Greytown Journal: exploring Nicaragua’s final frontier

Part I in a travel series on the wilderness, intrigue and adventure of Greytown

GREYTOWN, Nicaragua—The flight to Greytown is only mildly terrifying. Strapped into my seat tighter than a Christmas tree tied to a station wagon, I leaned my forehead against the windowpane of the single-propeller Cessna and watched the ground depart with the forlorn expression of a dog left in the car while the rest of the family goes shopping.

As we bounced on the wind above Lake Nicaragua and into the unexplored wilds of Nicaragua’s interior, I tried not to notice the occasional beeping dashboard lights, or the disquieting behavior of the copilot who turned frequently in his seat to ponder the female passenger in Seat 1A.

“These are professional pilots,” I told myself bravely.

Indio Maiz is thick and green and there’s no where to land

The final 20 minutes of the approach into Greytown International—perhaps the world’s least frequented international airport—is as stunning as it is alarming. For mile after mile, a thick, uninterrupted landscape of trees rushes below the plane like a sea of broccoli. It was difficult to know exactly where we were on the map, because there are no towns, clearings or mountain ranges to distinguish one corner of the jungle from the other. At one point, somewhere in the middle of this wonderfully verdant boscage, we flew over a giant waterfall that I’ve never heard anyone mention. It was attached to a river that might have been the Rio Indio or the Rio Punta Gorda. Wherever we were, I imagined it was somewhere on the map close to the part marked “here be dragons.”

The disorienting mass of jungle carpet is the expansive and wondrous Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, which is both marvelous and breathtaking. I have never been to the Amazon before, but I imagine that mile for mile (or 1.6 kilometers per 1.6 kilometers, for our friends on the metric system), it can’t be any more lush or stunning than Nicaragua’s Indio Maíz. This is truly Central America’s final frontier, and I was thrilled to finally see it.

The beauty of the view was interrupted only by the chilling realization that we were many miles from any place that would be suitable for landing a small plane—or, at very least, crashing it safely. If anything happened to the plane’s lone engine, I thought with creeping trepidation, the best outcome I could hope for would be to end up stuck hanging upside down by my seatbelt 100 feet up a Ceiba tree. 

The San Juan Lagoon. The river flowing from lagoon is actually the original Nicaraguan canal—a 2 Km trench dredged by Cornelius Vanderbilt

My concern was heightened as I noticed the trees were getting closer to my window. I could suddenly see their giant branches in greater detail—a colorful mosaic of leafy greens and a type of reddish palm I have never seen before. No warning lights were flashing on the dashboard at this particular moment, and both pilots—even the Cessna Casanova—were looking out the front windshield in apparent attentiveness, so I assumed our descent was a planned occurrence and hopefully aimed at the new Greytown Airport, which was nowhere to be seen from where I was sitting.

The pilots guessed right. We banked hard upon our approach, providing a quick but unforgettable glimpse of the San Juan Lagoon, formerly known as “Morgan’s Lagoon” for the famous pirate captain by the same name. The lagoon is now the final resting place of U.S. industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt’s 19th Century river dredge—a sunken barge that pays rusted tribute to Nicaragua’s frustrated canal dreams. On the headland banks of the north side of the lagoon sits the wild and fetching Rio Indio Lodge, which is worth the trip to Greytown alone.

As the four passengers—travel writers Joshua Berman and Amber Dobrzensky, the unknown Nicaraguan woman with the intriguing hemline in seat 1A, and I, your humble narrator—strained against our seat harnesses to snap a flurry of photographs out the windows, the pilots guided the plane in for a smooth landing at the new Greytown Airport.

The jungle airport connecting Greytown to the rest of Nicaragua was opened last April and cost the Sandinista government a whopping $16 million to build. Tourism Minister Mario Salinas said the airport ran $10 million over budget because of the border tiff with Costa Rica, which forced Nicaragua to turn elsewhere for construction materials.

“We were going to bring the rocks and cement from Costa Rica, but couldn’t because of the border issue. So we h ad to bring in everything through Rama and that increased the cost a lot,” Minister Salinas explained.

Greytown Airport was carved into the jungle

Construction costs might have been trimmed by simply building the airstrip to a smaller scale. Instead, the giant runway is much longer and wider than what is needed to service the La Costeña tourism flights from Managua, which come only twice a week (if that). Our Cessna used less than one-third of the airstrip to make its landing, which felt like landing a paper airplane on an aircraft carrier.

Indeed, the Greytown Airport seems to have plans that are far more ambitious than small tourism flights, but what those plans are I couldn’t guess. And this being Nicaragua, there is no one to ask. So instead of concerning myself with such mysteries, I unyoked myself from the plane, gathered my bag and hastened towards the airport’s comely arrival area, built inside a pleasant Victorian structure that looks like the type of gingerbread homes found in Bluefields more than a century ago. The building made me strangely nostalgic for a time in which I never lived.

The Greytown Airport is literally carved into the forest; the thick jungle loiters right on the edges of the runway, waiting to reclaim its lost real estate as soon as humans turn their backs for too long. Around us, construction workers leaned against heavy machinery and took photos of us with their cell phones, as if stunned that tourists had actually arrived (indeed they haven’t seen many flights from Managua—to date the airport has received more charter flights from Costa Rica than regular flights from Managua). On the edges of the runway, Nicaraguan soldiers watched us from the camouflaged shadows of the herbaceous borders.

We made it through the gingerbread airport in record time; we were the only passengers who had been there all week. We nodded to one pair of soldiers, signed a new immigration ledger, nodded to some more soldiers in the next room, and then exited the airport into the jungle on the other side of the building. There we were met by the always pleasant Vernon Hodgson, the chummy manager of Hotel Rio Indio and an old friend whom I know from his previous life working in the restaurant and hotel business in Granada.

Vernon introduced us to Rosendo, the watchful and wise boat captain, who shuttled us up the river from the airport toward Rio Indio Lodge. (It’s worth interjecting a note here to future travelers: when you fly to Greytown, you’ll want to arrange an airport pickup before you get there. There are no roads leading to the airport, only a river. If you arrive at the airport expecting to catch a cab into town, you’ll be surprised to find yourself standing alone on a dock facing the river, surrounded by jungle and wondering to yourself: “Now what?”)

No roads here

After we checked into Río Indio Lodge and dropped off our bags in our pleasantly appointed jungle cabins, we set off to see the ruins of Old Greytown—a collection of four colonial-era cemeteries and a curious assortment of other rusted and rubble remains from the town’s 19th century heyday.

Though the cemeteries are located directly next to the new runway, one must travel there by circumventing the airport by river—a journey that takes about 15 minutes by boat.

The first thing literate travelers will notice as they jump off the boat onto the marshy landing at Old Greytown is the same thing you may have already noticed when ordering food from a Chinese menu in Latin America: the English translations were done by someone who has only a tenuous grasp on the language, and apparently no access to a spellchecker.

The fun begins right away, when INTUR’s new sign welcomes guests to “Grteytown”—a huge swing and a miss for strike one. The snickers continue at the “Brithis Cemetery,” and then turn to chortles when you read about how poor Captain Charles Smith quite literally “died to stop breathing.” (Some guys will do anything to stop breathing.)

Welcome to Grteytown

Some of the signage smiles are not due to INTUR but older English phrases that folks would be less likely to employ today. For example, the headstone of Capt. Smith informs visitors that after suffering a tragic fall from the masthead, he was “erected by his shipmates” (thanks for the hand, fellas).

INTUR’s signage snafus are harder to explain considering they replaced perfectly literate signs that were “erected” by the “Brithis” embassy just four years ago. The literate British signs have been carefully torn from the ground and tossed in a heap in the woods. But if you’re interested in learning about the history of Old Greytown, it’s worth stepping into the high grass behind the first cemetery plot to read the discarded signs on the ground (the original “Welcome to Greytown” sign was thoughtfully thrown on the top and the pile and is still legible and quite informative despite the layers of dirt).

The old signs are informative

INTUR isn’t the only government institution that’s confused about how to organize letters into words. In 2002, the National Assembly, in an effort to set the record straight about whether the town is called “Greytown,” “San Juan del Norte,” or “San Juan de Nicaragua,” passed a law that very carefully and incorrectly established the official name as “Graytown” (Pat, I’d like to buy a vowel).

Luckily, no one paid attention to that law, so today the town is called by its proper name: Greytown—or, Grteytown (the first “t” is silent).

The four cemeteries—British, Catholic, Masonic and “Sabine,” named after a U.S. frigate that lost eight crew members and officers here in the 19th century—offer historical snapshots that, when pieced together, tell a fascinating if fragmented tale of a lost jungle colony. Greytown was once a lively place full of international bustle, commerce, roughneck sailors, dainty aristocrats, and, judging by the young ages on many of the headstones, immense hardships.

The old gate to the Masonic Cemetery

Today, nothing remains of Old Greytown other than the four cemetery plots and a few rocks that once formed the foundations of a Catholic Church and several stately 19th century homes, including that of Francisco Alfredo Pellas, the original member of the Pellas family who immigrated from Italy in 1875 and established a Nicaraguan shipping company with 23 ships.

There is also an odd assortment of various rusted equipment and old boilers that would have been looted a long time ago if this were Managua. Apparently there isn’t as much demand for scrap metal in Greytown.

Today, the only living souls still found in Old Greytown are those of the winged and quadruped type. The humans are long gone, relocated a few kilometers upriver to the new settlement of San Juan del Norte or San Juan de Nicaragua, depending on who you ask (The locals just call it San Juan).

As we quietly contemplated this lost civilization on the edge of an aggressively encroaching jungle, the sky started to turn gray—or “grtey” as they say in these parts. So we snapped our final pictures and hustled back to our boat before the afternoon deluge set upon us and turned the marshy field into a swamp.

As we ran down a narrow concrete strip that served as a sidewalk through the field, a large Laughing Falcon suddenly took flight from a nearby tree, screaming—apparently in laughter—as he flew away. Maybe he had just read one of the signs.

Next week: Part II: A gringo expedition to Harbour Head Island. We go to visit the Sandinista Youth camped out on a disputed river island in the Rio San Juan and learn about defending the patria.

 

  • http://www.elportonverde.com Mike @ Farmstay El Porton Verde

    …whilst shaking my head of mostly grtey hair, I’m thinking, great story!

  • http://www.livingabroadincostarica.com Erin Van Rheenen

    Great story. I’ve been wanting to visit Gr*ytown’s cemetery for a long time, and now I see I have four of them to explore. Next month I’ll be in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, and will try to find a boat to take me over the border. When you were there, Tim, did there seem to be any activity or tension surrounding the Isla Calero dispute?

    • Tim Rogers

      Hi Erin, Greytown is wonderful. I recommend it fully. No, you won’t feel any tension over Isla Calero, which is called Harbour Head in Nicaragua. In fact, we visited the island (I have the proud honor of being the first gringo to visit there, they tell me) and that story will be part II of this series. Stay tuned.

    • Rolandinho

      Hi Erin, since you may have done this trip a few days or some weeks ago, I’d like to ask if it was possible? That is, I mean, was it possible, to go by boat from Tortuguero up the coast, crossing the border to Nicaragua, and visiting Greytown. I’d like to do that in a few days, thereafter heading upriver to San Carlos. Thanks for any information!

      • Julien

        Hi Erin, Hi Rolandinho,
        I have more or less the same question ! I’d like to go too form Tortuguero to Nicaragua but I can’t find any information… Do you have any tips ?
        Thanks in advance

  • Jim Lynch

    To the best of your knowledge, Tim, has a definitive and accurate history of the Pellas family in Nicaragua ever been written/published?

  • Jim Cliff

    Great story Tim. I was in Greytown a few years ago. Came down the RSJ from San Carlos to find all the hospedajes full because of the filming of a movie. Someone, could have been the mayor, asked around and found locals to put us up in their homes. The friendly and hospital people made the experience worthwhile.

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