Rio San Juan



The little girl was still sleepy when she was carried off the boat. Her teenage mother also seemed slightly befuddled but perhaps it had been a long journey for both of them. They had the look of campesinas from Nicaragua’s northern hills. There was no border checkpoint here so, with their first steps off the boat, both mother and daughter became illegal immigrants in Costa Rica. The San Juan River cuts a snaky path through the Central American rainforest so that its southern banks are composed of Costa Rican soil while the identical riot of vegetation on the northern shores is Nicaraguan. There are regular checkpoints along the river are easily avoided for anyone desperate enough to be forced to do so.


Apart from a few illegal migrants, a bit of local transport and a touch of seemingly lackadaisical smuggling very little happens on Rio San Juan these days. There was a time, however, when the future seemed to be painting a very different picture for this sleepy jungle river. The San Juan was originally seen as the route for the great Atlantic-Pacific Canal, long before Panama was even being seriously considered as a viable applicant.


Four hundred years ago Spanish galleons and buccaneer warships were already sailing up the river. Even the famous Captain Morgan (best known now as a brand of rum) and mid-shipman Horatio Nelson sailed up the San Juan to attack the Spanish garrison at El Castillo. Despiute their best efforts most of the fortresses walls still stand as what probably the best known tourist sight on the river.


A handful of travellers continue past El Castillo to follow the river down to San Juan del Norte (also known as Greytown) on the Caribbean coast. The community here is a very mixed collection of Nicaraguan mestizos, Garifunas (the descendents of African slaves) and a small community of indigenous Rama. The mestizos speak Spanish and many of the Garifunas still speak English-Creole as a mother tongue. Unfortunately the Rama language is on the verge of complete extinction: Lorenzo Martinez, one of the elders of the community, told me that only about five elderly people in the community can still speak Rama. In less than five years it seems that the language will no longer exist.


The San Juan flows out of Lake Nicaragua in a smooth descent that is easily navigable to boats in all but the most drastic dry seasons. There is a section of fairly benign rapids at El Castillo but – if you forget minor inconveniences like the famous freshwater sharks and the big caiman (crocodiles) – the San Juan was always the most logical bet for an inter-ocean canal. It was only politics and social instability that convinced the engineers to turn their backs on Nicaragua and to undertake a far more challenging task over the mountains of Panama.

...Perhaps very similar to the reasons that, a hundred and fifty years later, convinced a young mother to lead her little daughter across the San Juan and into exile as an illegal immigrant.