The next day we discussed our visit with several people from the town. We talked about it with hotel and restaurant owners, as well as with people from the town hall, to see if we they would be willing to support this trip. They were fortunately enthusiast about promoting this beautiful, unexplored region, and we were able to plan our departure that same day, at 1PM. This meant we had to rapidly prepare our trip.
There were three tourists who would join us: the Dutch couple, Tim and Vera, we met before and a Catalan, Fernando, who was traveling through Latin America for several years and who had been in Nicaragua for several months already. They were also enthusiast about visiting this area, and they now also rapidly started packing.
An important aspect of the preparation was finding a guide. There is only one group of people who really know the forest: the Ramas. These Rama Indians are native inhabitants of the southern Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, and they have lived in the forest for more than 700 years. They are nomads who travel between different areas, and they live from hunting and small-scale agriculture. Physically they also differ from the mestizos. Their faces are different and everybody, including the men, has long, dark hair. Despite inhabiting these forests for centuries, their original way of living is threatened by governmental sanctions. New laws prohibit anybody to live inside a natural reserve, and the Rama Indians are therefore removed from their houses in the forest and placed in more urban areas. This way, several Rama families ended up living in San Juan del Norte, in a neighborhood that can be easily distinguished from the other ones because all houses are elevated and made from wood. These Ramas are not used to live outside the forest, and because they have no money they are all forced to become fisherman in order to make a small living. Whether or not the impact of the Ramas on the forests’ ecosystem is significant enough to remove them from their homes is disputable, but it is definitely not a good solution for the Ramas.
Among the Ramas living in the village of San Juan del Norte is the leader of the Ramas who live along the Indio River in the reserve (the area that we planned to visit), a man called Hilario but better known as Coyote. He was fortunately also willing to accompany us and to show us around.
In addition the aforementioned people, our hotel owner Enrique and the trip’s organizer, Manuel, would also go with us.
When everybody was present at the wharf early in the afternoon, we only had to wait for MARENA to hand us the necessary permit. Although this was already arranged, the person who could give us these papers was not at the wharf. Consequently, we had to wait for several hours before we could finally leave.
The Indio River first runs parallel to the ocean, with only a thin strip of palm-covered sand between the ocean and the river. When the river heads more landward, the vegetation becomes more spectacular and the river’s width decreases.
We passed by the control station of MARENA, where our papers were checked before we could continue. Not far after this point, the river splits into two: the Black Cane River and the Indio River. We continued at the Indio River, and again we the river’s width decreased and the vegetation became even more impressive. A high wall of deep green trees flanked the boat, while we maneuvered down the calm river. Manuel, who was controlling the boat, had a hard time because we had to avoid the many tree trunks that came across our path. Here we could already see how valuable the knowledge of our Rama guide was, because Hilario was spotting the river for trunks and signaled to Manuel how to avoid these obstacles.
Along the way we also saw a multitude of birds and other animals. Herons, kingfishers, and other small, colorful birds all inhabit the river shores, and we also saw many river turtles sunbathing on tree trunks.
After this spectacular boat ride we arrived at sunset at a small settlement along the shore. This place, called Maquengue, was previously an important settlement area for the Ramas in this region. When Enrique visited this place years ago, he had found a lively village where 50 Indians lived in harmony with nature. Now, only the niece of Hilario and her family were still present. They were allowed by the government to harvest their beans before they too would be removed from this site.
This area would form our base camp for the next two days. We would be staying in a roofed but partially wall-less hut, constructed from wood and thatched with palm leaves. The forest bottom functioned as floor, and we installed our beds ourselves; i.e. we hung our hammocks somewhere inside the hut.
After settling down here I immediately felt that we were really camping in the heart of the reserve. Around us only animal sounds prevailed, and we looked out over the stunning river and thick rainforest on the other side. We had brought our dinner in the form of rice, beans, and canned food, and the niece of Hilario prepared our meal on her woodstove. Unfortunately for the Dutch couple, the Ramas were not yet familiar with the term ‘vegetarian’, and despite explaining their preferences they were served the same rice with tuna as us. At least there was some cassava for them, which meant they did not have to go to bed with an empty stomach.
Our own meal was spiced up by Hilario, who gave us some freshly caught meat. It was called ‘Tepezcuinte’, and Enrique and Manuel were very enthusiast about being able to eat this tasty meat again. I had no idea what a ‘Tepezcuinte’ was, and my enthusiasm was slightly lessened when the others told me a Tepezcuinte is a big rat. They said so in a very joking manner, so I was able to force myself to think that it was no big rat, it was just a regular animal. The meat tasted different than any other meat, but it was not bad (for a big rat at least).
When we went to sleep, Manuel told us about his jungle adventures. I remember that at one point, he was explaining what animals he had killed and eaten when he was young. I was falling asleep when he was telling about how he once accidentally killed a manatee. When I woke up again it felt as if at least half an hour had passed, and Manuel was still on the same topic, this time about how a friend of his loved to eat monkey meat. Yes, we were really in the jungle.