Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Weekend We Will Not Soon Forget

Over the 4th of July weekend we took advantage of the extra days off and took a longer adventure to the Rio San Juan Department. In order to get there we drove all the way around Lake Nicaragua and down almost to the Costa Rica border. The drive was about 6 hours total but since we left on Friday afternoon we decided to stop halfway for the night in a little town called Juigalpa. I had heard that there is a hotel/restaurant in Juigalpa that has the best steaks in Nicaragua so we made the reservation! The hotel was really nice and also affordable and the steaks were good but not worth a 3 hour drive just for a piece of meat. We did enjoy our meal and our stay in Juigalpa. The next morning we set out for Rio San Juan!

We were surprised to see these giant exposed rock formations in the hills. We haven't seen anything like this in other parts of Nicaragua. Everything else is so volcanic that you don't see geology like this in our neck of the woods.

Audrey had Mitchell's phone for part of the drive and there are about 47 selfies just like this! Haha!
Our drive ended at the tiny little town of Sabalos. We met a super nice guy who let us park our car behind his gate for a few days and then embarked on this motor boat that was there to pick us up and take us to our cabin about 15 minutes down river. This region is super cool! Everything is literally right on the banks of the river and only accessible by boat!

Here's the local market. If you need something, you better hope they have it!

Notice how dense the rainforest is right up to the banks of the river. Foreshadowing: this dense jungle will play a main role in our narrative coming up, stay tuned!

Good thing we have adventurous kids! They just love all of the new experiences. *Note: for the other boat rides we took over the weekend we all wore life jackets. Sorry, don't want to alarm the Grandmas!
Home sweet home for the weekend!

Our family cabin had a private balcony overlooking the river. Very relaxing and beautiful.
We arrived on Saturday around lunch time. It had been raining for a couple of days so everything was muddy but nice and cool and pleasant. The lodge we stayed at had around 7-10 cabins and a main lobby area. The staff cooked all of our meals during our stay and they were delicious! After we had some lunch we decided to explore a bit. The lodge had build a couple of short walking paths around the property so we decided to start there. Audrey wasn't too excited to walk through the thick mud in this picture. We did end up traversing a few puddles along the way and the path just kept getting wetter and wetter. We considered turning back a few times but with it being rainy season we just figured we'd be wet anyway and carried on walking. We saw some pretty birds and a couple of bright green iguanas too! When the muddy puddles were up to our ankles and I got attacked by biting ants we finally did turn back to our cabin. Adventures of jungle living!

We needed to get some rest anyway for the night tour we would take after dark!

Saturday night we waited for dark and then hopped on a boat to go hunt for Caimans! I didn't know what a caiman was until I looked it up. Imagine my surprise to find out they are closely related to alligators!! I was assured that the caimans in that area are too small to snack on my babies. 

Unfortunately, caiman hunting wasn't too good that night because of the rain. The river was high and the caimans weren't out. We managed to see 3 in the water, their eyes glimmer when you shine a flashlight across the surface of the water. We also got to see 2 out of the water pretty close. Our guide had hoped to catch one and let the kids hold it but, no luck.

All 4 kids ended up falling asleep on the boat by the end. 

When we got back to the lodge and it was time to get off the boat we just picked up the kids and layed them down on the dock. It takes a couple of trips to haul sleeping kids up to their beds. Everyone was impressed that they didn't wake up!

Saturday night it rained and poured ALL NIGHT! The level of the river was high and of course everything was wet. We donned ponchos and got on a boat for a wildlife tour up the San Juan river to another tributary that was part of a nature reserve. On the boat ride it rained on us and we were soaked but we got to see 3 varieties of monkeys: howler monkeys (congo), spider monkeys, and white faced monkeys. We also saw a couple of sleeping sloths and then a moving sloth very close up! There were many birds to see and though we were soaked, we were happy and enjoying the ride. Once we got upriver quite a way into the nature reserve we got off the boat to walk along a short path to observe some more wildlife. Since it was raining and had been raining quite a bit for 3 days straight, the trail was underwater. Our guide didn't seem to mind and he led us off the trail into the jungle. Even deeper into the jungle we were walking through ankle deep water and mud. In the worst places the water was up to my knees. Since we were not following a trail we were shimmying between trees, over fallen limbs and avoiding branches with long thorns. We followed our guide like this for 1.5 hours. Though the conditions were treacherous and we were totally soaked, the morale was surprisingly good! The kids were total troopers!

After about an hour and a half of traipsing through dense jungle, I recognized that we had walked in a complete circle. At that point I wondered if our guide was lost. Soon after I had that thought I noticed that he stopped and looked around, definitely unsure of which way to go. I asked him if we were lost and he wouldn't admit it but I could tell we were. At that point I began to pray. I didn't feel that we were in immediate danger but I knew we didn't want to be lost there. Plus, the kids' adventurous good moods have an expiration date and then everyone gets unhappy. I told Mitchell that we were lost and we decided to circle together as a family and pray for help. After we prayed Mitchell took out his phone (that he almost didn't bring because of the rain) to see if he could get enough signal for a map or at least a compass. Miraculously he was able to load a map and found that we were exactly in the middle of that section of jungle, way off course! He got a bearing and led us back in the direction of the boat. After our family prayer I felt calm and the words of a primary hymn repeated in my mind.

Escucha del profeta voz
Que dice así
Sé fiel, sé fiel

Doquier que estés
No importa con quien
Sé fiel, sé fiel
Defiende el bien.

Translated it says:

Listen the the prophet's voice
That says this:
Be true, be true.

Wherever you are,
It doesn't matter with whom
Be true, be true
Stand for the right.

This hymn was a great comfort to me and also instructed me on what to do to ensure my family's safety. My husband is, of course, not a prophet but he is the patriarch of our family. I felt inspired that through this hymn Heavenly Father was telling me to trust in Mitchell's compass bearings and follow him back to the river and out of the dense jungle. Our guide had gotten completely turned around but we all followed Mitchell and we eventually made it out of the jungle and to the shore. In the hour it took us to finally exit the swampy rainforest, there were several times that Mitchell and our guide disagreed on how to proceed. In each case I felt completely confident about listening to and following my husband. After 2.5 hours of jungle wandering we did make it back to the river and were able to call the boat driver to come for us. It was a harrowing experience and we're thankful that no one was hurt but I'm thankful for the lessons learned. I'm very thankful that Heavenly Father hears and answers prayers.

Little did we know how much of this jungle we would really see!


We finally made it back to the river! What relief!

We were all this happy to see that boat!
After we got cleaned up, ate lunch and were feeling chipper again we discussed the weather. It had rained basically non-stop since we got there and the forecast was showing rain for the next 11 days. We knew we were NOT going to try any more hikes! Horseback riding was also out. Fishing? Probably not. We felt like there was a good chance we would leave a day early; Monday rather than Tuesday as planned. Since that was looking likely we went to see El Castillo later that day.

El Castillo is colonial era fortress built by the Spaniards in the 1600s to protect Granada from invading pirates from the Caribbean. The fortress is only 6 kilometers from the Costa Rica border and only accessible by boat.

Audrey felt her hair blowing in the wind and stuck her tongue out. "Hey look this is what dogs do!"

The fortress was in great shape for being so old! It was fun to explore it. The rooms inside were labeled and there was a food cellar, bedrooms for married soldiers and another for single soldiers, artillery mounts, a chapel and ammunition storage. There was even a hospital a few hundred yards from the fortress.

Those 2 boats are the public transportation

The school in the tiny town of El Castillo

El Castillo

You guessed it, it stormed and poured all night on Sunday night again! Come Monday morning we knew we should head for home. The host at the lodge reminded us of one of the bridges we crossed in the car about an hour outside of Sabalos. He explained that when it rains a lot that bridge often floods and cannot be safely crossed in the car. He called a colleague that lives in that town to ask about the bridge and, sure enough, the busses were not running because the bridge was flooded. Well, we knew we weren't going anywhere either so we occupied ourselves wondering, could it really rain for 11 days straight? Will we be stranded here for 11 days?! 

The kids were good at finding fun everywhere

The lodge host climbed a tree and retrieved some coconuts for the kids to enjoy. He peeled them with a giant machete and they drank the juice and ate the meat inside. 

We played a game with the leftover husks of the coconuts. Mitchell stood on a dock upstream and tossed in a husk. The kids watched it float along from this bridge and then tried to hit the husk with a rock.

They found a couple of turtles wandering around the lodge

The kids learned how to play chess. Audrey picked up on it surprisingly fast!
Around 11:00am the rain stopped and the sun actually came out! It was a blue sky miracle! We waited and at 1:00 it was still dry. The river level had dropped slightly and the weather forecast predicted the break in the rain would last until about 6:00pm that evening. We decided to seize the opportunity and see if we could get across the bridge and get home.

It didn't take long to pack up and head out. Off we went! Goodbye lodge! Goodbye Rio San Juan! Goodbye jungle!

When we got to the bridge at about 3:00pm this is what we found. Good enough! Pop it in 4-wheel drive and home free!

It was definitely a memorable weekend. Some parts were a little TOO memorable! We are happy to be home again.

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