“I missed my raging sunsets, the green entanglement of treetops, the verdant ravines, and the furious downpours [in Nicaragua]. Costa Rica seemed too shallow and tame: like the light, interminable rain that kept falling over San José.”
Gioconda Belli, The Country Under My Skin
As I traveled through Nicaragua’s Remote Rio San Juan area, Belli’s vision of an untamed Nicaragua spoke to this region best.
I had just returned from my trip to the Solentiname Islands, and now I was on the 3:30 PM slow boat from San Carlos to El Castillo (The Castle). It costs 90 cordobas for the slow boat and 140 cordobas for the fast boat.
Note: Another option is to kayak to El Castillo, which my friends Emily and Andrew did.
Sharing the boat with myself and 30 other passengers was a young, balding man who refused to put on his life jacket as everyone else had done. “C’mon, man, just put it on so we can get out of here!” yelled my boat’s driver to him. He finally put it on, and the dock’s inspector let us to take off.
Riding The Surreal Rio San Juan
As soon as the boat coasted into the massive river, everyone took their life jackets off and stored them overhead. To our left sat another long boat filled to the brim with cattle. “And their lifejackets?!” I asked, making the men around me giggle and nod at me.
This was my first time in the Rio San Juan, and I couldn’t help but think of how long it had been since I’d seen a river deep enough to boat in. This was the driest the river had been in thirty years, but I couldn’t believe it. Many towns here, like my own, have “rivers,” but they are just dry riverbeds with bridges built over them so people don’t get their feet wet in the rainy season.
I braced myself for the three hour ride, wishing I hadn’t sat in the very back because of the noise from the motor. The clouds began to blanket the sky, slowly cooling the humid air little by little. I stuck my hand in the shockingly warm water. It was as if someone had just taken it off the boil a few minutes ago. The motor’s loud rumble evolved into a trivial hum.
This was what I thought Nicaragua would be like before I came here. Egrets waded in the water, insects of all types buzzed about, and the trees. The trees brought Belli’s description of the “entanglement of treetops” to life. They shot up from the earth and mercilessly enveloped one another. The mangroves below them formed perches for kingfishers while they scanned the brown water for lunch.
The land was so clean, too. In a country where people regularly toss plastic wrappers out the bus window, it was incredibly refreshing to see unspoiled land—until we passed signs of human life. As soon as we pulled up to docks to let people off, the plastic Coke bottles and Doritos wrappers dotted the river’s edge, a sobering reminder of “civilization.” I had never been so disappointed to run into signs of humanity as I was on that ride. The desolation we encountered in between made me feel as if we were traveling back in time, and the garbage was the only thing to snap me back to the frustrating reality about the lack of foresight we have about protecting nature.
Lightning bolts crashed on both sides of us, but the motor’s hum and water’s warmth soothed me. A man next to me asked me if I was scared of the lightning. His friend was scared, and he wanted help calming him down. I just said “No, if we die, we die.” The man nodded, but didn’t seem convinced. To soften my fatalistic response, I said that I feel more scared when I’m riding on the highways and the bus drivers are holding a corn on the cob in one hand and waving at oncoming traffic with the other. This version of my sass was more to their liking, as they laughed and nodded once more.
How ironic, I thought, that I was a solo woman comforting a group of grown men on a boat in the middle of a thunderstorm. Many people here don’t know how to kick, much less swim, in the water (even with life jackets on, as I discovered at the Apoyo Lagoon). I’d survived countless crashes in my inner tubing and water-skiing days, so I wasn’t intimidated. The rain poured over us, forcing the man in front of me to bring down the plastic screen to cover the boat’s sides. The driver stuck his head out into the rain in order to see. Radar? Please. There’s nothing like the sense of sight in a rainstorm!
Garbage and lightning aside, the ride was mystical. The scorched river had begged for the cool rain, and it puffed out plumes of vapor to show its relief. Suddenly, we sped right into a beautiful cloud of billions of orange flies. The mischievous flies sped alongside us, while others stayed put. Their mesmerizing mix of motion and stability transfixed me. All of a sudden, magical realism seemed more real than ever.
Two hours into the ride, we pulled into the first large town, Boca de Sáballos. A large, hulking man who looked like the actor Danny Trejo turned around and asked me where I was from. He wore a black jean jacket and white cowboy hat with a pink string tied around it. I explained that it was my first time in the area, and that I thought it was beautiful.
“Si te gusta ésto, te vas a enamorar del Castillo.”
“If you like this, you’re going to fall in love with El Castillo”
I felt safe with this man and his kind eyes, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how he looked like Machete.
After this jaw-dropping ride, my eyes widened further as a boat pulled up next to ours, and a woman jumped right onto it, as if she were stepping off the sidewalk. A man next to me couldn’t contain himself, waving his finger at me and shaking his head, as if to say: “That’s nothing. You’re definitely new around here. I’m just going to use gestures since you don’t speak Spanish.” The excitement the locals felt for me was endearing. I was excited that they were excited for me.
Dusk drew closer, and the sun turned bright pink as we sped away from it. This raging sunset was unlike any other I’d seen. The vertical streak of bright pink reflected on the huge river, only to be interrupted by the rocky rapids, logs, and palm trees in between us. Even though it’s a freshwater river, it smelled salty like the ocean it would lead into seven hours later. I couldn’t believe how lush the jungle was. This wasn’t the loud, deforested, and smoggy country I’ve lived in.
Around 6:30 PM, El Castillo’s twinkling lights welcomed us. El Castillo is named after its famous fortress, which was once run by the Spanish to protect Lake Nicaragua from pirates that would sneak in through the river’s Atlantic mouth. Instead of watching out for honking taxis, I quickly saved myself from stepping on the frogs. Just like their cousins did in Solentiname, they hopped all over the paths without the slightest fear of human feet or bicycle wheels. I couldn’t wait to see this place in the daytime. After all of this magic, I deeply questioned how much of García Marquez’s fictitious village, Macondo, was imagined after all.
Machete was right—as soon as I go to El Castillo, I fell in love with it. It was unlike any other town I’d seen here. In fact, it reminded me of the Germanic town of Leavenworth in northern Washington State. The rapids flanked the town’s left side, and cozy houses and hotels on stilts advertised their tours and restaurants with hand-carved, wooden signs.
I dropped off my things at the LGBT-friendly, family-owned Nena Lodge ($10 for a private room with a shared bathroom). It’s a basic resting place with creaky wooden floors. From the balcony, you could see the river while swaying in a hammock. You could also see people walking from both sides of the street, but they could also see you–and exactly which room you’re sleeping in.
Nena’s takes a lack of privacy to a new level. The rooms have open ceiling spaces characteristic of Nicaraguan homes that maximize airflow and minimize privacy. You can hear everything that goes on in the next rooms until you blast the fan. My bed had a much-needed mosquito net, a towel, and a fan. I was glad I’d brought my repellant.
The family that owned it was very sweet and quiet, showing me where I could go for dinner. Peace Corps volunteers implored me to try the veggie curry at Border’s Café, and they told me to keep walking to the right along the main path. I mentioned that Nena’s is LGBT-friendly because I found this out from the warm, determined, and incredibly resilient gay owner of Borders, Yamil, whose mere existence despite multiple assaults in this small town is a testament to human adversity. I’d meet him that night and hear his full story in the morning.
But first, I needed to rest. I couldn’t stop thinking about how surreal the boat ride was. This makes me think of Rushdie’s interpretation of the lines between fantasy and reality.
“When people use the term magic realism, usually they only mean ‘magic’ and they don’t hear ‘realism’, whereas the way in which magic realism actually works is for the magic to be rooted in the real. It’s both things. It’s not just a fairytale moment. It’s the surrealism that arises out of the real.”
Before visiting the San Juan River, I had only read about magical realism. Now, I had lived it, and El Castillo would grant me an otherworldly adventure.
Have you ever experienced a magical place before? Where was it?