a week, Wednesdays. Or, I should say only WENT one day a week, back when it was even running, as in past tense. But we didn’t know this until the Tuesday we arrived.

The panga Eve, John and I needed to take back upriver to San Carlos, where’d we’d started our river trip six days before, also didn’t run every day. But there were two leaving on Thursday: a “Rapido” (fast, comfortable boat) which would take us eight hours but couldn’t take our kayaks, and a “Lento” (slow, less comfortable boat) which could take our kayaks on its roof but took 12 hours. There was also a cargo panga leaving on the same day, Thursday, which is how the canoe got back upriver to El Castillo and we could’ve put our kayaks on that but it wouldn’t be arriving in San Carlos until close to midnight.

None of us minded having the day off though while we waited for our ride back up river. It was good to take a break.

Map showing San Juan de Nicaragua

JoAnne did go around town looking for a ride to Bluefields once she learned the ferry was no longer running on Wednesday, or any day for that matter. She was told that the gasoline dock had a boat that traveled to Bluefields for resupply quite often, but it turned out they weren’t going this particular day. A fisherman or two offered to take her. But at a price of $400, she declined. As we walked around the small town we were greeted repeatedly with laughing shouts of “Bluefields! Bluefields!” Our new nicknames, no doubt.

Yarlen had told us we should visit the colonial cemeteries while in town, and found an indigenous guide to take us.

Hilary, a local of pure Rama lineage, arrived for us at our hotel in his panga right after we finished breakfast. We climbed aboard and headed back down the Indio River, the way we came, and into the lagoon. Hilary told us about the dredge that loomed ahead, abandoned 150 years ago after its failed attempt to build the canal beyond the 4,881 feet that it dug.

Rio Indio Lodge

We boated past the Rio Indio Lodge (where according to their website you can book a room starting at $370 a night). And then up the narrow channel beyond it, previously dredged, where we soon tied up alongside the bank of yet another military checkpoint, got out, showed our documents, and hiked on past.

We came upon an airstrip, and JoAnne got excited. Airplanes to Bluefields? Airplanes to Corn Island? “There used to be,” said Hilary, “but no more.” Now just flights from Costa Rica, with the bulk of Rio Indio Lodge’s clientele,” he guessed.

Just past the airfield we followed a thin path through very tall swaying grasses before arriving at the first of several historic cemeteries.

The first we came to was the cemetery erected by the officers and crew of the U.S. Frigate Sabine in 1860.

One tombstone read:

U.S. Frigate Sabine
Sacred to the Memory of Charles Smith
Captain of the fore top.
Killed by a fall from the
fore topsail yard.
November 4, 1859
Erected by his shipmates.

Tombstone from US Frigate Sabine

In the British cemetery there was a body-sized gravestone in memory of the cadet, Robert Bakker of England. He departed this life on October 6, 1856, in the 15th year of his age.

But it wasn’t just men (or boys) on ships who were buried here. There were family members burying their dead too: John S. And Rosa Augustine buried their beloved daughter Martha Elizabeth on June 8, 1881, aged 2 years, 8 mos and 24 days. While the Danford’s lost their eldest son Wilson, aged 39, on November 12, 1872.

Hilary pointed to a statute of an angel whose head appeared blown off. “One of the Sandinista bombs did this,” he said, “when they bombed Greytown during the Contra Wars and destroyed the town.”

“All of the people of Greytown ran into the jungle and didn’t return. But when Violeta Chamorro took office and ended the war, she wanted the people to return. We said we’d return if they built us a new town in a different location. And so that’s what they did. San Juan de Nicaragua was built in 1991. And the remains of Greytown? You can’t even get to it – it’s all just jungle now.”

Tombstone damaged by a bomb.

And how and when did Greytown get it’s name? It was the name of the Jamaican Governor at the time, in 1848, when the British occupied San Juan del Norte.

San Juan del Norte had been occupied by the Spaniards on June 24, 1539, on the feast day of St. John the Baptist, thus its first name.

San Juan del Norte, Greytown, San Juan de Nicaragua.

I’d been calling it all three names as we’d been traveling down the river. Now, with Hilary’s help, and the placard at the cemetery, I at least feel like I have the barest of timelines and placement right:

It was called San Juan del Norte when the Spaniards had it.
Then the British rechristened it Greytown when they took it over.
Then it got destroyed by bombs during the Contra War.
And then twenty-eight years ago the Nicaraguan government built the whole new town of San Juan de Nicaragua where it sits now.

And sometime in the mid 1800s the United States and the USS Frigate Sabine got involved and a young chap died by a fall off the fore topsail and was buried. God rest his soul. Not to mention years of fighting between the indigenous peoples and the Spaniards and the Nicaraguans and the Costa Ricans and the British and of course Americans (USS Frigate Sabine, etc.). Am I forgetting somebody? Besides the pirates?

Got it? Clear as mud?

And with that, we headed back to town, to the twenty-eight-year-old new town.

For such a historically feisty and heavily-fought-over area in the past, it sure is sleepily quiet now.

But our day was not over yet. John and I still had to take our kayaks and gear down to the port.

Our kayaks get loaded on top of their ferry a day early.

All ferries, the faster Rapido which would have us in it, the slower Lento which would have our kayaks on top, and the super slow cargo-only ferry with the canoe, would be leaving from the small port at 5 am the next morning.

But they were already in port and we had to get our kayaks tied up on the roof of the Lento ferry now. John and I also packed a couple of bags of our kayaking gear and had them stored belowdecks on the Rapido, so we’d have less to carry across town in the dark in the wee hours of the following morning. Yarlen graciously helped us with our kayaks and took care of the canoe which would be delivered back to Juan Alberto Aguilar Gomez in El Castillo.

We’re glad that we had our tow ropes with us because the ferry crew felt perfectly fine with just leaving our boats sitting untied on top of the ferry. They tried to talk us out of the necessity of tying them down but when they saw our determination they assisted kindly. If we do this trip again we’ll make up some straps that will make the tying down fast and easy.

Drinks in front of our room before a fabulous dinner.

The last thing I have to say about this day is how fabulous our dinner was that night at our hotel’s restaurant. One of our best meals ever with one of the finest cooks around.

It was funny though because the cook told us there was only fish to eat. John saw her later cutting up carnitas. “Oh yes, we have pork carnitas too,” the cook replied when I asked her. Then Eve saw some fresh shrimp in the kitchen. “Oh yes, we also have shrimp but they are very little,” she stated when we asked. We ordered one of each. And all three were to die for.

So, if you go and see something in the kitchen, don’t be afraid to ask.

It was time for bed. Our alarm was set for 3 am.

Today’s video: Layover Day in San Juan de Nicaragua.

To be continued…