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.