Published on March 15th, 2016 | by admin0
Nicaragua’s Tropical Treasures
Keep an eye out for freshwater sharks, poetry-scribbling politicos and a colourful new species of eco-smart hotel in the Central American country
THERE ARE PLACES WHERE RIVERS flood the imagination. In the tropics, they arc across continents, they wind towards hearts of darkness, they arrive at the sea in mile-wide deltas of dazzling brightness. TS Eliot called them strong brown gods, overflowing into legend. In Nicaragua, the Río San Juan is not so much a river as a national character – treacherous, beloved, iconic – snaking deep into the country. There was a time when the San Juan was quite the thoroughfare, an important Central American artery, heaving with pirates and adventurers eager to make a name for themselves. The river was the route to Granada, one of the grand cities of the Spanish Main. Its mansions were said to be stuffed with gold.
Lord Nelson conquered the river as a callow youth of 22; it was only a bad case of diarrhoea that forced his retreat downriver. Sir Francis Drake was here, flaunting his codpiece, as was the fearsome l’Olonnais, the French pirate famous for drinking Spanish blood. Henry Morgan, the kind of swashbuckling killer so beloved of seven-year-old boys, came up this river three times on his way to the honey pot of Granada. They built the fortress at El Castillo to ensure he didn’t make it a fourth.
These days things have gone rather quiet on the river: a few fishermen’s dugouts, the odd motorboat crossing between the banks, a ramshackle river-bus heading upstream. But there are still travellers on the San Juan, like me, bound for Granada, entranced by tropical waters and sleepy river towns and stories of Henry Morgan, and still able to break the journey at El Castillo, where the 19-year-old Rafaela Herrera once fought off a bunch of English pirates in her nightdress.
In about 200km of river between the Mosquito Coast on the Caribbean and Lake Nicaragua, El Castillo is the only place you’ll find a cold beer, a restaurant menu and an air-conditioned room. I made landfall in the early evening. Framed by rose-coloured river light, a cluster of wooden houses, weathered as prairie barns, stood on the right bank above cormorants drying their wings. There are no cars here. Everything comes and goes by the river, sacks of rice, crates of beer, outboard motors, strangers.
Pedro was the first person I met, the barman in a wide wooden room just above the Raudal del Diablo, the Devil’s Rapids. I was impressed that he could serve me a beer without stirring from his hammock. Mangrove swallows were diving on the darkening water. Pedro was dreaming of Granada. On the San Juan, people dream of Granada the way kids in Kansas dream of New York or Los Angeles. Pedro talked of nothing but Granada for three days. From the depths of his hammock he gazed upriver, as if he might glimpse the cathedral towers rising above the jungle canopy.
I would have been happy to spend a month in El Castillo. Every morning I woke to the river, whose moods, as the day waxed and waned, washed through the town, from innocent blue to brooding pewter. At night, stars shone in midstream and fireflies filled the trees along its bank like wayward constellations. The people here seemed to have the perfect existence. With occasional breaks for trips upstream and down, they spent much of their day in rocking chairs and hammocks, enjoying the river, gossiping, writing poetry.
Poetry is to Nicaraguans what a dodgy derivative is to a City banker, a thing of joy, a reason to crack open the fizz. The national hero is Rubén Darío, the Nicaraguan equivalent of Shakespeare, Churchill and Bobby Charlton rolled into one. They have named an entire mountain range after him, and people are liable to start reciting his work at the slightest provocation.
But the real poetry along this river is wordless nature. Fifteen minutes downstream is the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, more than 4,000sq km of primary forest, much of it barely mapped. Biologists from UCLA call it ‘the gem of Central American nature’. Along its trails are more species of flora and fauna than in all of Europe. Aside from the spider monkeys performing acrobatics in the treetops, my favourite were the tree frogs, the size of a thumbnail and as brightly coloured as beach balls.
Upriver was another Edenic wilderness, Los Guatuzos reserve. I followed the narrowing Río Papaturro into its green heart. Lined with reeds and overhung with vast trees, it felt like the first river, something new-born. The glamorous birds were as tame as pets. Roseate spoonbills and black-necked stilts and tricoloured herons tiptoed along the banks just a metre or so from the boat. We peered up through branches to see a gang of thuggish-looking boat-billed herons peering down at us. We crept up on a beautiful pygmy kingfisher, so close I could almost have stroked its neck.
Iguanas, splendidly Jurassic, with spiny backs, tough hides and weird flaps of skin, climbed trees. High up, among the orchids and the bromeliads, I saw a sloth with the air of a chap in a hammock. Close to, on a lily pad just beneath the bank, a Jesus lizard stopped, cocked its head, then skipped across the water on splayed feet. The only creatures here that showed fear were the real predators. Caimans lurked among the reeds like submerged logs, one deadly eye staring at us, before suddenly thrashing away in whirl of white water. We found the granddaddy sunbathing on a sandbank. Two metres long, he was too big to opt for flight. He watched us pass, mouth agape, teeth glinting.
I SETTLED INTO A CANOPIED LONGBOAT and started upstream. The banks were a congestion of branches knitted together with vines: white-trunked guarumo, cecropias, tulip trees, junipers, native palms. Toucans clattered between ceiba trees as grand as cathedrals, and howler monkeys shrieked at one another in some simian version of Jeremy Kyle.
Rush hour in the Río San Juan’s history was the mid-19th century, when more than 80,000 breathless Americans came up the river en route to California. Sixty years before the building of the Panama Canal and two decades before the completion of the first transcontinental railway lines, Cornelius Vanderbilt ran a steamboat service on the San Juan, connecting New York and San Francisco. Nicaragua may have seemed the long way round, but travellers reckoned it was preferable to several weeks in a stagecoach with Ringo the Kid keeping lookout for Apaches. We passed the wreck of one of Vanderbilt’s steamers, tipped sideways in aqueous light beneath arches of bamboo, almost as evocative as the Titanic, the fire hatches on the boiler like empty eye sockets.
After the complexities of the Río San Juan, there’s something innocent about Lake Nicaragua, larger than Lincolnshire, stretching away to flat, watery horizons beneath blameless skies. I decided against a lake crossing – it takes a couple of days and is famous for short, choppy waves – and booked a flight on an eight-seater plane from San Carlos airstrip, where air-traffic control, check-in and baggage handling were all the same cheery fellow. I felt the other two passengers hadn’t read the warnings about the contents of hand baggage with enough care. They sat in the back with AK-47s. They were transferring money from the San Carlos banks to Managua. Below us on the rippled surface of the lake, the tiny shadow of our plane fled northwards.
An hour later I was sitting in a rocking chair sipping a Mint Julep on the wide veranda of the Hotel Plaza Colón, overlooking Granada’s main square. Readers of Gabriel García Márquez will already be familiar with the atmosphere here: the crumbling mansions, the rattle of horse-drawn carriages on cobbled streets, the slow tropical afternoons, the flirtatious evening promenade, the impossibly beautiful women, the family dynasties whose histories make the Old Testament seem like a model of brevity, their lives complicated by inappropriate passions.
Colossal studded doors, designed to keep out Englishmen with eyepatches, lead through to courtyards of fountains and hanging gardens. Great churches sail like galleons above red rooftops. Nuns ghost around street corners. Old men play guitar on benches. Dark-haired women lean on balustrades. Down every street, open windows allow you to gaze into front rooms with framed Madonnas and ticking clocks, where shirtless men chew cigars and play cards and papery old women sit in rocking chairs.
We think of the New World as new. But Granada, built in 1524, was already old when the Great Fire consumed wooden London and when the first trees were felled by settlers on the muddy island of Manhattan. The Parque Central, the town square, has been its main stage for five centuries and has as many stories as Hampton Court. Henry Morgan piled the town’s loot between the two fountains here. On the balcony over to my right, William Walker, the Tennessean adventurer and megalomaniac, declared himself President of Nicaragua in the mid-19th century. In front of the cathedral, where I could see fruit sellers hawking their iced concoctions, they used to execute criminals, defeated generals and traitors. The mansion on the corner was home to the Chamorro family, which boasts six presidents, a general and a famous assassinated journalist among its number.
After the natural world of the river, I dived into culture and nightlife. I browsed the English bookshop, I went to concerts, I explored the Casa de los Tres Mundos, a colonial villa that has become a confusion of creative impulses. A painting exhibition occupied a front room. In its deeper reaches I found printmakers, sculptors, book-binders and engravers. I opened one door and found myself in an alternative radio station. Behind another was a modern-dance class in dark leotards. From upstairs came the sound of a choir, while in the courtyard several poets, poetically dishevelled, were declaiming.
In the evenings the whole town comes out to stroll. The central square swells with people exchanging elaborate salutations. In the pedestrianised Calle La Calzada, which runs all the way to the lake, the tables outside cafés and bars begin to fill with customers as the early-evening promenade transforms into a late-evening street party. Acrobats perform for coins, itinerant musicians arrive and people dance across the cobbles with salsa moves of eye-watering sexiness.
I ADORED GRANADA AND EVEN FANTASISED about buying myself a rambling colonial mansion for the price of a garden shed in Gloucestershire. But the truth was I had another destination in mind. I was heading to Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast. Like many of the world’s best coasts, it was first discovered by surfers who migrated to its big swells and empty beaches like swallows to Africa. But like only a very few great coasts, large swathes of it are still undeveloped.
At heart it remains cowboy and fishing country, into which beach culture is slowing seeping. This makes for a marvellous mix of horsemen in big hats and tousled-haired surfer dudes, of willowy beach babes and big-bottomed Latinas, of villagers asleep in hammocks, fishermen selling fresh lobster straight from their boats and the international young gathering for beach parties. San Juan del Sur is the chief town, but there are a handful of hotels tucked into empty bays up and down this coast. The real joy is hiring a four-wheel-drive and following the dirt tracks through the dry tropical forests, past the rattling bullock carts and the roadside shacks selling tamales wrapped in banana leaves, to emerge at the ocean on your very own stretch of sand, where all you need is a board and a hammock.
But I wasn’t trying to be even that energetic. I was staying at Mukul, a sybarite’s dream. It is owned by one of Nicaragua’s old dynasties, the Pellas family, responsible for the exquisite Flor de Caña rum and for cigars with a reputation to rival Cuba’s. The current Pellas Senior used to go deep-sea fishing off this coast. At anchor in the evening, he would gaze at two empty white beaches – the mile-long Manzanillo and the scimitar-shaped Guacalito – and promised himself that he would create something beautiful here. Mukul, with its 37 villas, six-suite spa and 18-hole golf course, is the result. It is not only the best hotel in Central America, it is one of the best in the world.
I drifted from my private pool to a pampering treatment at the spa to Guacalito beach, where a discreet Man Friday ferried chilled fruit juices and sun-bleached cushions, to a dinner of sesame-encrusted yellow-fin tuna overlooking the bay, to the humidor for a late-night cigar and glass of fine rum. Tempted as I was, I avoided a second drink. Mukul was inspiring. I knew there was a danger I might take up poetry.