Rio San Juan Series, #11 of 11: Finale, Ferry Trip Back Upriver to San Carlos (Nica Nugget #77)

The alarm went off early. 3 am Thursday morning. John E Field and I packed the few things we still had in our hotel room, after having stored the bulk of our gear in our ferry the day before. By 3:30 we were out the door, stumbling about in the dark.

The hotel owner was already up and began to turn on some outside lights so we could see and then she rushed up to Eve Kohlman and JoAnne Stoltz’s room to make sure they were awake. Since the ferry seems to always leave at 5 am and since essentially all visitors arrive and leave the town by ferry, I assume the hotel owner is quite used to this routine.

We had about a 15-minute walk down the alleyways in the dark to the port at the other end of town. Dogs passed us. A man appeared in the shadows of a street lamp in the dark, on a bicycle, and rode on by.

Eve, staring out at the scenery from the panga ferry.

We’d been told to arrive at the port by 4:30 but also that they started selling coffee at the tiny kiosk window at the port at 4 am. We were there shortly after 4, rapping at the window for our coffee as we were told.

Men sat around chatting and I recognized their faces from the day before. There were two seats open at the periphery of the bright light but an open garbage bag, no doubt strewn about by a scavenging dog, sat at its feet. I placed my sandaled feet down strategically, balanced my bag across my lap while I sipped on my coffee and stared out across the three moored ferries to the dark river.

Eve and JoAnne arrived, followed by the military at 4:30 on the dot. They asked for our seats, to be used as a table, and went through everyone’s bags. Yarlen Diaz showed up and we said our goodbyes, as he was riding up to El Castillo on the slower, less-expensive Lento ferry, with our kayaks. Then we were allowed to board.

The ferry was comfortable with cushioned seats, three across, with an staggered aisle in between. At the front of the boat was an open space where everyone set down and later picked up their luggage.

The more expensive and quicker Express Ferry had comfortable seats.

John claimed a window seat, if you can call it that when it’s all open air and there aren’t any windows, but their is a roof. And Eve took the solo window seat across the narrow aisle from me, with JoAnne seated right behind her.

We started out with maybe ten other passengers on board. But by the time we were pulling into our first town stop of El Castillo, six hours later, the ferry would be full.

Families flagged the boat down from the river bank.

Along the banks of the river, practically hidden by jungle, people would appear into view and the ferry would approach them. A deck hand would clamber to the bow and grabbing a long pole from the top deck would direct the bow towards the passengers on the bank so they could jump aboard after throwing the deckhand their sacks of luggage. The deckhand would then push the boat with his pole away from the bank.

Families got on. Moms with small children, wiping tears and waving at loved ones left on the shore, got on. And later, a large group of young men, filthy in their tattered pants and t-shirts, so different in attire from the other well-dressed passengers. Later that day in San Carlos we saw this group huddled around a kiosk at the port which advertised “We Buy Gold!” And then it made sense to me. These men must have come straight from the hills, before getting on the ferry after panning or sluicing for gold, like Yarlen one day described to us.

Our food and bathroom stop on the Costa Rica side of the river.

Back at the port in San Juan de Nicaragua that morning I had asked a ferry worker if we would be making any stops where we could buy coffee or food. He said that yes, we would be sneaking into Costa Rica for a quick stop at a store. And sure enough we did.

Which reminds me that I should tell you that I was sick. In the middle of the night two nights prior I awoke to a bout of diarrhea. I almost didn’t go on the cemetery tour because of it, but felt fine so I went and was fine all day. That night (last night) it was worse, so I was worried about today’s 8-hr ferry ride. I was the only one of us sick, so that was good. And I had no idea what had made me so, since we all had basically been eating the same things.

The good news was that the ferry had a bathroom in the back and there was toilet paper. The bad news was that there wasn’t a seat on the toilet so I had to balance myself over the bowl while the ferry was moving. There was a two-part bathroom door which opened straight out into the boat’s cabin, which did not lock, and in fact did not even close unless you kept two hands on the two parts at the same time and pushed outward. While you were balancing over the bowl and keeping your pants up off the dirty floor but not too high up to be at risk of defecation. While the boat was moving remember. So, my explosive aim had to be impeccable. And I’m happy to report that it was.

But this was the other bad news: There was no way to make the toilet flush! What was I to do?

Our ferry at the Costa Rica food and bathroom stop.

There was a large bottle of disinfectant in the corner. Surely I wasn’t supposed to use that? But I did use a little to see if it would flush. No luck. I swore under my breath and peeked out the door. Then walked from the toilet at the back of the boat to the front of the boat and dug around in my gear bag till I found a large bottle of water.

I tried to look nonchalant and cool as I returned to the back of the boat, hoping no one had beat me back to the toilet. But alas, sacrificing my large bottle of purified drinking water in an attempt to flush the toilet did nothing more than dilute my mess. I gave up and returned to my seat. What else was I supposed to do? I reported the good news and the bad news about the toilet situation to my friends. They just shrugged. I don’t think any of them used it.

JoAnne, enjoying the misty morning view while listening to an audiobook.

When we were at our sneaked-into-Costa Rica shop stop I did find a bathroom there with a large barrel of water for flushing, and I flushed that toilet to my heart’s content. But I felt horrible about the one on the ferry and so I fessed up to the deckhand. He dismissed me, saying not to worry about the toilet not flushing – that it takes care of itself. I don’t know what he meant by that – does it just drain somehow on its own? And does it just empty into the river? I never did find out but I did use it again and my prior deposit was gone.

(Here’s a tip: I continued with diarrhea for three more days – making it six days in total – until I followed my friend Melissa G McVaugh’s advise and ate half a tablespoon of finely chopped fresh ginger, washed down with orange juice. Just like that, within a day my sickness was gone.)

Back on the river, we motored past all of the places we’d stopped at: the Delta house, the Cousin’s house. We even saw the cousins’ panga tied up in front of their school at the Costa Rican village of Boca de San Carlos.

Stopping at a military checkpoint.

We stopped at all of the same military checkpoints too. Between each stop, the deckhand passed around a sheet of paper where each passenger had to fill out their information and cedula (Nicaraguan residency identification) or passport number. By the end of the day I knew my cedula number by heart, which is something I’d never even considered needing to do before.

We motored past our Bamboo Camp, up through the rapids there, and looked back over at the old boiler from the sunken ship that had caused the island to form in the first place.

I thought back onto the tales of the 1700s, of pirates coming up the river to loot Grenada and taking their bounty back down river with them.

I thought of the 1800s and the building of the fort at El Castillo by the Spaniards to guard the route to Grenada.

I thought of the British who fought alongside the indigenous tribes in order to defeat the Spaniards.

And I thought of the tens of thousands, if not 100,000 people who traveled up this very river in the mid 1800s on their way from New York to California during the California Gold Rush. Long before the Panama Canal was built.

And of Cornelius Vanderbilt and his transport company that conveyed them. And of the notorious American, William Walker, who tried to cheat him out of his transport company’s right to use the river, while making himself president of Nicaragua. An American! And also ransacked the fort in El Castillo along the way.

There is so much crazy, swashbuckling history here, although you’d never know it now in the quiet of the jungle, beyond the remnants of the fort and even the existence of the town of El Castillo. Beyond the old boiler that caused an island to be created. Beyond the cemetery that holds the tombstones of men who died while doing their job and others who died along the edge of the jungle just trying to stay alive.

A boatman in wooden canoe along the river.

We passed boatmen in dugout wooden canoes who know the river and their boats and the creatures of the jungle in ways that I can’t even imagine, and have likely never driven a car or even left the river.

Our two guides have never left the river.

We passed homes without refrigeration. Where a dip in the river is your morning bath. Where you paddle or motor yourself and your siblings down river or up, to school.

Where you have very little in your pantry, if you even have a pantry at all, but you have fresh fish in your river, chickens and fresh eggs in your front yard, cows in your pasture, and beans drying on a mat.

Where Scarlet Macaws keep you company and the mists rise with you at daybreak.

Where the wood you need for cooking grows rapidly outside your door.

And where a ferry comes by several times a week and all you have to do is wave it down to get a ride.

We stopped at El Castillo and picked up a memento of our trip – a wooden canoe paddle made by Yarlen in his woodshop when he’s not out guiding trips. His wife and two other daughters met us at the port and passed it to us through the ferry’s non-existent windows.

Yarlen’s family delivered his wooden paddle to us at El Castillo.

We met Juan Alberto Aguilar Gomez there also, and were able to give him our thanks for his facilitation of our trip and our great jungle hike and bamboo camp.

And I got another chance at bucket-flushing toilets in a restaurant with toilets by the dock.

Then on we went past Hotel Sabalos and onto San Carlos. It was roughly 1:00.

Eve and JoAnne headed off to the bus station in search of the 2 pm bus to Managua. John and I checked back into our hotel room at Hotel Buen Lago, and then returned to the port at 4 pm to meet the slow Lento ferry with our kayaks. It arrived around 5 pm. We watched a river otter feeding along the wharf, and a young girl lost in solo imaginary play alongside a weather-beaten vessel with a dark man inside – her father?

And then there, in the distance rounding the corner and coming into view was the boat with our boats riding along topside. John let out a sigh of relief, glad to see that our kayaks had made it back to us safe.

The Captain of the boat himself, the one who’d lashed the two kayaks down to the ferry’s top deck at our bidding back in San Juan de Nicaragua, climbed up top and untied them this time.

John looks out at the rapids at El Castillo.

We then tied them onto the rack of our rental car, which had been waiting for us under cover at the port this whole time. (“And collecting bird poop,” John just asked me to add.)

We threw our bags of gear inside and locked its door once again. We’d be back the next morning to pick up the car with our gear and our boats, and drive home to San Juan del Sur. It would be a six and a half hour drive home, around almost the entirety of Lake Nicaragua (Lago Cocibolca), in less time than it took us today on the ferry. But that would be tomorrow.

Today we’d traversed the entire length of the Rio San Juan by ferry. It took us 8 hours with a motor going upstream.

We had taken six days paddling down river over the same stretch of water.

We’d endured the first scorching hot day; 27 miles of paddling with JoAnne and Eve in their rented double kayak. And a fabulous night in our now-beloved Hotel Sabalos.

And then a short day’s paddle, with the gals now in a canoe, through the river’s biggest rapids to the colorful town and fort of El Castillo, where we did some exploring.

Then our jungle hike and the spider monkey and the trogon and the poison dart frogs held in Juan’s hands. Our bamboo camp and first night in hammocks.

And then our home stays, two nights in a row – first at our guide Yarlen’s cousins’ house where I fumbled with the hammock and was spooked by night noises in the dark, and then the Delta House where I bathed with gourds of fresh water while looking deep into the greens of the jungle and felt peace-filled joy after a stinging bout with shame – bookending our longest most brutal day on the river of all: 42 miles.

Our kayaks arrive back at San Carlos on the slower and less comfortable panga ferry.

And then we saw the sea. We’d paddled 125 miles, Source to Sea!

We rested and recovered in the comforts of Hotel Familiar in San Juan de Nicaragua, while visiting the gravestones of males and females who’d laid down to rest for good, many years ago.

And now we were back where we’d started in San Carlos about to turn our backs to the river.

But we’d been on more than a river.

We’d just spent eight days paddling and walking and breathing and dreaming through a living natural, cultural and historical museum.

I felt honored and humbled and amazed and graced.

We’ll be back.

Today’s video: Ferry ride back upriver to San Carlos.

The End.