Rio San Juan Series #5 of 11: El Castillo to Bamboo Island Camp (Nica Nugget #71)

Today we saw a red poison dart frog, a green-and-black poison frog, a spider monkey and our first crocodile. Not to mention that we slept in hammocks on a bamboo island created by river debris around the remains of a stern wheeler once wrecked in the rapids.

So, let’s begin…

The day opened wet and rainy. It was rainy season after all. Lightening though could force us off the river. But we needn’t have worried. We only had eight miles to paddle and we’d be spending two hours hiking in the jungle.

Juan Alberto Aguilar Gomez was in the stern of the canoe today, with Eve Kohlman and JoAnne Stoltz.

He was taking us downriver to one of only two real access points for the Indio Maiz Refuge. This one was located near the mouth of the Bartola River, just 5 miles downriver from El Castillo. The other, I am told, is located days away near the Caribbean Sea by San Juan de Nicaragua.

The entrance to the trail.

Juan said that about ten years ago a group of guides created the loop trail we’d be hiking on. Now the local Alcaldia (municipality) takes care of its maintenance. Access to the trail is up the Bartola River, not far from the military station which is at its mouth.

We tied our boats off at the bottom of wooden steps and then climbed up to a sheltered platform to change into our rain boots which Juan had brought along.

The Indio Maiz Reserve is a rainforest. The trail is consequently always damp. With today’s rain, the trail was a virtual miniaturized river. Even my rain boot got stuck in the mud and my stockinged foot came flying out. It was a jerky balancing act not to land face first in the detritus-strewn muck.

Following Juan on our jungle hike in Indio Maiz Reserve.

Juan once was bit by a fer-de-lance, a type of pit viper, right through his rain boot. He was twenty years old and spent two months in the hospital. No Chaco-wearing in the jungle for me!

In my Nica Nugget #72 I’ll post a short video I shot while we hiked through the jungle, because pictures alone don’t do it justice.

The video at least lets you hear the water running down the trail and the slosh of the muck under our boots. It doesn’t let you feel the heat though, nor the air that feels like you just got out of a steamy hot shower. Nor the squirmy sensation of really not wanting to accidentally step too far off of the trail.

Also the smell. You can’t smell the decay of leaf litter in the pictures or the videos. That dank smell that both lures and repels you from picking up a fallen frond.

And so you will need to imagine the heat, the steam, the repulsion, and the lure for yourself.

Eve in the jungle.

Imagine too a craning neck, as you look around branches at the spider monkey, and as you gawk at the tiny neon-colored poisonous dart frogs Juan managed to catch and hold in his hands. So tiny. So bright. So high they jump. And how important it was for him to wash his hands after their handling. And then imagine nibbling on the end of a leaf and your tongue going numb – a natural novocaine!

Fungi. Fungi. And more fungi. The jungle was a veritable decomposition extravaganza. What wasn’t alive was dying. What had died was being eaten or recycled or farmed back into life. What was alive was trying not to be eaten or was trying to mate or to attract a pollinator or just to have a dang good meal.

It was a busy place. It felt like if we didn’t keep moving the jungle would consume us. That’s how I felt anyway – as if spider webs were already calling my name.

Two hours later we were back at the shelter above the Rio Bartola, stripping off our muddy boots, scrambling into our boats and paddling out into the relative open. Since the river is dark as mud, every sort of living creature that is down there is hidden to us – crocodiles, caiman, fish, the river’s famed sharks – and sometimes having things hidden is just fine by me.

We paddled up the Rio Bartola which was a workout since the river was narrow and the current against us was swift. I followed John as we worked our way up the eddies under overhanging trees. Juan and the girls paddled up from behind.

Drinking fresh coconut milk along the Rio Bartola.

And there up the stream along the bank we met up with Yarlen, who would be our guide for the remainder of the trip. He had arrived in Juan’s panga and had a wood fire going with our lunch of fresh-caught, grilled fish. It was delicious. As was our out-of-the-coconut drink.

We were hungry. We were tired. And the sky still hung low.

After lunch we headed back out the Rio Bartola. Yarlen was in the back of the canoe this time with the gals while Juan went ahead with the panga to our camp. Yarlen has an eye for wildlife and birds otherwise hidden in the jumble of trees along the riverside. He spotted a giant green iguana sunning itself on a limb and then splash! Startled, it jumped straight into the river. My eye caught the flash of green. My camera lens caught the splash.

Bamboo Camp.

We turned onto the Rio San Juan and headed another three miles downriver to our camp. It was there, just a few hundred yards before camp, that Yarlen and the gals saw a crocodile in front of their canoe. John turned his head at their yell in time to see its splash. I missed all of it, intent on the rapids surrounding our upcoming camp.

The boiler of the ship that sank, which created the bamboo island, was all that was left of the ship for us to see. But it was there, a stark reminder of the history of the river as a great transport route during the California Gold Rush days in the 1830’s, pre-Civil War in the United States.

Passengers would travel by ship from New York to the mouth of the Rio San Juan and then up its crocodile and shark-infested stream to El Castillo and beyond to San Carlos and then across Lake Nicaragua (Lago Cocibolca) to La Virgen where they’d take a stagecoach across the eleven-mile-wide isthmus to San Juan del Sur, where we happen to live now.

Juan, Yarlen and Eve at our Bamboo Camp.

There, the passengers would catch an ocean-going ship up the coast to California and gold country.

Many a ship sank in the rapids of the Rio San Juan. I can imagine the mayhem and pity the people that went down with them.

Now many years later, we hung hammocks from the bamboo on this newly formed island, ate a delicious meal, drank Coco Locos out of fresh coconuts and played a pop trivia game JoAnne introduced, before the rain sent us all under tarps. (And I’ll have you know that Yarlen guessed he was Michael Jordan way before I guessed I was Ricky Martin. And I’m even from Puerto Rico. Way to go, Yarlen!)

Today’s Video: El Castillo to Bamboo Island Camp.

To be continued….