There is nothing I love more than an adventure on the horizon, off the popular travel paths, and into the somewhat unknown and this fit precisely that description.
While bouncing down a dirt road in Northern Nicaragua, we hit a patch of cellular connection, and a text pinged on my phone.
“Hey, how are you guys? Want to SUP paddle the Rio San Juan next week?“
Grinning I read it allowed to my husband EJ. As cell service dropped once more, we pulled up to the beach and went for a surf, with the text rolling around in our minds.
Once back to our place we pulled out the lonely planet Nicaragua book, and got online to search facts about the river. This was to be one of those epic trips of a lifetime.
The Rio San Juan is 192.06 km of majestic chocolate colored river, flowing east from Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean coast. Draped with virgin rainforest it winds between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, defining the southern border of the Indio Maize Biologic Reserve.
Not only was the river used to access the Pacific to join the California gold rush, pirates like Captain Henry Morgan paddled up the river in the cloak of night to plunder the riches of Granada. The river was one of the proposed locations for the grand canal connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific. Rusted dredging equipment still looms out of brackish waters in the Caribbean.
Scott and Gea Schmid are the incredible owners of Livit Water, a stand up paddleboard and tour company operating out of Granada. Scott had been eyeing the river for a while, and wanted to do some recon for future trips with Livit, as well as to potentially be the first person to SUP paddle the entire river. Kayak tours were becoming a bit more popular, yet no one was operating stand up tours in that area.
With the arrival of his brothers in the country and EJ and I in the north, the time was ripe for an adventure with the perfect crew. Aside from Scott and Gea, our minimal paddle experience did not deter us from thoughts of a grand river journey.
Scott and Gea hired two local guides, whose river and animal knowledge was fantastic. Their smiles, humor, and quiet wisdom of their land left us feeling in excellent hands. They organized a support boat to hold all our camping gear, and to offer a fun place to take breaks.
After a flurry of prepping and packing, we found ourselves pushing off into the dawn, filled with a sense of excitement and nervy unknowns. The initial hours of waking up new muscles and figuring out bathroom maneuvers while floating, left us each found our own style and flow.
Travel speed, ability, and proposed destination each night had to be thought of beforehand to ensure adequate supplies and a comfortable place to sleep.
Journal – Rio San Juan,
As we pulled a hard left across the current, floating off a bank draped with vines and bamboo, I hear my husband yelling “We get to camp here?”
With a mischievous nod and grin from our local guides, we begin hauling paddleboards up a muddy path, stepping into a bamboo island paradise.
Abandoned between river and dense growth above, sat the remains of one of Vanderbilt’s river steamboats from the California gold rush era. On the other side sat a bamboo cook shack with benches and fire pit. Surrounded by endless jungle and river, we settled into our new routine of setting up camp.
After a homemade pesto and noodle feast, we sipped on Nicaraguan rum, as I read “The Pirates Code” in both English and Spanish for our mixed crew. I gaze around at laughing faces shimmering in firelight, and shake my head in wonder. Once again I find myself on an adventure of a lifetime.
After waking to brewing coffee and egg burritos, we pack up in the early morning mist, the excitement of the unknown has me bouncing and like every day I wonder what amazing things will show up around each turn of the river.
The variety of accommodation led us to enjoy the unknown of each evening. Our first afternoon found us a boat-access hotel, complete with a trained chef from Managua; an absolute blessing after a long first day. From our remote island campsite and a homestay with a Costa Rican artist, to cooking on the steps of a riverside immigration building while chattering about our daily adventures.
The river itself had a variety of moods. Fast water shooting through narrow channels between small lush islands, to sluggish and wind blown sections where the paddling was with few words and gritted teeth. A rodeo ride through the rapids of El Castillo left us soaking and laughing, with the stone garrison built in 1673 perched above our sodden exploits.
Scott and EJ decided from the beginning they would attempt to paddle the entire river from start to finish. Stopping the support boat or pulling ashore to eat, they longingly eyed the rest of us getting an easy tow for a break or playing cards and listening to music as the river slipped by.
Gea and I took on cooking duties; straddling atop our stacked boards after a few hours of paddling we prepared sandwiches and easy snacks to pass from the boat. Ryan and Kevin had varying days on the river, sometimes pushing hard with Scott and EJ, or joining us for laugh.
Land slid by us with cows staring from green riverside pastures, scarlet Macaws squawked overhead, and toucans perched high in old growth treetops. Spider monkeys swung through the canopy, while howler monkeys’ deep throated calling echoed through misty forest.
Bubbles on the water or splashes from the banks reminded us of the crocodiles living in the area, yet the odd tail or quick view before they slid out of sight was thankfully as close as we got to the beautiful prehistoric creatures.
Dense jungle gave way to marshy river delta; narrow alleys of water lazily wound through verdant grasses. Our final day was a blur until we could hear the surf pounding on Caribbean shores and together we passed the finish line as the Rio San Juan met the sea.
Greytown was met with dirty taped body parts and hoots of triumph. Slumping into plastic chairs, cold beer slipped down our throats as we shared favorite moments and personal challenges. With a fried fish meal and a night out at the local bar we crashed into the deep sleep of the accomplished.
The boat ride back up river was a slow reflective journey, retracing our memories from beneath improvised sunshades. Five days on the river suddenly felt too short; all agreed we could have continued on a longer trip, as a map of Nicaragua spread across our boards, dreams of other river adventures already formed in our minds.