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2000 Expedition Journals
Central America has recently gained fame for its numerous jungles and national parks. A quick look at the map reveals that the largest tract of rainforest covers most of the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua and the southern part of Honduras. This area, known as the Mosquito Coast, was the subject of a fiction book by Paul Theroux and later a movie featuring Harrison Ford. The name itself evokes adventure and a few backpackers have started to venture into the forest on the Honduran side, leaving the small crowded national parks of Costa Rica for the masses. However, the danger and current political situation in Nicaragua, in addition to its difficult access have deterred most travelers and preserved the largest rainforest on the continent. Nicaragua remains the last frontier and is still avoided by most. My expedition partner Luke and I, planned to paddle the full Moskitia (Spanish for the Mosquito Coast) as part of our itinerary for the Central American Sea Kayak and Jungle Expedition 2000. We had successfully paddled our sea kayaks from Mexico to La Moskitia of Honduras and were determined to continue the navigation of the Atlantic coast and traverse all of Nicaragua to reach the Costa Rican national park of Tortuguero. The fear of new potential danger was offset by our interest in paddling non-chartered water and unspoiled wilderness, and our desire to meet the famous turtle hunters living on this coast. In the port of Puerto Cabezas we decided to leave our fears aside and continue down the coast of Nicaragua.
We had already experienced storms at sea, malaria, tropical rain and heat, the notorious bugs of Honduras, and had had scary shark encounters. We camped in remote places notorious for bandits and drug dealers where we managed to make friends with some and avoid others, always making the best of most situations. How much worse could Nicaragua really be? We knew it would be the most dangerous section of the CASKE 2000 expedition. Among the new dangers was the fact that a ten-year civil war following 35-years of dictatorship had recently ended leaving large amounts of military hardware in the hands of very poor people for whom life has come to have little meaning. We knew that with our kayaks we would be easy targets so we decided to paddle long distances and camp as rarely as possible. What we didn’t know was that both the people and the elements would join forces to make us pay our dues to navigate through Nicaragua. The expedition that had been a nice adventure turned into a nightmare, and our documentation of local lifestyle came at a high cost. That we survived Nicaragua at all may be only because we pushed ourselves to the limit, paddling long days and skipping many camps to find safe harbor.
To get a feel for what was going on in our minds and what precautions we took, read Luke's two initial accounts of crossing the border into Nicaragua.
Pto. Lempira to Nicaragua Border "Out of Honduras" (5/02)
Benk to Nicaraguan Border "Point of No Return" (5/04)
I have never understood the motives behind self-flagellation. Along the same lines, I was shocked by the remarkable movie "Fight Club" featuring Ed Norton and Brad Pitt. Suffering from split personality, Ed Norton is shown punching himself in the face. At the time I had thought, how could anybody consciously do that, and yet here I was somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean on my way between Honduras and Nicaragua, paddling a kayak in the middle of the night for a 34 mile and 14 hour stretch. This alone could be qualified by most as masochism; but that wasn't all. In addition to the severe punishment I was imposing on my muscles, I was also biting and hitting myself as hard as I could to stay awake. I was testing the limits of maximum stimulation while avoiding injuring myself. A close up shot of such scene could have fit the "Fight Club" theme quite well.
The truth is that we had been paddling since 10 PM the day before and it was our third or fourth long, tough day in a row. As we entered Nicaragua, our goal was to paddle through quickly and camp on the beach as rarely as possible. The coast was notoriously dangerous and with our kayaks we were easy prey. Because of the overcast weather, I had to use my full concentration on star navigation. My reference stars kept disappearing behind clouds. I was paddling with my head perpetually tilted back and face up, intensely staring at the black sky, trying to guess where my stars had gone and where they would reappear. Although my neck was stiff and my body aching it was not enough to keep me awake. To prevent sleeping I had to paddle fast. The problem was that my expedition partner Luke was feeling nauseated and kept slowing me up.
By 3 AM after five hours of intense concentration constantly staring at the intermittently disappearing stars, with my head up and paddling at a slow speed, there was nothing I could do to keep my eyes open. For five seconds I had some stars in sight, and then they would disappear behind clouds. Sometimes they disappeared behind my eyelids, which drooped first for the duration of one paddle stroke, then two, then three. This happened so often that I was paddling more with my eyes closed than opened. The feeling was terrible. I tried to bite my fingers at the base of the nails. It worked a couple of times and then the pain swung into an almost imperceptible dullness. I started biting the tip of my tongue and my lips but it only gave me a few minutes more of alertness.
It was an hour and half before dawn and there was no beach to land on. Our last attempt found Luke bumping his kayak onto massive amounts of driftwood stuck in the middle of tree roots. We had no choice but to keep going. That meant I had to keep doing the night navigation. I'm usually up to the task no matter what the weather is, even in zero visibility. But paddling with my eyes closed and my mind wandering into the sleeping world, I was afraid I would wake up with us on our way to Africa. I splashed water over my head often but it wasn't cold enough to be of much help. The last alternative I found was to slap myself. They weren't little slaps; those would have had no more effect than biting my fingers. Every five minutes, I put my paddle down and slammed my hand on my cheeks, forehead and neck so hard it stung me for minutes. Luke asked, "What are you doing?" Maybe he feared I suffered from a split personality or that I was going insane, who knows maybe I could have gone mad. By the time the sun rose I looked like a lobster and for once it wasn't for lack of sunscreen. On shore, the forest was so dense that we could barely see past the second layer of trees. This was the Mosquito Coast I had imagined a year ago before we entered Honduras. There was no beach; it seemed like a giant tornado had consumed it all and just left logs rotting in the water at the foot of submerged trees which were not mangroves.
I finally sighted a small patch of sand we could land on. It was the only beach in the middle of a 30-mile stretch of densely forested shores. We pulled our kayaks up and collapsed for an hour and half before being able to move a limb. After 2 hours we resumed our paddling. Sleepiness gave way to body fatigue and achy muscles. A few hours later we looked for another landing spot to stretch our legs and backs. I paddled close to shore to look for it and didn't pay attention to sudden high surf, which broke while I was sideways. I braced and leaned with all my weight into it, but it was too late, the bow of my kayak had already been taken in the curl of the surf and I started tipping over. I thought I was in real trouble as I was falling on the side moving quickly toward the dead logs lying on the shore. I imagined the next wave coming and crushing me with my kayak on the trees. I started my Eskimo roll before being entirely capsized as my kayak was still on the edge. It worked and I quickly backpaddled through the next wave. Luke, who arrived a few seconds later, wondered why I was backpaddling through the surf. "No landing here," I said. We continued until I noticed a small opening of black sand between the trees. It was barely wide enough to fit the two kayaks, and we had to be careful not to let the current drag us on the logs sticking out of the water around the tiny cove. Our kayaks would break. We just had enough space to sit on a log and rest for a few minutes.
When we restarted paddling, we thought another two hours would take us to the village of Sandy Bay. Our large scale map covered all the Mosquito Coast of both Honduras and Nicaragua and wasn't detailed enough to show that the village was in fact inside a lagoon with a canal entrance four miles south of the actual village. After paddling two and half hours, I still had no sight of the entrance. I was tired and my back muscles were screaming from soreness. Luke was far enough behind that I could barely see him. I knew that if I waited for him, he would paddle no further and we would be forced to camp here. I refused to be so close to our destination and give it up. Even though we had already left over 13 hours ago, I was determined to keep going until I found the entrance to the laguna. When I did, I waited for Luke who was moving along in autopilot mode. We had no sight of the village and started paddling through a mangrove maze of canals getting directions from passing motorboats. After more than 14 hours and the longest expedition day I can recall to date, we arrived in the small village of Sandy Bay Norte. A nice Miskito man invited us to stay under his roof. He helped us carry our gear inside his house under the curious eyes of dozens of villagers. People had never seen kayaks before. After a meal we passed out on our host's king size bed he had generously offered us.
Read Luke's account of the hardships we endured in order to slip unseen along the northern coast into the first safe harbor of Sandy Bay.
Border to Sandy Bay "Sacrificing Comfort for Stealth" (5/05)
Sandy Bay "Where do you get your water?" (5/06)
At one o'clock in the morning, our hosts from the small village of Sandy Bay Norte got up to help us carry our gear to the lagoon and point us toward the canal entrance on the other side. To get there I used the stars as reference; they were a better choice than land features, which change as we get closer. After entering the canal it was a real maze. There were many intersections that we had not paid attention to the other day when we arrived so tired after a 34-mile paddle. I sometimes navigate on feelings, especially on cloudy nights. The wind and the angle from which the waves hit the boat are my usual guides, but they can change. The wind can turn and waves can get refracted in a bay and gradually start to come from a new direction. Here neither the wind nor the wave directions could be of any help. After an hour of maze paddling in the dark, the distant dull sound of the waves and the slight water undulations repeatedly bouncing my kayak and teasing my full bladder were the hints we were on the right course to the sandbar opening on the ocean. Half an hour later we were stretching on the beach before setting up for another 20 miles that we planned to paddle. There was no more night navigation to do as the coastline was straight without any major bay crossings. We just needed to keep the shore on sight and follow it.
In the early morning as we kept moving along the coast we heard a strange sound. I turned back toward Luke saying, "What the hell was that?" I was afraid I knew too well what it was, I had heard that sound thousands of times in the army. It was the muffled whine from the shot of a rifle from a distance but carried over the water. It was soon followed by a second gunshot. I looked on the beach and saw a man standing and waving. Our rifle shooter was waving us to come in. We were far enough out that I assumed he didn't see me look at him, I forced the pace and we paddled further away from shore a little more.
An hour later we paddled closer to shore as we were closing up on a point. Two friendly fishermen launched a canoe and came to meet us on the water. They advised us to be cautious and not to try to pass the next point as up to 30 armed bandits were using it as a base to attack all slow passing boats. The men were very friendly but frantically insisted that for our safety and the salvation of their own souls, they could not let us get killed by the bandits waiting ahead. They invited us to rest on the beach and wait for a fast motorboat taxi between Sandy Bay and Puerto Cabezas to pick us up and drop us past the dangerous zone. They went on to tell us that these bandits were ex-guerillas and they would not hesitate to kill us and rob us of all we had. They had killed many before.
The men were convincing. Luke and I discussed our options. Maybe they lied, but they didn't seem dangerous and didn't have any weapons. Two other fishermen with a little kid were setting up a net from the beach. On the other hand if they told the truth we ought to follow their advice. We were in need of a rest anyway so we decided to go to shore. After we landed, the friendly fisherman told us an official armed-guard from the village would come to check out the situation and assure our protection. At the same time a man appeared walking from the North with an AK 47 submachinegun on his shoulder. We recognized the man we had passed earlier and who had shot his gun twice. He had probably shot in the air as he said, to call our attention and warn us about the danger ahead.
The eager fisherman and the armed guard in peasant's clothes walked toward the point to check out the situation for us. We had some doubts from the beginning about their stories, but when they returned less than five minutes later without going a tenth of the distance to the point we became even more suspicious. Then they kept telling us stories as if they had talked with the bandits who would let us pass safely for a fee they called a Derecho de Pasaje (right of passage). When I asked what kind of fee, they replied, "Very little, just $100.” We laughed explaining that we never traveled with that much cash at hand I also said that our friends the Miskito leaders Brooklyn Rivera and Avelino Cox Molina were waiting for us in Cabezas today and that if we didn't arrive by the afternoon they would come with the police and the coast guard to look for us. These two people were famous nationwide. Our friend Jacinto Molina, a Miskito Leader from Honduras had given us their names. At the mention of these names, the five men were impressed. They talked in Miskito and we could only understand them when they repeated the names.
The fishermen who had stopped us were first very friendly, but after half an hour of conversation leading nowhere they started to lose their temper, especially the zealous muscular little man who had convinced us to land. He was waving his large diving knife about excitedly and at one point looked to the fabric skins of our foldable kayaks and very suggestively remarked that the bandits could easily rip all our boats with knives. The man with the AK 47 remained calmer and asked, "So what are you going to do? We will bring them your money so they let you go, and I will ensure your protection with my gun." When a motorboat approached, the men exchanged a few words in Miskito and all we could understand was policia, policia, policia. Afraid it was the police, our armed official ran to hide his AK 47 in the bush. They were not police officers but just a commuting boat on its way to Sandy Bay, but now we were sure about the intent of the men. They were the thieves and although friendly, they were well armed and had started to lose their patience with us. The tall man with the beard was standing in front of me with his AK 47 on his shoulder while the excited fisherman moved his knife all around more and more in frustration. Around us were four more men, two with machetes. The threat was never direct, they always referred to the bad people from the point, but they made it clear that they could not let us leave considering the danger. God would not forgive them for not saving our lives they said, but we knew better.
The tension was building and as our two main negotiators were pressing us more and really starting to annoy me. I had flashbacks to my special-forces training years. For a second I saw how easily I could remove the knife from the little man and dig it in the throat of the tall guy with the AK 47 standing next to him. I was sure it would take me less than five seconds to have the machine gun in my hands. This thought only lasted for a few seconds before reason returned. I thought, "JP you're crazy! These people aren't a real threat, they just want some money." I could feel the anger building in them, but also nervousness and hesitation. I told Luke who carried the few Nicaraguan Cordobas we had that we should give them a 100, which is the equivalent of $8. Surprised he asked me if I was serious. "Yes" I replied. After repeating that Brooklyn Rivera expected us, I don't think they would have taken the risk to hurt us. But they were armed and had already spent over an hour of energy and frustration trying to rob us of $100. It was better to give them something and call an end to this situation.
Luke pulled out 100 Cordoba and I told them that we were grateful for their help asking the bad guys to let us pass safely with this donation. They agreed and I gave them one of my bottles of Tang drink. We shook hands like old friends and they helped us carry our loaded kayaks back to the water while giving us God's benediction. We thanked them for their gracious help and they continued their lies by recommending us to paddle far out from the point just in case. We did, not really to avoid the 30 mythical armed bandits but rather to stay clear from another similar encounter. Of course they never even bothered simulating walking toward the point. By then they too knew that we had understood their scam for a long time, but the small donation made things easier for both parties.
Once out a little way from the coast we laughed. Maybe still a bit nervous, we thought the situation once concluded was funny. It was our first armed robbery of the trip and the first time we saw an AK 47 in the hands of bandits. Eight dollars was a small price to pay to get out of this situation. As I paddled on leaving Luke in my wake, I thought more about the situation and remembered that one of the silent men with a machete was very high on drugs. I remembered the warning we had received numerous times about drug users and the value of life in these countries. I thought we were lucky this time as they were just poor guys who probably only robbed occasionally. They could have been cocaine addicts and killed us first. In Central America life doesn't have much value and it is especially true in Nicaragua when just ten years ago people were still killing each other all over the country without really knowing why in a dirty civil war.
Although I had not felt any fear at any time during this encounter, as I kept paddling, I felt more and more uneasy and didn't want to camp on the beach in the evening. I waited for Luke and told him I thought we should paddle all the way to Puerto Cabezas pushing our distance to 34 miles. After paddling the distance we landed in front of a restaurant. There we met a Miskito leader named Julio Chow who took us, after a meal, to the Captain of the Port for registration. Our letter of recommendation from the immigration of Honduras did marvels for us. Then Julio helped us hire a truck and took us to a nice comfortable hotel. As it was Sunday we had to wait until the following day to check in with the immigration. Again, our recommendation letter worked so well we did not even need to show the kayaks or talk to customs. We had officially made it to Nicaragua and we paid our dues to get into the country.
The comforts of a hotel and hot food in Puerto Cabezas came at a much higher cost than expected. Read Luke's account of our two night ordeal and the following entry on how we achieved celebrity status and paraded out of town.
Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua “Little Hotel of Horrors”
Pto. Cabezas, Nicaragua “Oddities at Arrival, Celebs Upon Departure” (5/10)
Some days it is better to stay in bed. Yesterday was a tough day. I barely found the energy to paddle the 20 miles we had to cover. This morning we woke up at 3 AM to the sound of the alarm. The small stomach problems from yesterday had developed into strong diarrhea with cramps. I felt even worse than the day before and was not looking forward to another 20-mile day. Had I been in a nice bed somewhere, calling it a rest day would have been easy. But here, we had to move on. We had set up camp under a canopy of bush and trees, protected from the sights of curious eyes. Our shelter was good enough in the obscurity of the night, but we knew that during the day people would start walking the beach and find us.
In Nicaragua many people are friendly and hospitable, but others still live the way they became accustomed to during the war. Guns in hand, they pray on people. Recently cocaine has found its way to the Mosquito Coast. Small planes or boats unload tons of it in the ocean where people equipped with 500 or 1000 horsepower boats take the packets directly to Mexico to be transferred by land to the States. Sometimes some of these packets get lost, often during wild chases with the US coast guard. Storms bring them back onto the beaches of Honduras and Nicaragua. It has made the fortunes of more than a few local fishermen, but it has also produced a large number of young delinquents who smoke the cocaine and steal all they can to buy their next fix. So there are all kinds of people walking the beach and roaming the sea. Some just go tend to their fields, others spend their time fishing and even if only a few comb the beach for cocaine or an opportunity to steal something, all dream to find a big packet of white gold one day.
Sleeping on the beach in Honduras wasn't always safe. Locals had often warned us, but we followed our feelings and with caution, we managed to paddle the full coast without much trouble. In Nicaragua I felt differently. In addition to problems shared with Honduras, Nicaragua had recently come out of a bloody civil war. On the Caribbean coast the Miskito people were in majority. The Sandanistas, with Cuban and Russian aid, armed them with numerous AK 47 submachine guns to fight against the Somoza and Contra forces supported by the U.S. Today, 10 years after the peace treaty and 3 years after the first democratic government, the Atlantic coast has only received its autonomy on paper. To many Miskitos, the living conditions are still worse than before the first dictatorship 35 years ago. During our two days in Puerto Cabezas I read in the national newspaper that the governor of the North Atlantic province had just spent one million dollars (almost the entire year's budget for the province) to build a palace for her government. While most people still live without electricity, proper education, and decent sanitary conditions. The governor was quoted as saying, "To be respected by the people, a government needs a palace to govern from." The newspaper wrote that some Miskito leaders were threatening to rearm 5000 guerillas. I certainly understand how they feel, but it didn’t make us feel any better about sleeping on the beach in Nicaragua, especially after being robbed by armed people on our way to Puerto Cabezas.
In the light of the current situation, would you choose to rest a full day on a beach exposed to the eyes of any passerby and would you be able to sleep without worries in such a place at night? It would take more than diarrhea, stomach cramps and fatigue to trap me here. As long as I had any energy, I would be paddling toward the village of Prinzapolka, which we had heard was safe and with friendly people.
After relieving myself and a few minutes of controlled breathing to calm the cramps, I got in my kayak and launched. It was 4:30 AM when we started paddling. The first three hours were manageable. I just lacked energy and felt nauseated. I could not even drink any fluids as the Tang drink I had in one bottle was too acidic for my sensitive stomach, and the water I had in the other bottle smelled and tasted so much like chlorine that it made me even more nauseated. After 3 ½ hours we had covered half the distance and stop for our first break. As soon as we stopped I ran on the beach to squat. I was in no shape to keep paddling, but until we reached Prinzapolka, I just had to put these feelings in the back of my mind and focus on covering the distance. We restarted paddling for 30 minutes until I screamed to Luke who was paddling a hundred feet away by my side that I had to jump in the water. Five minutes later I was back in my boat holding my guts for a couple of minutes before finding the strength to pump the water out of my cockpit. Luke took the lead and I tried to follow as best I could. I felt strange struggling behind him barely able to maintain a 3-knot speed. He must have read the pain and fatigue on my face as he proposed to tow me. But how can you let your friend tow you ten miles on a twenty-mile paddle day? His muscles were as sore as mine. I could not accept his offer. I told him to stay in the lead and keep an eye on me from time to time. The only scenario that would force one of us to tow the other one was probably if one of us suffered from malaria. It is a disease I would rather not imagine hitting us somewhere on the ocean or camping in the bush. After my last malaria attack two weeks ago, it is what I fear most. Getting malaria in the middle of nowhere could be deadly, even with the proper medicine. In spite of my struggle I felt lucky I was only suffering from stomach problems and dehydration. I had experienced worse before and I knew I could paddle through it.
We took our second break by the mouth of a river next to a cemetery bordered by numerous coconut trees. Most tombs were nothing more than a pile of sand marked with a cross and a few plastic flowers. A group of people walking the beach from a distant village to attend a church meeting in Prinzapolka stopped to inspect our equipment with curious eyes. They asked the questions we had already answered a thousand times, "Where are you from? Where are you coming from? With this? Where is your motor or your sail? Only paddling? Where are you going? Why? What do you do when the sea is rough? How do you manage the waves? How much money do you get paid? What, you are not getting paid? Are you on a mission?"
After 30 minutes the people resumed their walk and we sat down under the shade of a coconut tree by the cemetery. We barely had time to swallow our snack of cold red beans when a tall Miskito man appeared with a machete. He greeted us with a toothless laugh bordered by a patchy young beard. He said, "You guys are brave. Let me offer you a coconut". He picked one of the tallest trees and in seconds he jumped up the 60 feet to the top and dropped six coconuts. Then he came down slower than he had gone up. Three strokes with his sharp machete were enough to open the delicious fruits. There was nothing more I could have wished for at that time. The idea of climbing had come to my mind, but the trees were too high and I was in no shape to play the monkey.
After excusing myself from our new friend, I ran to the bush to hastily squat another time. We returned to our kayaks, thanked our friend and started to paddle our last four miles.
The gesture of this kind local put us at ease, and most of the folks who were arriving for the religious retreat contributed even more to the positive mood. But it only takes one bad apple, and we left town two days later minus a key piece of equipment. Read Luke's tale of betrayal.
Prinzapolka “And Jesus said, ‘one of you will betray me’” (5/12)
After a day of rest in Prinzapoka, we left a little after One in the morning for another long day. My stomach wasn't doing great, but it allowed me to make it through the 27 miles to the small village of Sandy Bay Sirpi (a different town from Sandy Bay Norte). From Sandy Bay a six-hour paddle took us to the first English speaking Creole village of Tasbapounie. Although the distance was only 18 miles, they were the most painful I had experienced. Diarrhea turned into bloody dysentery and the stomach cramps I experienced varied from constant dull pain to nearly excruciating. I could not swallow any food. Even crackers didn't appeal to me. So I did the distance on an empty stomach and on the autopilot mode, lazily lifting my paddle, dropping it in the water and pulling it with no energy. From time to time I had to squeeze my butt wondering if I had to quickly jump in the water. Once I barely held myself long enough to make the landing. The surf that lifted up my kayak also affected my bowels. After we had made it to the village Luke acknowledged that he would have never paddled these 18 miles if he had been in my condition.
The truth was that I felt even more miserable than I looked and it was time for me to dig in to our first aid kit and start a Flagyl antibiotic treatment. A diet of plain rice, bread, and Coke (chemically treated water can be hard on stomach) was also mandatory. The timing was the worst as we had just landed in the village most famous for its turtle preparation. Luke feasted on the best turtle meat, liver and fins right in front of my plate of plain boiled rice. He finished his meal with a delicious cassava (yucca) cake.
The village was the nicest we had seen in Nicaragua and one of our favorites all around. Although still very poor to western standards, compared to the Miskitos living in the north, the Creole people of Tasbapounie were well off. On their farms they grew countless types of fruits and vegetables and raised a few cows, pigs, goats, chickens, and horses. But their main source of food and income came from the sea. On one side of the village, the lagoon yields good shrimping. A few miles out to sea, a few dozen islands provide fish, conch, and lobster. Each family sets up traps. Members from each family also have divers working and risking their lives on commercial boats. At this time of the year though, the bounty comes in the form of sea turtles.
Western people might cringe and avert their eyes in disapproval at the thought of eating sea turtle, but gourmets will agree that it is one of the finest meats. Turtle liver is so fine, French and Japanese would need no convincing to make it their delicacy. Most of the turtle organs are edible, even the fat, which I usually refrain from on other animal, is a pleasure to the palate, both in taste and texture.
We stayed a day in Tasbapounie to get a better feel for the place and its people. We were rewarded with the opportunity to observe the preparation of sea turtles. This village does not over-hunt the turtles; they only catch the number they need for their own consumption. The turtle is killed with a log by breaking its skull. The process is quick and by far better than the pig or cattle slaughter I have witnessed in Europe. Then the expert butcher works quickly, cutting out the front fins first, then inserting a sharp knife between the scales of the soft ventral shell. He cuts his way around and opens the shell like if it was a can of food. A can of food it is indeed, a 200 lb. turtle produces more than 120 lbs. of meat. Most is a delicious red meat far superior to the best beef. The only parts that are discarded are the abdominal lining and the spleen. Dozens of alert dogs wait for the chance to fight for their share. The vultures are not far behind and they jump closer and closer hoping the dogs will leave them some scraps. All the guts are cleaned of their contents and replaced into the main shell, which after half an hour of work presents a full assortment of meat. Women even scoop out all the blood, which they fry until it thickens to make some nice rice topping. One can hardly argue that anything goes to waste.
Before the master cutter finishes his labor, villagers start lining up behind the scale to buy some meat and parts of their favorite organs. Some prefer the stomach, other the intestines, Luke the fat and I the liver. Although I haven't tried yet, I was told that the kidneys and lungs are also very good. The butcher's wife didn't waste anytime to reserve the family share, a smart move considering the popularity of the animal.
It is easy for wealthy animal rights activists to impose a ban on subsistence turtle fishing in foreign lands. But if these people lived on the Mosquito Coast and could not afford any other meat they would certainly come around. A single feast of turtle meat would convert most gourmets. To protect sea turtle would take more than a ban on a "disgraceful" practice; it would take a lot of education. That is, to educate rich conservationists about poor villagers needs and the real value of turtle meat. That would mean introducing them to the savory joy of such a meal and then instead of petitioning for animal rights they would understand that sea turtles will remain a seasonal staple of the Central American Atlantic Coast until villagers are offered another alternative. As people told us, "This is our beef." What would it be then? Cattle farming is one of the main causes of world deforestation with the US as the guiltiest perpetrator. South American forests disappear quickly to provide ground for cattle farming, most of which is to satisfy US consumption needs. Most of the large-scale commercial fishing also goes directly to the States and Japan while the profits line the pockets of corrupt governments of developing countries rather than benefiting any locals. If I agree that sea turtles are in danger of extinction, I also believe that unless rich countries stop their meat consumption and start producing food such as sago pit (a bland but high yielding crop with low land usage rate), they are in no position to judge their deprived neighbors. Even vegetarians who read newspapers, use wood for construction or gasoline harm the environment more than most turtle hunters in Central America do. In any case banning the practice will never suffice. Unless locals receive a better alternate resource, no restriction will protect the sea turtles.
A solution might have been found in Costa Rica where Eco-tourism money has outgrown the value of turtle meat. In National Parks such as Tortuguero, people fly from around the world to see thousands of turtles laying their eggs and millions of baby turtles hatching. All the villagers rely entirely on tourism and are better off now than when they were hunting turtles. But the international money that has poured into Costa Rica did not benefit the surrounding countries, which will remain turtle eaters. I understand why and for a better understanding of this practice, I invite you to visit one of these poor villages to share a meal with the hospitable Creoles, Garifunas, and Miskitos. You might never revert to hormone enriched, mass-produced and flavorless chicken or beef you get in the supermarket. Alas my stomach condemned me to plain rice while Luke continued feasting and licking his chops with glee after the feast.
When we started our paddle from La Ceiba, Honduras, it had been weeks since it had rained last and we had forgotten what rain really was. Even clouds were sparse and although the major reason to navigate at night was to avoid the strong daily easterly winds when paddling east, it was also important to avoid the mid-day heat and direct sunlight. The few days we had to paddle during daytime, we quickly got dehydrated and our skin burnt in spite of sunscreen and cloth protection. The dry season though was the only time we could paddle the Atlantic coast. When the rain starts on this coast, it never stops and it floods all the land day after day and night after night. Under such rain even locals don’t come out. Unable to tend to their fields, they lay down in hammocks under their thatch roof and patiently wait days and weeks for the sun to break through.
With the rain come many more insects. The sandfly attacks, which are always bad, become worst. With the first strong rains also hatch millions of new malaria carrying mosquitoes. Malaria isn’t the only disease increasing exponentially during that time. Many other health problems surge, among them skin rash and infections become unavoidable. One can never stay dry. The air humidity is also so high that even under a dry roof, the words “dry cloth” have a different meaning that can vary from humid to damp. In these conditions camping a single night is a nightmare. Roughing it two nights is plain masochism and lasting a week becomes survival. If you add strenuous hours of daily paddling being soaked in salt water you have the recipe to loose your mind, if not your health.
The official starting date for the rainy season is mid-June we were told, so we started paddling the Nicaraguan coast without worries. When we left from Puerto Cabezas, thick layers of clouds started to accumulate into overcast skies. We thought it was just a thunderstorm forming, but it didn’t rain, it just hung and thickened above us, reducing the hours of daily sunshine. We got our first shower the night we paddled to the village of Sandy Bay Sirpy. Two days later during our rest day in Tasbapounie, it heavily rained most of the day. Heavy rain here means that you can’t see further than 100 feet because of the thickness of the rain. If you are under a zinc roof, you can’t possibly have a conversation even with loud voices. In less than two seconds, all your clothes get soaked. In Tasbapounie we packed our gear under the rain. We just had a small break long enough to let the friendly villagers wave us goodbye from the beach. Even though it makes for miserable camping conditions, I like paddling in these conditions. It is easier to stay cool and it somehow breaks the monotony of the long distance. Fifty nautical miles separated us from the town of Bluefields, the capital of South Nicaragua. We planned to cover them in 2 days with the longest stretch on day two. When we landed at the Punta de Perlas (Pearl Point) after 17 miles, the sky didn’t show any sign of clearing. Instead of setting up our camp under the rain and waiting miserably wet until midnight to start our long paddling day, we decided to keep going and shorten our next day. We had to cut across a large bay and after some frustrating turning winds, we were blessed to finish paddling the 34 miles with a strong northern wind. We found refuge in a small cove and set camp under a drizzle a few hundred feet away from a palapa. Our muscles were sore and we were so tired that we were confident no rain could prevent us from sleeping.
In the little bay protected from the wind, sandflies were a nightmare and quickly forced us into the tent. The rain cover we had not used in months transformed our mesh tent in a sauna. Laying down in it was painful. Perspiration dripped down our skin, which was already salty from the sea and a long paddling day. The smell of our own bodies and our foul smelling clothes, always packed into compressed, sometimes leaking drybags, made the hot air almost unbreathable. When the drizzle stopped we had to remove the rain cover if we hoped to sleep at all. We did and had almost fallen asleep when the rain started again. We rushed outside to recover the tent. We sweated again in our stinky mini-sauna until the rain stopped. We quickly came out a second time stepping on the wet sand to remove the cover. Throughout the night we had to intermittently set back and remove the rain cover until we finally got up without much rest at 3 AM. We started paddling with painful backs and shoulders to cover the twelve miles separating us from El Bluff, a commercial harbor at the entrance of the laguna, five miles away from Bluefields. We entered the lagoon mouth through heavy surf and choppy sea and landed next to a shipwreck at the Navy Base wharf.
Luke had the chills and an exhausted look I had seen a few times before on his face. We first thought it was fatigue. After a short pause he was pale and shivering and suffered from muscle ache and headache. Not an uncommon condition after going through what we had. After 20 minutes of barely moving against the wind and the current, I could read on Luke’s face that he was going through hell and had nothing left in him, not even enough to have the common sense to ask me for a lift, not even enough to spit clear of his body he later admitted. I pulled the towrope out from under my deck straps and clipped it to his kayak. I paddled the last 45 minutes as hard as I could to put an end to this hell day. I had Bluefields on sight and concentrated on making the docked ships in the distance appear bigger and bigger. In spite of the rain I had to stop every 5 minutes to splash my head with water. While I was overheating, Luke was still freezing and looked like a ghost sitting in a kayak. We arrived in a dirty harbor, refuse floating over a layer of gasoline and oil. Luke stayed with our gear while A zealous local who had offered to help us find a modestly priced room led me through the town. I followed him from one whorehouse to another. Some rooms although they had no windows, offered a view on to the garbage littered harbor shore from large holes in the walls made of rusted metal sheath barely holding together. I had to excuse myself from my guide to have any chance of finding a decent place. Finally I was told about a clean hotel. We paddled by the restaurant adjacent to the hotel and I finished unloading the equipment while Luke lay in bed with fever. It was clear after a few hours that he was suffering from his second malaria attack. Luckily we had made it safely to Bluefields and had some malaria medicine with us. A few rest days would allow us to analyze the situation and determine the best way to reach Costa Rica.
As caretaker for a sick person, you can only offer one perspective. Get a first hand perspective and read Luke's next entry in which he recounts briefly his dreams and mental ramblings as he was delirious with fever.
Bluefields “Malaria Delirium” (5/17)
Making the call to portage the small stretch of coast from Bluefields to the border town of San Juan del Norte was not an easy decision. I felt strongly about paddling the entire coast of Nicaragua, and we had already done most of it. We could reach San Juan in 3 days if we paddled there while it would take us much longer to portage via the mainland. We would have to fold our kayaks, and repack all our gear, then transport it all by way of numerous boats, buses and taxis. The logistics of portaging were a major hassle that we were not looking forward to. It was not, however, the most crucial factor in our decision making process. Up until this point in our expedition no local or authority warning and no type of danger ever made us alter our course before. But in Bluefields, we understood that it was the wise decision to make. While we were willing to paddle heavy seas, expose ourselves to insects and malaria, and even paddle waters we knew hosted numerous tiger and bull sharks, we were tired of worrying about the human threat. For months we heard stories that we ignored. In spite of numerous warnings, we even set off to paddle the most dangerous stretch of Nicaragua, which lies north between the Honduran border and Puerto Cabezas. But the constant pressure and worries of being attacked built up. In Puerto Cabezas, people had warned us that the next most dangerous place would start south of Bluefields. In Bluefields, both the immigration and the port Captain urged us to travel by land to San Juan. All the locals we met reinforced these thoughts. We met people who had lost friends or family members in recent months in the vicinity of Monkey Point and Barra del Rio Mais, places we could not avoid if we were to paddle south. We had easily walked away from armed bandits in the north mainly because we had among our contacts some famous Miskito people and could say that we were expected that same day in Puerto Cabezas by the authorities. From the Monkey Point to San Juan, we could not possibly paddle it in a day, and we had no contact names to drop and even if we had, the navy and police can never find the armed bandits from the south, and they know it. To make things worse, all our gear was soaked and it had not stopped pouring during the 3 rest days we took in Bluefields. Finally, with his recent malaria attack, Luke was in no shape to paddle anyway, so we decided to pack all our gear and start the long portaging to San Juan del Norte.
Portaging to Managua
The six-hour boat ride upriver from Bluefields to Rama was described as “unique” in the Lonely Planet guidebook. The book said it was a good reason to make the 12-hour trip to Bluefields from the capital. We found the boat ride to be painfully slow, long, and boring. The scenery wasn’t any more special than any average river we had seen before in Central America.
The 6-hour bus ride that followed was up to Central American standards. We rode an old school bus with uncomfortable seats that had lost most of their padding. The half asphalt half dirt road was bumpy and reminded us every few seconds that the shock absorbers had died years ago. The cranked up radio and speakers were of such poor quality that even the best classic songs were screaming outrageously in our ears. The heavy tropical rain was rushing from the roof next to the driver making a puddle over the engine cover. The windows had long lost their rubber joints and failed to block the water that constantly sprinkled on us. The wet floor magnified the smell of oil and rotting chunks of food and other unknown decaying materials. The comic touch was added by the way the single wiper had been repaired. Deprived of an electrical motor, the wiper was tide on one side by a bungie rope running all the way to the broken mirror by the door. The bungie rope kept constant tension on the wiper. On the other side it was tied to a blue plastic rope that was running through the middle of the windshield in front of the driver and coming inside the bus through the side window. Wiping was simple, the driver opened his window, put his arm outside under the rain, pulled on the blue rope until the wiper cover the full windshield, then released the rope and let the bungie pull it back to place. A bit rudimentary, but it worked when the driver could spare a hand from the wheel, which wasn’t always easy on the bumpy road. Each time the driver opened his window to pull on the rope, the people sitting right behind were blessed with a free shower. It happened to be Luke and I. When the rain was too strong, no hand wiping was of much use. The driver made the best of the visibility he could get through a waterfall flushing over the window.
Eventually, the shockless bus coughed so hard going over the bumps that the rope got stuck under the windshield. But the loss of wipers wasn’t a good reason enough to stop the bus. After all, like most people in Central America, our driver was continually passing slower traffic going up hill before a turn with no visibility of any possible oncoming traffic. Even when drivers here see oncoming traffic, that does not prevent them from passing. One of the additional jobs of the teenage boy who collected the tickets is to hang out of the door and whistle while waving his arm to signal the slower vehicle about to be taken over that it needs to get off the road to let us back in. In Central America, the traffic regulations are a little different. The most aggressive driver with the biggest and most powerful vehicle has always the right of way.
The young ticket collector’s duties don’t stop there, however. The boy also doubles as a mechanic. After hearing some strange clicking noise, he grabbed a big wrench and ran outside under the strong rain. The bus driver, after setting some wood blocks under the wheel to secure the brakeless bus, gave the signal that people might have the time to rush out to urinate. While driver untangled his wiper ropes, more than half of the passengers dressed rushed out to pee all around the bus. Women went just a few steps further to squat as discretely as they could next to each other and no more than 50 feet from our window. As soon as our young mechanic returned, people hurried back in. All were soaked, but with the heat generated by the old diesel engine, people didn’t worry about catching a cold. They just sat back in their sticky cloth, squeezed against each other for another few hours of bumping up and down the road to Managua. We were not sure what the mechanical problem really was, but as incidents like this happen on every trip we knew the chances were pretty good that the kid could fix it. And people have to have a chance to relieve themselves, so I’m sure most locals always hope for a small mechanical incident. Nothing works on these buses, most run on nonexistent brake pads. The only reassuring thing about them is that the engines aren’t in any better shape than the rest, and thus limit the maximal speed and increase our relative safety.
People often fear traveling in Central America. Bus riding here is an experience some choose to never repeat. The worst bus rides I have experienced were on the altiplano of Guatemala. The vehicles there are nicknamed chicken bus for the number of chickens sharing the bus with people. Sometimes on market day, you could even be traveling with a few goats and small screaming pig with their legs tied, laying down on your feet. I mind neither the smell, nor the noise, the friendly people make each ride a good experience. But on the altiplano, with steep roads, old buses are allowed to run downhill at sometimes uncontrollable speeds which explains why it is common sight to drive by a few capsized and destroyed buses or trucks that have ran off the road. I accept these risks as most places are only accessible by this type of bus, but I have never ridden a bus without worries and one or two justified adrenaline rush. I was happy and relieved when we finally arrived in Managua. We were shocked to discover a modern capital with much higher standards of living than the big cities of Tegucigalpa, San Pedro, or those in Guatemala or Belize. It was like we had changed planets and the dirty harbor of Bluefields and wild forests and remote Atlantic coast were part of a long past experience. We were back into the modern world where McDonald and Pizza Hut were the highlights and symbolized the American Dream.
From Managua we portaged to San Juan del Norte and resumed our paddling. We experienced one of the most challenging days to date...
Read Luke's tale of traversing by land to Granada and the subsequent absurd ordeal of descending the Rio San Juan to the Caribbean Coast.
Onward to Costa Rica Border “’Round the Long Route to Safety, Almost” (5/23)
San Juan del Norte is the southernmost town on the Nicaraguan coast. We had heard from many people that the immigration office there might refuse to stamp out our passports without a significant payoff. Because of border problems with Costa Rica and high incidents of narcotic trafficking, they didn’t like to let foreigners cross from San Juan. In the morning under the pouring rain we knocked on the door of the immigration officer’s house. A big man called William ran out under the rain with a smile to open his office. We told him about our expedition and our desire to paddle to Costa Rica. The man was friendly and interested in our tales. He confirmed all the stories we had heard about the coast from San Juan to Bluefields and said that each time the navy or the police land on that coast the bandits retreat into the bush and officials only meet poor fishermen and farmers. Because most armed bandits come from their village, nobody would ever dare to denounce the terrorists.
The immigration officer had a hard time believing we had safely paddled the entire north coast, which he described as the most dangerous region of the country. He changed the subject by telling us it was going to be a very long day for us to paddle the full network of canals and rivers up to the Costa Rican border town of Colorado. He was shocked when I replied we intended to take the short route and paddle the ocean. Like all the locals, he warned us that the mouth of the San Juan River was very dangerous, even for small motorboats. We were advised that the waves would be too big for us to handle and that the mouth of the Colorado River was even worse. We had heard all of this so many times before that it had just become routine. We knew people could not believe that we paddled heavy seas in our kayaks. Another warning we had come to ignore was about sharks, but this time we knew it wasn’t a fairy tale and that the threat was real. The mouth of the Rio San Juan is famous for the large number of Tiger and Bull sharks. Bull sharks even make their way upriver to Lake Nicaragua where marine biologists from around the world come to study the only species of shark that has adapted to fresh water.
I first read about the sharks of the San Juan River four years ago while planning the expedition. Most sharks are not a threat to kayakers but Bull and Tiger sharks grow to impressive size. They feed on other sharks and large fish, but their favorite prey are marine mammals which they attack from underneath while the unsuspecting victim is breathing at the surface. Sharks don’t have good vision. They may attack any long oval shape mistaking it for a marine mammal. This explains why surfers are the most common unintended victims as they float on the surface of the water on their boards. Before arriving in Bluefields, we met some shark fisherman who told us about many accidents and of the incredible number of large sharks patrolling the coast between Bluefields and Tortuguero, the highest concentration of which could be found at the mouth of the Rio San Juan.
Too many people from various backgrounds and countries had told us to be cautious of sharks here for us to be ignorant of the threat. We knew we had to be cautious and that it was better to paddle side by side rather than isolate ourselves like a weak animal. We planned no swimming break on this stretch. I enjoy diving with smaller shark species like Nurse, Black Tip, Lemon, and even Hammerhead sharks. But who would deliberately go swimming in waters infested with dangerous Bull and Tiger sharks? My only encounter with a Bull shark while spearfishing in Belize had taught me better. Paddling this stretch with kayaks made of fabric was intimidating enough.
The immigration officer stamped our passports, and shook our hands to wish us luck after telling us it had been a privilege to meet us. By 11 AM we were on the canal leading to the Rio San Juan. The river swollen by the strong tropical rain of the last eight days was rushing toward the mouth. We stopped on the sandbar to observe the sea. It didn’t look bad, but the waves were separated into three zones. The first one was a mess of clapotis chop and small surf countered by the current from the river. The second set, much further away, looked bigger and the third was barely distinguishable. We thought the waves looked manageable, but the current was very strong and with all the sharks in the water, it wasn’t a place to swim. We had no reason to worry; we had launched through bigger seas before.
Back in our kayaks I took the lead and easily went through the first breakers. In no time I found myself in the second breaking zone and was surprised to be facing much bigger waves than I had anticipated. To pass large breaking surf everything is about timing so I didn’t worry as I was used to it. When I saw an eight-foot wave about to break, I stopped paddling and waited for it to collapse ahead of my kayak. What I had not counted on was the strong current flowing out from the river, which instantly pushed me into the curl of the wave. It was too late to try to back paddle. The curl had already taken the front half of my kayak to an almost vertical position. I paddled hard and when I thought I was through, the stern of my kayak pitched down and sideways and projected me backward to the left. It happened so quickly that I had no time to react until I was upside down. The left side is my weak side to roll on and I failed on my first try. Before I could make a second attempt, the next wave ejected me from my cockpit. Still underwater, my kayak was dragging me, my left foot entangled in the poorly designed seasock. I drank a lot of water and instead of thinking that I was going to drown or get attacked by sharks, the first thing that came to my mind was, “Damn, it’s fresh murky water, I’m going to get sick.” When the third wave kept me under, still being dragged by my foot, I began to worry that it was too long and knew I had to seriously think about getting my act together to free my ankle and pull my head back to the surface.
With one hand I managed to unwrap the seasock while holding the paddle in the other hand. When I surfaced, I barely had the time to grab my kayak before the next wave ripped it out of my hands. I think this is when Luke paddled by and I screamed for help. But he was about to punch through the surf and there was nothing he could do to help me. With the paddle in my left hand, I tried to swim toward my kayak but the rip current was too strong. Each time I came inches from it, the next wave pushed it farther. I wasn’t wearing my life jacket, and I wasn’t buoyant enough to be carried as much as my kayak. Then both the kayak and I drifted back into the next breaking surf. Encumbered by my paddle, which I could not let go of, I swallowed more water. After that second wave where I again failed to catch my kayak, I realized that if I couldn’t get to my kayak, not only would I lose it with all its contents, but I might also die. All the time I was in the water I never even once thought of the sharks. The only thought running through my mind was that I was helpless. Both the current and the waves were so strong they trapped me in that dangerous zone.
Still, my survival instinct remained strong. After more than half dozen waves, I was able to ride one well enough to grab the side lines on the deck of my kayak before the next wave pushed the craft away again yanking hard on my right shoulder. My body was acting like an anchor, and as wave after wave continued to thrust me underwater I kept swallowing more water. I was exhausted but I knew I had to hold on to the kayak. I held on so hard that even if the waves had dislocated my shoulder, I wouldn’t have let go. I knew I was holding my life in my hands. It is hard to say how long I grasped the ropes, helpless and desperately fighting to stay afloat.
Finally I saw Luke paddling toward me. The relief to see him only lasted a couple of seconds until I realized he was aiming right at me and would probably be carried right over my head by the next surf. What a rotten end, to survive drowning only to be decapitated by my friend. I screamed to him, but by this time he had a better view to assess the situation and paddled off to the side. The strong current had just pulled me through the second set of breakers into the calmer zone of swell before the third set. Waves were still breaking sometimes but not as powerfully. I flipped my kayak back up. It was so full of water the cockpit was barely clearing the surface. I had no time to pump and Luke couldn’t safely come close because of the size of the swell. I jumped in hoping the boat would stay afloat with all the drybags it contained. I quickly fitted my legs into the full cockpit and frantically pumped the water out with my back facing the third surf zone. Before I could remove half of the water, Luke warned me, ”Put your sprayskirt on, we’re entering the third surf zone.”
The current was still pushing us quickly out and north. I stowed my bilge pump under the deck straps and stretched my neoprene skirt around the cockpit rim. Still facing the surf backward, I could barely move the boat with strong, wide, side paddle strokes. It was too heavy and I feared I would not be able to reorient it before the next surf broke on me. With so much water trapped inside, my boat was still very unstable and I didn’t feel I could brace strongly enough to maintain it upright if hit sideways. The fear of capsizing a second time motivated me. When the first surf broke on me I was well positioned. Although I lacked speed, I was helped by the current and heavy weight, and punched through like a big log. When we cleared the last surf, we had drifted much to the north of the river mouth. I was dehydrated and exhausted. Still shaky from fear and a little disoriented I stopped to pump out the rest of the water and asked Luke to help and take turn. My arms and shoulders were full of lactic acid and felt very heavy. I had been in the water over 10 long minutes and it had been more than half an hour from the time I launched to the time we were ready to start paddling south to recover some of the distance we had lost.
In spite of fatigue and heavy muscles, the adrenaline that was still rushing in my body helped me paddle against the current. Behind me Luke had a hard time keeping up. We progressed just over two miles the first hour. I still wanted to paddle faster and put Nicaragua behind us. I pushed harder and got into a zone. Still under the shock of having almost drowned, I reviewed the events in my mind and remembered a quote from the Talmud that a friend sent me a week ago when we had arrived in Bluefields. "Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers grow, grow." Then she wrote, “It is clear that you have gotten lucky on many of these occasions, and that there has been more than one time when things certainly could have taken a turn for the worse. I guess there is really nothing that you can do about it, however, and I trust that you are not taking any unnecessary or undue risks.” The truth is that today again my guardian angel was there for me. Who knows how far the sharks were when I was struggling to stay afloat like an injured animal? One day my guardian angel might be tired and let me down.
I seriously questioned the value of having paddled the Nicaraguan coast. Was it really worth the risks to get attacked by armed and dangerous thieves, to paddle skin kayaks through shark-infested waters, to expose ourselves to malaria? Was it worth the struggle to paddle long distances, to camp at night, to deal with the permanent menace from sandflies and mosquitoes, to combat the strong tropical rain and fight against powerful winds and currents? Was paddling the Nicaraguan coast really worth all the pain and effort?
I was pulled out of my thoughts by lightning and thunder. The full sky turned so black it looked like the sun had just set. The thunder was deafening and kept me on edge. The day was not over yet; we still had to paddle ten miles to reach the mouth of the Colorado River. I wasn’t intimidated by the dark mass of clouds enveloping us, what preoccupied me most was the speed at which they cleared toward land after an hour-long orchestra of lightning and thunder. A strong side-wind picked up and in minutes the sea became very choppy and the swell grew to enormous proportions. I waited for Luke to let him know that I was concerned it might get worse. We thought about paddling back to the beach, but it was too late, already the surf was more than we could safely handle. Luke was lucky to be nearsighted because he could not see the huge swell curling up into a gigantic shore break. I could see the water vaporizing over the curl. I knew that this was caused by the air pressure increasing inside the rapidly collapsing tube. It was not the type of long tube running sideways that pro-surfers dream of. Here there was nowhere to escape. The waves exploded on the steep black beach with sounds competing with the thunder. The water and the beach were littered with countless logs and debris, and the shore break projected spray of water fifteen feet up in the air. I was afraid we would be forced to land in these conditions.
Luke who couldn’t see the surf was judging our landing by the size of the swell. It was about 10 feet and still coming in regular sets of three, so he thought we could make it and should not risk the more chaotic sea we knew we would encounter by the river mouth. “Blessed are the innocent for they know not what they do,” I thought to myself. But in addition to the deadly steep shore break, I worried we could get killed by one of the tree-sized logs bouncing up and down all around us. We put on our lifejackets, which we rarely use, and chose to keep paddling until we could assess the conditions at the river mouth or find a better beach to land on.
Minute by minute, the sea became choppier and more irregular and the swell kept growing bigger. That entirely ruled out the possibility of landing safely on the beach. I wondered why I had left a good job and an easy life. What was I doing here anyway? I felt insignificant on the mad sea with my little kayak bouncing up and down. I was dancing with death and had no control over the music. Luke and I were at the mercy of the ocean and if the river mouth was even worse than the beach, we would have no choice but wait away from shore for the storm to end. It could take hours or days. We didn’t even have an operational marine radio to call for help. Ours, although rated waterproof, had melted with repeated exposure to salt.
For the first time since we had left Honduras, I was happy when I saw a speedboat changing its course to rush toward us. The man in the front stood up, a rifle in his hands. I was relieved when I saw a Costa Rican flag flying and that the three men were in uniform. It was the Coast Guard, and they asked us where we were from and where we were paddling to and then they asked us to stop and report at their base inside the river mouth. When I asked them about the entrance they replied that it was bad and with the storm the waves were huge. So I asked if it would be better to land on the beach, but they replied we should take the river mouth. They first drove their boat slowly alongside our kayaks, which made us feel better. Although we had no problems handling 12-foot swell at sea, we feared the arrival in the river mouth. After a few minutes they must have thought we were doing all right as they sped up and left us alone.
When we arrived at the river mouth, the sight didn’t ease my fear. The waves were breaking in irregular sets and oddly-spaced zones. The last set north of the entrance was exploding on a steep rocky beach. On the south side in front of the sandy point was the longest surf zone with powerful waves that started breaking nearly a mile away. In the middle were three distinct surf zones, the outermost being the largest. Coming from the north, we had to fight the current and enter the center zone from the side after clearing the outer breakers, then surf into the mouth. When I started in, I realized that I was drifting north too quickly and that I was going to miss the entrance. I quickly turned around and paddled out to sea again to avoid waves that would have pulverized me on the rocks. Luke paddled at a distance behind and understood my move correcting his angle. Finally, when I was certain I could make the mouth, I turned in and started surfing big rollers. They were not technically difficult but were made much more complex to handle by the huge logs, which were being pushed out to sea on the river current against the surf. It was then that I realized that the current was much stronger than it was in San Juan.
A large wave pushed me sideways and forced me into a brace. As the foam covered my deck and I leaned with all my weight into the wave, I had flashback of my morning capsize. I was terrified; I didn’t want to fall again, not here. A minute later I looked back thinking of Luke. I had cleared the most dangerous zone, but what if Luke capsized? What could I really do? We both knew that we were on our own for this landing and we couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. There was only one way to enter the mouth and we had to do it right on the first try. On the occasions I looked back and couldn’t see Luke, I feared for the worst. I was reassured when I saw him well positioned as he surfed down the first waves. After a few minutes I was surprised not to have progressed much in spite of constant paddling. It took me great effort and the use of each wave to reach the last breakers. I started to worry that if the current was that strong outside of the river mouth, we might not have the paddling power to get in. After clearing the last zone it took me 15 minutes of intense paddling to cover the few hundred feet separating me from the sandy south point of the river mouth. Without the push of the waves I would have never made it, and for a few minutes, I had some doubts. The secret was to gauge the effort just short of maximum paddling power so as not to reach total exhaustion. Finally I pulled my kayak up on to the beach worn out and dehydrated. I looked back at Luke who was struggling to join me. In spite of his powerful strokes, he looked idle on the water. Five minutes later he landed with a torrent of expletives, verbally spilling out his frustration.
From the river mouth we could see the navy post as well as the village of Colorado, but the current was over five knots and without the help from waves, it was more than we could paddle against. We were stuck on the sand bar and resolved to try to walk on the shore while pulling our kayaks when two deep-sea fishing boats arrived and offered to tow us to the Navy base. “Did you go down the river?” asked the captains. “No, we paddled the sea from Nicaragua,” we replied. The captain of the boat towing my kayak looked at me incredulously and said, “That sea, today? I don’t believe you!” Then he looked at me and understood I was not joking and said “Really? You guys are crazy!” I couldn’t deny he had a point. What we had done was insane. They dropped us half a mile further up the river where the friendly coast guards checked our passports and a few bags. While their narcotic trained dog sniffed all our equipment, the guards offered us some lemonade and listened with surprise to our stories. Then they told us to present ourselves at the immigration office in San Jose upon our arrival in the capital. They then gave us a ride another half a mile further to the village. By that time I was ready to jump on the first plane to San Jose and store our kayaks for two months, but we were too close to our goal, the National Park of Tortuguero to quit now. We had less than 20 miles via canal to get to the national park and only tropical rain stood in our way.
Paddling Nicaragua had not been fun. Despite the bandits, insects, diseases, sharks, storms and tropical rain, we made it to Costa Rica, but at what cost? Up to our last day we had to fight to leave hell behind us, hoping that Costa Rica would turn out to be the paradise we heard it was. As prepared as we were, we couldn’t really know what paddling Nicaragua would be like. If we had known, we probably would have reconsidered. On the other hand, if we always knew what the future held, there wouldn’t be much to life. And if we only tried what we were sure not to fail, our accomplishments would be small. It is by pushing myself that I feel alive. Many times fear has kept me alive. Hardship and doubt is what contributes to make us who we are, people who gain a better understanding and appreciation of life. So was Nicaragua really worth it? Yes and no, but I can say without hesitation that it was an experience I never care to repeat. Luckily what we could expect in Costa Rica was very different, no more bandits, no more malaria, less rain, less bugs, and a completely different ocean. All we need are a few weeks of rest to let the adventure begin again with the crossing of the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Panama has never been closer and with Nicaragua behind us, we feel confident we will reach our goal.
1 km = 0.62 statute miles
1 Nautical Mile = 1.85 km
1 Nautical Mile = 1.15 miles
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