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

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.

Because of its dazzling seaside settings and relatively affordable - by gringo standards - real estate, San Juan del Sur has recently become one of Nicaragua's most popular destinations.

The country's southern Pacific beaches were also one of the main draws for the town's most recent arrivals: the cast and crew of "Survivor: Nicaragua," which started filming nearby in June. The show is expected to infuse more than $6 million into the local economy, including work for 200 locals.

Over a classic Central American breakfast of strong coffee and gallo pinto - literally "spotted rooster," a filling fried mixture of rice and black beans - I ponder how best to match Twain's "jolly little scamper across the Isthmus."

He and seven companions chose a faded red ambulance - "mud wagons we call them in the mountains" - drawn by four scrawny mules, "miraculous scarecrows," whose driver beat and cursed them relentlessly the entire way.

The 31/2-hour journey to the lake gave them plenty of time to enjoy the fragrant air and the birds and monkeys in the trees. Twain ogled the "raven-haired, splendid-eyed Nicaragua damsels" selling fruit and drinks along the roadside.

The smooth, level road came courtesy of Cornelius Vanderbilt's Accessory Transit Company, which had established the route across Nicaragua during the California gold rush.

It was shorter, faster and cheaper than crossing Panama. In the 1850s, at the height of the gold rush, some 2,000 people were paying $300 each to traverse Nicaragua every month.

An old U.S. school bus, the workhorse of Central American public transportation, is the closest I can find to a wagon. Sun and rain alternate abruptly, as though someone were flipping a switch, as we cross the board-flat strip of land between the ocean and the lake.

Schoolchildren in white shirts and navy pants and skirts walk along the road, past farmhouses bordered by coconut and mango trees. The driver steers around bulls, dogs and two-wheeled carts drawn by skeletal horses.

After Twain's group passed an advertisement for "Ward's shirts" nailed to a tree, the men decried "all such people, who invade all sacred places with their rascally signs, and mar every landscape." Today the ads are for cellphone companies, bottled water and real estate. ("New houses from $58,000!")

The twin rounded peaks of Ometepe Island rise above the horizon from the center of Lake Nicaragua. At 3,191 square miles, the lake is more than twice the size of Rhode Island.

Nicaragua is a country drawn by a child: bordered by oceans, filled with jungles and volcanoes and a giant lake - and two volcanoes in the lake. Concepcion and Maderas, a pair of mountains joined by ancient lava flows, make up the hourglass-shaped island. Both peaks wear toupees of clouds.

As he rode a small steamship across the lake, Twain marveled at the "two magnificent pyramids, clad in the softest and richest green, all necked with shadow and sunshine."

He bypassed the island, but the modern ferry route stops at Ometepe, so I'll have to spend the night there. Water sloshes around the floor of the boat as we chug through wind-whipped whitecaps.

The railings are grooved from decades of sliding ropes. In the pilothouse, I ask the captain in Spanish how old the ferry is.

"Let's see," he says. "The '60s. No, wait - the '50s. But we've made a few repairs since then!"

The 'sweet sea'

Ever since the 17th century, when the first sailing ships rounded the southernmost tip of South America, sailors and merchants have dreamed of connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific across the narrow neck of Central America.

On a map, Nicaragua seems like the most obvious place to do it, with the lake and, from its southeast corner, the San Juan River flowing to the Caribbean.

But in the mid-19th century, when canal-building technology had finally caught up with the dreams, Nicaragua was in the midst of civil war. An American military adventurer named William Walker even had himself elected president for a year in 1856.

By the turn of the century, Teddy Roosevelt had set his sights on an alternate route - through Panama, then part of Colombia - that the French had started to dig but had abandoned. The United States helped Panama declare its independence from Colombia in 1903, bought out the French effort for $40 million the next year and finished the canal in 1914.

If things had gone differently, this lake would be a very different place. As we near Concepcion, I shudder to imagine thousand-foot-long cargo ships churning across the Mar Dulce, the "Sweet Sea," day and night.

With its rich volcanic soils, lush forests and abundance of pre-Columbian stone carvings, Ometepe was chosen as Nicaragua's third UNESCO Biosphere Reserve this year. If you like waterfall hikes, kayaking through mangroves, or just quiet isolation, this is the place for you.

I treat myself to a beachfront cabin at the Villa Paraiso hotel at Santo Domingo Beach, on the narrow strip of land between the volcanoes. There's a hammock on the porch and flowers on the bedspread.

The beach is shallow, the volcanic sand fine and dark. The afternoon grows golden, and I decide that there are worse ways to spend your 38th birthday, even alone.

Edge of the jungle

Recurring squalls keep me indoors most of the next day. Every hour or so, a great wind leads a dark line of rain across the lake to shore.

An overnight ferry leaves in the evening for San Carlos, at the head of the San Juan River. A string of kung fu movies blares from the TV in the lounge. At least there are enough padded benches for almost everyone to stretch out on. Twain described his 12-hour lake crossing as "not particularly speedy, but very comfortable." I'd agree with the first part.

At San Carlos, I share a bleary-eyed breakfast with Erik Nelson, a Canadian retiree. Later, we walk along the town's newly restored Malecon, a grassy promenade where the lake meets the river.

San Carlos is surprisingly well kept for an edge-of-the-jungle town, with lots of police. Its facelift is part of a $15 million investment in tourism facilities along the San Juan River corridor, another Biosphere Reserve. Three new tourism centers, five new border posts, a bridge over the river and new airports for San Carlos and San Juan del Norte on the Caribbean coast are all in the works. Visitors often describe Nicaragua as "how Costa Rica used to be," and the government hopes that these new projects will help narrow the gap between the two countries.

Twain headed straight downriver in a double-decked stern-wheeler, a foreign cousin of the Mississippi riverboats of his youth. The boat passed a forested island that had formed around a steamboat scuttled by Walker during his campaign to take over the country.

Even though the San Juan flows through one of the most isolated parts of Nicaragua, it has seen plenty of action. From the 17th century on, foreign pirates and armies used it as a 120-mile highway to reach the rich trading center of Granada, at the west end of Lake Nicaragua.

In the 1980s, U.S.-backed contra forces operating out of Costa Rica fought in the forests with Sandinista government troops.

Nicaragua's southeast corner today isn't quite the "unpeopled paradise" that Twain saw - cattle farms and jungle lodges dot the riverbanks - but it does encompass the second-largest tropical reserve in the country, the 1,225-square-mile Indio-Maiz Biological Reserve. It's Central America's version of the Amazon.

I find a seat on a panga, one of the long, narrow motorized canoes that serve as public buses on the river. I'm wedged between a pair of nuns and a man in the blue uniform of the national police, whose presence I trust to ward off disaster and hijacking.

We putter down the mocha-colored flow, past farmhouses on stilts and trees full of cormorants drying stubby wings in the sun. Twain's description of the scenery still holds true: "All the shapes and forms and figures known to architecture, wrought in the pliant, leafy vines, and thrown together in reckless, enchanting confusion."

Fortress by the river

It takes three hours to reach El Castillo, a small town next to one of the biggest sets of rapids on the river. They're more ripples than white water, but they were big enough to slow down pirates and enemy ships on their way to sack Granada. That's why Spanish colonial authorities built El Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepcion on a hilltop above town in 1675.

I trudge uphill to the fort, whose restored ruins are still imposing, with massive walls of dark stone and a chapel as large as the barracks.

According to the museum, in 1762, the 19-year-old daughter of the local commander took over when her father was wounded and successfully repelled a British fleet, all while in her nightgown. A young Horatio Nelson captured the fort 18 years later.

I need a boost after the walk, so I find a coffee shop on the main plaza. The owner, 29-year-old Yamil Obregón Bustos, pours a perfect cappuccino and tells me about his struggle to open Border's Coffee two years ago.

As an openly gay man, he faced hostility and harassment from police and residents, he said. He hired a lawyer and won what turned out to be a landmark case for gay rights in Nicaragua.

El Castillo is cute and carless - the only access is by boat - and I may be the only tourist here.

Twain's group had to disembark, walk around the rapids and board another stern-wheeler to continue downstream. They tied up for the night 30 miles from the coast. "Those who had hammocks swung them, and those who hadn't made beds of their overcoats," Twain wrote.

End of the road

Another three hours brings me to San Juan del Norte, a small, quiet town near the mouth of the river. It started a few miles away as the busy British port of Greytown, the eastern terminus of Twain's route.

He arrived on New Year's Eve to find a settlement of Americans, Spaniards, Germans, English, Jamaicans and native Miskito Indians. Beds cost a dollar a night.

It wasn't much to look at, he wrote, but "its comeliness is greatly enhanced, I may say is rendered gorgeous, by the cluster of stern-wheel steamboats at the water front."

After being repeatedly flattened by, among other things, hurricanes, the river, the contra army and the U.S. Navy, Greytown was relocated and renamed. (It was officially re-renamed San Juan de Nicaragua in 2002, but everyone still calls it San Juan del Norte.)

All that remains of the original settlement is the cemetery, where time and the jungle are slowly digesting 150-year-old headstones. The old main street is now a grass-covered landing strip.

In the maze of lagoons nearby are a half-sunken Sandinista plane and the 100-foot tower of a steam-powered dredge, rusting into art. Then the brawny waves of the Caribbean.

Twain embarked for New York on the first day of 1867, bound for success. That year he would publish "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Stories," travel to Europe and the Middle East to gather material for his next book, "The Innocents Abroad," and meet his future wife.

I still have to decide whether I'm quite up yet for a whole day on a panga heading back upriver. Maybe first I'll make like a local and try a little costaneando, just a ramble along the coast.

Who knows what I may find.

Smith is the author of "Crossing the Heart of Africa," coming in December from Harper Perennial.

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