We had hoped to be on the river by 8:00 am but by the time we had our travel permits issued by the military, our Nicaraguan flags tied onto our boats and the rental kayak’s rudder repaired it was closer to 9 am when we launched from the port.
Juan Alberto Aguilar Gomez, our guide, stayed behind to do some last minute shopping in the relatively thriving metropolis of San Carlos. Later he would carry Eve’s and JoAnne’s gear down river via the ferry panga to our hotel in Sábalos. The following morning he would be joining us with his motorized panga, his canoe for JoAnne and Eve, and the guided portion of our trip would begin.
But today we would be on our own.
Twenty-seven miles to Sábalos.
Twenty-seven miles under a scorching Central American sun, down a somewhat lazily flowing river.
We were lucky that the wind was uncharacteristically at our back.
We were lucky that it had rained recently and the river was up and the current was moving as fast as it was.
We were lucky that we were all athletes, used to using our bodies, used to enduring physical pain.
The screams of Howler Monkeys accompanied us all the way down river. Swallows banked and curved across the glistening water surface. Egrets hunted from the shores and large Tarpon fish rose their pinkish white backs to the surface like ancient sea creatures ascending, and then descended again.
At almost a quarter-mile wide, the river was broad. Paddling along its banks was the most interesting – the wave of a child, the flutter of butterfly, the leaf-tremble of a monkey – but the river current was typically fastest in the center and we had miles to go before it got dark.
We’d hoped to take a break and stretch our legs every hour. We’d hoped to dip in the river to cool off when the heat became unbearable.
“Don’t go swimming in the main river,” said Juan back at the port. “There are too many crocodiles.”
And when we looked at the banks of the river, overgrown, muddy, and steep, our dreams of getting out of our boats every hour quickly disappeared.
As it turns out, we got out of our boats only once in the six hours it took us to paddle the twenty-seven miles to our hotel that day.
At eight miles down river we fortunately came to a boat ramp under the Santa Fe bridge which takes vehicular traffic across to Costa Rica. There, in the shade cast by the bridge, we ate lunch on a grassy knoll and watched passengers embark on the ferry pangas they flagged down. Juan was on one of those boats, waving to us as he headed downriver with our gear to our hotel.
The river was dark with tannins. The air was alive with the screams of monkeys and parrots and parakeets. Vines covered trees like woven green blankets. And pangas plied the river back and forth, breaking the monotony of the water’s flat surface with their undulating, shimmering wake.
The sun beat down.
We tried to apply and reapply sunscreen but our faces were their own rivers of sweat.
Blisters formed on our hands and our lips.
Our necks ached, our hips ached and our arms grew heavy.
I made it all the way through the song “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” (my go-to song when I really need to get my mind off of my physical pain) without a single miss.
JoAnne Stoltz and Eve Kohlman began their own chant of 50 paddle strokes and then rest.
John’s arms grew so heavy it was hard to raise his paddle.
And then suddenly a settlement of closer-spaced farm houses appeared, with canoes tied up along the banks and music deliciously pouring out of a few of the small wooden shacks.
“We’re getting close,” John said. And sure enough, around the next bend, in the distance, was our hotel, Hotel Sábalos.
I let out a cheer!
When we arrived we stumbled out of our boats, first onto the hotel’s panga and then onto the wooden deck, willing our backs and hips to loosen and our legs and feet to move us forward.
Hotel Sábalos was everything we hoped it would be.
Clean. Beautiful. Comfortable. Ice cold beer.
Hammocks and showers and lovely staff and a fabulous filling meal.
That night it rained and the lights flicked off and then back on. We slept the sleep of the truly tired.
To be continued…