CASKE 2000 > Stories > Adventure > Nicaragua > Surviving Nicaragua - Part 1


Surviving Nicaragua, A Kayaker's Battlefield - Part 1

7/20/2000 by Jean-Philippe Soule

Central America has recently gained fame for its numerous jungles and national parks. A quick look at the map reveals that the largest tract of rainforest covers most of the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua and the southern part of Honduras. This area, known as the Mosquito Coast, was the subject of a fiction book by Paul Theroux and later a movie featuring Harrison Ford. The name itself evokes adventure and a few backpackers have started to venture into the forest on the Honduran side, leaving the small crowded national parks of Costa Rica for the masses. However, the danger and current political situation in Nicaragua, in addition to its difficult access have deterred most travelers and preserved the largest rainforest on the continent. Nicaragua remains the last frontier and is still avoided by most. My expedition partner Luke and I, planned to paddle the full Moskitia (Spanish for the Mosquito Coast) as part of our itinerary for the Central American Sea Kayak and Jungle Expedition 2000. We had successfully paddled our sea kayaks from Mexico to La Moskitia of Honduras and were determined to continue the navigation of the Atlantic coast and traverse all of Nicaragua to reach the Costa Rican national park of Tortuguero. The fear of new potential danger was offset by our interest in paddling non-chartered water and unspoiled wilderness, and our desire to meet the famous turtle hunters living on this coast. In the port of Puerto Cabezas we decided to leave our fears aside and continue down the coast of Nicaragua.

We had already experienced storms at sea, malaria, tropical rain and heat, the notorious bugs of Honduras, and had had scary shark encounters. We camped in remote places notorious for bandits and drug dealers where we managed to make friends with some and avoid others, always making the best of most situations. How much worse could Nicaragua really be? We knew it would be the most dangerous section of the CASKE 2000 expedition. Among the new dangers was the fact that a ten-year civil war following 35-years of dictatorship had recently ended leaving large amounts of military hardware in the hands of very poor people for whom life has come to have little meaning. We knew that with our kayaks we would be easy targets so we decided to paddle long distances and camp as rarely as possible. What we didnít know was that both the people and the elements would join forces to make us pay our dues to navigate through Nicaragua. The expedition that had been a nice adventure turned into a nightmare, and our documentation of local lifestyle came at a high cost. That we survived Nicaragua at all may be only because we pushed ourselves to the limit, paddling long days and skipping many camps to find safe harbor.


 5/05/2000 - "Masochism on the Nicaraguan Coast"

I have never understood the motives behind self-flagellation. Along the same lines, I was shocked by the remarkable movie "Fight Club" featuring Ed Norton and Brad Pitt. Suffering from split personality, Ed Norton is shown punching himself in the face. At the time I had thought, how could anybody consciously do that, and yet here I was somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean on my way between Honduras and Nicaragua, paddling a kayak in the middle of the night for a 34 mile and 14 hour stretch. This alone could be qualified by most as masochism; but that wasn't all. In addition to the severe punishment I was imposing on my muscles, I was also biting and hitting myself as hard as I could to stay awake. I was testing the limits of maximum stimulation while avoiding injuring myself. A close up shot of such scene could have fit the "Fight Club" theme quite well.

The truth is that we had been paddling since 10 PM the day before and it was our third or fourth long, tough day in a row. As we entered Nicaragua, our goal was to paddle through quickly and camp on the beach as rarely as possible. The coast was notoriously dangerous and with our kayaks we were easy prey. Because of the overcast weather, I had to use my full concentration on star navigation. My reference stars kept disappearing behind clouds. I was paddling with my head perpetually tilted back and face up, intensely staring at the black sky, trying to guess where my stars had gone and where they would reappear. Although my neck was stiff and my body aching it was not enough to keep me awake. To prevent sleeping I had to paddle fast. The problem was that my expedition partner Luke was feeling nauseated and kept slowing me up.

By 3 AM after five hours of intense concentration constantly staring at the intermittently disappearing stars, with my head up and paddling at a slow speed, there was nothing I could do to keep my eyes open. For five seconds I had some stars in sight, and then they would disappear behind clouds. Sometimes they disappeared behind my eyelids, which drooped first for the duration of one paddle stroke, then two, then three. This happened so often that I was paddling more with my eyes closed than opened. The feeling was terrible. I tried to bite my fingers at the base of the nails. It worked a couple of times and then the pain swung into an almost imperceptible dullness. I started biting the tip of my tongue and my lips but it only gave me a few minutes more of alertness.

It was an hour and half before dawn and there was no beach to land on. Our last attempt found Luke bumping his kayak onto massive amounts of driftwood stuck in the middle of tree roots. We had no choice but to keep going. That meant I had to keep doing the night navigation. I'm usually up to the task no matter what the weather is, even in zero visibility. But paddling with my eyes closed and my mind wandering into the sleeping world, I was afraid I would wake up with us on our way to Africa. I splashed water over my head often but it wasn't cold enough to be of much help. The last alternative I found was to slap myself. They weren't little slaps; those would have had no more effect than biting my fingers. Every five minutes, I put my paddle down and slammed my hand on my cheeks, forehead and neck so hard it stung me for minutes. Luke asked, "What are you doing?" Maybe he feared I suffered from a split personality or that I was going insane, who knows maybe I could have gone mad. By the time the sun rose I looked like a lobster and for once it wasn't for lack of sunscreen. On shore, the forest was so dense that we could barely see past the second layer of trees. This was the Mosquito Coast I had imagined a year ago before we entered Honduras. There was no beach; it seemed like a giant tornado had consumed it all and just left logs rotting in the water at the foot of submerged trees which were not mangroves.

I finally sighted a small patch of sand we could land on. It was the only beach in the middle of a 30-mile stretch of densely forested shores. We pulled our kayaks up and collapsed for an hour and half before being able to move a limb. After 2 hours we resumed our paddling. Sleepiness gave way to body fatigue and achy muscles. A few hours later we looked for another landing spot to stretch our legs and backs. I paddled close to shore to look for it and didn't pay attention to sudden high surf, which broke while I was sideways. I braced and leaned with all my weight into it, but it was too late, the bow of my kayak had already been taken in the curl of the surf and I started tipping over. I thought I was in real trouble as I was falling on the side moving quickly toward the dead logs lying on the shore. I imagined the next wave coming and crushing me with my kayak on the trees. I started my Eskimo roll before being entirely capsized as my kayak was still on the edge. It worked and I quickly backpaddled through the next wave. Luke, who arrived a few seconds later, wondered why I was backpaddling through the surf. "No landing here," I said. We continued until I noticed a small opening of black sand between the trees. It was barely wide enough to fit the two kayaks, and we had to be careful not to let the current drag us on the logs sticking out of the water around the tiny cove. Our kayaks would break. We just had enough space to sit on a log and rest for a few minutes.

When we restarted paddling, we thought another two hours would take us to the village of Sandy Bay. Our large scale map covered all the Mosquito Coast of both Honduras and Nicaragua and wasn't detailed enough to show that the village was in fact inside a lagoon with a canal entrance four miles south of the actual village. After paddling two and half hours, I still had no sight of the entrance. I was tired and my back muscles were screaming from soreness. Luke was far enough behind that I could barely see him. I knew that if I waited for him, he would paddle no further and we would be forced to camp here. I refused to be so close to our destination and give it up. Even though we had already left over 13 hours ago, I was determined to keep going until I found the entrance to the laguna. When I did, I waited for Luke who was moving along in autopilot mode. We had no sight of the village and started paddling through a mangrove maze of canals getting directions from passing motorboats. After more than 14 hours and the longest expedition day I can recall to date, we arrived in the small village of Sandy Bay Norte. A nice Miskito man invited us to stay under his roof. He helped us carry our gear inside his house under the curious eyes of dozens of villagers. People had never seen kayaks before. After a meal we passed out on our host's king size bed he had generously offered us. 

5/07 - "AK 47 Sub-machinegun Armed Robbery" (Part 2)
5/11 - "Forced Paddling with a Sick Stomach" (Part 3)
5/14 - Tasbapounie - "Missing out on the Sea Turtle Feast"
(Part 4)
5/17 - "And the Rain Began" (Part 5)
5/21 - "Bluefields to Managua - Do we Have to Portage?" (Part 6)
5/27 - "Dancing with Death to the rhythm of the Ocean" (Part 7)

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