I am taking a deep breath as I write this. The past few days in the river town of El Castillo have been at the same time exhilarating, rejuvenating, exhausting, inspiring and utterly memorable. It reminded me of the beauty and fragility of life and was a self-affirming moment for why I travel, by myself, again and again, to different parts of the world, over extended periods of time. Because, with experiences like this, I just can't tear myself away from my backpack.
El Castillo, a little town of about 3,000 people set on the banks of the Rio San Juan, itself a 120-mile long river from Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean Sea, was the backdrop to my adventures down the river on a kayak. It's a cute town topped by a gorgeous 17th century Spanish fortress, and lined with excellent riverside restaurants serving fresh, inexpensive gigantic river shrimp, but the real adventure lies downstream on the river and in the jungle.
For several days, I had hearty breakfasts in town before setting off on long, intense kayaking expeditions down the river with my guide Eduin Espinoza Lopez (if anyone happens to be reading this and planning a trip to El Castillo, I heartily recommend looking for him. His email address is eespinoza(underscore)firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell him Kai from Singapore said Hi).
I was excited, pumped and ready to go for my first kayaking expedition on the river. We paddled off downstream, only to come face-to-face with a series of Class 5 rapids right outside of town. I was terrified. This was the first set of rapids in my entire life, and I totally did not know how to react. It was a gut-wrenching experience as the kayak was thrown and battered by the currents. We managed to get through about 80% of it before it capsized. I distinctly recall casting a worried look at Eduin and the next moment, swallowing a mouthful of river water as I plunged headlong into the water.
Fortunately, I did not hit any rocks and was not injured. It would have been just that, a simple fall with no repurcussions, but for the fact that all my electronic equipment was soaked, and I lost my glasses. (Don't worry Karen, I happened to leave the FLIP video camera in town that day, and its still alive). My very pricey digital camera died, but thankfully I managed to revive my iPhone so I haven't lost any photo-taking ability (got to stay positive, you see). And I actually did bring a spare pair of glasses along, so my vision's still intact, even though I'm going to have to suffer through wearing an ugly pair of black-rimmed, cheap plastic glasses I used to wear in the army for the rest of my trip.
Enough of that capsizing incident. The kayaking was AWESOME.
The Rio San Juan is simply the most beautiful slice of nature I've ever seen. It is extremely clean, and there's no unsightly trash like plastic bags and canned drinks floating downstream. It is just pure flowing water in a river that widens and narrows in parts, twists and turns, lined with lush jungle on both sides. Though there's some pockets of secondary forest, most of it is primary rainforest, pristine and untouched by human activity.
The grass, shrubs, bushes and trees on both sides of the river were an amazing spectrum of greenery. I never knew there were so many shades of green. From the light hues of the riverside grass to the dark green vines draping over tree branches, every conceivable shade of green was represented in the jungle. Some of these vines are "tree-killer vines"; they wrap themselves around the trunks and branches and suck off so much nutrients that their host eventually dies. But the coolest thing had to be orchids, growing in the wild. Orchids are actually ferns that grow on trees, and nowhere will you find such an abundance of wild orchids. Like jewels of the forest, they hang from almost every tree in the dozens, and one can only imagine the splashes of color during flowering season in March.
The trees themselves are fascinating. There are massive, thick cathedral trees that have been around for hundreds of years, standing tall and strong, mini-ecosystems upon themselves, supporting a variety of ferns, vines, mosses, insects and birds. There are thin, flimsy-looking trees that reach high into the canopy, otherwise bare except for a brilliant crown of leaves at the very top. There are trees covered with so many leafy vines and mosses that you can hardly make out their shapes. They stand by the river like massive, hulking figures of green, covered with a million tiny leaves. The names of some trees that we spotted: wild banana, palm, heart of palm, coconut, cocoa, orange, bamboo, cedar and almond. Of particular interest is the Cecropia tree, native to this region. It has a distinctly hollow stem and is usually covered by ants, which protect the tree they live on. This tree is extremely attractive to insects, as it apparently contains chemicals that the insects use to "get high", much like humans and certain kinds of illegal white powdery substances.
The Rio San Juan is a treasure trove of biodiversity and wildlife. In this river, you are not simply looking at nature; nature is watching you. The forests and waters are teeming with animals, fish, birds and plants.
Graceful white egrets with light-orange beaks fly slowly overhead, landing on bare tree branches by the riverside. Sometimes they'd all flock to one single tree, lending a splash of white to the lush, green landscape.
Kingfishers, darting above the water, occasionally skimming the surface, looking for prey.
A variety of little birds, chirping, flapping their wings furiously as they flirt from tree to tree. Often they are speckled with color, like the yellow-chested bird so easily visible around these parts.
Brown, large ducks with yellow beaks. Swooping overhead and then paddling onwards nonchalantly right after landing in the water, as if they didn't suddenly switch abruptly from flying in the sky to swimming in the river.
And many more - cormorans, tucans, parrakets and parrots, just to name a few.
Fish. The river is simply teeming with them. Eduin told me how his father used to say that when he first settled in El Castillo, there was so much fish that you could simply throw out any random line and reel in a huge snook or even a bull shark. This doesn't happen anymore, but still, it is obvious that there are many fish below the surface of the water. Toss a crumb of bread into the water and within seconds, fish will be jumping above the surface, jostling for a bite.
There are tarpons, huge, heavy fish, as large as in the photographs that grace the walls of restaurants and hotels in town. There are caimans, shy, smaller versions of crocodiles. They like to sun themselves on the banks of the river or nest in little coves of mud by the water's lapping edge, slipping into the river with a loud thud as quick as a flash as soon as you approach. And then of course there are wild crocodiles lurking in the murky depths of the river. They, too, love the sunshine, and on a recent trip down the river, I counted five sunning themselves on different mud banks and islands. The townsfolk have plenty of stories to share about crocodiles. There's the girl who was snapped up as she was washing her family's laundry by the water's edge; and there's the fiberglass exterior of a boat which was utterly smashed as a crocodile crashed into it, reaching for a cooler of raw meat within the boat.
There are also manatees, gigantic, cow-like fish that are almost extinct. Unfortunately, I did not manage to see any of them in the wild. Plenty of machaca, though. These smaller, more common fish are easily spotted in the crystal-clear waters of Rio Bartola and Rio La Juana, two narrower tributaries of the river which we also kayaked in. As I stand, knee-deep in the creek, they dart around my legs, tickling my skin.
If you're lucky, you might even spot a freshwater turtle, like we did. It swam away quickly as our kayak drifted closer, but it was still surreal to see such a large rambling creature in its natural habitat.
The sound of the jungle is a cacophony of insect chirps, bird chatter and monkey noises. The latter is especially worth mentioning. We spotted many howler monkeys, another species native to the region, and they really do "howl". Had great fun making loud noises at the monkeys and hearing them howl back. There are two other species of monkeys in these trees too - the white-faced monkey and the spider monkey.
Imagine kayaking on clear river water, listening to these sounds of the wild, framed by lush trees and blue skies dotted with clouds. That was what I did in my stay at El Castillo. Sometimes we'd take a detour into narrower tributaries, backwater creeks, marshes and swamps, and go right under the canopy. Monkeys would howl and swing above us, and vines would drape right into the river. We'd occasionally have to use our paddles to bash through a thicket of vines and fallen branches, and when we ran into fallen logs that block off the creek, we'd have to get out, our feet knee-deep in water teeming with fish, and haul the kayak across to the other side. Dragonflies and mosquitoes buzzed around the hot tropical forest around us, and sometimes spiders would fall into the kayak as we hacked through the vegetation.
When we were tired, we would just stop paddling, and let the current of the river carry us, in its unhurried fashion. Or we'd simply paddle ashore onto muddy banks, scaring away some yellow-chested birds and rarely, caiman. Then, we would pause to contemplate our surroundings, stunning chunks of beautiful rainforest all around us. We swam in the cool, clear waters, and dived into the river off huge boulders, fallen trunks and even from the kayak itself. Or we'd hop onto rocks, polished smooth by the constant flow of the river. Next we'd sit on the banks under the sun and squeeze off the water from our wet T-shirts. And then we'd continue paddling on, our muscles somewhat sore but our eyes eager to see what new vista the next bend opens up. An offshore island, overgrown with vegetation. A phenomenally tall and large tree, draped with wild orchids. The howl of another family of howler monkeys. The flutter of another colorful butterfly. Or the splash of another huge tarpon. Another slice of the same jungle, a jungle I never got bored of.
I would give anything to do it all over again.