Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, where death by frog is a possibility

The Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz is home to large number of impressive animals – monkeys, tapirs, jaguars and panthers to mention but a few – but perhaps the most dangerous is small, damp and has a red body with blue legs. The Poison Dart Frog doesn’t look like much, most of them are little bigger than the tip of my index finger, but it is a renowned killer.

In the hands of an experienced indigenous hunter, the toxic secretions of the poison dart frog in combination with a blow dart is deadly – either for hunting game or combat between warring tribes. There are two fairly common types of poison dart frog in the Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, the red and blue version and the slightly harder to find green and black-spotted version.

Poison Dart Frog, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Poison Dart Frog, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Poison Dart Frog, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Poison Dart Frog, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Poison Dart Frog, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Poison Dart Frog, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

The Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz is an extraordinary place. A vast and pristine tropical rainforest, it runs for over 100km along the banks of the Rio San Juan and goes a similar distance inland. The majority of the reserva is off limits to anyone who isn’t a scientific researcher, but along the fringe of the river sections of the forest have been opened to eco-tourism, so now we can all get a glimpse of the flora and fauna that inhabit the forest.

If there is a small upside to the terrible war civil war that raged in Nicaragua for a decade or more, it is that this huge tropical rainforest was cut off and left largely untouched by human development.

Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

We hired a local guide in El Castillo and early one morning set off in a motorised canoe down the Rio San Juan, spotting large numbers of river birds, and smaller numbers of turtles, green basilisks and alligators along the way. The entrance to Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz is only 30 minutes away from El Castillo and almost from the moment you get off the boat you can hear Howler Monkeys high in the trees.

Green Basilisk, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Green Basilisk, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Turtles, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Turtles, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Alligator, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Alligator, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Green Basilisk, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Green Basilisk, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

After a quick orientation session with the park guards – during which I almost walked into the web of a poisonous Golden Orb Spider – we were off down a forest trail for three hours of animal tracking and plant spotting. The interior of a tropical rain forest is a hot and silent place. Very little wind reaches the interior and there doesn’t seem to be any oxygen in there either.

Entrance to Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Entrance to Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Golden Orb Spider, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Golden Orb Spider, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Hot, sweaty and breathless we made our way deeper into the forest spotting birds and listening to the occasional Howler Monkey making its point to its fellow monkeys. Our guide showed us medicinal plants and explained the way of life of the indigenous peoples who still inhabit the forest. At one point we chewed a small twig which instantly numbed our tongues – a natural anesthetic used by the forest tribes.

We were fortunate, not only did we find Poison Dart Frogs, we spotted Spider Monkeys with their young.

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

We also had a rare but exciting sighting of a Collared Peccary. As we approached the end of our trek our guide suddenly stopped and told us to stay still and quiet. Moments later we heard something coming through the undergrowth. Suddenly three Collared Peccaries, one only a few feet away from us, emerged out of the undergrowth. They then spotted us and charged across the trail in front of and behind us and disappeared into the forest again.

Collared Peccary, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Collared Peccary, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Collared Peccary, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Collared Peccary, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

We finished the trip with a swim in a small and cold river that is a tributary of the Rio San Juan. The fact that the water is cold is important – alligators don’t like the cold so its safe to swim. At least thats what we were told. After the heat of the forest it was wonderful to cool off in the river, and as we floated there a troupe of Spider Monkeys made an appearance in the trees above us.

Swimming river, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Swimming river, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

It is a memory I’ll treasure. Swimming in a river in the middle of a tropical rain forest while Spider Monkeys ran through the trees above us…it really doesn’t get  better than that, and it was the perfect end to our stay in wonderful Nicaragua. As we motored back towards the Rio San Juan we could still hear Howler Monkeys, but we didn’t see a single one.

Sleepy El Castillo, centre of an eighteenth century global conflict

Its difficult to imagine as you stroll down the ‘main street’ of El Castillo, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth century this village was at the centre of a global conflict between competing European nations that saw bloody battles between English fleets and Spanish defenders. The reason for those conflicts was a fortress built by the Spanish to prevent pirates from sailing up the Rio San Juan from the Caribbean to attack the fabulously wealthy city of Granada.

Granada was sacked and looted three times by pirates between 1655 and 1670, including famously by the Welsh pirate, Henry Morgan. In response, the Spanish built a fort on a bend in the Rio San Juan between two sets of rapids that slowed ships down and allowed the fort to train its cannons on them.

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

The site is spectacular. From the battlements you can see for miles down the river and over the top of the vast tropical rain forest that surrounds it. It is hard to take in what it must have been like to be a Spanish soldier posted to this remote site in the forest, surrounded by hostile indigenous tribes and subject to malaria and other tropical diseases.

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The rapids underneath the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The rapids underneath the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

Today it still feels remote – to reach the village involves a one and a half hour boat ride from San Carlos at the entrance to Lago Nicaragua where the river begins – but the effort to get there is well worth it. El Castillo is a sleepy place where you can relax for a few days between trips to surrounding natural wonders, including the extraordinary Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, a vast and pristine tropical rain forest.

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

Perhaps the most famous incident in the history of El Castillo was in 1762 when Rafaela Herrera, the teenage daughter of the dead fort commander, rallied the troops and defeated an English fleet headed for Granada. Although El Castillo’s true moment in the sun was during the California Gold Rush from 1848-55 when it was an important staging point for prospectors trying to reach San Francisco.

This was pre-Panama Canal and a decade before the US transcontinental railway, making it the quickest way to get from the East Coast of the US to the West Coast. Ironic then that the Nicaraguan government is conspiring with Chinese investors to build another transcontinental canal to rival the one in Panama. One possible route will be the Rio San Juan, something guaranteed to destroy both the natural environment of this region and the main reason for tourists to come here.

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

We spent a few days here absorbing river life and watching the world go by in small boats. El Castillo is another place where geography and history have conspired to keep it free of motor vehicles, so the world goes by much more quietly. The region is famous for giant river shrimp, much to our disappointment this wasn’t the season for shrimp – seriously, this is the sort of information a guidebook should give you!

The village is very welcoming and is starting to build a solid tourist infrastructure. Things will change in the next few years, but currently it feels like you have fallen off the tourist trail. People in the village genuinely want to encourage tourism, a guide we hired to take us to the forest put it very simply: before tourism many people in the village worked illegally (and cheaply) picking fruit in Costa Rica. Tourism, he implied, had restored a sense of pride in El Castillo.

Death and glory: the beautiful, brutal history of the Rio San Juan

Hands up anyone who has ever heard of the Rio San Juan? Me either, but it is one of the most beautiful and tranquil places in Nicaragua and it boasts a history second to none.

Since the Aztecs first used the Rio San Juan in the 1200s to link their trade routes from east to west, the river has been a vital artery between the Pacific and the Caribbean. In the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was at the centre of a global battle between European nations vying for the treasures of the new world.

Throughout those centuries the river became the stuff of legend, incorporating Inca gold shipped to Spain by Conquistadors; pirates sneaking up the river to attack the fabulously wealthy Spanish colonial city of Granada; a teenage girl defending the fort at El Castillo against a flotilla of English ships; and the English navy, led by Horatio Nelson, attacking Spanish forts along the river before being driven back as his men died wholesale from malaria and dysentery.

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

In the nineteenth century the river was a global super-highway shuttling prospectors to the California Gold Rush (1848-55), making shipping magnet Cornelius Vanderbilt a very wealthy man. More than 150,000 people travelled up the Rio San Juan en route to San Francisco and the river was the scene of frenzied activity. At the rapids by the village of El Castillo a railway was constructed to help transfer passengers from one boat to another.

From the earliest days of the discovery of Nicaragua in 1502, the strategic and commercial importance of a waterway linking the Pacific and the Atlantic was understood. The Rio San Juan flows out of Lago Nicaragua, which is only a short distance from the Pacific ocean and could have been linked by a canal. Towards the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries this almost became a reality but Panama got there first.

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

The dramas played out along this river are virtually unknown today, even though it continues to be a source of tension and occasional conflict between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The river is entirely Nicaraguan, but just south of El Castillo it forms the border between the two countries and there is an ongoing dispute between them as to the right to use the river.

Border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Inside a panga, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Inside a panga, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

If there is a more historic and dramatic river in the Americas than Rio San Juan I don’t know where it is, yet the river is so much more than its history. It flows through a beautiful and timeless area of Nicaragua and links small, isolated but welcoming communities that are just now opening their doors to tourism. It is a truly wonderful region to visit.

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Blue Heron, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Blue Heron, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

As you travel down the river there is a stark contrast between the Nicaraguan side and the Costa Rican side. Along the Nicaraguan side lies a vast and pristine rain forest, the Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, that is home to an extraordinary catalogue of flora and fauna. The Costa Rican side is virtually deforested. In other words, a country known for its ecological policies has allowed a tropical rain forest to be destroyed. Luckily it can still be seen and visited on the Nicaraguan side.