Welcome to the Jungle

Trip Start Apr 19, 2013
Trip End Feb 19, 2014

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Flag of Costa Rica  , Province of Alajuela,
Wednesday, July 17, 2013

We arrived into the Rio San Juan area of Nicaragua via an overnight ferry from the Island of Ometepe. This was a portion of our trip that took quite some planning because there are only two of these ferries a week leaving from Ometepe.  

We got on the ferry at around 6pm after having paid extra for a ticket ┤with chair┤.  This was a very interesting journey which would take us through the night, on an open topped ferry where we slept on deck chairs and arrived at around 6am next morning.  As soon as the ferry began moving, we knew we were in for a cold night.  I changed into my warmest clothing and had my travel towel over me as a blanket.  After a couple of hours of terrible sleep, I realized that more warmth was needed so moved my chair to an area with less wind and got into my sleeping bag inner liner (we didn┤t bring actual sleeping bags, just inner liners that are enough for times like this!).  After this, I managed to get through the night, though woke to find the floor covered with two inches of water and our bags soaked through - had it rained?  It must have!  The tourists on the boat all slept up on the top deck on their deck chairs while the locals were inside the ship on benches - I┤m not sure who got the better deal!  The ferry was also used to transport cargo so many people slept on top of their cargo.  The award for most talented sleeper has to go to the guy we saw sleeping on a ladder!  Anyway, once we had arrived into the port of San Carlos, we quickly found a boat which would take us up river to the fort town of El Castillo.  We actually almost missed the boat as Robbie had to rush out into the rain to withdraw more cash as there were no cashpoints further up the river.  

The journey up river was stunning as the downpour abated and we got to see our first glimpse of jungle!  The reason for wanting to travel here was really to get as deep into untouched jungle as we could which is why the travelling took so much time and planning.  We wanted to have the opportunity to witness the incredible wildlife and ecosystems of the jungle of Central America before the opportunity would be gone due to industrial development or over commercialization of the area.  While researching this part of the trip, we had already found information about future plans for the area which made us incredibly sad, including plans to build a road alongside the river (the river cuts right through the heart of the jungle) and even the plan to possibly use the river for industrial cargo ships, to haul goods from China into the middle of Central America.   

Anyway, with this in mind, we made our journey by boat further up the Rio San Juan and closer to the heart of the Nicaraguan Jungle.  Just a quick note about the geography of the area, the Rio San Juan forms a natural border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica which means when you are travelling through it, you have Nicaragua on one side and Costa Rica on the other.  It also means that the military along the river are very tetchy about travelling and you are expected to fill in forms at every point including giving your passport details.  I would have thought that miles of dense jungle would have provided a very successful natural border control itself but the military were obviously not convinced!

Arriving in El Castillo, we were welcomed by a very pretty town topped by a high primitive fort which gave the town its name.  Later on in our stay here, we went to visit the town┤s museum and find out more about the local history, which was really amazing.  The fort was built in the effort to defend mainland Nicaragua from the real deal Pirates of the Caribbean who would use the Rio San Juan as a passage directly to Grenada - a city of treasure and delights!  El Castillo was built right on a bend in the river, next to the ┤devils rapids┤ which would have been nature┤s way of stopping the pirates in their tracks.  How incredible to be stood in the fort, looking out onto the river where the battles of the pirates really took place.  We even went into the dank jails where captured pirates languished!   

Anyway, back to our trip; we arrived in El Castillo and headed to the beautiful Nena Lodge.  We later had a chat to Nena herself who told us about some of the jungle tours we could do.  We were happy that the tour was what we wanted (having researched it beforehand) but held off booking it immediately to have a look at the other offers.  We had pretty much decided to book with Nena Lodge when two European girls approached us in the street asking if we had booked a tour yet.  We told them about our intended tour with Nena and it was decided that they would come along too in order to make the trip cheaper for all involved - result!  Next day, we were up early, donning wellington boots to head into the jungle with our guide.  After completing the necessary paperwork for the military, we were once again on a boat, heading further up the river.  Our first stop was another military base where we had to sign into the protected area of the jungle.  We had no idea when we arrived at this camouflage painted military outpost that we would see some of the most amazing wildlife of the day.  After signing in, our guide took us round the back of the building and pointed up to a tree and there it was - the animal I┤d most hoped to see but never dreamed we would find - a sloth!  He was so lovely - we only managed to see him well with binoculars because he was so high but he was absolutely wonderful - at first sleeping lying down but then slowing moving his head to peer down at us.  I was so happy, I honestly couldn┤t stop grinning!  I joked to Robbie that we could head home now, I was done!  But next, the guide brought us to some shrubs around the bottom of a tree - carefully moving forward and pointing, we spotted tiny little green poison dart frogs.  They were very beautiful and had the most incredible textured skin.  We all tried taking photos without getting too close!  Robbie and I also spotted absolutely huge (adult hand size) grasshoppers which we were amazed at but the guide just waved them away - ┤┤just grasshoppers┤┤ he said!

Back on the boat, we headed to the drop off point for the jungle walk.  Heading out of the boat and into the jungle was a amazing.  The trees were so dense and thick that you felt as if you were indoors.  The humidity was very high and although it was raining, so few drops actually touched your skin due to the density of the tree canopy.  We were actually so pleased that it was raining as we were in a rainforest after all and the sound of the gentle rain mixed with the noises of the jungle was really beautiful.  Our little safety talk on entrance to the jungle was pretty intimidating; don┤t touch ANYTHING, it may be poisonous or something may be on it that will bite you!  Apparently, huge tarantulas wait next to the most beautiful flowers waiting for a hummingbird to visit and then.....*shudder*.  The guide didn┤t have to worry - we understood perfectly!

We began the walk through the jungle and the guide showed us lots of really interesting plants and trees. Some trees were incredibly intelligent and had the ability to actually walk their roots to be closer to water - they call them walking trees.  Other trees had such a loud sound when knocked that tribes-people had used them to make signals to each other through miles of jungle.  We came to one plant which had medicinal effects - the guide had us suck on a seed of the plant and at once our mouths turned numb - a natural anesthetic!  I wished desperately that we could have these little seeds at home - it would have been the perfect solution to my sore wisdom tooth a few months ago!  We drew the line however, when the guide told us we could survive in the jungle by eating termites - we said ┤┤after you┤┤ at which he refused!  No thanks!  We also saw hundreds of terrifying 1.5 inch long bullet ants which apparently gave you an agonizing bite for 24 hours.

After walking a little way through the jungle, the guide stopped, looking up into the trees and hurriedly ushered us forward.  Initially, I thought he had spotted a monkey, but it turned out to be a white anteater - an incredibly rare find!  We watched the anteater curl its long tail round a branch and sniff around, scouting for a meal.  Again, he was so high that we could only see him through binoculars but it was still such a magical thing to see.  The guide told us we had good energy to be able to see so much wildlife!  We didn┤t see any further animals in this part of the jungle, but we got to walk for about 3 hours and see many different types of trees - the jungle really was beautiful.  Robbie was especially pleased that we had trekked through the jungle and he still hadn┤t seen any snakes - they obviously felt his negative vibes towards them.

After the walk, we got back into the boat and headed to some smaller rivers to see some wildlife around these parts.  We saw lots of huge iguana┤s - probably the best part of a meter with tail.  The colours of these were amazing - the brightest green you can imagine.  We also saw little lizards that could literally run on water.  We saw a couple of turtles too, though these were very shy and would jump into the water as soon as they heard the boat come past.  Suddenly, the guide motioned for the driver to stop the boat.  We pulled up to some muddy water at the bank of the river and he pointed....for an age I could not see what he was pointing at, but finally a camen came into view!  A camen is a small crocodile and it was so amazing to see.  He was very very still, not moving a muscle while we watched him.  He obviously knew he had pretty good camouflage in the muddy water with branches about him!  The driver moved the boat closer to him and decided to give him a prod with a stick - the camen moved so fast and with such power!  Thankfully he moved away and wasn┤t interested in going for the attack!

A little further down the river, we had the opportunity to swim which I was the only person to take up. It wasn┤t really a proper swim because the water was too shallow but it was refreshing and a great experience to dip in the river in the jungle and the guide had PROMISED there would be no camen here!

Next, we headed to an archeological site of a steamship, whose wrecks had formed an island in the middle of the river.  We learnt about how the river was used in the days of the California gold rush to transport Europeans through the west coast of the USA.  This was an arduous journey that involved changing boats numerous times (and walking round the devils rapids in El Castillo).  These absolutely gigantic steamships were used to transport people up river, when unsurprisingly, this one ran aground.  In the years that have passed, nature has taken over this metal carcass and formed an island out of driftwood merging with the wreck. The main section that is still visible is the funnel which is great for giving a scale to the ship - it would have been massive!  There is a huge bamboo forest growing all around the funnel - in a few years, I doubt it will really be visible any more.  

From here, we headed back to El Castillo - we were absolutely shattered and pretty muddy, but we were so pleased with our tour and the way we had been able to see the darkest jungle (and lots of wildlife too).  On the way home, we passed howler monkeys shrieking in the trees and even saw a couple of Toucan - which Robbie was very pleased about.  

While we were on our trip, the guide was talking to us about tourism in the region and how the government was trying to promote eco-tourism in the jungle.  There were really very little tourists in this area and we knew before arriving that it was off the beaten track due to the difficulty in planning and finding out information.  However, I believe that this was one of our most magical experiences and the Rio San Juan has so much to offer.  They have it set up well for eco-tourism too as only a tiny sliver of the jungle is open for exploration.  95% of it remains proper, dense, unexplored jungle where you need a folders worth of legal papers to allow you to do research.  In this area, a couple of tribes still live, completely untouched by the outside world.  It┤s amazing to know that pockets like this still exist (and that the tribes-people still have better dental anesthetic than the so-called developed world!).  One sad thing to note was that during our sail down the river, although the Nicaraguan side of the border still had rough, unadulterated jungle, the Costa Rican side had mowed down much of their forest to make way for agriculture and cattle farms.  It was incredible to notice the difference between the two sides and made me sad that such a unique and delicate eco-system had been brushed aside to make way for farming.  We also saw areas where the road had begun to be built, which broke my heart.  The idea that toxic fumes from cars would be making their way to be trapped under the jungle canopy made me wonder how anyone could not believe that this land was sacred. 

Once back in El Castillo, we spent the afternoon and following morning enjoying the rest of what the town had to offer.  This included tasting the most magnificent smoothie - made with frozen banana and cocoa beans - intense but delicious.  We also tasted river camerones (shrimp) which were delicious.  We had a trip to a butterfly sanctuary where we watched huge butterflies and even held one (apparently, when they are the size of saucers, it doesn┤t hurt to touch them!).  

Next day, we headed back down the river, in order to stop off at a lodge in the middle of the jungle.  As lovely as El Castillo was (and necessary to be able to access the section of protected jungle), we really wanted to spend some time in a very remote area of the jungle.  There are a couple of well-established lodges on the river; however they come at a high price!  During our research, we found a fairly new lodge which was owned by a Nicaraguan family and it was a much more reasonable price, so we decided to try here.  This was named the Grand Hotel River Lodge and I am so pleased we gave it a shot as it was wonderful!  From the moment we stepped off the boat, we could see a wooden path snaking through the marshland up to a set of adorable caba˝as on the horizon.  This was totally remote and on a beautiful stretch of the river.  We walked up to the caba˝as and were welcomed by the family.  In ten minutes, our caba˝a was ready for us and to our delight, they had laid beautiful flower decorations on the fresh white sheets - so wonderful!  Our caba˝a was lovely with a private showroom.  It was very basic, however I don┤t believe you head all the way into deep jungle to sit in a 5* resort!  

 After a simple but delicious lunch, we spoke to Jearo (the father of the family and manager of the lodge) about the activities we could do in the lodge.  He said he could take us fishing and when we asked how much, he said completely free which was incredible.  The other lodges all had wonderful activities but they came at a price so it was wonderful that we were able to do these things.  An hour later, Jearo came past our caba˝a with bamboo fishing rods and said ┤┤listo?┤┤ (which means ┤┤ready?┤┤) - well OK then!  He took us to a battered little boat, with mud patching holes in the bottom, which we had to empty of water before we got in!  Robbie and I took one each of Jearo┤s wellington boots and got pouring!  We were soon paddling across the river until we reached the other side, where we tied up and got fishing. I had never fished before and it took me a couple of tries to get over the gruesome nature of hooking worms for bait, however, we soon got into the swing of it, though the fish were not too interested in being caught that day.  After a few tiny fish, I finally hooked a big one!  Well, a big ish one (see pics!) - I was so pleased I had caught one worth keeping.  When we got back to the lodge, the mother of the family said she would clean it and cook it for me - amazing!

That night, we ate our fish by candlelight (there had been a power cut) and it was a wonderful evening until the mosquito┤s turned up in the THOUSANDS.  We escaped to our room where we had a really ingenious net which was shaped like a box over the bed, so the netting wasn┤t quite so claustrophobic.  Saying that, we had the candle on a chair by the bed and the chair was still holding our beautiful floral decoration which I couldn┤t bear to throw away, so laying in our dark purple box bed, with floral arrangements lit by candlelight, I said I felt like I was laying in wake at my own funeral!  We slept well that night and didn┤t get molested by the mosquitos.  

In the morning, we had breakfast and then Jearo took us horse riding.  It was only a short ride and probably for the best as our horses clearly knew we didn┤t have a clue what we were doing and were being very naughty until Jearo rode up and gave them a little slap on their backside!  We saw some beautiful scenery during the ride.  At one point, Jearo motioned for Robbie to go first and gave his horse a great smack to get him running - it was hilarious to watch as the horse ran forward and sank down to his belly in muddy water while Jearo and I laughed watching Robbie try and keep his legs above water!  Well, it was funny until he did the same to me!  

Later that afternoon, Jearo took us along with a Belgian couple to look for birds in the jungle.  We saw some lovely birds and some monkeys too; however we were absolutely mauled by mosquitos.  There were thousands buzzing around us at all times and although we had covered ourselves in repellent, they were still landing on our bare skin and biting us through clothes.  We all looked cartoonish stood looking up at monkeys and swatting ourselves continuously all over.  This is the only time when it is alright for a near stranger to reach out and slap you clean across the face - ┤┤got him┤┤ they say!  After dinner that night, (where we got eaten alive again), we counted the damage - we were both pretty chewed up but to give you an idea, Robbie had over 40 bites on his back alone.  

Next day, we were taken on a tour of the cacao plantation that the family had set up.  This was very interesting but unfortunately, we had to receive the translated version as Jearo┤s Spanish was too much for us to understand.  One of the most interesting points was that when the Spanish came over to Central America, they found that the most precious thing to the locals wasn┤t gold or treasures, but chocolate.  In discovering chocolate, the Spanish decided to take the cacao over to Africa to plant, where it acclimatized very well.  This is the reason that now, today, Africa is the world's largest chocolate exporter and Latin America sells very little in comparison.  Jearo also opened the pods to allow us to taste the seeds; the seeds are covered with a kind of soft, sweet mush which you can suck off - it is very tasty!  He told us about the different colours of the pods and how that affects the flavour of the mush inside!  After this, he took us for another walk in the jungle to look for wildlife - unfortunately, after the mosquito massacre the previous day, we really weren┤t enjoying being in the jungle.  We felt very vulnerable as thousands of the things buzzed around our already sore and itchy bodies.  

We had loved the trip to the jungle in all its wonderful wildness, but after a week (and after battling a cockroach out of my toiletry bag) we were happy to head back to some civilization!  

On the morning we left, we caught a glimpse of a giant river otter while waiting for our boat, a really rare site and a lovely goodbye from the jungle!  We took the boat back to San Carlos, where we took another boat to Los Chiles - the border town of Costa Rica on the Rio San Juan.  This has got to be the best border crossing of all - a beautiful, calm hour long boat ride and a very relaxed entrance to Costa Rica! 

Next was a fast paced travel through Costa Rica and Panama (we would love to explore both places but time and money pressures mean we prefer to explore one country well rather than explore a lot of countries badly) and as relaxed as the border crossing to Costa Rica was, the crossing into Panama was the most stressful (well not quite as bad as the states but almost!).  We arrived late at night at the border crossing from Costa Rica to Panama and unhelpfully, I lost one of my flip flops on the bus so had to hobble round barefoot – great impression!  When we got to the immigration desk, the man asked us how we were leaving the country.  I showed him our confirmation email for the boat trip we would be going on in 2 days but no. Not good enough.  I tried battling with him, asking him to call the lady we had booked through to confirm, but no.  He said we needed a plane ticket or a bus ticket out of Panama otherwise he wouldn’t let us in.  We needed to buy a ticket from our bus driver to the value of 60 quid (which we would never see again – the tickets are sold with names and passport numbers so you can┤t sell them on).  Very frustrating but unavoidable.  Next, all the passengers from the bus were taken into a room full of army guys with big guns (lots of these in Latin America) where the door was locked and we had to answer to a register to check we were all here.  We were spoken to in Spanish by an official kind of guy and then the army guys dispersed themselves among us and motioned for us to open our bags.  After a very stressful and official seeming business, the army guys took one quick peep into our bags and motioned us out again. Phew – it┤s nothing like a big gun to make you feel like you┤ve done something wrong when you haven┤t!  Anyway – on to Panama City.  This place wasn┤t too enchanting and unfortunately, most people we┤ve met have been pretty rude.  Though I can see how the stress of this kind of city could get the best of you so I┤ll give them the benefit of the doubt! 

Next up is a sailing trip to Colombia!

Next time I blog, we will be in South America! Adiˇs! xx

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