An American Abroad

Nicaragua 2008: The Tributaries of the Rio San Juan

Continuing my reminiscences of a journey my son and I took to Granada and El Castillo in 2008 . . .

In El Castillo, Spencer and I inquired around town and found a native-born naturalist with a canoe who agreed to take us deeper into the jungle on the tributaries of the Rio San Juan. We were interested in seeing some of the animals (other than the domesticated species) that inhabit the jungle near the Nicaragua/Costa Rica border. We took two excursions with him, one by day and one by night.

Ironically, the first and most numerous animals I saw during the daylight hours were actually nocturnal. There were short-tailed bats (possibly of the genus Carollia) clinging to the sides of trees along the riverbanks, presumably sleeping and awaiting the evening hours.

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We also spied some bright green iguanas along the riverbank, though they blended in so well with the foliage we had to be lucky to see one contrasted against a darker background.

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As we meandered through the streams and tributaries, we caught glimpses of some primate species high in the trees above. They were so far off the ground — and I had such an inadequate little point-and-shoot digital camera — that I wasn’t able to get any good pictures of them. But we certainly heard them chattering as we approached. But we did get close enough to some of the river birds to get their pictures. This anhinga (whose name means snake bird or devil bird) was out fishing on a rock in the middle of the stream

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When we weren’t focused on animals, my son and I relaxed under the hot, clear skies. Occasionally we’d look at each other and say something like “Holy shit — we’re in Nicaragua.”

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During our nighttime excursion, our guide used a searchlight to locate some of the river animals, whom we saw first by their eyes glowing weirdly as the light swept over them. This juvenile alligator freaked me out a little. It was so primitive-looking. Looking at it at night in the middle of the Central American jungle made feel like I’d been transported back in time 10,000 years or more. He belonged there. I didn’t.

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In contrast, this mourning dove seemed almost out of place in the jungle; I wondered why he wasn’t back at home in a big city.

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This adolescent green iguana was very friendly; he would have come home with us if we’d wanted.

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When he grows up, he’ll look something like this.

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We caught frogs and caught glimpses of other birds that night. Unfortunately, though, we didn’t come across any larger animals.

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So ended my first (and so far only) trip into a tropical jungle. That brief excursion birthed a number of dreams that I’ve not yet realized. I still stare at maps of the Amazon and the Congo and hope that someday I’ll be able to tackle those far more forbidding riverine environments.

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