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Travel Journal


Shortly after sunrise we left the Rama family where we had stayed the last two nights. After saying goodbye to these friendly people we traveled back in the direction of San Juan del Norte, and for the last time we could enjoy the nature around the Indio River. Before we would really leave the area, however, we had another attraction to visit: the Manatee Lagoon.

Manatees – also known as sea cows – are large, rare water mammals that live in small numbers at the Atlantic side of Nicaragua, mostly in remote lagoons or rivers. Here, at the Indio River, there are several of these remote areas where these beautiful animals can be found, and one of these areas is called the Manatee Lagoon. This site was about three hours located from our base camp, but it was on the way back to San Juan del Norte.

Shortly after we left it started raining, and this time it was a real tropical rain with water pouring down from the sky. Except for the few smart people in the boat who had brought raincoats (not me), we were drenched by the sudden rain. It kept raining for over half an hour, but then all of a sudden the clouded sky changed dramatically and the sun appeared again. It was about two hours after we left, just after the rain, when I suddenly realized that this day was my birthday! We had been traveling away from the rest of the world for a while now, and I had just completely forgotten about this event! It was definitely a special birthday, here on the pristine Indio River in Río San Juan.

All of a sudden Hilario pointed to a tiny creek that was connected to the Indio River, and he told us that this creek would lead to the Manatee Lagoon. We had bought an underwater case for our camera with the primary purpose to use it in case we were able to see manatees here in the Indio Maíz Reserve. We had therefore brought this equipment along when we visited the Rama family, but now came the time to prepare the camera. We asked Hilario how long it would take to the lagoon. “About five minutes”, he answered, so we set up the underwater case and got ready to go into the water. But first we had to actually get to the lagoon.

The creek that we entered was very narrow and full of tree trunks, plants, and other obstacles. We therefore slowly made our way to the lagoon, with Hilario guiding us again and using his paddle to avoid hitting large trunks. At one point we had to enter another, even narrower creek. There seemed to be no way to get through, because plants and fallen trunks blocked pretty much the whole creek. Armed with a machete, Hilario started to cut tree branches and move the trunk so that we could pass. Enrique helped him with another machete, and at some point everybody was one way or another trying to clear the plants and trunks. We were finally able to pass this difficult point, but the rest of the creek also posed similar problems. We could only paddle slowly and we had to be continuously on the lookout for low-hanging tree branches. More than once we had to duck to avoid the trees. Finding the lagoon took already over half an hour, so somebody curiously asked Hilario how much longer it would take. Laughter arose from the boat when he answered “About five minutes”.

It now indeed took not long to reach the lagoon, and after this complicated journey we finally reached the small, calm lagoon. The water was not as clear as we hoped, and only if the manatees surfaced we would be able to see them. We started by moving around the lagoon in the boat, hoping that the animals would be curious and come to the boat. After ten minutes of circling the lagoon I started doubting if they would be here at all. Then, all of a sudden we saw signs of the manatees at the other side of the lagoon: we saw groups of bubbles coming from below, clearly marking the area where the manatees swam, somewhere down below. We rapidly moved our boat to the other side, but here all signs of the manatees disappeared. But we knew for sure that the manatees were here, in the lagoon! Ten more minutes passed, and we continued our strategy of circling around in order to create lure the great animals from below. Every now and then the bubbles appeared at the surface, but these were the only signs of the manatees that we saw. At one point we decided to go into the water, and armed with the camera and underwater casing I observed the lagoon below the water surface.

The visibility was not great, but if a manatee would pass by I would for sure be able to take a picture of the animal. The first minutes in the water were exciting and a little creepy, because here I was, inside a small lagoon in the middle of the forest with several manatees somewhere around me. When I dived to check out the deeper waters, I was shocked to see a yellow, moving substance down below. In a second dive this turned out to be the blubbery bottom of the lagoon.

The water was great and the manatee hunt was definitely exciting, but after twenty more minutes of cruising around the lagoon the bubbles disappeared from our sight and Hilario said that they probably left through the same creek we came from. Well, we got close and at least we saw some signs of the manatees, but unfortunately we did not get to see the manatees this time.

Our return trip was a little faster than when we came, because now the largest obstacles were more or less cleared. On the way back we did see an interesting natural phenomenon: two kissing fish. Two small rainbow bass (I think) appeared to be kissing, and they were not at all disturbed when we passed by. At that same spot, we saw again bubbles come up, and Hilario said that these were from the manatees, who were swimming down the creek as well. There was not much we could do though, because the water was not clear at all, so there was no way that we could spot them.

After this adventurous detour we ended up at the Indio River once again, and we continued our journey to San Juan del Norte. The only other people we saw along the way were some people in canoes and a guard at MARENA who checked our papers at the control station that we passed. Gradually, the river widened and we could travel at a higher speed again. We were getting closer to San Juan del Norte when Manuel steered the boat to a small entry to the left. Here we saw a sign: Welcome to the Blue Lagoon.

The Blue Lagoon is one of the attractions close to San Juan del Norte, and we had originally planned to visit this lagoon in the preceding days. Our change in plans made this impossible, which is why we visited the lagoon on our way back from the reserve. The Blue Lagoon is a small lagoon (yet it is larger than the Manatee Lagoon, and definitely better accessible) that is perfect for swimming. It’s close to the town, so people from San Juan del Norte frequently visit the lagoon to bathe and relax. The water is very warm and there is a huge, floating buoy-like device that was intensively used by some children swimming in the lagoon.

After a brief visit we continued our tour and in ten minutes we arrived back in San Juan del Norte. We lunched quickly and then hopped in the boat again for our next visit: Greytown. Or, better said: the cemeteries of Greytown. After the original city got burned down during the Contra-war, they only remains consist of four different cemeteries and a few building foundations, nothing more.

The town is located about ten minutes in boat from San Juan del Norte. Before we went to this place, however, we first passed another historical site: the dredge in the lagoon. This gigantic dredge was placed during the Gold Rush by Cornelius Vanderbilt, who wanted to construct an inter-oceanic canal using the San Juan River and the two Nicaraguan lakes to connect the two oceans. The canal never got finished and the dream of this North American businessman was never fulfilled, but there are still several signs that remind of this past. In addition to one of the dredges, there is also another very clear sign of this gigantic project: the canal. Although it was never finished, the project did start and a small part of the canal was dug and nowadays appears to be a regular but very straight river branch.

We passed by the dredge and the unfinished canal before we docked at a tiny, wooden wharf. A corroded sign welcomed us to the historical remains of Greytown. We walked through the forest before we entered the large, open area what once formed the sparkling city center of Greytown. Now there was only grass and a couple other rusty signs that identified the four small, deteriorated cemeteries.

There were different graveyards for the different social groups. The British had their own graveyard, and there were separate cemeteries for the militaries, the catholic, and the Freemasons, who apparently also lived in Greytown. The graves date back to the 19th century, and it’s really a glance at the past to read these old tombstones.

From a more recent date is a private, grassy landing strip that is located right next to the graveyards, which forms a sharp contrast with the old, historical remains of the city.

After browsing the site, we returned to San Juan del Norte, but not after we passed another important landmark: the estuary of the San Juan River. We briefly saw this when we came from Sábalos in the public boat, but now we went there during full daylight to check out the place where this famous river meets the Caribbean Sea. The place as such is not spectacular, but the idea to be standing at the end of the San Juan River, all the way down at the Caribbean Coast, does make it an interesting place.

Back in San Juan del Norte we dined and also visited Hilario. We found him in the Rama-part of the town, where there was no electricity and the houses were made from wood. After he showed us some nice handicrafts that the Ramas produce, we thanked him for the splendid trip and said goodbye.

We finally had a goodbye-drink with Fernando, the traveling Catalan, and the Dutch couple, Tim and Vera, to mark the end of our trip to the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve.