THE RIO COCO - NICARAGUA
"YOU WONT DIE"
Text and Photos Copyright ©2001 Mark E. Halliday
It started during Halloween 2000. I arrived in Managua for the first time in ten years.
It was Saturday night, and my hotel was in the Barrio Martha Quezada. Also known as "GringoLandia" for the foreigners (many supporting the Sandinista Revolution) who found budget housing in this old neighborhood. I saw a sign in the distance down a dark street: "Guinness is Good for You" . Once inside, the Shannon Bar Irlandes was a pleasant spot. I had interesting chats with Nicas, NGO staff, ex-Peace Corps volunteers, etc.
The Shannon Bar is owned by two men, both named Paul.
Paul #1 likes girls dancing on the Shannon Bar bar.
Paul #2, an experienced welder, helped build three large aluminum boats to transport people and supplies along the Rio Coco.
THE HERCULES BOAT STORY (Alistar Web Site).
I was asking about the road from Matagalpa to Puerto Cabezas when Paul suggested that it was possible to travel on the Rio Coco. It was a real adventure, with Class III rapids along the way, and we would need food, nets, hammocks, and bug repellent!
I was surprised, there was little mention of travel along the Rio Coco in any guide book. I assumed the area was completely out of control, still a military zone in bandit country along a disputed border. The US State Department has an ongoing travel warning about the region. So I started looking for more information......
The Rio Coco, Some Basic Facts:
1) The longest river in Central America.
2) The border between Honduras and Nicaragua.
3) The Rio Coco meets the Caribbean at Cabo A Gracias a Dios named by Columbus
4) Where the Contras and Sandinistas fought a 10-year Civil War.
5) Hurricane Mitch parked here for 4 days in November 1998, causing a 100-year flood.
Nature Conservancy article about Hurricane Mitch
HELP FROM THE WEB:
I got helpful answers to questions I posted to the PLANETA NICARAGUA NEWSGROUP
"The specifics on the trip are something that you need to research well, because the area is now relatively safe, but there are still some "rearmados" who operate in the area of Bosawas and are called the FUAC, I think. They are former Sandinista EPS who extract "taxes" from the local ranchers and the like, while they act as an armed backup for FSLN political clout and as a military balance for the ex-Resistance in the Segovias."
"Travel on the Rio Coco is spit into two sectors because there are some rock formations that make the river impassible between Raiti and San Carlos or thereabouts. Travel from Wiwili to Raiti takes place from Wiwili. Travel from Waspam (three hours from Puerto Cabezas by road) to San Carlos in one direction or out to the Caribbean in the other takes place from Waspam. Thus you either need to fly to Waspam (or to Puerto Cabezas and go to Waspam by land) to go the Waspam routes or go to Wiwili by land to go the Wiwili routes."
"Boats run up and down the river all the time, hundreds of boats. It's pretty easy to charter a boat, when I was there it was $100 a day to charter a boat, most of that goes toward fuel. Otherwise you can negotiate a deal with any boat you see, they won't all stop but most will. The villages are all pretty hospitable and if there is no pension in the village somebody will always put you up and feed you. They never asked for money but will take it if offered, of course that might of all changed now so you have to feel your way. There has been a lot of gringos run up and down the river doing just what you are going to do so it's not strange to them. The churches pretty much run the villages so if you ever get into any trouble just ask for the pastor and they will generally help you out, specially if you give them a donation to their church. I assume you are going to do busses from Managua to Wiwili, that's not hard either, just grueling. There is a very nice bus, brand new, air conditioned, better than Greyhound from Managua to Ocotal. From there on you ride with the chickens. Good luck and have a good time, you won't die. Bob"
DAY 1 - ARRIVAL IN MANAGUA - Saturday March 10, 2001
My companions for the trip, Fernando and Wendy, arrived in the evening.
We went to the Shannon bar and drank Flor de Cana.
This is Daniel Alegria; he was born in Chile, a Sandinista who lived on the Rio Coco for many years, and has lived in Germany.
Daniel works for the NGO Alistar, which delivers aid to the Miskito villages along the Rio Coco devastated by Hurricane Mitch floods.
I contacted Daniel, and we met at the Shannon Bar. He explained about the three sections of the Rio Coco, and the types of boats, people, and villages we would find.
The most important advice: to charter one boat and crew for the entire distance to Waspan. This would require paying the boat and gasoline both ways, but is the only way to pass through the Rio Coco middle section (rapids) without possibly waiting for days or weeks for a ride. He offered to radio ahead to Wiwili that we were coming; this could help find a boat willing to go through to Waspan.
He also wrote a very interesting account (in Spanish) of his previous Rio Coco trip:
DANIEL'S 1999 RIO COCO TRIP
DAY 2 - MANAGUA to SELVA NEGRA - Sunday March 11 2001
We hired our hotel Minivan to take us from Managua to the Selva Negra resort in the mountains between Matagalpa and Jinotega.
This is prime coffee country. There were stacks of 100-pound coffee bags in the yards of the coffee processors. Normally the coffee would have been sold and shipped by this time of year.
However, coffee has fallen to below 60 cents per pound. The local collectives refuse to sell at these prices. If they did, they could not repay the bank loans taken to finance the harvest.
So the coffee sits there and the workers have meetings to decide what to do.
We arrived at Selva Negra in the afternoon, and checked in to a 2-room cabin. This resort is very popular with tourists and weekend visitors from Managua. The main lodge and restaurant are on a small lake, with various cabins spread out through beautiful prime rainforest.
The owners, Eddy and Mauze Kuhl, were very friendly and interested in our Rio Coco trip. Eddy is a third-generation German-Nicaraguan. He has written a large book about the history of the region (in Spanish of course).On the wall of the lodge there is a list of all the German names found in Nicaragua.
Eddy told us a story about blue-eyed people from Jinotega who are probably descendants of the English pirate Morgan. Two hundred years ago Morgan transported his boat, piece by piece, from the Pacific, up and over the mountains, and down the Rio Coco to the Caribbean.
Eddy also told about Nuevo Segovias, an ancient but lost city located somewhere near Wiwili. Founded in 1529, Nuevo Segovias was Nicaragua's third largest city at the time! He thinks this will be a real archeological find waiting to be discovered as the area stabilizes and scientists return.
DAY 3 - SELVA NEGRA to WIWILI- Monday March 12, 2001
hear music from selvanegra
Selva Negra is also a working coffee plantation. In the morning, we had a tour courtesy of Mauze. We were shown how the farm uses organic techniques and shade cultivation of the coffee. They raise cattle and a variety of vegetables, and are looking into a wind power system to augment their solar panels. They also have a methane powered tortilla factory!
Eddy's wife Mauze said she thought Eddy wanted to go down the Rio Coco with us!
I asked him if he was ready to go, now, we could wait while he packed a bag. He said it was a lifetime dream of his. But he was too busy with the farm. Then Eddy took us to Jinotega in his Toyota quad-cab.
It was a beautiful 20 mile drive over the very top of the mountains into Jinotega, Miskito for "Pink City".
There were grand vistas all along the road. Eddy pointed to a new coffee plantation that had cleared the land first, not opting for "shade cultivation"
From Jinotega we hired a small truck to take us to Wiwili, the starting point for the Rio Coco.
For this we paid $100, and rode in the open back enjoying the scenery (and dust!) for about three hours.
Of course we could have taken this bus for about $3 each,
but we were happy to have our own ride.
The road to Wiwili was dramatic if dusty.
El Hotelito, the best in Wiwili, has beds for about $5 a night. You can watch cable TV with the family in the main room, and put cold drinks in the fridge.
The electricity in Wiwili goes off at 11 PM and starts up again before dawn, and is also off from noon to 4 PM.
There was a FSLN flag flying here, as the hotel was next door to the "campaign house" for the Sandinista party. Fernando asked about buying a Sandinista flag, and the owner gave him the large one right off the flagpole.
Sunset at Rio Coco Wiwili.
Wiwili was a Sandinista stronghold,
this 1982 picture is of famous fighter "flaquito" from Wiwili.
ALISTAR OFFICE IN WIWILI
This is Manuel Marcia, representative of Alistar in Wiwili.
The large warehouse where we found Marcia was empty except for the radio.
It is a staging point for supplies to be transported down river.
It has been very busy since Hurricane Mitch wiped out the entire center of Wiwili and many villages down river.
DAY 4 - Wiwili - Tuesday March 13, 2001
Marcia introduced us to Captain Francisco Ramon Herrerra,
better known as "BAILERIN". He had a boat and was ready to go.
We looked at maps over dinner at the Septentrion restaurant. We discussed the times and costs involved.
The trip down and back would require 180 gallons of gas at 37 cordobas per gallon, i.e. almost $3 per gallon. Add 2 boxes of 2-stroke oil, and 600 Cordobas ($50) per day for the boat including motor and crew. The total trip to Waspan would cost almost $1000.
We didn't try to bargain about the price, but if you have plenty of time you could probably do it cheaper.
Fernando pays Captain Bailerin $600 up front in cash
so he can buy the three barrels of gasoline
(or "combustible" as it is called in Spanish).
DAY 5 - PIEDRA to TURURUS - Wednesday March 14, 2001
We got ready at 4 AM, and waited outside El Hotelito for Marcia and his truck. The street lights came on about 4:30 as the local electric plant started up. Marcia pulled up and we loaded our gear in the back.
With three barrels of gasoline tied into the truck, we "barreled" down bumpy dirt roads through the cool night air heading for the put-in at a spot 35 km north called PIEDRA.
It was a beautiful ride as the morning light came up and we drove along ridges with fog-covered valleys below.
About 6 AM we arrived at Piedra, where we had a simple breakfast for $1.
The 180 gallons of gas now were mixed with the two 12-pack cases of two-stroke motor oil. The gas was siphoned (by mouth) from plastic 63-gallon barrels(previously pesticide barrels!) into smaller 18-gallon plastic barrels used to feed the engine.
The mix used was 2.5 liters oil to 18 gallons of gas.
"EL PROBERO "
The river is constantly changing course and depth with each season or flood. El Probero is always in the front of the boat probing the water with his stick.
When the stick would get stuck in some rocks, and pulled from the Probero's hands, one of the crew in the back would recover the stick while the Probero complained loudly about the "River Crabs".
Another real surprise: Petroglyphs carved in the rocks on the riverside.
These are only visible during the dry season, as the water is 10 to 15 feet higher during the rainy season.
Captain Bailerin said there were more downriver, but we missed them.
A good reason to go back!
I want to....
I want to go to......
(inside joke, ...never mind)
We stopped here for lunch after about 4 hours on the river.
It was a tranquil spot on the Honduras side. It turned out this was unusual, as maybe 90% of all the River population lives on the south, i.e. Nicaragua side, of the Rio Coco.
As we were waiting for lunch, one young girl of the family headed for the oven in the back yard. With a bunch of bushy branches in one hand, she tied them to the end of a pole. Using this makeshift broom, she swept the ashes and coals in the fire to the side, and place pans of bread and cakes inside to bake.
After lunch we continued downriver, arriving at Tururus about 4 PM.
In Raiti, Francisco Solano of Alistar invited us to sleep in the Alistar dormitory (after again asking Daniel by radio what these foreigners were doing here!)
We were able to use the kitchen to prepare food we brought with us.
In the evening, an audience of Miskito children followed us trying to figure out what the strange visitors were doing. We tried speaking Spanish, but they only spoke Miskito (or Mayagna possibly), and just giggled and stared.
This is the vivero or plant nursery in Raiti Village.
The plastic bags of dirt are used to start new hardwood trees from seed,
and they will be planted to help replace the trees felled in the past.
DAY 6 - TUBURUS to RAITI - Thursday March 15, 2001
In the early afternoon it gets hot, and we stopped for a swim. We had just seen a good 2-meter long Alligator a few km upstream, so we made sure to pick a place with fast flowing clear water where we could see the bottom!
Children at Walakitang village
A little further downriver we saw these children fishing with hand made net-mats.
In Raiti one man asked if we would like to see the "MASCOT".
The story wasn't made clear, but possibly the baby Ocelot was collected after somebody hunted the mother.
We stayed in this house in Raiti - the local office of Alistar.
A radio call to Daniel in Managua again explained who the unexpected visitors were!
We set up our hammocks underneath the house during the daytime, and then slept inside at night.
New Raiti Village
Written in both Miskito and Spanish,
this poster on the school house wall advertises that every child has the right to his or her own name,
and that the Birth Certificate will be issued for free.
Pounding Corn in New Raiti village
At the water pump, New Raiti village.
DAY 7 - RAITI to SAN CARLOS - Friday March 16, 2001
("KIPLA-SAIT" = "fast water" in Miskito)
Cayo Tingne Rapid
The first rapid is just 30 minutes below Raiti, after passing the mouth of the Lakus river.
We all get out to scout the rapid.
Captain Bailerin asks the three passengers to walk down a ways,
he will pick us up below the rapid.
For this section of the rapids, the captain hired an extra boatman, who will stay with us from here down to Waspan and back.
He is the "Specialist Probero", it seems, like taking on an extra locomotive before a long uphill grade, or a pilot takes over a big ship in the canal..
Using ropes the crew lines the boat down the right bank, and sets up for the chosen channel.
Letting go of the ropes, they smoothly slide into the slot and pass through with only a little water aboard.
Now past the first rapid, the river stays within a narrow slot with sharp black volcanic rocks on either side.
Imagine this in the Rainy Season
when the Rio Coco is 10 to 20 feet higher!
We now approach an unrunnable short cascade known as Cola Kihoras rapid.
We pass to the far left above the falls, and squeeze this giant log through narrow channels until it is well wedged in place!
The crew then lays down a series of logs just the correct width for the small channel where the dugout canoe must pass.
The logs allow the boat to be levered forward, as they are much slipperier than rocks, which grab and hold the heavy boat.
Below Cola Kihoras rapid, the Rio Coco narrows into a fast sluice of boiling water.
The crew in bow and stern switch from Pole to Paddle, and execute some nice turns where the river jogs left.
It turns out to be mostly waves and froth, but a lot of fun while it lasted!
Cabesera Cairassa rapid is the last major drop on the Rio Coco. There are two independent channels, left and right, that can be run.
In lower water such as now, the left channel is taken.
In higher water, the right channel is more exciting!
Captain Bailerin tells of a group of Cuban Doctors who he took right and they couldn't believe the ride.
The final drop of Cabesera Cairassa rapid
Now below the last rapid,
we stopped on the Nicaragua side for a rest.
Here we had a great view upriver of the
Sierra de Colon on the Honduras side.
View of San Carlos Cinema and downriver Rio Coco before sunset.
San Carlos Hotel
Nice simple rooms with double beds, mosquito nets, about $7,
good meals, and cold beer.
FERNANDO and THE CREW
DAY 8 - SAN CARLOS to WASPAN - Saturday March 17, 2001
Leimus, a legal border crossing point into Honduras.
The other legal crossings are at Suji (Big Rock) and Santa Isabel.
Large boats hauling passengers and cargo on the lower section between Waspan and San Carlos.
A real raft, made of Balsa Logs.
During the rainy season people upriver float all the way down the Rio Coco.
So how do they get back upstream?
First view of Waspan
Sunset view up the Rio Coco from Waspan.
Robert McKenney, Hydrologist with the American Red Cross "Project Mitch",
demonstrates a ROPE WHEEL WATER PUMP
The ARC has just about wrapped up its work,
which included building hundreds of wells such as these
and a few thousand new latrines to help improve water quality.
WASPAN, always Red and Black, i.e. Sandinista
Moravian Church in Waspan
Greek Columns at the end of the earth...
now is that Doric or Ionian or....???
The Plaque in foreground is a memorial
to Poet Ruben Dario
DAY 9 - Waspan to Puerto Cabezas- Sunday March 18, 2001
After a big Saturday night in Waspan, we caught the 7 AM bus to Puerto Cabezas. The countryside along the way was surprising, with rolling hills covered with slender pine trees. The road was in especially good condition, we were told, and it only took about 3-1/2 hours; during the rainy season it can take three times that.
PUERTO CABEZAS -
THE REAL MISKITO COAST
We arrived in Puerto Cabezas and took a taxi to the Hotel Cortijo, the best choice in town according to the Ulysses guide book. Room with A/C $18 single.
The next day I moved to the Hospedaje El Viajante across the street, as per the advice of Rob McKenney of Red Cross. El Viajante is only slightly cheaper, but the owner Fred is a friendly guy and supercool. And El Viajante has cable TV.
After we settled into the hotel,Fernando was hungry and wanted to eat some turtle,
but we had a Lobster lunch instead.
A welcome change from rice, beans and beef/chicken of the last week.
After lunch, we walked down the seacliff to the Puerto Cabezas beach and walked south towards the pier.
Later in the afternoon, I visited a beachside restaurant with a view south to the Puerto Cabezas pier.
DAY 10 - Puerto Cabezas- Monday March 20, 2001
Checking in for his flight to Corn Island,
Fernando learns that the local airline weighs everything,
including the passenger!
Agua de Coco, Senor?
and Habanero Chiles
at the Puerto Cabezas market
Perhaps you remember in the movie "Mosquito Coast" how Harrison Ford needed an Icehouse, as ICE is the dividing line between civilization and the savage wilderness?
Well, that movie was filmed in Belize, and the movie-Icehouse did look a lot like one in Placencia, Belize.
But this is a real Miskito Coast Icehouse!
And here is the ice...........
At the Puerto Cabezas pier are many small boats taking passengers up and down the coast.
The most popular destination is Sandy Bay, to the North.
The boats leave about 1 AM, arriving at sunrise, and depart for the return trip at 10 AM. You can travel by:
OUTBOARD: 2 Hours $12
INBOARD: 4 Hours $7.50
SAILBOAT: 5-6 Hours $4.00
Many lobster and shrimp boats work out of Puerto Cabezas.
I was surprised at the large number of scuba tanks on board!
I have read about how the lobstermen, usually Miskito, use compressed air for catching lobster, but were never trained in diving safety.
Many of the lobstermen have suffered permanent injuries from decompression sickness.
PARALYSIS and DEATH on the MISKITO COAST
The Puerto Cabezas pier is falling apart, probably hurricane damage that was never repaired.
The government has announced a project to rebuild and extend the pier,
but nothing seems to be happening yet.
The largest ship docked in Puerto Cabezas
was going to Havana,
once this timber was loaded.
Back in Managua, I met friends at the Shannon bar.
Daniel Alegria, the Danish roadbuilder, and Paul#2 the Boat Builder.
Paul, Daniel, and friends having Flor de Cana at an outdoor bar.
Text and Photos Copyright ©2001 Mark E. Halliday