Caimans, grid-mazes of entropy, pulperías, Sandinista soldier women, sugarcane fields, fatally placed horses, the light of peacetime & Costa Rica.
One way to get into Nicaragua is through Los Chiles near the Costa Rican border, where the Río Frío drags its muddy backbone through the frontera like a brown snake. There are only a handful of cars in the entire town; mostly, people—old men, young women, almost everyone—ride bikes from their concrete houses to the pulperías, or down to the banks of the slow river where the caimans, old fishermen, lie basking at the water’s edge, their long jaws white with teeth. In Los Chiles, you can hire one of the old boats to take you through the border.
From there, if you climb onto the roof of the fishing boat, you can watch the sugarcane bend in the slow wind coming off the river, and the wrinkled workers breaking their backs under the hot sun cutting it down in long lines with their machetes. Then there is Lake Nicaragua, where the otters hunt for dinner near the heavy feet of the old jetty, and then there is the San Juan River.
You’ll pass the checkpoint with the Nicaraguan soldiers in dark camouflage, a few of them holding rifles, watching the boats go past. They might search your knapsack, or look you knowingly in the eye—for they believe you share a precious secret. They will look like angels holding automatic weapons, the Sandinista soldier women. Eventually, they will wave the old fishing boat along and light their cigarettes and sit there smoking on the wooden dock ’til nightfall.
As you drift into the Nicaraguan lowlands, the sugar fields fade into palm oil, which stretches on for miles; there, in the bed of dry fronds, nothing lives—except rats, and fat snakes, who make them into dinner. The palm stands in long rows like a comical field, a grid-maze of entropy eating away at the dirt. You could get in a jeep and drive down the mud-slick roads for miles, and you would find nothing.
Finally, the San Juan will wind its way past the orange plantation, past Sábalos and into El Castillo. There, under the silver moonlight, the old fortress still stands, though it is crumbling in some places into ruin—big gray stone, older than America, stacked into a heavy tower. From its ramparts, they say a young Nica girl and her cannon fire held off a strong artillery attack for days and left the sawdust from the heavy ships in the shallows of the river. Sometimes in the night you can hear the echoes of the battle. Now purple flowers hang around the castle’s aging stone, growing toward the light of peacetime.
At twilight in El Castillo, when the thinning forests of the Indio Maíz feast on the hot glow of the setting sun, you can sit on the deck of a soda above the murmur of cool water running over rock and listen to the tarpon jump, the river’s lullaby to a Nicaraguan evening. The old woman will bring Toña and there will be music playing somewhere not too far away. From there, you can watch the river winding like a serpent through the aching forest and out into the dark, through Bartola, then down into the lowlands toward the Caribbean Sea.
There is plenty that I haven’t written about those lonely places that sit along the banks of the San Juan River. I have never written about the fires that sweep each season through the sugarcane fields, sending black smoke like a distress signal high into the azure sky. I have never written about the great forest disappearing at the hands of cattle ranchers and homesteaders, turned out from their lands by palm oil and Gmelina. And I have never written about the way the horses sink into the river’s muddy banks, chasing water in the drought, our eyes meeting as I drift past them in the old fishing boat, close enough to the water to drown but never close enough to drink, both of us at the same time understanding that they will never move again. There is plenty that I have seen, but never spoken of, from the wet deck of a fishing boat on the brown mirror of the San Juan that winds along the invisible line of a country. That is one way to get into Nicaragua.
Another way is to hike in from the Alajuela province in the purple light of early morning, when the mist is lying low above the dew-wet grass and only the cows are awake, lowing balefully across the woody hills. This would be along the old migrant road, where the path is lined with heliconia leaves that work well as breakfast plates, their red flowers calling in the dancing hummingbirds. You can follow the horse track through homesteads where families sit on dirt floors eating gallo pinto, where the milk is still warm from the body of the cow. In those places, the whole world tastes sweet, like a ripe fruit broken open above the earth.
Trevor Ritland grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. After finishing college with a degree in English and biology in 2015, he left the United States to work for two years in the cloud forests of Monteverde, Costa Rica, where he pursued cultural and environmental stories. Night patrols with fishermen on the hunt for poachers, rainy evening hikes in search of extinct frogs, secret trips into protected forests to document deforestation, and a fateful encounter with a puma fueled Trevor’s conviction that stories of adventure can change the way that people interact with the imperiled ecosystems of our planet. His dedication to share his experiences with the world at large brought him back to the United States, where he received his master’s degree in science communication and documentary studies. Inspired by a trip to southern Florida in search of American crocodiles, Trevor and his twin brother founded a nonprofit called Adventure Term, an experiential education organization training the next generation of creative environmental storytellers. This story was a finalist for Nowhere’s 2020 Emerging Travel Writers’ Prize.
All images: Trevor Ritland