Posts tagged: Rio San Juan

La Ruta del Agua: tourism initiative to promote Nicaragua’s southern waterways

The boat is king on Nicaragua's Rio San Juan--even this 1-cylinder Lister.

The boat is king on Nicaragua's Rio San Juan--even this one, with a 1-cylinder Lister engine

Navigating the Rio San Juan in Southern Nicaragua today, you won’t see much traffic. There are the local fisherman, a few sportfishermen, and the small boats that ferry local residents from very isolated towns to marginally less isolated ones.

But in centuries past, the river was a busy thoroughfare. Spanish conquistadors sailed upriver to Lake Nicaragua and settled the rich colonial city of Granada. Pirates made the same trip to plunder the wealth of what became the richest colonial territory in Central America. And in the mid-1800s, up to 10,000 people a year took the Nicaragua shortcut from the East Coast of the U.S. to the California Gold Rush, avoiding the long sail around the tip of South America. (Travelers also used Panama as a cut-off point, though the canal wasn’t yet built.)

Frank Ochomogo, local project director of the Ruta del Agua tourist initiative

Frank Ochomogo, local project director of the Ruta del Agua tourist initiative

Frank Ochomogo, local Project Director of a $14,720 million tourism initiative they’re calling “La Ruta del Agua,” would like to see the river regain some of its former traffic, but this time from travelers who come for the nature, culture, sportfishing, and adventure rather than for the plunder or the quickest route to somewhere else.

I had breakfast with Frank in early December at Philippe Tisseaux’s Esquina del Lago lodge, and he explained that the initiative intends to develop tourism and infrastructure in the area of Southern Nicaragua defined by three bodies of water: The Caribbean Sea, the Rio San Juan, and Lake Nicaragua. The money for the project comes from a loan for the Interamerican Bank.

Although the project is on the books as a tourism development initiative, one of its major components—the improvement of infrastructure—will benefit local residents at least as much as tourists. Right now, the road from Managua to San Carlos—at 15,000 people, one of the bigger towns in the area—is only 300 km, but take up to 15 hours on the bus because the poor state of the road.

“We’re putting our house in order,” says Frank. “So that we can invite people in.”

Diving off the new San Carlos dock

Diving off the new San Carlos dock

The bulk of the money ($12 of the almost $15 million) is slated for infrastructure improvement. Besides road repairs, there are 11 new docks planned in communities throughout the Ruta del Agua area, and 8 new immigration posts to be built, each at the juncture of the San Juan and another river that feeds into it.

The entire waterfront area of San Carlos has already received a major face lift, with a new dock, a riverside promenade, a new immigration post under construction, and even a brand-new ATM machine that, marvels Tisseaux, “actually works and actually has money in it! That’s huge, you have no idea.”  There is also a bridge planned from Costa Rica to Nicaragua—from Santa Fe, they told me, though I couldn’t find that town on any map and couldn’t picture where a bridge connecting the two countries would go.

Smaller pieces of the funding pie will go to promotion and low-interest loans to local tourism-related businesses so that they can expand their capacity.

The Rio San Juan in Nicaragua

A tributary of the Rio San Juan near the Costa Rica / Nicaragua border

The Ruta del Agua area is rife with nature reserves–Guatuso, Vida Silvestre San Juan, and Indio Maíz—and cultural and historical treasures like the Solentiname Archipelago, known for its painters and artisans, and El Castillo, a Spanish fort built in 1675 to guard against pirates.

Tisseaux, French-born and now a Nicaraguan resident, helps sportfishermen chase town the river’s mammoth tarpon. He also does a lot of reading about the history of his adopted country. “About 100,000 people came up the Rio San Juan on their way from the eastern United States to the Gold Rush in California,” he says.  “That means that a good portion of people descended from the 49ers had a relative that passed through the area.”

One of the travelers who made the trip was Mark Twain, who described the area as consisting of “dark grottos, fairy festoons, tunnels, temples, columns, pillars, towers, pilasters, terraces, pyramids, mounds, domes, walls, in endless confusion of vine work.”

All photos by David W. Smith.