The ride to El Astillero

I have mixed feeling about the internet, however I trust it enough to know that if you can’t find anything about a town on any kind of travellers blog or web page or travel guide it usually means one of two things:

1. The difficulty and time and effort of getting there usually isn’t worth actually being there, or
2. The place isn’t cute and quaint: it probably sucks and is quite boring.

El Astillero was both of those. In retrospect I have learned this lesson before. When I went on my year of travels after high school with my best friend Kat we found ourselves in the south of Vietnam with no idea where to go next. I literally pointed to a town on the coast and was like “let’s go there”. Kat said “sure” and off we went to a town so quaint, and so lifeless and so boring that the name evaded me the minute we arrived. It wasn’t a horrible experience by any means; it wasn’t really anything. An industrial fishing port in South-Central Vietnam. No hotels, no nightlife, no beach, no restaurants, no culture (sorry dad), no nothing. We spent the first half a day trying to find ANY place at all to sleep and the other half trying to find some place in the city that had restaurants. We ended up siting by a roadside stall eating pretty mediocre pho and staring at the concrete. The next day we packed at sunrise and got the first of only two trains out of there.

I think my memory must be getting bad because I pretty much did the same thing. There was a slight logic to my choice of El Astillero. See, I really, really, REALLY wanted to see turtles either laying eggs or hatching. The main beach for this is La Flor, 20km  South of San Juan del Sur. It is well documented, well guarded and very well priced for my meagre volunteer budget (40$ a pop which is 10% of my monthly income). The second most important beach is Chacocente, a very underdeveloped, less well documented nature reserve that happens to start 1km north of El Astillero. El Estillero was the closest village, north of the overpriced surf haven of Popoyo, so using my finger as a rough measurement I figured that the segment of road between the fishing village of El Astillero and the Pan American Highway was about the same length of the distance between Masaya and Managua, about 40km or so. Considering it was a dirt street I figured it would be an hour -max – from the Highway to El Astillero.

The little red dot is El Astillero - totally manageable, right?
The little red dot is El Astillero, the green half circle is Chacocente Nature Reserve – totally makes sense, right?

So we rented a car in Esteli and to some reason unbeknownst to me, I, the only person without experience driving in South America, ended up driving the 250km to El Astillero. Actually, the highway wasn’t as bad as expected. After driving so much in India you kind of get immune to suicidal passing manoeuvres, rogue cows and giant, unexpected potholes. Yes, the highway was fine, it was the 40km stretch of one-way, muddy, potholed, washed out ditch that resembled a road that got to me.

We arrived at the turnoff to the dirt road to El Astillero, 10km past Nandaime, just as the sun was setting. My 1 hour estimate was hopelessly off. Partially because it was dark maybe, and then because it started to rain perhaps, or because the “road” was a completely disastrous, muddy, potholed, gravel piece of Sh!#, but 2 hours later we arrived, still 10km from our final destination, at the river. Now I had read and we had been hearing about this river when we asked for directions (the road isn’t, contrary to what you can see on the map, a straight line. Oh no, in fact it has turn-offs every 1 km or so, naturally all without signs).  The website for Chacocente mentions that crossing the river during the rainy season is only possible with a 4×4. I was a bit scared at the prospect of fording the river in our little Toyota Swift at night in the middle of nowhere with the rain beating down and no light save our weak headlights but I was also tired and in desperate need of a cold beer. So when my Chilean friend at the back said “just go for it” I understood it as “power through”. I put the car in first, revved the engine, let go of the brake, pushed the gas and all hell broke loose. As the car slammed into the river, creating a huge swell of water, all the passengers started screaming and yelling at the same time (I swear I heard someone yell “we’re all gonna die” at one point). The headlights  died and, after a sickening crunch of metal on stone, so did the car, steam streaming out from under the hood and submerging us in the unforgiving darkness of the night. 

It turns out that when fording a river the number one rule is DO NOT power on through. You go slowly and carefully. Ooops, my bad.

In the end it really wasn’t as bad as I had thought.I had managed to submerge the engine completely in water, bottom out the car on a rock and stall it all at the same time. Luckily the momentum had managed to take me across most of the river and luckily for us, the only car we saw on that lonely 2.5 hour drive happened to be drive up at that  moment at the other side of the river, giving us light while our car steamed and spluttered and finally, to all of our very obvious relief, started again.

So with a slightly shaken crew our trusty toyota swift arrived not quite so swiftly at the collection of beach shacks on a dirt brown beach that constituted El Astillero. And you know what? In the end I was totally right. The town pretty much sucked and had absolutely nothing besides boats, a football field,  and two bars consisting of a simple thatched roof, plastic chairs and a cooler full of cold toñas. However as with many of these places, it is not the village  itself you are looking for, it is what lies beyond it- or in this case 2 km up the beach: miles of soft, white, sandy beaches, untouched by anything except hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of newly hatched baby turtles.

How. Friggen. Cool.

Hundreds of Baby turtles hatch at the same time at chacocente Courtesy of bbc
Hundreds of Baby turtles hatch at the same time. My camera died so this picture of turtles at Chacocente is courtesy of BBC

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