When You Think Nicaragua, You Think Mark Twain, Right?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

It’s classic travel writing fodder: choose famous author, research trips they took during their lifetime, emulate one such trip. In fact, Rolf Potts wrote about this “tidy narrative formula” in his recent book “Marco Polo Didn’t Go There,” where he pointed out how this classic format is a great angle to pitch to editors.

Which is not to say this take is not endlessly fascinating. Come on, where in the world have you visited without thinking, “so-and-so was in the very spot I’m standing right now.” As long as it’s not creepy (Penolope Cruz was sitting at this very table here in Barcelona just five minutes ago, and now I’m stuffing her used napkin in my backpack!), it’s an interesting way to contextualize a location.

The Washington Post recently decided to follow in the footsteps of one such literary luminary, Mark Twain, retracing the path he took across Nicaragua in 1866 on his way from California to New York. He would begin in San Juan del Sur, on the Pacific side of the country, and finally emerge, via Lake Nicaragua and the San Juan River (which runs out of the volcanic lake), in the Caribbean to a waiting steamer.

Back in 1866, before Roosevelt authorized the creation of Panama Canal half a century later, this route was actually the fastest way to get from one end of the continent to the other. As the story points out, “It was shorter, faster and cheaper than crossing Panama. In the 1850’s, at the height of the gold rush, some 2,000 people were paying $300 each to traverse Nicaragua every month.”

Of course, things look a bit different these days — vacation property for sale, biosphere reserves, motorized canoes — but one can take comfort in the fact that Nicaragua, especially the southern part of the country, is often described by local ex-pats in-the-know as feeling “how Costa Rica used to be.” Twain probably heard something similar while on his much traversed route: “You should visit Costa Rica, it’s like Nicaragua before the 1850’s.”

[Image by gies777/Flickr]

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