Lago Cocibolca, or "Sweet Sea" in the language of aboriginal settlers, is known more familiarly to English speakers as Lake Nicaragua. I’ve long had a fascination with Lake Nicaragua — would love to go there someday — and happened to be reacquainted with my interests after recent news of yet another grand plan to construct a canal that would rival the one in Panama. This wasn’t a new scheme, rather just one more proposal to add to a tall stack of plans and dreams going back more than 150 years.

Lake Nicaragua would be the extremely obvious geographic key to any such possibility.

Lake Nicaragua / Lago Cocibolca

The middle part of any canal plan would be easy. Lake Nicaragua is huge, and certainly deep enough to accommodate ocean-going vessels. It also would provide abundant water for the required system of locks.

The eastern and western ends are considerably more problematic than the middle although some routes would be simpler than others. The most efficient path was described by the World Association of International Studies at Standford University in its Forum on Nicaragua (2002):

It enters the San Juan River at the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border and follows that river west into Lake Nicaragua [or Cocibolco]. It then crosses Lake Nicaragua northward to the Tipitapa River near Granada. It then follows the Tipitapa River into Lake Managua [or Xolotlan], then crosses Lake Managua northward, where it is linked northward to the Gulf of Fonseca [or Chorotega], entering the Gulf to the east of the Cosguina Peninsula via a long, dredged canal… Most casual observers wrongly assume the proposed canal would follow the shortest route and enter the Pacific via the Rivas isthmus, the narrowest point between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific. But a canal crossing there cannot be built without locks because the distance across the isthmus there is too short and the different [sic.] between sea and lake water levels too great.

However, on the eastern side, the latest proposal cannot use the San Juan River. A long segment of the lower river leading into the Caribbean Sea marks a border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Part of it has been in dispute for years. This led to the 2010 Google Maps dust-up and international incident that some readers may recall.

That’s too bad. The San Juan River drains Lake Nicaragua to the sea and it would be a natural shipping conduit. It was used to make the inland City of Granada an Atlantic seaport during the colonial era in spite of its geographic placement much closer to the Pacific Ocean.

Grandada Nicaragua

Granada is also one of the oldest places settled by people of European descent in the Americas. According to the city’s website, Granada was "founded in 1524 by Spanish Conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba."

Granada, Nicaragua
Granada, Nicaragua by dfbarrero, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Granada thrived during those earlier times. The city further explained,

…Granada was highly prized for its natural wealth (gold and fertile soils) and easy access to both coasts (the Caribbean via the Río San Juan; the Pacific via stagecoach). Repeated attacks by pirates and other would-be rulers attest to its highly sought-after status… Surprisingly, in the mid-1800s, the quickest route from New York to San Francisco was through Granada via the Caribbean, the San Juan River, Lake Nicaragua, and then by stagecoach to the Pacific Ocean.

Sailing past Isla de Ometepe would provide an added scenic benefit. The name of the dominant island in Lake Nicaragua derived from a native Nahuatl term for "two mountains" and for a readily apparent reason.

ometepe_042 by Mr. Luigi, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

Concepción and Maderas, the eponymous twin peaks are stereotypical stratovolcanos. Concepción, the taller of the two, remains active with numerous minor eruptions even within the last year and "25 times in the past 130 years." Volcanic activity was responsible for the formation of Lake Nicaragua so an occasional eruption shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Even so, nearly 30,000 people live on Isla de Ometepe, which I do find a bit unusual given the area’s frequent volcanic and seismic history.

I’ll admit that some of my fascination with Lake Nicaragua comes from its population of fresh water sharks, which are actually Bull sharks and not a separate species. As National Geographic explained, "Bull sharks have been found thousands of miles up the Amazon River, and in Nicaragua have been seen leaping up river rapids, salmon-like, to reach inland Lake Nicaragua." Nonetheless, even after several decades, conventional wisdom perpetuates a common misconception that somehow Lake Nicaragua and its sharks are unique. Bull sharks venture into freshwater in many places. I wouldn’t want to run into one in person though.

Panama Canal
Panama Canal by Atomische * Tom Giebel, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

Locks would be necessary on any route contemplated. This photograph from Flickr shows a lock on the Panama Canal. Locks providing portage across Nicaragua would need to be much wider to accommodate modern ocean-going vessels (an in fact, the Panama Canal is being widened too). The basic principal would remain the same.

I’ll keep an eye on this as it moves forward. This will be fun to watch.

Completely unrelated

This is the first Twelve Mile Circle article ever developed on a completely "Google Free Diet." I’ve grown increasingly disenchanted with Google, for killing Reader for mangling Maps, for their relentless tracking in pursuit of greater monetization. I used DuckDuckGo for search (they allegedly do not track), Flickr for Creative Commons images as illustrations and OpenStreetMap for mapping.

How was the experience? I succeeded although it felt as if I’d been typing with mittens all morning. Google’s tools are so superior to everything else that the process seemed like a step backward in time. I can’t promise that I’ll ever completely wean myself although I do plan to give other sources a try in case Google abandons me completely, as it has done with Reader and (partially) with Maps.

6 Replies to “Cocibolca”

  1. It’s called cutting off your nose to spite your face. Google doesn’t miss your search a tiny fraction as much as you miss it’s tools….

    1. True enough for the moment. Though, will it always be that way? Will enough voting with feet create a meaningful fraction or will apathy prevail? Those are the more interesting questions.

  2. I went to Nicaragua last year. It was gorgeous and it would be a shame to see an industrial canal run through Lake Nicaragua.

  3. A fact I find most amusing is that some shipping companies are introducing extremely large “Post-Panamax” container ships that will be able to take advantage of the newly enlarged Panama Canal. It’s a great idea, except for the fact that there are no seaports anywhere in the Western Hemisphere capable of handling these ships: either the harbors are too shallow, or bridge clearances are too low, or the gantry cranes used to unload containers are too small, or some combination thereof. At least a couple years ago going to elapse between the opening of the widened canal and the upgrading of enough seaports to make the huge ships economically worthwhile.

  4. I like OSM for the maps – I do miss the satellite views though.

    I too had my attention captured by the idea of a Nicaragua canal as I’ve been reading David McCullough’s “The Path Between the Seas” which I would recommend to anyone with an interest in the Panama Canal. Pretty interesting how close we were to a Nicaragua canal in the first place!

  5. For my blog, I just make sure to log out of Google before I start looking for maps or street views to embed (or I just use my old-school iMac which can’t handle MapsGL and so uses the original Maps format by default). That way, I always get the original, superior Maps experience instead of the incoming monstrosity (especially important considering I also write for Google Sightseeing, which is based almost entirely around captures of Street Views these days).

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