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Hopes of a new canal revive a Nicaraguan ghost town

Boom and bust cycles are no stranger to this small town, which once played an outsized role in distant affairs.

Set in a protected harbor in Nicaragua’s remote southeast corner, the town in the mid-19th century was briefly the most important port in Central America. Tens of thousands of Americans with gold fever passed by its wharf.

Then a bust hit. Tropical jungle thick with jaguar and peccary overtook the town as civil war gripped Nicaragua. Three decades ago, just one family remained.

Now San Juan may be on the cusp of another boom.

The government is putting the finishing touches on a 4,900-foot runway and airport valued at $12 million, part of a race to develop the region as it maneuvers with neighboring Costa Rica over a disputed border. Shimmering mirage-like is an even greater yearning: Nicaragua again talks of building an inter-oceanic waterway to compete with the Panama Canal, with one terminus here.

The waterway would allow ships to transit from the Atlantic up the San Juan River to Lake Nicaragua, then across an 11-mile isthmus to the Pacific Ocean, or vice versa.

Even if the waterway remains an illusion — skeptics abound — the 1,800 people who now reside in San Juan voice gratitude for the renewed attention. Less than half a decade ago, boats provided the only access to the town. A single telephone was the lifeline to the outside world. Electricity flickered on and off.

Now there is reliable power and blanket cellular telephone service. The airport has cut the journey to the rest of Nicaragua and opened the doors to tourists, who come for sport fishing, bird watching and rousting around historic ruins.

“This corner of Nicaragua is a treasure trove,” said Eden Pastora, a onetime guerrilla commander who is the region’s biggest promoter.

President Daniel Ortega, head of the leftist Sandinista Front, appointed Pastora to head a commission seeking global financing for the $30 billion inter-oceanic waterway. Pastora, for his part, is delving into all manner of private development, including plans to build an international marina with scores of slips.

San Juan lies below the Caribbean hurricane belt, offering a safe harbor for yachts seeking shelter or long-term harborage.

Pastora, a fit-looking 75-year-old with a shock of white hair, said the airport, which is operational but so new that it has yet to be inaugurated, would facilitate the use of the marina.

“The gentlemen millionaires will come on their executive jets, get on their yachts and go all over the Caribbean,” Pastora said. “All kinds and sizes of yachts will come – and they will pay.”

Far more primitive vessels brought Spanish explorers, who discovered the San Juan River delta in 1539, and christened a settlement as San Juan del Norte in 1541. More than three centuries later, Great Britain laid claim to the region under the guise of protecting native Miskito Indians.

A Miskito king renamed the settlement Greytown in homage to the governor of Jamaica, a British subject, and the name lingers unofficially today.

What propelled the port into world headlines was the 1848 California Gold Rush. Would-be prospectors flocked from the U.S. East Coast to Central America in their quest to reach the California mines.

Shipping baron Cornelius Vanderbilt made three trips to San Juan to bring his Atlantic and Pacific Steamship Co., which already was operating to Panama. Vanderbilt’s Nicaragua route was cheaper and at least two days shorter than the journey through Panama, and throngs clambered aboard his vessels.

“More than 150,000 people arrived from New York and passed through here,” said Misael Morales Sequeira, the town’s 34-year-old mayor. “The Gold Rush lasted 15 years, and it left no benefit for the town.”

History books note, though, that among the notables to pass by San Juan through the centuries were English privateer Francis Drake, Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt, writer Mark Twain, Italian Gen. Giuseppe Garibaldi and Robert E. Peary, who would go on to fame as the first explorer of the North Pole.

Remnants of San Juan’s heyday lie in rusty decrepitude in the lagoons and jungles. Still visible above water is the skeletal hulk of a sunken dredge and an iron-hulled steamship. Elsewhere, one sees rusted boilers and abandoned steam engines.

Wrought-iron fencing protects four cemeteries with headstones mostly in English. The cemeteries hold tombs of British and American sailors, Masons and Catholics.

A tragic period hit San Juan after the triumph of the 1979 Sandinista Revolution. U.S.-financed Contra rebels rose up (some under the leadership of Pastora), and both Sandinista and Contra fighters laced the area with landmines.

“The population of San Juan de Nicaragua decided to flee to Costa Rica,” Morales said. “They abandoned the town.” Most houses were burned to the ground.

When voters tossed the Sandinistas out of power in 1990, some 30 families returned, joining the single clan that had stayed. With United Nations help, the town was established on the banks of the Rio Indio about a mile and half from the original settlement. The name was subsequently changed from San Juan del Norte to San Juan de Nicaragua, although Greytown is still in common use.

Pastora was a crucial figure in a recent episode involving the region, perhaps fitting for a man whose personal history has oscillated like that of the port. Pastora, a onetime fisherman, became renowned as Commander Zero in the Sandinista uprising in the 1970s, only to turn on the Sandinistas in the 1980s as an armed foe. He returned to the Sandinista fold in recent years, rekindling a close friendship with Daniel Ortega. Through that back-and-forth, he found time to father 21 children with 10 women, four of whom he married.

“I know how to fish, to fight, to sin and to love,” he said.

In late 2010, while Pastora’s company dredged the San Juan River that demarcates the border, it ignited a dispute with Costa Rica, testing the neighbor’s sovereignty over an island in the delta, Isla Calero. The incident led to a buildup of Nicaraguan troops and police from Costa Rica, which has no standing army.

Eager to rally nationalist feelings ahead of elections in 2011, the Ortega government and the Sandinista Front set up outposts around and on the disputed island, defying requests from the Organization of American States to withdraw.

“This is 100 percent Nicaraguan soil. We must fight for every centimeter,” said Jose Luis Argenal, a Sandinista in charge of dozens of young men deployed to the island. Signs and graffiti on shacks described the island as worth dying for.

Both nations took the matter to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and a verdict is expected in the spring of 2013. Yet to be seen is whether the decision will be accepted by both nations.

Pastora, meanwhile, earns $80,000 a month from the Ortega government for operating dredges along the San Juan River – a sum he considers insufficient.

“It is nothing,” Pastora said. “I’m asking for $200,000 a month.”

Pastora spoke in the dining room of the only hotel able to handle an inflow of tourists, the Rio Indio Lodge. At other tables were sports fishermen from Missouri, Washington state and Florida, eager to reel in the tarpon and snook abundant in local waters.

The lodge sits within the boundaries of the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve, an 850,000-acre preserve that is one of the largest untouched tracts in Central America.

“The intention of the government and our intention is that this becomes a world-class destination for birding, for nature,” said Alfredo Lopez, a physician who is the lodge’s chief executive. “The sport fishing is fabulous.”

Pastora, for his part, looked around the half-empty dining room and said a boom is in the offing.

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