Wednesday, October 18, 2006

El Castillo

October 3, 2006

El Castillo, a remote outpost, population 1800, on the San Juan River, is my favorite place in Nicaragua so far, and one of my favorite places ever. WE have only one night here. But I’d love to return, spend days reading and writing on the balconies overlooking the river, listening to the hum of insects and rumble of rapids, and eat fresh fish and coconut bread daily.

It required a long journey to arrive here. We lined up for boat tickets at Granada’s dock yesterday at 11, then returned to board at 2. Despite a 3 p.m. departure, we were among the last to arrive and first class was nearly full, relegating us to seats on the end of a table for six.

First class passage to San Carlos, which cost $7, meant a spot in the overcrowded upper deck. Five sets of benches, divided by a table, plus two straight benches were in a small, air-conditioned room.

The experienced passengers not only saved themselves room on a bench, but they brought a hammock or comfy chair to string up on deck, or a mattress to claim corner sleeping space.

We pushed off from Granada and I watched it recede, a view of yellow and pink colonial arches and building, a shore lined with palms and coconut trees. In all directions, a thick green forest spread away from Granada, rising up to the cloud-covered volcanoes, shadowed by rain in the distance.

People passed the time reading, playing games, watching TV, trying various ingenious positions to sleep or eating. I ventured down to second class, where a woman served cold sodas, chips and chicken with rice and fried plaintains through a window. She could look out at the second class passengers packed into hard wooden benches, the floor below wet and grimy.

We made a stop at Ometepe, an island with two volcanoes in the middle of Lake Nicaragua (Cocibolca). There, men carried aboard large baskets of plantains and watermelon for shipment.

At a 3:30 a.m. stop at San Miguelito, on the opposite coast, children came through the boat selling coffee with milk, tortilla with cheese, bread, as though being on the docks, selling in the middle of the night, was a natural activity for them.

The floor in first class was more or less clean. So as it got later, more people dipped onto it. I went down to the cold and hard floor first. Mark later switched places with me. I wished I could have taken a photo of first class, Nicaraguan style, with bodies curled under tables, laid out in aisleways or spread across benches. Those who’d strung their hammocks on the side of the boat had to cover themselves with sheets of plastic as protection from the rain.

I woke up to smooth waters, a calm sky, a pastel world holding the green pearls of the Solentiname islands. We disembarked in San Carlos, a muddy, colorful, decrepit town, surprisingly active at 6:30 in the morning. We found a place to sit at the plastic chairs and tables of a small comedor. There, we could watch the locals eat large, fried breakfasts of gallo pinto – fried eggs, beans and rice, meat or fried cheese, together with sweet iced fruit drinks or cups of coffee – and the bus attendant receiving one after another large bundle of squawking chickens from the top of the bus and dropping them gently in the mud for passengers to claim.

We boarded a 50-passenger covered longboat for the 2.5 hour trip down the San Juan river to El Castillo, the end of this route. The San Juan river runs along the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica and connects the Atlantic Coast with Lake Nicaragua. It used to be an active route for transporting gold and other goods, as well as a popular roaming ground for pirates. At one time, it was considered as the most logical place to create a canal cutting across Central America.

We’d only passed one sizeable settlement on the way, the riverside town of Sabalos. El Castillo lay at a bend in the river about 20 minutes further, just before a series of rapids. Until recently, when San Carlos-San Juan del Norte boat service resumed, El Castillo was the end of the line.

We stayed in the Hotel Albergue El Castillo, a two-story wooden hotel overlooking the water. Owned by the mayor’s office, it had wonderful hammocks and rocking chairs on the balcony, where one can fall asleep to the rush of rapids.

There we learned that the majority of visitors are European. Despite the much closer proximity compared to Europeans, only 8-10% of the hotel guests are Americans.

“I suppose the Americans aren’t as interested in eco-tourism,” the hotel attendant theorized.

After a wonderful lunch of rubalo (a fish that swims upriver from the ocean into Lake Nicaragua) we went to visit the crumbling stone fortress, El Castillo’s hilltop sentinel.

El Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepción de María was built by the Spanish in 1675 to protect Spanish settlements (including Granada, on the lakeshore) from pirate attacks. At the time, it was the largest fortress in Central America, with 32 cannons and 11,000 weapons.

In 1762 it was the site of a major battle between the Spanish and British in the Seven Year War. A 19-year-old woman, Rafaela Herrera, seized command of her father’s troops after he died and succeed in driving the British off.

In 1780, Horatio Nelson successfully captured the fort by arriving on foot. But after nine months there without reinforcements, he and his sick soldiers went home. We then strolled through the streets of El Castillo.

Accessible only by boat, El Castillo had one central street, or rather a walkway, of alternating stone and concrete. Wooden homes, shops and hostels on stilts lined it, painted green, blue, red, yellow, pink and grey. The children played on swings and slides along the riverbank and wore blue and white uniforms to the hillside school, set among palms and tropical foliage.

The place gave me such a feeling of calm and relaxation. It felt removed, safe, beautiful and unique. I dreamed of returning again some day, to spend a whole week reading and writing from a hammock, eating fresh fish daily.

By six, darkness fell. And by 8:30, the entire town had gone to bed. I joined them, closing my eyes to the sound of the nighttime insects, letting my thoughts flow with the water outside.

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