Wed, Sep 21, 2005 - Page 13 News List

Check out an `earthly paradise'

Nicaragua has the forests, the wildlife and the beaches to match Costa Rica, but not the crowds and the high costs - for now

By Joe Cawley  /  THE GUARDIAN , SAN CARLOS, NICARAGUA

Cigar making is a traditional small industry.

PHOTOS: AGNECIES

"You can swim here if you like," said Yaro flopping into the waist-high water and hauling our boat on to a sandbank. From deep within my memory, bells were ringing about tiny jungle parasites that find no greater pleasure than swimming straight up your plumbing and co-habiting your vital organs. Plus, there was of course the crocodile infestation and the world's only fresh-water sharks that lurked never far away.

"No thanks, I'll just watch." Besides, it was raining. A lot. But then this was the rainy season.

The suggested bathing area was the Bartola area, a vegetation-packed jungle canal snaking into dark grottoes, one of 25 feeder tributaries to Central America's second longest river, the San Juan. Once destined to be the inter-oceanic canal, until Panama stole the honors at the last minute, this marine highway curves along the Costa Rica border for 180km through dense gallery forest before spilling into the Caribbean. Mark Twain called it "an earthly paradise" during his journey from San Francisco to New York via Central America, though obviously he chose to ignore the less welcoming inhabitants of this nirvana.

Paradise was far from my mind the day before when I had banged down in a single-prop plane on to the loosely termed "airfield" of San Carlos. Sure there was air, and yes there was a thin field, but any relation to an airport ended there. A waiting car bounced me to a ramshackle town dodging potholes deep enough to qualify as underground car parks. Six thousand people lived here on the edge of the jungle and the edge of purgatory. With roads of mud, eye- squinting interiors and street corner stares that linger just that little bit too long, San Carlos was like most frontier towns -- spectacularly ugly, verging on the anarchic and best left as soon as is conveniently possible.

Yaro Choiseul-Praslin had arranged just that for me. Stepping from the shadows of his upstairs office, he extended a hand. "Hola. Shall we go?" It was the one thing I wanted to hear.

On the way to his mooring, I found out he was the owner of Sabalos Lodge, my riverside accommodation within Los Guatuzos wildlife refuge for the next few nights. Before the panga -- our motorized canoe -- hit full throttle and drowned out all conversation, Yaro told me that he had been put in control of the agricultural reforms along the river San Juan during the revolution of the 1980s. It was my first encounter with a Sandinista, and in spite of friends' warnings back in Manchester I remained happily unbothered by stories of murder, kidnap or robbery. "The Sandinistas are just another democratic political party," said Yaro. "They have their bad apples like everyone else, but I think there's enough support for them to possibly win the elections next year."

Win or lose, an unstoppable tourism revolution has already begun in Nicaragua. Until five years ago, European visitors were as rare as several of the 600 species of birds living here. Now nature lovers, bird-watchers and eco-tourists are starting to discover the raw attraction of Central America's heart and lungs. In just a few square kilometers, the pristine Indio-Maiz bio reserve has more species of birds, trees and insects than the whole of Europe. Rustic lodges, research stations and local guides are popping up along the riverbanks, catering for the rising demand for jungle adventures.

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