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Archive for March, 2010

Thanks to Nica Pinolera for this image

Thanks to Nica Pinolera for this image

The worries I have about being granted the necessary permission to enter the Reserva Bosawas, a trip that I have been planning for two plus years and now hangs in the hands of beaurocrats in Managua, became ever smaller as I rolled further and further from that city where I had been captive for a week; 6 days longer than I had hoped. Transport in Nicaragua is much like that of Guatemala i.e. coutesy of decommissioned US school buses. However, here the balance is slighty different in that they are one half mass transit system and one half market place. At every stop hordes of vendors clambered and clattered aboard selling meals in plastic bowls, ice-cream, fruit, nuts, all manner of vegetables. One man pushed through the urchins selling gaseosas (fizzy drinks) to reveal a full suit of personal hygiene products and office equipment, carefully pinned to his shirt; a walking Rymans. There was of course a preacher, but his words were lost as his slightly effeminate alto (little wonder!) was lost over the whirring of the smoky diesel engine that slowly hauled us over the mountains that lead toward the Honduran border, and my destination, Somoto.

The journey felt long with my knees and legs sweating and suck fast to the plastic seating in front and underneath me. A triumphant feeling of freedom and pleasure at being on the road again brought back happy memories of journeys and friends in Guatemala, and especially as now as I was loaded with purpose: to see the birth of the Río Coco, a river I hope to travel through the heart of the rainforest all the way to the Atlantic ocean, some 800km from where it begins. My cheerful mood un-squashable even as a mysterious liquid, recently escaped from bags on the roof, came pouring in the window and all over me. It must have been for storing some sort of cheese as it left streaky soapy marks as it quickly evaporated from the bus windows, that, and it smelt strongly of fermented lactose.

We passed through wiry scrub, desiccated from months without rainfall, hungrily awaiting the temporada de lluvias (rainy season) which begins in July. Dusty towns, largely deserted in the midday heat except for vultures and people waiting patiently, in energy-saving mode, for a bus to pull up and take them away. Outskirts were scattered with half dreamt buildings, quarter realised, of use indeterminable. Signs of poverty of abounded, but this rural poverty seems so much less squalid that of urban centres, of Managua.

The Cañon de Somoto (Somoto Canyon) lies 15km outside of the town of Somoto, a sleepy town of 21,000 souls. A tranquil air hung over the parque central  when I arrived, bathed as it was in the warm rays of the fading sun. A pretty gated garden is overshadowed by an ancient adobe church whose bell, rusted green and covered in bird shit, was being enthusiastically rung to summon the faithful to the final procession of the cross through the town before semana santa.

Opposite the church is an ice-cream shop which in ignorance of the obvious irony, has proudly painted its slogan in full view of the church windows: un tentacion irresistible. It was here at 7.30 the next morning that I met Rodolfo who acted as my guide to the Cañon. He was a short man with lively eyes, a small grey moustache and a relatively ageless face offset by deep and insistent grooves on the back of his neck; much like those on aged palms, they suggested that he had spent too much time gazing at the stars.  He explained to me as we walked the track that lead to the cañon that the genesis moment for tourism in the region had come when he lead a team of Czech scientists through the area some five years ago. An article they subsequently published put the area perhaps not on the well trodden tourist route, but certainly on the radar of the international crowd.

Soon we met the Río Tapacalí which trickled over the gently pink stone that pervades the area. Before long evidence that this part of the river has flowed here for many millenia became apparent as a deep wound, 200 feet or more, has been cut into the ground. At this point, the Cañon walls no more than ten metres apart, are greened with lichen save for the visible veins of purple that hang over clear pools of water. There a signs of ancient indigenous settlements here. The people lived in naturally formed caves and were engaged in what seems to be a mineral grab as there are signs of excavation near to a covered storage facility dug deep in the rock. This is even protected by what appear to be sentry points.

This is the part of the cañon that the various teams of scientists and geologists Rodolfo has brought here, are most interested in. It seems the mineral potential of this land is not yet spent. Yet, although the ancients were looking for gold, Rodolfo believes that there is uranium in the ground and this is what has grabbed the attention of the scientific community. How he divined this however is anyone’s guess. If he is right of course there are serious implications for the future of the area. At present it is designated a national monument although locals are fighting for it to be upgraded to a national park, and UNESCO are also due to visit. However, if the government too believes the area to be a cash cow (which it is uranium or no) then it could declare the area unsafe and attempt to extract the mineral wealth.

Two km downstream the cañon opens up into a wide plain surrounded by rounded cliffs, blue with agave and bromeliads . The river shallows and splashes eagerly over the algaed rocks. Birds, disturbed by our presence, fly ahead of us to find a new resting spot. Scrambling over the rocks into this new plateau felt as though we were discovering something entirely new, Jurassic, a place for life to settle and grow. We spotted a Guardabarranco, the national bird of Nicaragua, too proud to be put out by us, it sat dressed in dark green with red and blue trim, a delicate trail of arrow-head feathers beneath it.

It is here that the Río Comalí flows in from Honduras, and at this confluence begins the mighty Río Coco, the biggest river in Central America. I knelt down and washed my face in the cool waters which I hope to see again many times as it widens, deepens and accelerates toward its saline destiny. There are still many question marks hanging over my trip in which I hope to learn about the life that inhabits the banks of the river. Yet in that moment I felt a certain clarity, an imagining of humid adventure in a fertile land where grows a forest of grandiose life forms and hopefully the pages I will leave behind me.

Following the first stokes of Coco brought us to a place where the cathedral walls rose once again. Huge boulders laying in the path of the river testify to seismic activity, and great overhangs lurk eerily over the deep green waters. From here we swam two km downstream. Sunlight all but excluded, the cañon is a mere six metres wide at this point. The water deepened to profundity and lying on my back I could float with the meagre current and trace the great meandering curves with my fingers against the great lips of the cliff walls. A huge rock made for fun jumping into a pool where the midday sun could penetrate parts of the depths, reflecting the ripples of the water in an unending dance of perplexing simplicity upon the grey walls that harbour the newly born Río Coco.

As we hiked out of the Cañon, Rodolfo asked me if I thought it had mass tourism potential, to which I of course replied in the affirmative. However, there are already problems with rogue, unprepared guides ready to undercut those with government authorisation to operate in the area. My guide himself seemed conflicted. After eight years of fighting in the civil war he has thrown himself into promoting the area and being a responsible local guide. He along with many others would like to increase the dollars coming into his community, as tourism undoubtedly would, but feels that regulation is needed. More than a few people in a space less than 6 metres wide will feel very crowded. Thus it is the age-old friction between desiring to preserve the tranquil natural beauty of the area, and the need to exploit it to the benefit of the local communities as surely is their right.

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