An American Abroad

Nicaragua 2008: The Buses of San Carlos

After a remarkable visit to El Castillo, Spencer and I caught another riverboat, this one going upriver back to San Carlos. We went directly to the bus station and bought tickets for Managua. While we waited, we drank sodas and watched ancient, brightly-painted buses wheeze into the station and pick up or discharge their human cargoes.

229493_9934244742_9668_n (1)

226348_9934224742_8485_n (1)

226458_9934214742_7887_n (1)

230188_9934219742_8188_n (1)

This bus, below, undoubtedly sported the best motto. “Solo Dios Sabe Se Volvere” means “only God knows if we will return” in Nicaraguan Spanish. That slogan seems far more honest than most travel company taglines.

226833_9934229742_8782_n (1)

When it came time for us to embark, I was disappointed that our bus didn’t sport a wild Latin American paint job. Instead, we were directed toward an elderly Bluebird school bus that had been painted (appropriately enough) a washed-out blue.

227173_9934254742_280_n (1)

228658_9934234742_9076_n (1)

230043_9934259742_607_n (1)

226323_9934264742_916_n (1)

We headed around the northern coast of Lake Nicaragua, riding over roads that had enormous ruts and potholes in them. The Bluebird’s shocks and springs had long ago been exhausted, so we felt every one of those bumps right in our kidneys. Sleep was made impossible by the bus’s audio/visual entertainment system, which shrieked out Latin American music videos at a volume its poor little speakers were never meant to handle. It was only marginally less uncomfortable than our ferry ride to San Carlos had been. And yet we both acknowledged that we were having a good time.

223228_9934249742_9982_n (1)

Over nine hours and 292 kilometers (181 miles) after leaving San Carlos, we finally arrived in Managua and checked into the Crowne Plaza, the pyramid-shaped hotel where Howard Hughes lived in the early 1970s. This was the last stop on our Nicaragua itinerary. We were here:

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.

227873_9930384742_4618_n (1)

231093_9929044742_5547_n (1)

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.

230143_9929049742_6096_n (1)

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

224203_9929064742_7725_n (1)

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.”


228078_9928969742_6423_n (1)

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.

224653_9930299742_9026_n (1)

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.

229243_9930374742_4167_n (1)

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

231088_9930389742_5099_n (1)

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

224018_9930339742_2384_n (1)

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


230878_9930319742_675_n (1)

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.

Nicaragua 2008: The Dogs of El Castillo (Plus a Couple of Horses)

Caution: dangerous generalization ahead.

When I was in the jungle town of El Castillo, Nicaragua in 2008, I was surprised to see so many dogs. I noted with pleasure and approval that the dogs generally looked cared for, well-fed, and to belong to individual households. I don’t recall seeing a single stray there.

225483_9933419742_3554_n (1)

224138_9930219742_3481_n (1)

226813_9933414742_3199_n (1)

230838_9930234742_4203_n (1)

223238_9933429742_4254_n (1)

230423_9933784742_4502_n (1)

The dangerous generalization is that you can tell something about the general happiness of a town and its citizens by how happy their dogs look.

There were no cars in El Castillo and no roads where you could drive one if you wanted to. I did see men coming into town on horseback, though — something else I didn’t expect in the jungle.

225773_9933424742_3901_n (1)

229458_9933409742_2858_n (1)

Nicaragua 2008: The Town of El Castillo

(This is a continuation of my narrative of a trip I took to Nicaragua seven years ago.)

We awoke the morning after our journey down the Rio San Juan to find ourselves in the Victoria Hotel. Since the power had been out when we arrived the night before, we hadn’t had the chance to check out out accommodations. Now we took advantage of the daylight to discover a simple but friendly place which served us a good breakfast. We then set out to explore the town we had traveled so far to see.

226493_9928514742_1962_n (1)

224048_9928299742_1802_n (1)

224338_9928329742_3513_n (1)

El Castillo is a small settlement on the northern bank of the Rio San Juan, near the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The town is sited on a hill by a river bend where the usually-calm waters turn to rapids. This geography made the location the ideal spot to build a fort to defend the river, which is just what the Spanish did in 1673. The bend in the river would force hostile craft coming along the rover to stay within cannon range for a longer period of time than a straightaway would. The rapids would make it difficult for an enemy ship to hold its position long enough to direct cannon fire back at the town. The hill would give the town’s defenders a superior tactical position. Over the centuries, various naval battles took place here as the Spanish fought both pirate ships and the British Navy. In one such battle, the British forces were commanded by a then-22 year old Lord Nelson. The river is still vital to the town; even at the time our our 2008 visit, it was the only practical way in and out of El Castillo.

We found a mellow, slow-going town which seemed to have escaped the extreme poverty we saw as we passed other settlements on the river. There were a couple of restaurants which, during our time in El Castillo, served only chicken as a main course.

225643_9928344742_4431_n (1)

I got my first-ever look inside a restaurant kitchen in the developing world and was struck by its small size, its use of every available space, and its thoughtful organization.

226468_9929544742_145_n (1)

222283_9929539742_9782_n (1)

There were also some small stores in town where water, bug dope, cigarettes and beer could be purchased.

229343_9928914742_5869_n (1)

230413_9928354742_5041_n (1)

222923_9933789742_4833_n (1)

One institution I was surprised to find in such a small, isolated outpost was Alcoholics Anonymous (“Unity, Service, Recovery”).

225468_9928334742_3824_n (1)

The signs of other paths to redemption were evident too.

230133_9928564742_5316_n (1)

230483_9928349742_4743_n (1)

I didn’t know if the name written on the wall was the name of the bird who always sat on his perch in front of it, but I took to calling him Marvin nonetheless.

227013_9928559742_4948_n (1)

Housing was simple but well-kept.

230158_9933434742_4629_n (1)

230453_9928554742_4613_n (1)

I had never been anyplace like El Castillo before, a town that was so self-contained, so cut off from the rest of the region. It felt peaceful and quietly prosperous. The animals there were well-fed. The school uniforms on the children walking to class were clean and tidy. The buildings were simple but pleasing to the eye. My son and I seemed to be the only foreigners in town, but our presence was taken in stride by the locals who neither ignored us nor swarmed over us, but were more than willing to talk with us. Our interactions with them furthered my impression of the Nicaraguan people as generally reserved and friendly.

Nicaragua 2008: Down the Rio San Juan from San Carlos to El Castillo

Following our miserable night on the Lake Nicaragua ferry, we arrived in San Carlos, a town our guidebook charitably described as “scummy.” Situated on the southeastern tip of the lake not far from the Costa Rican border, San Carlos indeed seemed to have nothing whatsoever to recommend it, except for its being situated at the source of the Rio San Juan.

As I shivered in the pre-dawn light and made inquiries about a boat heading downriver to El Castillo, Spencer set off in search of coffee. He brought back two small paper cups of watery lukewarm Nescafé into which had been poured several heaping tablespoons of sugar. It was vile, but I drank it anyway. It did nothing for my chilled, sleep-depraved state.

We found out that we could get passage aboard a riverboat that would leave in several hours. With nothing to recommend San Carlos to us, we made for the nearest hostelry we could find in hopes of getting a morning nap.

I don’t know the name of the place we stayed. I don’t know if it had a name. But it was as scummy as the rest of the town, complete with damp dirty beds, insects, and river-rot. It was built up on stilts over a filthy stagnant stream that slithered into the river at some point.

228283_9927524742_2833_n (1)

It was actually colorful and cheerful-looking, so long as you didn’t peer too closely. Of course, we arrived on wash day; the clothes hanging everywhere hid things that I’d just as soon not see.

225153_9927514742_2166_n (1)

226988_9927544742_4207_n (1)

Our room had a Sandanista slogan painted on its door.

229488_9927529742_3163_n (1)

I slept fitfully, occasionally wondering what I had gotten myself and my son into.

We were here:

Near noon, we checked out and went back to the docks. Along with a couple dozen other passengers, 300 cases of beer, sacks of mail, some chickens, sheep, and a goat, we boarded the riverboat.

226843_9927554742_4878_n (1)

At the appointed time, we shoved off and headed down the river and into the jungle.

We passed by jungle hamlets here and there, places marked by a dock and a few wooden buildings, but without roads. At some of them, we stopped to drop off a passenger or two, some beer, and a sack of mail.

230928_9927634742_209_n (1)

228208_9927629742_9841_n (1)

227523_9927589742_7291_n (1)

227113_9927609742_8380_n (1)

226298_9927604742_8015_n (1)

225568_9927594742_7654_n (1)

The day turned to night and we continued on, more slowly though. The boat’s searchlights cut a sliver of visibility down the river, but otherwise everything was black on both banks.

225843_9927619742_9097_n (1)

It grew late. Finally, after about fifty miles, our destination was announced: El Castillo. The boat docked and we stepped out onto a dock shrouded in darkness. We could see no artificial lights anywhere. We struggled to get our luggage together in total blackness. We were here:

We wandered around until we heard the thrum of a generator and saw a few gleams of light coming from a two-story building with porches up and down on the front. It seemed to be a guesthouse of some sort, so we knocked. A middle-aged woman answered and answered yes to our question about beds for the night. We were delighted. She then led us up a flight of stairs, down a hallway, and out to the porch, where two hammocks hung from the porch beams.

Spencer and I looked at each other, unsure and disappointed. But then the woman let loose a deep laugh — just kidding! — and led us back into the hallway and into a dorm-style room with real beds. Maybe showing us the hammocks first was just clever product positioning on her part, because by the time we got into our spare but clean bedroom, I was incredibly grateful just to have a mattress under my body, a comforter draped over me, and a roof over my head.

I fell asleep almost immediately, wondering what the jungle would have in store for us come the morning.

Nicaragua 2008: A Most Uncomfortable Night

After three days at the luxurious Hotel Colonial in comfortable Granada, it was time for us to begin the second phase of our journey. Our plan was to get a ferry across Lake Nicaragua to San Carlos. There I would walk around the docks til we found a boat going down the Rio San Juan, talk or bribe ourselves aboard, and head out to the jungle settlement of El Castillo. This required a leap of faith on my part. I didn’t know for sure whether we could find a river boat — do you just hail them like taxis? — but I told myself that the last thing I wanted was a Cook’s tour where everything was precisely planned.

Little did I know that finding a boat going to El Castillo would be easy, but that passage aboard the ferry crossing the lake would be a very uncomfortable affair.

We found the lake dock in Granada from which the ferry departed and bought our tickets. I’d read that it was advisable to pay a little extra to get a spot on the upper deck of the ferry and to string a hammock there. I had no problem paying for a place on the upper deck, but in a fit of senseless economizing, I bought only ONE hammock.

What was I thinking?

I guess I figured that I would find a place to sit or lie somewhere on the ferry and that I would let my son luxuriate in the hammock. There had to be chairs, right? And probably an enclosed cabin to escape the elements in?

But no. There were no chairs, benches, or other accommodations. No cabins. Just steel deck-plating. We tied our lone hammock between a mast and a wall cleat and began the overnight lake crossing.

At first, it was pretty nice. We were thrilled to pass within sight of Concepción, the world’s most perfectly formed volcano, on the Isla de Ometepe.

225143_9923319742_8277_n (1)

222663_9923289742_6361_n (1)

The afternoon sun still warmed our bones. Spencer read Heart of Darkness as he swayed in the hammock. We looked down — literally, that is — at all the people on the lower deck trying to find a place to sit where they would be sheltered from the sea spray amid the bicycles, motorcycles, and other cargo.

224393_9923264742_5084_n (1)

We congratulated ourselves on the decision to buy upper-deck tickets. We saw people on our deck laying down and it really didn’t look so bad.

226198_9923254742_4787_n (1)

Many of our deck-mates strung up hammocks and looked quite comfortable in them.

229378_9923309742_7630_n (1)

Others on our deck found places to sit: not chairs, of course, but better than the metal deck plate.

227928_9923239742_3847_n (1)

The sunset on the lake was so beautiful that at first I didn’t feel the approaching evening chill.

225083_9923344742_9916_n (1)

Ah, novice-traveler hubris. By the time darkness fell, we were both getting cold. The steel deck seemed to suck the heat right out of my body. Although we weren’t getting drenched, we shivered in the mist thrown up by the boat as it plowed through the waves. By midnight I felt chilled to the bone, damp, tired, and miserable. I did take turns with my son in our one hammock, which gave some respite, but I felt so guilty about making him sleep on the deck plate that I took most of the time there.

From this wretched, sleepless night, I learned that you can never be too hot out on the deck of a boat at night. The lesson etched itself deeply into my mental library of travel wisdom. In later experiences with nighttime boat rides — for instance, my trip up the Ganges River in Bangladesh aboard a paddlewheel ferry — I made sure to pack warmer clothes.

And if I ever travel across a body of water with a companion, I will be sure to buy two hammocks.

Nicaragua 2008: The Perfection of Granada

Granada is located along the coast of the Lake Nicaragua, the world’s twentieth largest lake. It was founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, and claims to be the first European city on mainland America. In the first centuries after its founding, the city was witness to and victim of many of the battles with English, French and Dutch pirates for control of Nicaragua.

In more recent times, though, Granada avoided most of the violence of the aftermath of the Sandinista revolution in the 1970s and ’80s. Back in 2008, I found a city that had managed to preserve and restore much of its Spanish colonial architecture and its pleasing public streets and squares. I’m not alone in this observation. The story is told that when Pope John Paul II visited Granada, he was so charmed by the town that he told the people not to change a thing.

225798_9919854742_1659_n (1)

225043_9919644742_8718_n (1)

222393_9919859742_1970_n (1)

229023_9921859742_1014_n (1)

227063_9921349742_8550_n (1)

226698_9921404742_1045_n (1)

225523_9921009742_2225_n (1)

230073_9914729742_6239_n (1)

228523_9914734742_6522_n (1)

230408_9921014742_2519_n (1)

When we first encountered this bandstand in a public park, it was empty as you see it here.

227948_9919639742_8396_n (1)

But the next time we happened by, it was mobbed with people. A band played. Different couples took turns dancing in front of the crowd, not so much to show off hot dance moves as to have their time in the limelight. The audience approved.

222393_9922289742_2563_n (1)

224703_9922309742_4270_n (1)

226883_9922274742_1417_n (1)

229583_9922294742_2949_n (1)

We headed down to Lake Nicaragua, not so much because we wanted to beach it, but because we wanted to scope out where we would be catching the ferry across the lake. It being a holiday weekend, many people were heading out for some sun and swimming.

230438_9921874742_2026_n (1)

230973_9921894742_3067_n (1)

Nicaragua 2008: Granada Signs

Looking back at my photos from this 2008 trip, I can see the beginnings of the same fascinations that still characterize my travel photography. Signs and graffiti, to name two.

Some of the signs for professional offices had a beautiful, simple elegance about them.

225428_9919999742_1795_n (1)

222958_9919654742_9023_n (1)

222298_9920654742_9249_n (1)

Others were cheerfully cluttered with text and gave me the impression that you could obtain any kind of service within.

223288_9919869742_2652_n (1)

223233_9920004742_2155_n (1)

230058_9920324742_7792_n (1)

225123_9920329742_8179_n (1)

And then there was this sign for a fried chicken joint, which amused me every time I passed by.

227948_9919739742_672_n (1)

I’m not sure, but I think this was a little love poem, a declaration of affection for one lucky Dario. But maybe some of my more fluent Spanish-speaking readers can set me straight.

225898_9920104742_3718_n (1)

There were a lot of political murals and signs. And many, but not all, of them were in support of Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista party.

227533_9920479742_6293_n (1)

223213_9920474742_5934_n (1)


222923_9920009742_2533_n (1)

230573_9920319742_7371_n (1)

This, below, was a popular political sentiment at the time. Still is.


Nicaragua 2008: La Catedral de Granada

The cathedral of Granada is surely the most photographed building in town. It’s impossible to miss. No matter where we were in Granada, we could see its cheery neoclassical yellow towers in the distance.

226403_9922359742_8267_n (1)

231083_9920679742_1037_n (1)

The original church at this spot was built in 1583. But when the American filibuster and conqueror of Nicaragua, William Walker, came to town in 1855 and began his mad attempt to take control of all Central America. His troops destroyed that building and much of the rest of the city the following year. Construction of a new cathedral began in the late 19th century, but was halted several times due to lack of funds. It was finally finished in 1915.

229543_9920669742_111_n (1)

Because Holy Week preparations were going on, we were unable to get any further inside than the reception area just past the exterior doors. But there, taped to a wall, we spied this charming admonishment.


Even with my kitchen Spanish, I was able to understand this and appreciate its gentle humor. It says:

When you come to the temple and bring your cell phone, turn it off, because here you don’t need it to talk to God. The only phone you need to speak with God is prayer. Thank you.

Nicaragua 2008: Good Friday Parade

As night fell on our first day in Granada, we heard the sounds of a crowd and the buzz of a small engine coming from the street. I grabbed my camera and went out to see. The streets were aswarm with people. Considering their numbers, though, it was a pretty quiet affair. A long line of people passed quietly by us.

We saw the focal point of the evening toward the end of the subdued parade line. A wood and glass coffin, surrounded by flowers, was being carried atop a cart. The coffin was lit by spotlights powered by a portable gasoline-powered generator, which was sitting on another cart riding behind. Inside the coffin was a female department store mannequin which had been, shall we say, repurposed to resemble the popular image of Jesus: soft features, long curly locks, beard, white skin, and an almost effeminate countenance. Compounding the androgynous appearance was the fact that the figure was wearing a white lacy skirt. His (her?) body was streaked with blood-red gashes. Behind the coffin were two angels and a large cross draped with white linen.

222878_9914954742_9709_n (1)

225128_9914949742_9441_n (1)

222913_9914959742_9985_n (1)

Not having been raised in a Catholic neighborhood, I wasn’t sure what was going on at first. Then it clicked with me that this was Good Friday, a holiday about which I had only a dim secular humanist awareness and understanding. I soon figured out that this parade was a reenactment of Jesus’ burial. I wasn’t sure what was cool to do. Could I join in the parade? Could I take pictures? I didn’t want to piss anyone off on my first night in Nicaragua, so for the most part I stood curbside and watched.

I was struck by the immediacy of the proceedings. This was not the abstract American Jesus; this was a bloody, mutilated likeness. It was the barbarous act of crucifixion made real. It wasn’t a priest saying “Jesus suffered and died”; it was showing, not telling. My son and I appeared to be the only gringos in the crowd. I felt privileged to be there.

Later that evening, when Spencer and I ventured out for a beer, we saw this figure (Mary? a local saint?) apparently waiting to be seated at the café.

226283_9914724742_5947_n (1)

Strange big-headed blow-up dolls also circulated among the throngs of Good Friday celebrants.

222248_9914719742_5615_n (1)

The religious procession by this point had given way to more secular concerns of eating, drinking, and relaxing. Strolling musicians came by and parked at our table for awhile.

229528_9914944742_9181_n (1)

Tired from our travels, but feeling delighted and welcomed by the parade we had just witnessed, we then returned to the hotel and a sound night’s sleep.