In Nicaragua, following in Twain's footsteps - and his dreams

Mark Twain bypassed Ometepe Island and the volcano Concepcion in his journey across Lake Nicaragua. Today the ferry stops on the island.
Mark Twain bypassed Ometepe Island and the volcano Concepcion in his journey across Lake Nicaragua. Today the ferry stops on the island. (Pascal Maitre/cosmos/aurora Photos)
By Julian Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 6, 2010; 10:48 AM

In the early morning, San Juan del Sur still looks like a sleepy fishing village. Green hills swell above a crescent bay where fishing boats bob at anchor. On the beach, two men are busy untangling a nylon net.

The rising sun reveals another side of this Nicaraguan town. I walk down the main drag, past surf shops, cafes, clothing boutiques and tanned, bored-looking foreigners. Shiny motorcycles and beach cruiser bicycles start to roll down clean-swept streets.

On the hillsides, luxury hotels and gated communities overlook the beach, where a boat bristling with surfboards is pulling out into the water.

Things have improved in the nearly century and a half since Mark Twain arrived here by steamship, forced to spend an extra night on board because of a cholera epidemic onshore.

I've arrived 100 years after the great American writer's death to retrace one of his lesser-known journeys. In 1866, Twain crossed Nicaragua on his way from California to New York. He was fresh off his first lecture tour, and his writing career was just starting to take off. He was still basking in the praise that his story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" had earned the previous year.

He didn't know what the future held, but at 31, he had high hopes.

I want to see how much this part of Nicaragua has changed since he was here. Even more, since I have a first book of my own coming out soon, I want to share his excitement - and perhaps some of his good fortune.

I've brought along Twain's account of the trip, a series of letters published in the San Francisco Alta California newspaper.

At the time of his crossing, Nicaragua was torn by civil war. The route he followed was a trail of pirates, forty-niners and counterrevolutionaries, the path of a planned transoceanic canal that never came into being - but probably should have.

Today, the route he took runs through a country not in revolution, but in evolution. Tourism is growing faster in Nicaragua than anywhere else in Central America; safety-wise, it's second only to its tourist-magnet neighbor, Costa Rica.

Heading lakeward

Twain arrived in San Juan del Sur, on the west coast of Nicaragua, on Dec. 29, 1866, to find "a few tumble-down frame shanties - they call them hotels - nestling among green verdure." Shirtless locals packing two-foot Bowie knives milled around the landing. Mules, horses and "ambulances," or wagons, waited to carry the 400-odd passengers across the 12-mile isthmus to Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America.

From there they would descend the San Juan River to the Caribbean Sea and board another steamer for New York, saving weeks, if not months, off a cross-country journey.

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