- Where to Go
- The Best of Nicaragua
- Nicaragua’s Best Surfing
- Hiking Nicaragua’s Ring of Fire
- Nicaraguan Arts & Crafts
- Nicaragua’s Great Green North
- Sportfishing in Nicaragua
- Down the Río San Juan
- Nicaragua’s Celebrations & Fiestas
- Volunteering in Nicaragua
- Diving & Snorkeling in Nicaragua
- Managua’s Revolutionary Driving Tour
Colonial Times to Independence
The mouth of the Río San Juan, choked with labyrinthine estuaries, had eluded explorers for years, including Christopher Columbus, who failed to find it in 1502. The Spanish founded Granada in 1524. In 1539 Spanish explorers finally reached the Atlantic by sailing downstream from Granada.
This made Granada Spain’s first quasi-Atlantic port in Central America. To consolidate their hold on the river the Spaniards began persecuting the indigenous people living along its banks and on the Solentiname Islands.
In 1567, the first Spanish trade expedition set sail from Granada: three ships laden with agricultural products for Panamá. They made it as far as the Caribbean, where English pirates plundered the vessels and fed the surviving sailors to the sharks.
Tension and conflict between European nations over the next 300 years led to a virtual state of war between Spain’s colonial holdings in Nicaragua and English, Dutch, and French pirates whose respective governments encouraged them to give the Spanish hell.
Until the Spanish improved their fortifications along the Río San Jua], the pirates were disastrously successful at sacking and burning Granada, which suffered repeatedly. By 1724, however, a dozen fortresses guarded the river and the pirates’ pillaging came to an end.
Throughout the 19th century, the Río San Jua] grew in importance for commerce and for its value as a shortcut through the isthmus for foreigners traveling between New York and California, the most famous of whom was Mark Twain who passed in 1866 on Cornelius Vanderbilt's steamship route. After dreams of a cross-isthmus canal petered out and Vanderbilt's steamship business came to a halt, the river slipped back into bucolic obscurity for a century.
The Contra War
As a sensitive border area during the 1980s, the Río San Juan was a southern front for Contra forces, particularly for the Alianza Revolucionaria Democrática (ARDE), under the leadership of Edén Pastora, a.k.a. Comandante Cero, who fought on the southern front years after the CIA stopped supporting him. Troops from both sides planted fields of antipersonnel mines, and entire communities evacuated the war zone, fleeing south to Costa Rica or west to other points in Nicaragua. The population of the region dropped to fewer than 40,000, then nearly doubled in the 1990s as people returned with new families, stressing already environmentally sensitive land.
The Río San Juan Today
In spite of relentless “El Río San Juan is ours!” chest thumping up in Managua, the Nicaraguan government has traditionally ignored the people of this region, spurring tens of thousands of Nicaraguans emigrate to Costa Rica, legally and illegally, in search of work and better living conditions. For those Nicaraguans living along the river, most television and radio stations come from Costa Rica, as do some schools and health services.
Many towns—especially San Juan del Norte—use the Costa Rican colón instead of the córdoba. Increased government attention has begun to improve the area, helped in part by wealthy Managua legislators purchasing land along the river for their own use and development. But the greater force has been private development of tarpon fishing lodges, eco-resorts, and similar, providing needed jobs and economic stimulus in a region otherwise limited to cattle raising.
© Randall Wood & Joshua Berman from Moon Nicaragua, 4th Edition