Thursday 19 Jan
El Castillo, Nicaragua
Rio San Juan
We took an overnight boat from Isla Ometepe to San Carlos on the South East Shore of Lake Nicaragua. The boat had two levels and was packed. On the top deck hammocks were slung between the railings and they knocked into each other as the boat rocked about in the swell. First class meant cushioned seats, freezing air conditioning and bad movies with the sound turned down. There was nowhere to lie down so we tried hunching over the table which worked until we lost the feeling in our legs.
We got to San Carlos in the early morning to find a typical frontier town (Costa Rica is 40km away down the Rio Frio which leads out of the lake); small dirty desolate and run down. But we liked it. It had an end of the world feel as it was only really accessible by boat and the huge lake spread out to the horizon. In the evening the local boys gathered in the concrete plaza and played football all night long. Just after sunset the town filled with swarms of insects. We attempted to eat in a pleasant looking restaurant on the shore of the lake, but when we looked up the insects formed clouds around our heads. Instead we found a street stall selling delicious barbecued chicken and watched a mad woman sing to an invisible audience by the lakeside.
The following day we took a boat down the Rio San Juan, which flows 200km East into the Atlantic ocean. We had heard this river is exceptional for birdlife, but nothing could have prepared us for what we saw. Egrets and Blue Herons lined the banks whilst Cormorants sat on branches spreading their wings in the sun. There were small brown birds with long thin legs and round yellow wings which flew out of the reeds like butterflies. There were so many other small and colourful birds we lost count. Ospreys and Falcons watched it all from the treetops.
As the boat was the main form of transport for the locals we stopped at numerous settlements. At one of the larger ones an enormous Terrapin was floating near the dock wall. As some boys tried to lift it out with a stick it sunk into the murky green water.
After a few hours travelling down this incredible river we reached El Castillo, a small town with no cars built around an old Spanish fort where both Lord Nelson and Sir Francis Drake taught the Spaniards a few lessons. From our hotel on the riverbank we had an excellent view of these rapids and something else quite spectacular. Huge fish were breaching the water and were so big that at first we thought they must be dolphins - anything up to 5 feet long. All day long these fish would roll and jump, which made their golden sides glisten in the sun. We found out they are called Tarpon and can grow to up to 180 pounds.
One of the few restaurants in the town served great big freshwater Crayfish. Most nights we were the only customers and ate by the light of a single tiny candle - very romantic indeed!
One day we took a canoe trip up the Rio Santa Cruz - a smaller river feeding into the San Juan. As we were paddled gently upstream we were given a close up on the wildlife we had whizzed by before. This time we saw 3 or 4 different types of Kingfisher, one of which, the Pygmy Kingfisher must have been only 5cm tall. It sat on the branch like a tiny ball of blue and red fluff with a distinctive Kingfisher beak poking out. The final treat of the trip was a family of Howler Monkeys sitting in a tree on the riverbank - the closest we had managed to get to any monkeys yet. They seemed quite unconcerned by our presence and continued to pluck fruit from the branches while we floated below.