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San Juan del Sur: Gateway to the Gold Rush

Don't let San Juan del Sur's laid-back appearance fool you. It once was a major transportation hub, ferrying a colorful parade of fortune-seeking Americans from the east coast to the west coast of the United States via the Caribbean. The 1849 California gold rush was an irresistible invitation to hundreds of thousands of adventurers to go west. The trouble was the railroad had not yet traversed the North American continent, and the trek by land from New York was slow and treacherous. Steamboat millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt had had a keen eye for making a dollar ever since he had left school at 11. The "Commodore" came up with the novel idea of transporting migrating Americans across the Central American isthmus. They arrived by boat at Greytown (now known as San Juan del Norte) on the Caribbean coast and were ferried up the Río San Juan, stepping off and taking a short railway ride past the rapids at El Castillo to board another boat waiting upriver. They then crossed Lago Cocibolca to the tiny port town of La Virgen, where they caught a horse-and-carriage ride to San Juan del Sur. Here, a waiting boat took them up the coast to San Francisco. The journey cost $145 and reduced the trip from 6 months to 1 month. It was a huge success, ferrying 165,000 Argonauts back and forth, including an enthusiastic newspaper correspondent called Mark Twain. The eventual completion of the railroad meant the route became obsolete. The last boat for California sailed out of San Juan del Sur in 1868, and the town returned to being a laid-back fishing village.

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