Nicaragua’s Remote Río San Juan

The Río San Juan region in southeastern Nicaragua is one of the wildest, most remote areas in Central America. Most travelers to the area come from Granada via a sixteen-hour ferry ride across Lake Nicaragua, or from Managua on an unreliable all-day bus tour over mud-filled potholes on an unpaved road. And these travel options still bring you only to the head of the Río San Juan and the town of San Carlos, a chaotic, Indiana Jones-style portal for trade and travel bound to even more remote places.

Those who continue downriver witness a largely untouched–but increasingly threatened–lowland tropical rainforest that claims more species diversity in several square kilometers than the entire continent of Europe. A few trading centers mark some of the major confluences, but most of the population lives scattered along the vast network of primary and secondary waterways. Homes perch on the riverbanks above the water, just out of reach of the seasonal floods yet always intimately connected to the water that defines this region.

The images in this presentation are of the people and places along the upper reaches of the Río San Juan. I made them while photographing the work of environmental activist María Ignacia Galleno with Rare Conservation’s Pride program to protect the 2600 square-kilometer Indio Maíz Biosphere Reserve. From San Carlos, at the head at Lake Nicaragua, I traveled another half-day downriver to El Castillo. Established in 1602, El Castillo is home to Nicaragua’s oldest remaining colonial structure, El Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepción de María, and is María Ignacia’s home base. Strategically perched above a run of rapids at a turn in the river, it provides a mile-long view of the route that invading pirates once sailed, looking towards what is now the western edge of Central America’s second largest protected natural area.

Jason Houston is picture editor of Orion magazine. This series from Nicaragua is part of an on-going project documenting grassroots conservation work in social and environmental hotspots around the world. His next trip is to Janos, Mexico.