By Zak Podmore
Photos by Corey Robinson
The sea was in no rush to deliver us to Brito, a cluster of plywood shacks along along the dark sand beaches of Nicaragua's west coast. We'd battled winds and current for six hours to paddle as many miles, pushing our way through endless rows of whitecaps while dipping in and out of the shelter of small islands. When we finally pulled our three sea kayaks onto shore, the corrugated tin roofs of the two dozen homes at the small inlet still rattled in the gusts.
A fast-talking man in a one-room store stood in front of his goods–chips, soda, beer. He smiled as if we were living in a fantasy world when we asked about the massively ambitious interoceanic canal that is supposed to be built across Nicaragua, with Brito as its western port. But instead of denying the plans for the project, he shrugged and mumbled something about mañana.
If constructed, the 178-mile alternative to the Panama Canal would be the largest digging project ever attempted and would displace an estimated 120,000 people. An official groundbreaking ceremony was held near Brito in late 2014, but not much has happened since. The main funder of the project, Chinese telecoms billionaire Wang Jing, lost approximately 85 percent of his fortune in the Chinese stock market crash of 2015, prompting many to speculate the project would never be completed. But Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, the one-time Marxist guerrilla turned autocrat, hasn't backed down from promising Nicaragua a canal in the near future. Nicaragua's constitution has been rewritten to expedite the project. Protests against the canal continue to crop up across the country, prompting police crackdowns and what Amnesty International has called a "campaign of harassment" against canal critics. The shopkeeper said that most locals in the area were opposed to the project but that wasn't going to have much effect on whether or not the canal is built. "All the politicians care about is the money," he said and changed the subject, asking about our paddle in from the surfing and tourist town of Playa Gigante to the north.
With me were two friends from Colorado: Corey, a freelance photographer and filmmaker, and Eliza, a leader of youth wilderness therapy trips who had perfected her Spanish over years of living in South America. We bought a bag of potato chips from the man and carried it down to the nearby Brito River. With our feet cooling in the water, we sat and tried to imagine the scene that Wang Jing envisions for Brito where construction is supposed to kick off. The shallow river that ran before us would be dredged to a 100-foot depth. A nearly mile-long wharf would be built out into the sea. The deserted shoreline south of the huts would be clustered with with enormous shipping terminals, bustling with traffic and longshoremen. And one day, the world's largest cargo ships might chart their course from Hong Kong to this village which right now doesn't appear on most maps.
It was no wonder that the shopkeeper, who said he had lived most of his 52 years in Brito, seemed incredulous about the plans.
The stop in Brito was Day One of a trip that would take us across Nicaragua from the Pacific to the Atlantic, a journey we hoped to complete mostly by kayak.
For me, this trip had been years in the making. When I was in elementary school, my family lived 100 miles south of Brito for two years in the cloud forests of Costa Rica. As a five-year-old I stood with my father on top of a peak along the continental divide. It was a rare clear day on which only the wisps of clouds hung above the jungle canopies of the other mountain tops. He pointed to the east and way off in the distance it was possible to make out the hazy lines of where the green country sank into blue water. And then he spun me 180 degrees and out below the horizon we saw another expanse of blue. We were straddling a thin strip of country between two oceans.
Years later I learned to roll a kayak, and in high school, I did my first self-support trip with a few friends. I wanted more. On late summer nights after working as a raft guide on the local town run, I'd spend hours traveling the globe in an early version of Google Earth searching for rivers to paddle. I once located my family's old cinderblock house in the Costa Rican mountains and flew north until I hit the brown meanders of a jungle river. I zoomed out and traced it both ways. It flowed east from Lake Nicaragua, largest body of freshwater in Central America, along the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border to the Caribbean. The Rio San Juan. With the river and the lake combined, water stretched almost across the entire country. I measured the distance from the western shore of Nicaragua to the edge of the lake: 12 miles. You could cross the continent from one ocean to the other and only be on land for 12 miles. The San Juan went on my list.
Of course I wasn't the first person to discover this quirk of geography. Engineers have dreamed of breaking through the 12-mile barrier with a interoceanic canal since soon after the Spanish arrived in 1522. And before the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, crossing the continent via the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua was one of the most sensible options, a journey that took six weeks compared to four or more months on the overland trails. During the Gold Rush that followed 1848 gold strikes in California, more prospectors arrived in San Francisco after crossing Nicaragua than any other route. In the following decades, Nicaragua was surveyed more than once for an interoceanic canal. Two U.S. reports from the late 1800s favored Nicaragua over Panama for the project, but when a French effort to link the Pacific and Atlantic through Panama failed, the U.S. government decided to capitalize on the progress that had already been made and purchased the rights to the Panama Canal in 1902. The decision buoyed Panama's economy through the 20th century and it's now one of the most prosperous countries in the region. Nicaragua, by contrast, was left behind. It is currently the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, topping only Haiti. The Nicaraguan people never forgot about the canal proposals, and despite the protests, Ortega maintains that most of his citizens support the current iteration of the project, which is being billed as a larger, more modern alternative to the century-old Panama Canal.
As Corey, Eliza, and I discussed a spring paddling trip after a long winter in the Rockies, we decided we wanted to trace the continental crossings of old, to paddle Nicaragua from coast to coast. We were skeptical about the plans to once again sever Central America in two. From the reports I read, it seemed like China was maneuvering for power on the world stage and wouldn't leave Nicaragua with the best end of the deal. But we wanted to know what ordinary Nicaraguans thought about the canal, and traveling across the country by kayak seemed the perfect way to get off the standard tourist circuit since it would force us to camp in tiny villages and on remote beaches. Plus, we wanted to cross the country before the cargo ships did. Our kayak trip wouldn't trace the exact proposed canal route, which is slated to cut across virgin jungle and indigenous settlements in the western part of the country. Instead we would paddle across the lake and down the Rio San Juan.
The day after our trip to Brito, we took a bus to the larger city of Rivas and wedged our folding plastic sea kayaks into the trunk of a rusting Toyota sedan-turned-taxi. We soon crossed the spit of land and saw Lake Nicaragua sprawling before us. After we looped around to the south side of the lake, we asked the driver drop us where the road ended on the maps: a fishing hamlet called Colon.
We hauled our gear to the beach and were preparing to launch for the second leg of our journey–a 15-mile paddle across the lake to an archipelago chain called the Solentiname Islands–when a teenager with an M16 told us we needed to report to the nearby navy barracks for inspection. Repacking our boats, we dragged them beneath the open-air roof and waited for an hour while the officers carried out their duties. Our bags were strewn out on the floor in front of us, our collapsible kayaks unpacked for inspection. It seemed a rare bit of action in this sleepy corner of the lake, and the men performed the inspection with a solemn intensity. A Navy lieutenant finally poked into my paddling gear and resealed the bag in disgust. We'd only been in the country a few days, but already humidity and heat had turned my bag into an unsavory petri dish.
Having seen enough, we were cleared for release and everyone relaxed. But the hour standing in the afternoon heat had drained our motivation for paddling that day. The lieutenant told us we were welcome to camp on the beach in front of the barracks. He recommended a nearby cafe–the only restaurant in town–for an early dinner. We ate plates of rice, beans, and eggs. After our meal, lieutenant drifted over in a more casual uniform and showed us how to knock mangoes out of nearby trees. He avoided the ripe fruit and seasoned the hard green meat of the mangoes with salt and chile.
We spent the evening in the cafe, talking to locals about the canal which will send the largest shipping barges in the world across Lake Nicaragua. Although a major expansion of the Panama Canal was completed in 2016, it remains too small for the passage of so-called mega-container ships, which carry up to 18,000 shipping containers each. Right now, mega-container ships bringing cargo from China to the U.S. unload on the West Coast and transfer containers to railroads. The Nicaragua Canal would be built specifically to allow these vessels to sail from Asia to the Atlantic and back. But the world's biggest ships can only dock in compatible ports, of which there are few, and experts have questioned the commercial viability of the $50 to $80 billion Nicaragua Canal.
Our waiter, a man in his early twenties wearing a red sleeveless t-shirt and a thick silver necklace, told us between deliveries of icy Toña beer that he supports the project. Though he's a trained nurse, he said, he can't get a job in Nicaragua. The economy is just too stifled.
"I think the canal will make things better," he told Eliza who translated when Corey and I lost the thread of the conversation. (My Spanish had mostly slipped away since my first-grade fluency in Costa Rica.) President Ortega promises the canal will create hundreds of thousands of jobs and eventually double the country's GDP. The waiter said he wants to believe Ortega. "There will be more employment, but yes it'll change things too."
A middle-aged man in a yellow soccer jersey overheard the waiter's remarks and turned around in his chair at an adjacent table. "I'm a fisherman," he declared. "Our community lives off the lake for fishing. We drink from Lake Nicaragua, even Managua drinks it. If the canal is built, salt will contaminate the lake and we'll have nothing." He glanced at the waiter. "Don't believe the promises."
Although engineers say locks will prevent salt water from pouring into the lake, the environmental consequences of the project could be devastating. Environmental groups worry about spills of industrial chemicals in the lake that supplies the majority of Nicaraguans with drinking water. What's more, the lake has an average depth of 40 feet and would have to be dredged to 80 feet to accommodate the ships. Combine the silt that would be stirred up from the dredging with invasive species that may ride in on ship hulls, and fisheries could collapse. Lake Nicaragua's population of freshwater sharks could disappear altogether. In addition, over a hundred thousand rural farmers and indigenous people living in the the path of the canal would be displaced. The government has admitted that landowners will be compensated at the assessed tax value of their property, not the market value. And who decides the tax value? The same government making the purchases.
"Ortega has done a lot to help poor people," the man in the jersey said. "He's helped Nicaragua develop. But this canal will mostly help his friends."
The waiter shook his head and wandered off, seemingly annoyed with the older man's acceptance of things as they are in the country.
More people filled the tables as night fell and the cafe turned into a bar. The town had no electricity and the tables under the thatched roof disappeared in darkness until someone turned the generator on. Pop songs soon issued from the sound system at full blast and conversation became impossible. A couple and a few men left their beers to dance. It was a Wednesday night.
Exhausted from traveling, we wandered down to a stand of lakeside palm trees and set up our hammocks. I was asleep before the next song finished.
A pig brushed the underside of my hammock just before dawn and vanished in the brush. Donkeys munched grass 15 feet from our beds. White faced monkeys chattered in the trees and roosters crowed as sunrise lit the crowns of the palm trees above us.
Eliza told us she had a rough night–a brief but violent bout of Sandino's revenge–so we decided to catch a ferry to a spit of land that would shorten our paddle to the Solentiname Islands to seven miles.
A brightly painted wooden boat arrived early in the morning to transport people from this village to the larger town of San Carlos on the opposite side of the lake. We'd ride along for an hour before transferring to our kayaks.
Five minutes into the boat ride, Eliza, already feeling better, was surrounded by a semi-circle of men in freshly pressed town clothes. "Ah, you want to know about the canal," one of them said when Eliza mentioned it. He half rolled his eyes and flashed a set of silver teeth, grinning. "These Americans want answers. The other Americans never ask us what we think," he called over more friends and settled in for a serious discussion.
Soon there were a dozen men spanning three generations around Eliza. An old man sipped dark liquid from an unlabeled plastic bottle. A teenager in a backwards hat and sunglasses listened intently to the circle of farmers who leaned in toward Eliza against the roar of the wind and motor. Corey and I sat on the edge, ignored for our fumbling Spanish, and waited for Eliza to translate the best parts of the conversation.
Three men in the group explained they'd fought for the Sandinistas in the '80s. "We put Ortega in power," one said, launching into a history of Ortega's reign. He told us that the values of the revolution were still respected during Ortega's first term as president from 1985 to 1990. Ortega nationalized business, spread healthcare across the country, waged a remarkably successful campaign against polio, and increased literacy rates. But when he was voted out of office after a brutal civil war between the U.S.-backed Contra militants and the Sandinistas, Ortega began to turn his back on the people. By the time he returned to power in 2007, he spoke not of nationalizing business but of growth rates and GDP.
"He forgot about us fighters," the man concluded. "Now Ortega is completely corrupt. He wants to make us Chinese, to give our country to the Chinese with this canal. Nicaragua is already crowded but he wants us to live like the Chinese do: stacked up to the sky."
A man in a New York Yankees cap chimed in. "I don't think that's true," he said. "The canal will mean more work, more opportunity for our kids and grand…"
The oldest man cut him off. "Yes, they say there will be a better future, but what if the lake is contaminated? There will be problems we can't even anticipate."
"We need a world where our kids aren't forgotten," Yankees Cap said sadly. "In America, everyone has potential. Here, they won't even look for a Nicaraguan if they disappear. But even if the promises aren't true, we can't oppose the canal. We can't take up arms again. We've seen too much war."
The conversation went back and forth for another half an hour before the men led us to the roof of the boat where they posed with for a photo with the Nicaraguan flag.
At the next stop, we unloaded our bags and assembled our kayaks on the beach. A murky Lake Nicaragua lay before us, disappearing into the smog of the horizonless distance. It was April, nearing the end of the dry season, and farmers across the country were clearing their land through slash and burn. One of the men on the boat told us the lake was at its lowest level in decades.
We set our bearing north by GPS and paddled into the smoke. Even after an hour, we could still touch the bottom of the lake with our paddles. The shore faded behind us but egrets stood hunting for fish on shallow sandbars.
That afternoon, the Solentiname Islands came into sight, a archipelago chain of 36 islands, many of which are inhabited only by howler monkeys, parrots, and toucans.
Over the next few days we explored Solentiname. We spent several nights on the largest island in the chain, Mancarrón, which served as a Sandinista stronghold during the uprising of the '70s under the direction of revolutionary priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal.
"I'm one of the original Sandinistas, not one of Ortega's Sandinistas," a woman who managed a community-run hotel on the island told us. She said she grew up listening to Cardenal's sermons about equality. Later, she lost two brothers in the revolution. "Ortega's always been corrupt, but when he signed the canal law I knew there was no conscience. He's giving our country to China."
Between 2012 and 2013, President Ortega led the Nicaraguan National Assembly to approve a number of laws that created the Nicaraguan Canal Authority. The hotel manager explained just how much power these laws grant to Wang Jing's company, Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Group (HKND). The most sweeping of the laws is the Master Concession Agreement, which gives HKND an exclusive right to canal construction and seizure of property through eminent domain for 50 years. When the agreement expires, HKND will have first rights to renew the deal for another 50 years. During that time, HKND will owe Nicaragua no taxes or customs duties. And beyond paying a $10 million per year fee for the first ten years of the agreement–0.002 percent of the estimated canal cost–HKND will be allowed to keep the majority of profits.
For the hotel manager, the most troubling part of the agreement is that it grants HKND the right to build related projects, including resorts, golf courses, an international airport, an oil pipeline, a new railroad, and new highways. Some have speculated the canal is only a ruse and that HKND's real goal is to construct massive infrastructure projects across the country with little regard to current land ownership.
"This law is proof: our leaders are just as bad as the Samozas," she said, referring to the dynasty of dictators that controlled Nicaragua from 1936 until the Sandinista revolution. "No," she said, correcting herself, "with this law, Ortega is worse."
After a few days of paddling through the jungle islands of Solentiname, we crossed to the eastern shore of Lake Nicaragua and stopped in San Carlos at the head of the Rio San Juan. There we met a kayak guide, Champin, and his cousin Danny, who would paddle with us to the Caribbean 119 miles downstream. For much of the way the San Juan marks the dividing line between the Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and we wanted guides to help us navigated the bureaucracy of the border as well as the river.
Within our first few hours on the San Juan, we were glad we had hired Champin and Danny. Men in military uniforms in a riverside outpost waved us over and asked to see our boat registration. We looked down at our folding sea kayaks, which we'd lugged across the country, more than once causing taxi drivers to run to the store to buy rope in order to tie the bulky boxed-up boats into their open trunks. We hadn't even thought they might need to be registered. Champin spent an hour negotiating before convincing them we could pay $75 and call it good.
The San Juan was wide and flat, winding through rolling cattle pasture with very little current. Champin said that thanks to the declining lake levels, the river was the lowest he'd seen it in twenty years. He usually makes his money as a tarpon fishing guide, but he said the lack of rain had been driving tarpon into the lake and business was slow.
That night we stayed in a wooden hotel in the town of El Castillo, the castle, named for a 17th century stone fort the Spanish built on the hill above town to fend off pirate raids in the city of Granada, which was sacked repeatedly during the colonial era. Shortly after the fort was finished in 1675, pirates crept by in the night paddling a fleet of canoes and raided Granada once again.
A rocky rapid next to El Castillo was the largest obstacle for steamships taking passengers from New York to San Francisco during the Gold Rush. Nineteenth-century business magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, who at the time of his death in 1877 reportedly had more money than the entire U.S. Treasury, made part of his fortune from his control of the Accessory Transit Company, which ushered over 100,000 passengers across the Nicaraguan isthmus during the 1850s. Vanderbilt had exclusive rights to build a canal across Nicaragua for the first 12 years his transit service was in operation, but construction never began.
Downstream the river grew more remote and the current seemed to cease altogether. In a push to make it to the sea in time for our flight home, we spent the next few days paddling from dawn until dusk–at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. all year round in Nicaragua–sleeping at ranger and army outposts on the Nicaraguan side of the river. These posts were the only Nicaraguan development we came across. On the Costa Rican side, there were farms, roads and huts, but north of the San Juan is the Indio-Maíz Biosphere Reserve, an area the government has closed to settlement for everyone except the indigenous Rama people. The canal would cut through parts of the reserve and other officially protected areas, as well as remote indigenous communities.
Forty miles north of the river in the farming village of Nueva Guinea, Francisca Ramírez, a 40-year-old indigenous peasant farmer with three years of formal education, has emerged as the unlikely leader of the rural opposition to the canal, and has led over 90 protests across the country. In response, the government has allegedly raided her home, damaged her crops, and accused her of terrorist activities. In early 2017, the European Union ordered Nicaragua to protect Ramírez's life and rights. According to movement leaders, over 200 rural farmers have been arrested protesting the canal since 2012. Approximately 100 people have been wounded by gunfire or beaten during the protests, and the government has cut off funding to social programs in areas where opposition to the canal is explicit.
On the San Juan, with its heavy army presence, the few fishermen we encountered were reluctant to talk about the canal plans, as were our guides.
Danny told us that the army officers stationed along the river spend most of their time guarding the reserve by patrolling for poachers and illegal logging operations. The protected side of the river seemed to be true rainforest, slung with vines and constantly chattering with birdsong, insects, and the grunts of howler monkeys. In the river, we saw the hunched back of a tarpon rise from the water like the Loch Ness Monster. The only crocodile we ran across was dead–huge and sprawled out across a sandbar. Even with the 100-degree heat, we never considered swimming in the river.
I celebrated my 28th birthday our third day on the San Juan. At the end of another 11-hour paddling marathon, we pulled up to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, which vets boat passengers heading upriver for citizenship status. The place was deserted except for an immigrations officer who said we could set up our hammocks on the front porch of the building. I opened my bag to find it topped with two 90-degree glass bottles of Smirnoff Ice. "Happy birthday!" Eliza said, handing a bottle to Corey and me and making it clear she was going to enforce the frat house rule that if you find a Smirnoff Ice–if you "get iced"–you have kneel and chug it on the spot. We choked down the bitingly sweet alcoholic tea while the immigration official and our guides looked on amused.
"Now you can say you've been iced at an ICE checkpoint," laughed Eliza.
Champin called us in the building for a birthday "pasta peligrosa," a "dangerous pasta," seasoned with hot peppers from a plant growing in the yard and supplemented with a can of tuna. He produced a beer from a small cooler in his kayak and handed it to me to wash down the Smirnoff, grinning and shaking his head at the scene he'd witnessed outside.
Our final day on the river was the longest yet, nearly 40 miles of dead-flat water. We paddled into the estuary and down a channel toward the town of San Juan del Norte on the Caribbean coast. A wind blew upstream all day. We stopped only twice, once to have our passports checked at a larger immigration office and once for a lunch of watermelon. After eating a fifth of the melon, Champin began groaning, holding his belly and complaining he was full. We stole glances at each other feeling full of only water and wishing we hadn't finished our last sandwich makings the day before.
That afternoon, the river had narrowed to a 30-foot wide channel, the banks grassy and low. We passed a dugout canoe full of seven children in their school uniforms, all under the age of ten. They paddled home towards the riverside shacks on their daily commute.
Our shoulders burned, our stomachs gurgled, and we paddled along without a word to each other. Champin and Danny, outpacing our snap-together boats in their tandem fiberglass kayak, called out from ahead for us to hurry. "It's going to get dark," Danny said.
We rounded a bend as the light was turning golden and the looming scaffolding of dredging equipment came into view, rising over 150 feet from the water. The dredge was used to begin construction of a canal here in the 1880s, the closest any of the dozen Nicaragua canal plans ever came to being realized. Five hundred laborers arrived to run the equipment but outbreaks of tropical disease cut operations short in the first few months and the dredge was eventually left to rust in the estuary.
If the latest construction plans evaporated now, several years after the official groundbreaking ceremony, the canal promised by the Chinese would leave less physical evidence than this 1880s attempt. And on the Nicaraguan people? They've heard it all before.
"The canal is a fairy tale told to a Nicaragua caught in the past," a taxi driver said on our first day in the country as he wove around ox-drawn carts in Managua's streets. "It's always been a fairy tale. I just hope that this time it doesn't come true."