Five Days on the Río San Juan de Nicaragua

Draining Lake Nicaragua and flowing into the Caribbean is a large river, the Río San Juan de Nicaragua. A great deal of history has passed along this river over the centuries. Before modern highways and air travel this was the main transportation route into the rich lands of central Nicaragua, bypassing the thick belt of rain forest and jungle on the Caribbean coast.

Río San Juan
Thick jungle lines the banks of the Río San Juan below Bartola

The Río San Juan has seen the passage of Spanish Conquistadors, pirates and foreign armies bent on conquering what is now Nicaragua. Along this route thousands of forty-niners came on their way to the California gold fields, using the river to cross the isthmus to the Pacific Ocean. The border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica is also defined by the south bank along much of the river’s length. While the river’s importance on the international stage has waned, it is still a critical route for local residents that call the region home. Dozens of vessels, from river taxis to barges carry people and cargo to the towns and farms that depend on the river.

The river is also popular with the more adventurous tourists. The history and natural beauty found here makes the area endlessly fascinating. Several large biologic preserves along the river preserve large tracts of natural jungle. Fishermen from across the world come to the Río San Juan as well. Here you can catch Tarpon, a renowned sport fish that can reach 2 meters in length and weigh 100kg.

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Fortress of the Immaculate Conception

The Río San Juan was once critical to the entire region, the river was the main route of access to the entire country. Wide and navigable the river allowed hundreds of miles of thick tropical jungle to be easily transited. People and cargoes could be shipped from the Caribbean to the enormous Lake Nicaragua and the rich farmlands of central Nicaragua. Together the river and lake offered an easy crossing of the isthmus, allowing passengers and cargo to pass between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. At the northern end of Lake Nicaragua is Grenada, this old colonial city was the crown jewel of the region, where the treasures of the New World were amassed before shipment to Spain.

El Castillo
The old Spanish fort looming above the town of El Castillo, Nicaragua
Defense of this critical river link proved to be necessary in the tumultuous history of the region. On several occasions pirate forces passed this way to loot and burn Grenada. In response to these incursions the Spanish selected a site on a high bluff and overlooking a significant set of rapids on the river as the ideal site for a defensive fortification. A large stone fort was built here, completed in 1675, becoming the lynch-pin for defending this critical access route to the interior of Nicaragua.

Somehow the name Fortress of the Immaculate Conception just does not bring to mind any form of military installation. Despite the name, this fortress is an impressive fortification, easily equivalent to the best contemporary fortifications elsewhere, quite a surprise as the location is and was quite remote. Most photographs fail to convey this, much of the fortress walls are concealed by a surrounding ditch making it difficult to appreciate the fortress without a visit in person. Setting the walls low like this was an important feature of fortifications built during the age of cannon, making the walls a difficult target for attacking gunners. The defenses are well laid out, clearly the work of an experienced military architect. The bastions are properly angled to deflect incoming artillery rounds, gun-ports are positioned to sweep the walls of attacking infantry. Taking this position from prepared defenders would be a difficult proposition indeed.

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Yes, Darker View has been a bit quiet lately. I have been not only off-island but out of the country for the last couple weeks. I flew to Portland to join my parents on a trip to Nicaragua.

A Nicaraguan farmer leaning against the wall of his home in Tierra Amarilla
We spent ten days in Nicaragua, the first part of the trip helping out with El Porvenir, an NGO that does water and sanitation work with rural farming communities. The last part of the trip was spent playing tourist, traveling the Rio San Juan on the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The trip allowed me to spent a good deal of time with my parents, do more than a little photography, and visit a beautiful country.

Back at home and back online, I have a series of posts in the works to record my experiences. The trip was extraordinarily memorable, with interesting stories to share. Along the way I did a lot of photography, thus I have gigabytes of material that needs to be sorted through. The best of this will appear here on DV as I have a chance to process it. My hope is that I can preserve a bit of the experience here in blog form. Not only for you to read, but as a record that I can read many years from now to remember this wonderful trip.