After an 11 hour ferry ride sleeping on a makeshift bed of life vests in an icily air-conditioned room, one does not want to be told that all onward boats are already full. One was. And one went to catch the bus instead, which went at least most of the way to one’s destination, El Castillo.
One also does not want to experience a ludicrously overfull bus, in some 35C humidity, with standing room only. One did. This was the first time I’ve actually seen a Nicaraguan bus turn someone away, albeit due to the nosey protests of a female group standing at the back. And when I say “turn away”, I mean tell them they have to sit on the roof. We set off like this, picking up a few passengers on the roof, and taking just the luggage of those elderly folk who weren’t quite brave enough to travel with the breeze blustering through their remaining hair. Soon the road turned to dust, then pot-holed dust. The bus lurched from side to side as the group at the back, led by one particularly vocal lady, turned the protests to the quality of the of the driver’s skills. To be fair they had a point, I felt sure the bus would tip on several occasions, and on one we went so deeply into a pothole that those on the roof got off rather than fall, those near the doors got out due to fear, and most of the rest descended in order to push the bus out of its rut (I got off to take a photo, not interfering with the pushing like a good journalist would).
Eventually, after 3.5 hours of probably the worst bus ride I’ve experienced in Latin America, we made it to the end of the road, Boca Sábalo. From here we caught a boat over the river to the town, then looked for some sort of onward transport. As it turned out, this took the form of a panga (a type of boat), which we could have caught in the first place if we’d waited. Oh well, the bus ride was an experience. And it was all worth it in the end – El Castillo is a cute little town, perched on wooden poles along the bank of the River San Juan. The nearby nature reserve, accessible by boat, also provided a great deal of entertainment. From walking trees, to ants the size of my little finger to bread-eating monkeys and plants that make your mouth go numb. We had a really good guide who got us interacting with nature during an unforgettable tour.
The Spanish-speaking world celebrate Semana Santa (normally translated as “Holy Week”) at Easter time – a whole week instead of the four days we have in England. This means public transport options are limited. Which is a pain in the butt if you want to make it 140km down a river to the coast. Nine of us found ourselves in the same boat (pun intended) so we looked to hire some sort of private transport – the cheapest option (which wasn’t so cheap) was a drunk who owned a launch and his crazy, but sober, friend who would drive. The trip took around 9 hours, which is tough in small boat with no shelter from the intense sun, but was punctuated by numerous stops to chat with our boat-owners mates and of course pick up more beers. It was also broken up by an overnight stop – “don’t worry, you won’t have to pay”, said our man – as it turned out he dropped us at an army checkpoint and rapidly sped of across the river. We slept on the floor outside, much to the annoyance of the military who gave the guy an earful when he collected us early in the morning. We made to San Juan del Norte on the Caribbean coast, however, and had enjoyed the beautiful river.
From San Juan we had to do the same, walk around the town looking for someone to take us north to Bluefields, this time through the sea. We found a ride, which was horrible – anyone who has been on a launch in the sea knows what I’m talking about – my neck still aches a week later. Bluefields itself (named after the Dutch pirate, Blewfeld) is not a place to hang around, and I carried straight on to the Pearl Lagoon. Much more agreeable. As were the nearby villages of Orinoco and Marshall Point. Also interestingly, the people spoke Criolla, which is a dialect of English similar to the Jamaican Patwa, ahead of Spanish. Amusingly this meant I had to translate for the Basque group I was with on a couple of occasions (not that I could understand all of what they said).
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