The Río San Juan

The Río San Juan is one of Nicaragua’s national treasures. Running from the Lake of Nicaragua east to the Caribbean Sea, the river is home to abundant wildlife (including freshwater sharks) and relatively little development. Most Nicaraguans, however, appreciate it not for the natural habitat it provides, but for historical and political reasons.

The river, winding its way through the jungle, has long been a geopolitical hotspot. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, pirates (including Henry Morgan) sailed up it to attack Spanish settlements along the Lake of Nicaragua, such as Granada. The Spanish responded by constructing a line of defenses, including El Castillo. In the 19th Century, many of the 49ers steamed up the river, journeyed overland thirty miles from the Lake of Nicaragua, then boarded a California-bound steamer at the Pacific coast. The United States government signed a number of treaties regarding an interoceanic canal that would use the Río San Juan: first, to build a canal, then, after completing the Panama Canal in 1914, to prevent other nations from building a competing one.

The Río San Juan also comprises a long section of the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Unlike the vast majority of other riparian borders around the world, the border is not in the middle of the river, but on one bank. According to nineteenth century treaties, the entire Río San Juan is in Nicaraguan territory, but Costa Rica may use it to convey “objects” of trade. This uncommon border arrangement has led not only to a prevalence of Nicaraguan bumper stickers and t-shirts reading “The Río San Juan is 100% Nicaraguan,” but also to a long series of diplomatic spats (including one over whether tourists could be considered “objects” if they were not about to be sold as slaves).

I was aware of the touchy border situation when I visited San Carlos and took a ferry to El Castillo. I was a bit surprised by an immigration official’s stern warning that I should have my passport with me to take the ferry to the town of El Castillo. He must have known about the national government’s plans for that day. President Daniel Ortega, via satellite video link, ordered an official stationed on a barge in the river to start a controversial dredging operation. His rationale for the project is improving navigability the river for barge traffic; Costa Ricans think that the dredging’s actual goal is rerouting the river for a land grab. The dredging operation and an anti-drug trafficking operation quickly turned into an “invasion of Costa Rica.” The Nicaraguan commander reportedly blamed Google maps, which in turned blamed the US Department of State. Costa Rica cried foul, appealing for help from the Organization of American States. Nicaragua responded with this page and a booklet – The Truths Costa Rica Hides.

So, in short, if Costa Rica had an army, Google Maps would have started a war, and I would have been in the middle of it.

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  1. Uncle Glenn says:

    Thanks for all of the interesting updates. Missed you at Christmas, but I promise to make you garlic mashed potatoes when you come back home. I talk often to friends about your amazing adventure. Love, Uncle Glenn

  2. […] As I was crossing the border into Costa Rica, a border dispute between the two countries flared up. […]

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