Fast boat to Nicaragua: Just us, the crew, and a dead man

Everything goes by boat on the Rio Frio: sheep, travelers, and (read on) a coffin; photo by David W. Smith

Everything goes by boat on the Rio Frio: sheep, travelers, and (read on) a coffin; photo by David W. Smith

After we’ve waiting 3 or 4 hours at the Los Chiles muelle (dock) for the boat the Nicaragua, not one but two boats arrive: the bote publico, and the lancha from Esquina del Lago lodge. A big group from the U.S. is being shuttled from the lodge to Los Chiles after a few days of tarpon fishing on the Rio San Juan in Nicaragua, and we’re catching a ride back to the lodge.

But first, the crew helps the returning clients through Costa Rica immigration (easy as pan dulce), gets something to eat, and has a good long smoke or two.

Finally, the captain saunters back to the boat.

Hay un problemita,” he says. There’s a little problem.

How little? I wonder.

Hay un difunto,” he says in a low voice. “There’s a deceased person.”

So that was a coffin in the back of the pickup that puttered by while we were waiting for the rain to stop. And it seems the difunto needs to go where we’re going. In our boat.

No hay problema, I say. “El es muerto. Somos vivos.” There’s no problem. He’s dead. We’re alive.

The captain cracks a smile.

Pero espero que no tenemos que hablar con el,” I add. I just hope we don’t have to talk to him.

Porque es dificil converser con los difuntos,” says David. It’s not so easy to converse with the dead.

Son muy serios,” the captain agrees. They’re so serious.

Loading a coffin onto the fast boat to Nicaragua

Loading a coffin onto the fast boat to Nicaragua; photo by David W. Smith

It’s not quite as funny when they start to load the coffin into the boat. It takes up a whole row—six molded plastic seats and the aisle—at the back of the long and narrow lancha.  A young man accompanies the difunto, and his face shows fresh pain.

We later learn that the dead man, the young man’s uncle, was a Nicaraguan who crossed the border to work in Costa Rica, in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui. He died of a puneleado—a knife wound—he’d suffered in a fight. The young man came down to Costa Rica to claim his uncle’s body, and to bring him home.

We start up the Rio Frio at dusk. Swallows swoop close to the water, picking off mosqitoes. A flock of parrots flies overhead. Herons and egrets stands sentinel along the river. Howler monkeys add their deep-throated call from the branches of dense trees.

Cormarants along the Rio Frio

Cormarants along the Rio Frio; photo by David W. Smith

David and I stand at the front of the boat, enjoying the cool wind as it dries our sweaty clothes. As we pass under a leafless tree full of black cormorants, it feels as if we’re part of a funeral procession.

The lights of San Carlos, Nicaragua, at the confluence of the Rio Frio, the Rio San Juan, and Lake Nicaragua; photo by David W. Smith

The lights of San Carlos, Nicaragua, at the confluence of the Rio Frio, the Rio San Juan, and Lake Nicaragua; photo by David W. Smith

In less than an hour we see the lights of San Carlos across the water. We’ve arrived at the confluence of the Rio Frio, the Rio San Juan, and Lake Nicaragua (also known as Lake Colcibolco). The boat noses up to a rickety wooden building right on the water: immigration. We step out onto the wooden walkway and approach the lighted window.

Immigration office in San Carlos, Nicaragua

Immigration office in San Carlos, Nicaragua

There’s no line to enter Nicaragua here, and the only other action is a policewoman, in heavy eyeliner and dangling earrings, asking the nephew of the dead man for his paperwork. No matter where you die, it seems, there’s paperwork before you can leave this world behind. We heard that most boat captains would have charged $150 to transport the body from Los Chiles to San Carlos, but since the Esquina del Lago boat was already making the trip, they charged only for gas.

As we present our passports, fill out forms in the dim light (where are my glasses?), and pay our $7 a piece entry fee, a tall pale man appears, floating over the heads of the smaller, darker Nicaraguans. It’s Phillipe Tisseaux, expat Frenchman, serial relocator (he’s lived in France, St. Martin and Costa Rica, to name a few places), and owner of the Esquina del Lago Lodge, where we’ll be based for a few days.

There’s silver stubble on his cheeks and his blue eyes are kind. “Do you understand what happened?” he says in English softened with French. He’s talking about our fellow passenger, el difunto.

Yes, yes, we assure him. We understand. People die. They need to be brought home. It was the least we could do, to share a ride with someone who needed it a lot more than we did.

Did you notice the name of the boat in the photo? The Amen.

  • By wm, December 6, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    … great stories – I’m loving it, especially since I don’t travel much.
    And the photos are really good. I can’t tell any difference between the two cameras…

  • By andrea, December 13, 2009 @ 5:33 am

    have been thinking about you for several weeks now. You are so easy to track as you are blogging but I don’t have your email right now. This trip looks particularly beautiful and your photographer is talented too.

  • By Erin Van Rheenen, December 13, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

    Andrea, Great to hear from you! I’d been thinking about you too and was going to call you before I left on this trip. Just today, splashing in the waves at Playa Dominical, I thought about our trip to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica–Tortuguero, Puerto Viejo. That trip is hard to forget. Let’s talk soon.

Other Links to this Post