The Río San Juan was the first stop on me and my parents’ trip through Nicaragua. We flew to San Carlos from Managua, and from there set off for El Castillo. The Río San Juan is Nicaragua’s southern border with Costa Rica. It connects the Atlantic Ocean/Caribbean Sea with Lake Nicaragua. It was quickly discovered in the early 1500’s by the Spanish, and has been used as an important transportation route ever since. The history of the river is fascinating, but we also visited the region for its natural appeal.
The town of El Castillo, on the river, has that name for the Spanish fort, or “castillo” built on a hill above the strongest rapids along the entire length of the river. Why, you ask, would the Spanish bother putting a fort deep in the jungle along a remote river in the New World? Because the capitol of the Spanish colonies, Granada, was at the far end of Lake Nicaragua, and continually sacked by British and French pirates. The Spanish actually built a long series of defensive installations along the cost, down the river, and on the lake up to the city to protect their assets.
My dad and I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between El Castillo and West Point. They were both placed at strategic points above rivers. El Castillo, at a point known as the “Devil’s Rapids” and West Point at a point in the Hudson where it narrows and turns. The Hudson was the key to success in the Revolutionary War, and in the same war a young (future) Admiral Horatio Nelson described the San Juan River as the key to Spanish Central America. During the American Revolution the British saw themselves facing the rebels, the French, and the Spanish, and they launched an expedition against Spanish Central America from Jamaica as a result. Nelson, only 22, led between 2,500 and 3,000 men up the San Juan River to take Granada, and he faced a fierce battle at El Castillo from the garrison. He won the battle, but he had only 10 strong men after casualties, malaria, and dysentery, so he was forced to retreat back to Jamaica. His entire life he considered it his greatest victory, despite his fame from the Napoleonic Wars, and his official portrait has El Castillo in the background.
My parents and I really liked El Castillo. From there we went downriver for a little eco-camping at Bartola River. It is a shallow river and we had to get poled upstream in a canoe. It felt like Apocalypse Now, which I suppose is fitting, because I was voted Most Likely to Go All Colonel Kurtz from my Peace Corps group.
We didn’t see much wildlife, but the setting was wonderful and the three of us really enjoyed our Bartola stay. It was great for me to see to, because it gave me a great operating model that my cooperative at Telica can strive to attain.
Our last stop in the southern department of Río San Juan was an archipelago in Lake Nicaragua called Solentiname. Solentiname means “boring place with no electricity” in all known languages on Earth. Anyone who diligently reads the Sunday NYT may have heard about Solentiname this weekend in this article.
The Solentiname Archipelago is mainly home to a group of artisans that draw “primitivist” style paintings as well as carve and paint balsa wood carvings. The islands are also pleasant, with relatively few people, an abundance of bird, and good weather. Unfortunately, there isn’t much else going on there, so my parents and I got a bit bored over the two nights that we spent there.
Pictures from Padre Cardenal’s campesino church on Mancarrón Island, Solentiname:
The Ernesto Cardenal story (see the NYT article) I do think is an important one that bears mentioning. Everyone has been talking about Pope Francis’ social reforms, but I think his shifts in Church political ideology are just as important, if not more important for Latin America. Pope John Paul II was not a fan of the Communists, and Pope Whateverhisnamewas that abdicated two years ago didn’t do much anything different from PJP2. However, Pope Francis has shown a lot of warming up to socialist ideologies, primarily Liberation Theology, which Padre Ernesto Cardenal of Solentiname espouses. Liberation Theology is the belief that the Church, and the teachings of Jesus Christ, should be used to liberate people, especially those exploited, poor, and/or living under oppressive political regimes. Cardenal, for his beliefs and political activism, was publicly admonished with a wag of PJP2’s finger and banned from administering the sacraments, and a priest in El Salvador was gunned down and murdered by one of the country’s US sponsored death squads in the 80’s while giving mass . Another Nicaraguan priest, Padre d’Escoto received a similar ban to Padre Cardenal. Since then, Pope Francis has put the Salvadorian priest on the road to sainthood, and has lifted d’Escoto’s ban on giving mass.
Examples of primitivist paintings, displayed in a museum in Granada (we met one of the artists while on the islands):
From Río San Juan and Solentiname we took an 11 hour ferry (verdict: 11 hours on a Nicaraguan ferry is superior to 11 hours in coach on any airline) to Ometepe Island.