We started with a city tour. “City” might be a big word for a town with around 2,000 inhabitants, though. San Juan del Norte is a town with a lot of history. The original town was established by the Spaniards, but it was seized by the British in the 19th century. They then renamed it to Greytown. Greytown was one of the most important commercial cities of Nicaragua during that time. It remained a rich, active port village, until the 1980’s when heavy fights between the Sandinistas and the Contras destroyed pretty much the complete town. After the war a new town was set up, but at another location. This new town was called San Juan del Norte, and recently its official name was changed to San Juan de Nicaragua, for political reasons. Locally, the place is mostly referred to as San Juan del Norte.
This new San Juan del Norte is characterized by the absence of cars, elevated sidewalks, and its rustic image. The small houses are set along a handful of streets, and it does not take long to walk from one side to the other side. There is also a small lagoon inside the village, which offers a great place for kayaking or swimming. Unfortunately, this whole lagoon was overgrown by water plants and it was impossible to enter it. We continued our tour and passed the school, the wharf, the town hall, and the police station, which meant we saw pretty much all there is to see in the town itself.
In the afternoon we prepared for a hiking trip to the forest behind the town. We first passed by an interesting area right behind our hotel. Here, the Nicaraguan government will construct an air strip for national and international flights. Although it will all be small-scale, it will have a great impact on the accessibility of San Juan del Norte. Everybody in the town is enthusiast about this project, which is supposed to be realized this year.
Out of curiosity, we first visited the area of the field strip. There was, however, not much to see. A while ago the area had been cleared, but because the original plan got delayed the vegetation had already grown back and the plants were already too high to oversee the field. With a guide from the hotel, we took another trail that led to the forest behind the town. After a five minute walk we were already in the forest. We saw an odd lizard species, as well as many colorful insects and plants. Less colorful and much more annoying were the tons of mosquitoes that harassed us every time we stood still. It had just rained and there was not much wind, which was the worst time when it comes to mosquitoes, the guide told us. We could do nothing but mentally accept that we would be bitten many times during this trip, and we continued our hike.
Despite being the dry season, it was still raining at this side of the country. It is generally wetter at the Atlantic side of Nicaragua, which is also why there is another type of vegetation. Personally I like the tropical dry forest of the Pacific a lot, but I feel the wet tropical forest has a higher biodiversity and it feels more like a jungle than the forests in the Pacific.
The forest was very green and dense, and at one point we left the trail and entered the forest. All of a sudden our guide spotted a long but very thin snake in a tree. It was a beautiful animal, but because the forest was rather dark and the mosquitoes bit whenever we stood still, it was hard to take good pictures. Róger nevertheless took some good ones, like this one.
The guide told us that during the prosperous times of Greytown a railroad connected the area with the cities in the west. We would walk to the area where this railroad originally passed. To get there, we had to jump over a small creek and hike through the dense forest. When we arrived at the railroad site, there was in fact not much to see. The rails had been sold and whatever remains were left were overgrown by plants. The natural beauty of this area was spectacular, though, and it was here where we saw the first red and blue dart frog. These beautiful, small frogs are found on humid forest floors, and they are poisonous although they won’t do any harm if not disturbed. After taking a bunch of photos we returned to the town.
On our way back, we also spotted some monkeys in the trees right next to the trail. The monkeys rapidly left as we came closer, but we came close enough to see that they were Spider Monkeys, which meant that we had actually seen all three Nicaraguan monkey species during this trip.
We arrived safe and sound back in San Juan del Norte, but we were bitten all over the place by the mosquitoes. Useful lesson for the next forest hike: wear repellent.
At our hotel, we discussed our schedule for the next days. We thought of visiting some areas close to the village, like the cemeteries of Greytown and the Blue Lagoon. While exploring the possibilities, however, we found out that there was another major attraction that sounded definitely worthwhile: going up the Indio River (Río Indio) and visiting the jungle of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve.
We did not know about the possibilities of entering the reserve through San Juan del Norte, but from what we heard it sounded definitely as a unique opportunity to visit a rather unexplored region. Until recently, MARENA did not allow tourists to enter this reserve. Nowadays, however, the government permits tourists to undertake daytrips to the pristine forest. Our plan, however, was to go up the river and stay for two nights in the forest. This meant we had to obtain a permit from MARENA, and there were several other things to be dealt with. We decided to discuss these things the next day.
There would be another consequence because of this rather unexpected turn in our schedule: if all things went according to plan, I would celebrate my birthday in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. Well, that’s something else for a change. Due to this fact we grabbed some beers that same night with the other people from the hotel, in order to celebrate my birthday now that we were still within ‘civilization’. We even briefly hit the local discothèque, until the lights went out at 11PM (San Juan del Norte only has electricity between 4PM and 11PM) and we returned to our hotel under a dark, starlit sky.