Thud! Whack! Aeeei-Waaaa!
The Howler Monkey Rebellion has started! I fret as I open my eyes with the kind of addlepated dread that afflicts the seriously deranged and those who get startled from their sleep amid unfamiliar sheets before dawn.
I squint into the darkness, listening through the pounding rain and the jungle chatter to determine whether simian intruders have breached the cabin walls. Just a few hours earlier, over a family-style dinner of giant river prawns and other meat offerings, fellow hotel guest Gerry Wiley had recounted the wakeup call he got during his first night at the Rio Indio Lodge: Three fang-baring howler monkeys had dropped from a tree onto his cabin porch at 4:30 a.m., saw their reflection in the darkened window, and went berserk pounding on the panes with primate fury.
“That was better than a cup of coffee to get me out of bed in the morning,” Wiley joked. I chuckled at his story over dinner, but now lay in bed breathless, trying not to smell like a ripe banana.
I emerged from my room with mild trepidation the next morning, half expecting to find the jungle lodge overrun by the wild animals I had heard conspiring outside my cabin throughout the night. At the very least, I expected to discover most of the hotel washed into the river after a relentless torrent punctuated by roof-rattling thunder.
So you can imagine my surprise when I found the hotel merrily going about its business as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. “ Buenos dias,” a friendly hotel employee said to me as I blinked dumbly.
A new day
All that had sounded wild and unsettling during the night now appeared verdant and fetching. In the bluish-grey light of early morning, the forest glistened and dripped with rain outside the elevated thatched-roof walkway connecting the cabins to the central lodge. Tropical birds screeched across the sky, butterflies danced aimlessly amid rainforest flowers, insects chirped from orchid-covered trees, howler monkeys barked somewhere in the distance (the safe distance, I noted), and a chorus of other unseen animals made cooing and croaking noises unfamiliar to my urban ears. Even the white-faced monkeys (the presumptive scouts of the ape army) leapt playfully through the trees, snagging plantains hung on a rope from the lodge’s treetop veranda. Like a monkey, I too scampered to the coffee bar to feed my caffeine cravings.
Rio Indio Lodge, a $7 million eco-tourism development at the mouth of Nicaragua’s mighty San Juan and Indio rivers, is as wild as the jungle it inhabits. That jungle swallowed nearby Greytown, a former boomtown and hub for trade in the 18th and19th centuries, almost 100 years ago.
Now, thanks to a new airport, this remote jungle corner of southeastern Nicaragua is more accessible than it has been for 200 years, when getting here meant taking a boat along the Caribbean coast down the San Juan River from the interior of the country. The ghost town is hoping to be rediscovered as a unique jungle-tourism destination
While the colonial outpost is now just a one-hour plane ride from Managua, it’s still as remote and exotic as it ever was. Indeed, even in the rustic but luxurious Rio Indio Lodge — the area’s main tourist destination — it’s sometimes hard to determine where the jungle ends and the lodge begins.
Chandeliers and gourmet food offer civilized charm in the dining room, but the jungle animals are redefining “creature comforts.” Crocodiles have been known to take early morning dips in the lodge’s swimming pool, and it’s not uncommon to witness monkeys leaping across the dining room rafters in a coordinated assault to liberate bananas from the kitchen.
The jungle lodge gives guests a chance to get friendlier with nature than they might have expected. During one particularly boisterous moment, “Cosito,” the resident tapir, toddled into the lodge and planted a snouty kiss on the face of travel writer Joshua Berman, who appeared surprised if not slightly flattered. Cosito’s caress was also a valuable teaching moment for the lodge’s owners, who warned us not attempt similar intimacies with Juancho, the 19-foot crocodile that glides silently up to the boat dock each evening in search of kitchen scraps.
The jungle experience along the San Juan River is even woollier. The Río San Juan has long captured international attention — from pirates and Spanish crusaders in the 16th and 17th centuries, to British colonialists in the 18th. In the early 19th century, U.S. industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt tried to dredge the river to build the canal that ultimately went to Panama; his dredging equipment still sticks out of the lagoon in front of the Rio Indio Lodge.
Today, the river draws an equally adventurous crowd of sport fishermen, nature-lovers and the occasional drug smuggler hoping to evade the Nicaraguan Army. Most tourist activity, however, is by anglers who do catch-and-release fishing for snook, rainbow bass and tarpon. In September and October, silvery five-foot tarpon jump around the boat like glistening prehistoric sea monsters left over from the Cretaceous period.
Birdwatchers also come from late November to early March, when some 450 species of tropical and migrating birds wing their way through the trees along the river.
Those who want to experience the jungle on foot can explore four miles of trails through Rio Indio’s private reserve or visit a Shaman who has been treating folks with jungle remedies for 80 years.
Though it may seem obvious, it’s worth noting that visiting the rain forest is usually accompanied by a bit of wetness. Though September and October tend to be drier months, “this is poncho tourism,” laughs Alfredo López, owner of Río Indio Lodge.
Hard rain, however, is a relative concept in the jungle. After I survived the first night and inquired about life rafts, I was assured that what I had mistaken for biblical deluge was more like a routine shower.
“That was nothing,” says Mike Lilla, a former U.S. Army Ranger with 30 years of jungle experience — and more than his share of jungle downpours. “You should be here in November, when it’s 30 days and 30 nights of rain. I start building an ark every year.”
The rains do seem to be a problem for the nearby riverbank settlement of San Juan del Norte, where the residents from Old Greytown were relocated two miles downriver in the mid 1980s, after a gun battle between Sandinistas and contras destroyed their old town. The new town, which also goes by the names “San Juan de Nicaragua,” has other identity issues as well. It has been so marginalized from the rest of Nicaragua for the past 25 years that most of its trade, much of its tourism and all of its radio come from Costa Rica.
The town of San Juan was built — alas, alas — on a floodplain that is routinely submerged under several feet of water. An elevated concrete sidewalk leads through the back half of town, connecting stilted homes perched malarialy close to stagnant, dirty water. Unsurprisingly, the town is lush and humid. Residents readily admit their waterlogged town is not prepared for the type of tourism that comes on airplanes.
In some ways, there are still more attractions to be found among the ruins of Old Greytown, the colonial ghost town whose only residents have been occupying graves for more than a century. A rusty iron fence divides four ancient cemeteries — “British,” “Catholic,” “Masonic,” and “Sabine,” for the nine Americans who died on the USS Sabine, a warship commissioned in 1858.
Visitors poking about the graveyards may get some giggles from English translations, such as how poor Captain Charles Smith “died to stop breathing.”
Silliness aside, the gravestones of Old Greytown — which have endured while the creeping jungle consumed everything else — are intriguing and haunting. The cemeteries are next to the new airport, offering a strange visual dichotomy of old and new. Still, it’s hard to imagine this area was once a hub for international trade and commerce.
Today, most tourism here is based at Río Indio Lodge, which is the easiest trailhead for the surrounding wilds. The lodge was built on a strip of elevated riverbank halfway between the ruins of Old Greytown and swampy San Juan del Norte, avoiding the drainage problems of both.
Rio Indio Lodge, which already has a jump on the tourism market, is expanding in anticipation that the new airport will bring more business. The lodge is working with the Smithsonian and George Mason University to develop a $300,000 animal refuge with elevated catwalks leading to tree-top viewing platforms, where guests will be able to watch jaguars feeding in the wild.
For the time being, the lodge’s 250-acre private jungle reserve provides the best access to Nicaragua’s massive and fabulous Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, a 4,500 square-kilometer virgin rainforest that is Central America’s answer to the Amazon. From here, you are just a paw’s reach away from animals that can bite or poison you. It’s an experience that’s as authentic and edgy as Nicaragua itself.
Just don’t fall asleep with banana breath.