SAN JUAN DE NICARAGUA – In a town with an agonizing history of unfulfilled booms and disheartening busts, there’s a new buzz of excitement about a budding tourism industry that promises to finally bring progress and development to this long-neglected Caribbean river port.
In a town that many old-timers still refer to by former names Greytown and San Juan del Norte, past stirrings of progress have ended abruptly and in disappointment. Abandoned projects linger like ghosts in the swamps and lagoons of this region of 380,000 hectares of pristine jungle.
In the 471-year history of the town, founded on June 24, 1539, on the mouth of the San Juan River, the closest brush with economic boom came in 1848, when New York entrepreneur Cornelius Vanderbilt attempted to build an interoceanic canal across Nicaragua.
With the California gold rush at its peak, Vanderbilt, a steamboat entrepreneur, brought a large dredger to the Río San Juan and began work on opening a year-round water passage from the Caribbean to the Pacific. During a period of five years in the mid-1800s, more than 52,000 U.S. citizens bought passage on the San Juan River on their way to California.
But Greytown’s glory days were short-lived. Instead of becoming an international commercial hub like Panama City, San Juan de Nicaragua was forgotten by time and overgrown by weeds.
When Vanderbilt’s funding dried up, he abandoned the large dredge in a lagoon just off the Río San Juan and headed back to the United States. Construction crews left Greytown as quickly as they arrived.
Today, the only evidence of the failed boom is the rusted mast of the sunken dredge, which sticks 20 feet above the water.
Yet the disappointment of the past doesn’t seem to concern to the 2,000 residents who live here today. Construction has again come to this quiet and narrow-laned town thanks to $500,000 in loans for development as part of the government’s $14.7 million river tourism investment known as the “Route of Water.”
In the center of town, a new customs station has been built to welcome international visitors. South of downtown, dozens of men hammer away at a white-framed gymnasium and sports center. And farther south, a small horseshoe-shaped hotel with a red roof, known as the Paraíso Tropical, is nearing completion.
In the coming months, construction is scheduled to begin on a $9.8 million international airport.
“We’ve been seeing more visitors in the area and, with all the expected development in the region, people are starting to get excited about the possibilities for tourism,” said Pedro Gónzalez, head of construction on the Paraíso Tropical. “If all goes as planned, we hope to have a lot more activity in the town very soon.”
By Air and by Sea
“The airport in Greytown has already been approved for construction and should be completed by the beginning of 2011,” said Lucy Valenti, president of the Nicaraguan National Tourism Chamber (Canatur).
Travel to San Juan de Nicaragua is currently very difficult. A small airstrip already exists, and some people arrive by boat from Bluefields or Costa Rica, but the town remains mostly cut off from Nicaragua’s Pacific coast.
River sedimentation dries the Río San Juan to a trickle during four months in the summer, making it impossible to reach the town by boat. The river conditions in town are equally difficult.
Just off the lagoon that became the final resting place for the sunken Vanderbilt dredge, a tiny sliver of a canal weaves its way through dense vegetation and dead-ends into a dilapidated pier – the only remaining entrance to Old Greytown.
Nearby is a field airstrip waiting to become an airport and a 19th century graveyard that is home to the marble tombs and coffins of the English and U.S. residents who lived here in the early 1800s.
“We think the history of this town will also attract tourists to the region,” said Misael Morales, mayor of San Juan de Nicaragua. “There is such a rich cultural history here and such a variety of people are still here. There are mestizo Indians, Creole, Rama Indians, Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans all sharing this same area. I don’t think there are many places in the world with such a diversity of people.”
There is also talk of a new marina that could be constructed on one of the large lagoons in the area.
According to Valenti and Alfredo López, owner of Río Indio Lodge in San Juan de Nicaragua (see separate story, Page W4), the government of Nicaragua is considering building a 55-slip marina near the river mouth that will host boats and yachts up to 100 feet.
While there has been no official government confirmation on the construction of the marina, if built, it is expected to be a gateway hub for the Route of Water, an effort to convert the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua into a major international tourism destination (see separate story, Page N1).
“The private sector in Nicaragua has been demanding the dredging of the river for a very long time,” Valenti said. “Everyone considers the Río San Juan to be a vital part of Nicaraguan tourism, and as of right now it isn’t navigable all year long. So, one thing we have demanded is that the government take the necessary steps to make the river navigable for tourism purposes.”
Electricity From Costa Rica?
As the border conflict between Nicaragua and Costa Rica continues to simmer, the people of San Juan de Nicaragua are hoping the tensions don’t inhibit the region’s new promise of development – especially since Costa Rican participation will be required.
Currently, San Juan de Nicaragua gets its electricity from a generator that runs for only eight hours a day.
“The closest town with electricity is Barra del Colorado, which is south of us in Costa Rica,” said Morales. “Though they are in Costa Rica and we are in Nicaragua, it would be more logical for power to run from there to provide electricity here. We are too far away from any towns in Nicaragua to supply us with electricity here.”
Morales said the community is considering trying to establish a relationship with the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) to provide power to the town.
If the town is to host tourists and develop as it hopes, it needs electricity and clean drinking water, Morales stressed.
“These are things that we think will come with time,” Morales said. “When the airstrip comes, there will be a greater need for electricity and clean water here. We have been looking into options to provide those services and are hopeful that they will come as tourism begins to pick up.”
It is these hopes that have energized this small town, as they hammer on the new stadium and hotels and other additions to aging village infrastructure. There is a collective optimism that it will all pay dividends in the near future.
“This is an exciting time for this area,” said Mariano Gudiell, a longtime resident and former city representative. “I haven’t seen people this active and this encouraged in a long time.”
In a sleepy town rich in history and poor in infrastructure, there’s a strong sense of hope that tourism will finally provide the development that has been promised so elusively over the past five centuries.