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Time flies – Ten days on Isla de Ometepe

Ometepe as seen from the other shore

Ometepe as seen from the other shore

Nicaragua has proved to be something of a game of two halves for us. After several days in each of its well-known cities, León and Granada, we were ready for a change. Before we left I had noticed in the British press how hotly Nicaragua was being tipped as the new ‘must-see’ tourist destination, and so far at least, it had seemed to us like the country’s tourist board and main players had expertly mapped out a standard gringo route which we’d been rolling along. We were keen to step off it a little, but were constrained time-wise by a flight out of Central America a couple of weeks hence. So looking for some fresh air, outdoor activities and more hammock time, we decided to head to Isla de Ometepe, an island in the middle of the enormous freshwater Lago de Nicaragua in the centre of the country. The lake itself used to be part of the Pacific, until volcanic activity cut it off.

Ometepe means ‘two mountains’ in the Nahuatl language, and if you see any pictures of it you’ll see why. Two volcanoes rise out of the lake, linked by an isthmus between the two. The larger peak, Volcán Concepción, is a forbidding, steep-sloped cone that rises to 1610m and remains active today. Its smaller and dormant sister, Volcán Maderas, is smaller at around 1394m and rainforest-clad, with a crater lake at its summit. The sight of both as you arrive on a boat is quite something. Apparently when the first inhabitants arrived they believed they’d found the promised land and it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to see why.

For the full photo gallery, click here!

A short 90 minute wait...

A short 90 minute wait…

Our journey there began in Granada at around 10am, and after an hour and a half’s wait for the Rivas-bound bus to actually leave (hey, there’s always more room for an extra 30 people in the aisle and somehow, 2 bikes) we were rolling south. On arrival at Rivas we were greeted with a scrum of taxi touts offering to take us to the port or one of several beach towns for which Rivas is the hub. We eventually got one for $4 for the 3 of us, although we did have to wait while the driver’s friend applied transfers to the window before we could head off. Essential maintenance I assume…. Down at the port of San Jorge we were informed we could wait an hour for a ferry or catch a ‘lancha’ in 30 minutes for half the price. Being keen to get to some lodgings before dark we opted for the latter. The lancha was a somewhat elderly two-storey wooden vessel that carried around 90 souls in a minimal degree of comfort across the choppy waters of the lake. But for $1.60 each no-one was complaining!

Approaching the menacing Volcan Concepcion

Approaching the menacing Volcan Concepcion

After two more comically-packed buses we arrived in the small village of Santa Cruz near the foot of Volcán Maderas and set off to walk the final few hundred metres in the hope of securing a place to rest our heads at El Zopilote , which describes itself as a ‘Finca Ecológica’ – a working organic farm and hostel. Four of us arrived from the boat, one with a tent, but we were told that there was space for the tent but just one hammock remaining. After standing around looking distinctly forlorn for several minutes in the failing evening light they phoned up to reception to check again and decided there were 3 free hammocks which we gratefully accepted. The walk up the hill to the farm from the road was one final punishment after a hectic day’s travel but we arrived at a friendly reception area as dinner was getting underway and were rewarded with some cold beers. To our delight we found that they also sold rather excellent red wine, which was somewhat necessary in order to fall asleep in a hammock in the open air!

El Zopilote as seen from the road

El Zopilote as seen from the road

The next day dawned early and bright, and got off to an excellent start when Rich and I found we could trade up from hammocks to a wooden cabin for the princely sum of $14 per night. This was the point we realized we might be staying a while. El Zopilote itself is a beautiful and calm spot, just what we’d been looking for. Various palm-topped buildings are spread out among plantain trees and swaying bamboo, just high enough above the lake for the breeze to cut through the heat of the day. It is Italian owned, which means that the important things are taken seriously – decent wine, homemade pasta, bread, gelato and best of all, a wood-fired pizza oven that is cranked up 3 nights a week to make the best pizza we’ve had since leaving Brixton and Franco Manca behind! The rest of the menu is made up of fresh ingredients, often grown or made on the farm; in short, this is the best we’ve eaten on the whole trip. Rich had probably his first ever vegan meal and barely winced (although after 9 days here I think he may be hankering after a burger…)

Our cabin at El Zopilote

Our cabin at El Zopilote

Rocket and lettuce growing in the kitchen garden

Rocket and lettuce growing in the kitchen garden

Pizza night at Zopilote (thanks Nina for the picture!)

Pizza night at Zopilote (thanks Nina for the picture!)

But Ometepe has much more to offer than a good spot to relax and eat, so after a couple of days R&R we were keen to tackle Volcán Maderas and work off at least a little of the pizza. With that in mind, Rich, Will and I booked a guide and set the alarm for 6am the next day. It turns out Rich may have subconsciously been a little less keen as he kicked a rock during a late-night toilet dash and slashed the end of his toe, which meant that he bagged an extra hammock day while Will and I set out for the summit. The climb began gently, out through farms and fields of plantain, yucca and avocado trees. The trail then entered the forest and we began to climb more steeply, with howler monkeys in the trees overhead. As we entered cloud cover the path grew muddier but a lot of fun as we clambered over tree roots and rocks towards the top. The mud was almost comically bad, churned up by several insane souls who had been completing an ultra-marathon up and down both volcanoes two days prior, but after 3 hours we had reached the summit and climbed down the 15 minutes or so into the crater where there lies a lagoon among the rainforest, eerily grey and misted under all the cloud. After a short lunch stop we started back down and incredibly I only fell in the mud once on the descent… I’d heartily recommend the climb – it took us 6.5 hours in total and is challenging but very enjoyable.

Ramshackle farm on the slopes of Volcan Maderas

Ramshackle farm on the slopes of Volcan Maderas

Lovely clear weather at the top

Lovely clear weather at the top

Will taking on the mud

Will taking on the mud

View over to Concepcion on the descent

View over to Concepcion on the descent

After another day hammock-bound resting our legs we were keen to head out again and so rented mountain bikes and set off south for some reputedly spectacular waterfalls near San Ramón about 8km round the base of Volcán Maderas. This may not sound far, but the paved road ran out after about 500m so most of the ride was spent bouncing over rocks and dust in the midday heat. When Rich’s hands blistered after 5 minutes we knew the day would be a little more challenging than anticipated. We arrived at the base of the trail to the waterfall after an hour and a half of tough riding but the incredible scenery really did soften the pain! It was then another hour and 15 minute hike up to the waterfall – apparently 3km, but the third kilometer was at least 2½ in itself, so we were close to turning back but very glad we didn’t in the end. The falls are a 260m drop down a sheer, fern-dotted rock face into a small pool below, but the water bounces down rather than plummets so that you can stand under it like a shower – and a very welcome cold one at that after the exertion to reach it! Saddle sore and blistered, the ride home was done through gritted teeth, with a beer stop on the way, but the pain again tempered by the sight of the setting sun painting the slopes of Volcán Concepción in spectacular colours in the distance.

Rest stop on the shore

Rest stop on the shore

Living wall on the way up to the falls

Living wall on the way up to the falls

San Ramon falls...finally

San Ramon falls…finally

A fine spot for a shower!

A fine spot for a shower!

Somehow we had whiled away nearly a week here by this point and were feeling rather at home. It sounds clichéd but time seems to take on a different quality here; the pace of life is entirely different and the island does feel like its own little world. We hired a scooter and set out to explore (the section with paved roads this time!) and agreed that of all the islands we’ve bombed around on a 50cc this was definitely the most enjoyable; the shifting views of the volcanoes always impress, the roads were frequently invaded by cattle, horses, pigs or dogs, and best of all – there is a level crossing. Not for trains, but for driving across the island’s perilously short airport runway! An incredible sight that we would have photographed but for the gun-toting security guard operating the barriers…. A short stop at Punta Jesús Maria, a long spit of dark sand that protrudes into the lake and swarms with seabirds was a picturesque stop, as was a well-earned cold Victoria beer at the edge of Playa Santo Domingo on our way back. Sat by the water’s edge you could almost believe you were by the sea, but there is something missing, which we released was the ocean salt-smell. Even when the other side is lost in the haze over the horizon you are always aware you are on a lake.

Tiny church under cherry blossom near Santo Domingo

Tiny church under cherry blossom near Santo Domingo

BIRDS! At Punta Jesus Maria

BIRDS! At Punta Jesus Maria

The hairy bikers

The hairy bikers

Plantain truck - Ometepe's main crop

Plantain truck – Ometepe’s main crop

Cold beer after a hot day's scootering

Cold beer after a hot day’s scootering

Ten days on Ometepe offered us the hideaway we were seeking despite being pretty active! Living somewhere so environmentally-focused has given me food for thought on how we could live more simply and cheaply with just a little effort, which was one of the goals for this trip. I’m not sure we’re quite ready for composting toilets and veganism the whole time, but every little helps!

Thanks for reading, a full photo set can be viewed here

x x

Found a friend

Found a friend

Ninja Rich

Ninja Rich


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Crossing through the Golfo de Fonseca to Nicaragua, the gritty beauty of Leon and the tiresome gringo streets of Granada.

Be safe - Buckle up - A sticker on the front, probably from the days before it trundled along the coast of El Salvador

Be safe – Buckle up – A sticker on the front, probably from the days before it trundled along the coast of El Salvador

It’s time to leave the beach.  Not because we want to you understand, but because all good things must come to an end.  Also we have a boat booked to cross the Golfo de Fonseca into Nicaragua the next day with Ruta del Golfo (but it is cheaper to do it through Tortuga Verde in El Cuco if you get there, and probably a much better experience before!).  After some hard farewells, we take a bus back to La Libertad, then back into San Salvador where then get a #304 all the way to La Union.  The Journey takes 7 hours, not tough by any means, but it is sad to see the rest of El Salvador zip past us; through the sun kissed fields of the east along the Pan-American Highway.  Views at all times framed with fierce looking volcanoes, including the recently erupted and still smoking San Miguel.

Laters El Salvador!

“Business or pleasure sir?”  I am asked this by an undercover store detective (not very undercover with gun and radio) whilst I browse the selection of sun screen at a supermarket in the port town of La Union.  An ominous tone accompanies the irrelevant question asked by this plastic official whose sole purpose was, I assume, to try and intimidate me for no good reason.  He then follows us from a distance and inserts himself into a conversation Ollie and I are having about cheese and ham, whilst his uniformed collegue (also with gun) looms further up the aisle, partially hidden by a stack of Doritos.  Sums up the feeling of suspicion we encountered in this shady/sketchy port town.  We retreat to our ‘hotel’ (that we assume is usually charged by the hour, complete with wipe clean faux-leather mattress and foul smelling bathroom) where we drink our beers and eat cream cheese sandwiches in the driveway, whilst wishing the night away.  La Union does not have the charm of the rest of El Salvador, but we were determined not to let that be our last memory of this enchanting little country.

Want the pictures without the waffle? Click here

La Union Migration

Bright and early we find the migration office at the port attached to the police station (the local ‘bobby’ we asked didn’t know it existed by the way) where we met our man Mario, who got us stamped out of El Salvador and then led us to the ‘waters-edge’.  There was no water…the tide was out, but as we pondered the fate of our footwear, a huge man showed up pulling a cart and instructed us all to climb aboard so he could pull us through the sludge-filled water towards our boat.  My aversion to being carted around like a prince was put to one side as I realised that this was how this guy makes his living, so we obliged…weird!

Being carted to the lancha through the shallows - Odd

Being carted to the lancha through the shallows – Odd

The Golfo de Fonseca is a body of water that is partially claimed by El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, which has been responsible for many disagreements between these friendly neighbours in the past.  The gulf is dotted with a variety of volcanic islands, some larger than others, but all captivatingly beautiful.  One of the islands is rumoured to be where Sir Frances Drake buried some gold and another (I am told) has locals with blonde hair and blue eyes who are descendants of pirates who used to sail these waters. We zip through these waters for 2 hours and before we know it, we are wading through the shallows onto Nicaraguan soil.

First view of the Gulf de Fronseca

One of the Islands of the Gulf

It wasn't as calm as this the whole way

We get stamped into the country in a small dirty building just up from the shore and then we pile into the back of a Jeep bound for León along with  passengers from another boat who came via Tortuga Verde.  I mention this place again, in the hope that it comes up in a google search about Ruta del Golfo.  We paid $100 each for the same service that cost a total of $55 for other passengers who were offered our same transport ride at a cut down price.  We also didn’t get our stop on an island as we paid for!  Pissed off, does not begin to describe it!

The bumpy road takes us back into civilization and into León in around 2.5 hours where we find lodgings at the tranquil Colibri Hostal.   To our surprise we find Will, Sarah and Holly from the beach staying there as well, so we head out with some others to some live salsa and several mojitos in at the Via Via which is filled with locals and backpackers alike.

Leon es Culture

Another country, another colonial city.  León is a fully functioning colonial city; much Like Santa Ana in El Salvador, except this has a larger expat community and more appealing vibe in general.  A history of rebellion runs through Nicaragua so we dive straight into the city to see what we can learn about the Sandinista (FSLN) movement at the Heroes and Martyrs gallery.  A small room, partially used as a diabetes clinic, houses boards filled with pictures of rebels who lost their lives for León during the fighting, many of which have the stories of how they gave their lives.

Mural for the 4 students who lost their lives in 1959

Mural for the 4 students who lost their lives in 1959

Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs

Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs

We then move onto the Parque Central and the UNESCO site of ‘Real e Insigne Basilica’ Cathedral which is the largest in Central America.  Its enormous dirty white façade casts a shadow in which locals sit and chat next to a memorial for the heroes and martyrs.  After this we decided we needed more culture so headed to Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián.  The cool air con and peaceful setting was just a cheeky bonus and sweet relief from the oppressive heat of the city streets.  The collection ranged from modern installations, religious portraits, a couple of Picasso sketches and a huge collection of modern Latin American paintings.  A belly full of culture was all we had digested so we sought out a French bakery for some sustenance.

Whaaa

Real e Insigne Basilica Cathedral

Real e Insigne Basilica Cathedral

Locals seeking shade

Locals seeking shade

Something unusual on a lot of corners in Leon

Titled 'The Burden' - 10 points to anyone who can tell us who the two jokers are.  We all know whos getting a piggy back - Found in a little lace called 'casa de culture'

Titled ‘The Burden’ – 10 points to anyone who can tell us who the two jokers are. We all know whos getting a piggy back – Found in a little lace called ‘casa de culture’

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Cheeky snap of some abstract art from Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián

Cheeky snap of some abstract art from Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián

Around the Catedral

Some people don’t get on with this city, but I, someone who dislikes cities in general, found it homely.  I enjoy the juxtaposition of modern day life working around crumbling old churches that peek out above the cobbled red-roofed colouful buildings.  The local ways of life do not seem to have altered too much too accommodate tourism.  It’s a bit grubby, a bit hectic, but it feels safe.  I like it there!

Mural on bb court

The next day, we head for the irritable little Volcano of Cerro Negro with the intention of chucking ourselves down it on speed on a piece of wood.  The volcano is the youngest in Central America, very active and is way overdue an eruption.    The sport of Volcano Boarding was invented by an Australian who tried to snowboard down it, but ended up melting his board. It is a dark, hot and steamy bastard.  A slow hike to the top took an hour when carrying large wooden boards and jumpsuits, but was relatively easy.  Going down takes about 45 seconds.  The record being 92kph, Ollie trounced us by getting 62 kph, with me falling behind at 53kph and Will with a gentleman’s 23kph.  I did fall off mine at the end and manage to fill my eyes with grit and smash my camera.  It hurt.  But only for a short while.  There were a few backpackers walking around town with very visible injuries that I assume are from activities on volcanoes.  An interesting day, topped off with our introduction to American Football and us losing $5 on the Superbowl.  Damn Seahawks!

Ollie sporting the latest in Volcano boarding gear

Ollie sporting the latest in Volcano boarding gear

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In case of eruption...erm, this way!

In case of eruption…erm, this way!

Some of the nearby volcanoes that line through the country visible from the top

Some of the nearby volcanoes that line through the country visible from the top

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For some perspective as to how steep that is, the little orange dot at the bottom is the truck

For some perspective as to how steep that is, the little orange dot at the bottom is the truck

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Will ready!

Will ready!

No pictures of our own as i smashed my camera.  This one if from the bigfoot guide.  Borrowed from the FB page.  Nice shot though!

No pictures of our own as I smashed my camera. This one if from the bigfoot guide from that day. Borrowed from the FB page. Nice shot though!

It was time to make a move to Granada and see what all the fuss was about!  We were aware that it is the main tourism hub for Nicaragua, and being the oldest colonial city in the Americas dating back to 1524, would offer much in the way of architecture.   Two buses, changing at Managua, took us into the market area around the main Parque Central on a blazing hot afternoon.

Horse drawn carts of Granada

Horse drawn carts of Granada

My personal opinion on Granada is that I don’t like it.  I just don’t, sorry.  It is indeed one of the more picturesque colonial cities.  Its buildings are magnificently restored around the Parque Central, leading to Calle la Calzada (gringo street), with its endless supply of expensive (for gypsies like us) restaurants leading past the TWO Irish bars down to the shores of Lake Nicaragua.  Milling around are hundreds of tourists, all snapping away at the fronts of the handsomely restored expensive restaurants and privately owned holiday homes.  It is just not my thing.  It’s pretty yes, but it’s too busy and too plastic.  Take it for what it is and you will enjoy it.  Come expecting a snap of rustic colonial charm, you won’t find much.  The local market two blocks from the square was a swift remedy for the hordes of tourists swarming through the main square.  But, like I have said, it was pretty, so here are some pretty pictures of it.

Beutifully restored colonial stuff everywhere

Beutifully restored colonial stuff everywhere

A goat, a bike, and a Canadian

A goat, a bike, and a Canadian

Further down Gringo street

Rubén Darío - And some other moody peops

Rubén Darío – And some other moody peops

Cordoba - The citys founder and the currencys namesake

Cordoba – The citys founder and the currencys namesake

Granada street

Granada street

Ok, it is actually quite nice

Ok, it is actually quite nice

Ron delivery

Ron delivery

For all its faults, we met some great people there and had a couple of nice meals (yes we went to the Irish bars, you can’t really avoid it, but I did have fish and chips!).   One of the days we spent at Lake Apoyo which is a pretty crater lake near to the city, but again, this is set up for tourism where we found ourselves shuttled to a lake side hostel, and then shuttled back.  Pretty scenery, but not much wiggle room to explore in the time given.

Lake Apoyo- Sorry about the nipple shot

Lake Apoyo- Sorry about the nipple shot

Feeling the need to escape, we decided to head over Lake Nicaragua to the shores of Isla de Ometepe in search of a quiet spot.

Thanks for reading if you have managed to wade through it!  If you ant the full photo gallery, click here