As we travelled round the island yesterday it made me think of the Scottish Highlands and Islands and the stories I have read based on those islands in the mid 1900s. The idea of new technology such as running water, electricity and telephones coming gradually to the communities starting with the main centres and spreading to outlying areas and how people integrate it into their traditional ways of life. How some people are the forerunners, the pioneers and others watch either enviously or suspiciously how the technology impacts on lives until it is adopted by all. Ometepe is like that; internet cafes rub shoulders with straw roofs and earth swept floors, mobile phones are ubiquitous but men ride horses and horses and oxen pull carts and cattle are driven down paved roads as motorbikes and buses overtake them. It is shabby and run down but it is real life. I feel that I have to be careful about being a patronising westerner when I reflect that there is a certain charm about that mixture of mid 1900s lifestyle and the 21st century technology. It is easy to look on and think it is charming but would I really want to live in those conditions? The taxi driver who brought us to our hotel in Rivas this evening told me, “Nicaragua is a great country. People are friendly and honest and we feel safe. We are poor but we are free and we are happy.” I can’t think of a better testament to a country than that. Today was a treat. Packed up and ready to go by 9.00am to go to the beach by public transport. We were clearly on island time because the scheduled 9.00am bus didn’t arrive until 9.45am! It was another of those great experiences; you know the jokes that go “How many people can you fit in a mini?” Well the answer to how many people you can fit in a bus is “As many as need to get in and then more!” Hot and extremely sweaty, we were crammed into our seats and wondered how we were going to work out how to extricate ourselves when we needed to get off. Fortunately, as my taxi driver said, the people are incredibly helpful and friendly. There was no way that we were going to miss our stop as everyone pointed it out to us and we had noted that there was an efficient system in place to help people get out of the bus when they needed to. Charco Verde is basically a resort at a very pleasant bay. There was also a walk around a lagoon or we could have visited the butterfly haven but we were happy in the heat just to relax in the water. It is difficult to believe that we were at a lake and not a sea as it is so vast. Lake Nicaragua or Cocibolca is the largest lake in Central America and legend has it that it was the home of man-eating bull sharks. There is no doubt that there was a sizeable population of bull sharks but who knows if they had developed a taste for human blood! We didn’t venture very deep into the water, just in case! Coming back proved quite simple although I did have a few moments of unease when I wondered whether the bus I had been told would be at 1.30pm was going the back the way we had come or whether it was an orbital route and we needed to get on in the same direction we had in the morning and ride it right round the island! My moments of panic were just after a bus going in that direction had gone past at the stated time. Fortunately for me, (as I had visions of us all sitting on the side of the road for another hour) 5 minutes later the bus came. It too was full and we stood for the the duration of the journey. Going back seemed much quicker, probably because it was mainly downhill and we hurtled along at great speed, but also because there were fewer people getting ion and off. These buses also seem to be used as a way of delivering goods around the island as packages were dropped off and collected at each settlement.
Just enough time for a coffee at the Corner Cafe before getting the ferry back to San Jorge. We enjoyed our time on Ometepe and watched Concepcion get smaller as we sailed away, very proud of our achievements at climbing her flanks as far as we did.
San Jorge at dusk was bustling – we had intended getting the bus to Rivas but it appeared (according to the taxi drivers who were clamouring for our custom!) that they stop running after 5.30pm. It does seem strange given that the ferry comes in at that time and there will always be bus loads of people to transport. Who knows what the truth is, but the taxi drivers offered us rides for $1 per person straight to the hostel which meant that we didn’t have the additional hassle (and probably another taxi ride) to get from the bus station.
Porridge with honey and fresh fruit for breakfast to set us up for another long climb – this time up the flanks of Maderas to a waterfall. The road around the island (78km circuit) is paved between Moyogalpa and Altagracia but the rest is metalled and very variable in quality so we had a bumpy ride! At one point the road crosses the airstrip which is rather odd. We passed through several settlements of varying sizes and our driver seemed to know everyone as he waved to them all and tooted at every vehicle! Life seems very simple here, in some ways very modern – technology such as mobile phones, internet cafes and free wifi in every cafe and hotel, and every home has a large television in the living rooms which have dirt or concrete floors and uncovered walls. However, we also saw women washing clothes by hand in the lake and streams and men mending fishing nets and laying them out to dry. Horses seem a common mode of transport especially for herding cattle. In fact, horses, carts and cattle share the road quite happily and congruously with scooters, 4WDs, quad bikes and cars. There are dogs and cats EVERYWHERE! Some are clearly cared for others are clearly strays but they all seem docile enough. House and churches seemed, at first, to be half built but then we realised that windows are often half unglazed in large buildings and troofs are elevated above the walls, presumably to let the air flow through and keep them cool. Looking into some houses from the street, doors are open so it is difficult not to, many of them have no flooring or wall coverings, plastic chairs and tables and, at this time of year Christmas decorations, and a large television that the family would be sitting watching. People seem to watch a lot of TV; in all the houses I could see in to two or three people would would be sitting watching television, they may also have been preparing food or sewing. In the hotels we have stayed in TVs have also been a constant; the girls have delighted in finding music channels and the hotel staff, often an elderly member of the family, will be sitting watching TV all day. The church in Moyogalpa is impressively positioned at the top of the hill as you walk up the street from the port. It is painted the same deep yellow that reflects the sun so beautifully as the cathedral in Granada. It has no windows but has white drapes that hang from floor to ceiling in all the alcoves. It made me think of a whole row of giant four poster beds, but it is quite beautiful. But back to our walk. It was uphill, steep, exceedingly hot, 3km that seemd like 30km, but on terrain that was variable enough to ease the monotony of the “uphillness”. We started in full sun on an open track which was unremitting but turned into a more shaded track in the forest after about one and a half kms and then into a dry river bed with huge overhanging cliff – a real gorge. Although the river was dry we could hear water and only needed to climb a little more along a narrow track to emerge at the waterfall. Reminiscent of Bridal Veils Falls but a wider span that seemed to spray out more. We guessed that in winter there would be a much heavier fall but it was very refreshing to stand underneath and cool down. The girls had started the day quietly. They seemed rather down and struggled to motivate themselves after the big walk yesterday. the heat and the climb had not helped and a few struggled. The water was a godsend. After a happy half hour splashing in the knee deep pool at the base of the waterfall and standing underneath the spray they were rejuvenated. Going down was a cinch and they all but flew down, pausing only to look at the spider monkeys in the trees.
Our next stop was the “Ojos de Agua” which the Lonely Planet guide says is a short walk through banana groves to natural mineral pools formed by underground springs. Well, either there is more than one place called Ojos de Agua or, since the guide was written, what sounded like a quiet natural beauty spot has been highly commercialised! Never mind, we had a blast there; the girls were quite happy about being driven directly to the pools which have been “captured” with a concrete wall to create a sort of swimming pool. We spent a happy hour swinging off the rope swing, teetering on the tight rope and generally gaining the benefits of the minerals which, according to the guy at the entrance taking our money, would make me look 40 years younger and cure all my arthritis and rheumatism!
A 5am start in what can only be described as a brisk, overcast and windy day by the standards of these climes. Our aim 1,200m up the active volcano of Concepcion. The summit was highly unlikely; even if the weather conditions had been favourable, I think it would have been foolhardy to attempt the last 400m of exposed, loose volcanic rock to the summit with a group of inexperienced walkers. We had been talked out of Maderas which we had hoped we could summit on the basis that it was not so high and did not have an exposed top. However, Eduardo, our local contact, told us it was a muddy, uninspiring walk with not so many views, fewer possibilities of seeing wildlife and that the summit was in the trees so there was no real view from the top or sense of being on a summit. We felt a little “bulldozed” by him but in reality we have no option but to trust local knowledge especially when we are responsible for a group of teenagers.
We were thankful of the cool breeze as we walked up the steep hill. The first part on the flat was hard work because of the deep layer of volcanic sand we were walking on but the girls set a good pace. Once the ascent started we were in the forest and the terrain was hard going because of the roots and the uneven ground and the pace slowed. We were excited to hear the calls of Howler Monkeys and even more excited to see them high up in the branches of the trees. They seemed quite alarmed at the wind and howled even more as the branches shook as the gusts blew stronger. We could also hear the calls of the Uracca – the national bird of Nicaragua. It has bright blue and white tail feathers like the flag and we saw them darting between the trees but they were just too difficult to photograph.
We stopped for a break at a large tree the low branches of which made great perches for us. Moses, our guide, explained that we were sitting in the upper branches of a tree that had been buried by ash from an eruption of Concepcion. All the other trees around were new and had grown in the new layer of ash.
We saw more Zanate birds and some smaller green birds in the trees and large birds of prey rode the thermals and the wind high overhead. One of the girls spotted a shy little Capucin monkey scampering along a branch; he sat still for a moment but not long enough to take a photo before he darted away again. Very exciting to see animals we have only before seen in zoos!
As we slowly ascended the tortuous path, placing our feet carefully between and on the network of tree roots, butterflies of all coulours fluttered around. A beautiful black and green one landed on a twig, closed its wings and immediately blended into the environment and looked just like a browning leaf. We also saw brilliant blue ones, red, orange and pale yellow as well as the impressive “Owl” butterfly.
The wind seemed to be getting stringer as we climbed and the sky became more overcast. The base air temperature was still warm though and we were glad of the cooling effect of the wind.
As we climbed the forest changed; amongst the coffee trees there were bananas and then the trees were smaller untilo we reached an area of quite compact shrubs. The sense that we were close to our end point was strong and as we walked aloing the tunnels between the shrubs, we started to be able to see over them at the view beyond. Not far from the bush line, but still in trees we came to an abrupt halt. At the back we didn’t know why but the message was passed back that a large white bull was blocking the path. Even Moses the guide was scared when it put its head down and started to charge! There was a stand off for a few minutes then Moses valiantly cut into the forest to get above it and chase it downwards to where the rest of its group were waiting.
Small pink, white and purple flowers poked their heads out of the long grass as we emerged from the scrub and in to the open grassy slope. The wind was really strong now and it almost blew us off our feet. We almost had to crawl to keep ourselves from being knocked over by the gusts. There was already a group sitting in the lee of a tree from where we could hyave had a view down into a funnel. We decided that caution was the better part of valour and stayed where we were, crouched on the slope all together for safety. It was an exhilarating yet scary time all at once. Some of the girls were genuinely afraid of getting blown down the hill and when we moved, linked arms to make themselves a bigger entity to knock down! After taking photos, marvelling at the view and the stupidity of two Americans who seemed hell bent on becomiung Darwin Award contenders by climbing to the top, we retreated to the shelter of the forest to have our lunch.
Going down tested some of those who had seemed like mountain goats on the way up and gave others new found confidence in themselves as they picked their way agilely over the roots and stones.
We were back at the hotel by 1pm – sore legs, hot and tired but buzzing with a sense of achievement.
An early start carrying our packs through Granada’s busy market – even at 7am it is bustling. The bus station is at the bottom end of the market and as we approached a man came out asking if we were going to Rivas and guided us to the bus. We were excited to see that we would travel on one of the old rickety, 1950s old style school buses which have so much character. We watched carefully as our bags were loaded on the roof and tied on tight and then climbed on board. It was lucky we had arrived early to get a seat as the bus soon filled up with people and chickens! The man who had guided us to the bus turned out to be some sort of public announcement system; he stayed with us the whole way calling out the names of each stop and loading and unloading deliveries in different places. During the two hour journey, more and more people piled on, squashed down the aisle, people selling plantain chips and nuts also climbed on, pushed through the crush of people and exited out the back. It would certainly be a mission to get off at a stop so we were glad that we were going to a terminus station. Rivas bus station was manic and some of the girls found it totally overwhelming and scary. As soon as the bus pulled in, in fact, even before it stopped, people were jumping on offering taxis to San Jorge. We had been told that “Eduardo” would be there to meet us so sat tight as the bus emptied. Then a man tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at the bus in front and said “San Jorge autobus” I started to say “No, gracias” when he said “Estais con Eduardo?” I said yes and he said that Eduardo had called him to meet us and make sure we got on the right bus. I was unsure – my instinct now is to be circumspect but he assured me that he was telling the truth and since the bus was clearly marked and we would probably have got it anyway we climbed aboard and accepted his help. Ten minutes later and apart from the splendid view of Ometepe’s two volcanoes in the distance we could have been at any short ferry terminal any where in the world. We could see Concepcion standing tall wearing it’s cap of cloud and it was difficult to believe that this was a lake and not a sea especially since the wind was causing quite big waves to lap the sides of the boat.l The crossing was was very pleasant – I love going on ferries especially when it is warm and I can sit as high up as possible and watch my destination getting closer – the promise of what is to come is delicious!
Moyogalpa is essentially a one street town but it is the biggest on the island and actually bigger than we had expected. It is a bustling port with everything that goes with that; industry mixed with tourism and as soon as we landed the hawks descended. They offered taxis, tours, accommodation but we had our accommodation sorted and only needed to walk a short way up the hill to the Hotelito Aly.
What a strange little place! And it gets stranger the longer we stay here and interact with the owners who seem to own a fair chunk of the commercial outlets in the town! As I already mentioned, we had expected Ometepe to be a small island with a couple of settlements, a few hostels and some food outlets. So a bustling little town full of tourism was a bit of a surprise. Ometepe was formed by the two volcanoes – Concepcion at 1600m is still active and vents every few years, Maderas at 1300m is inactive so the vegetation on the two halves of the island is quite different.
Anyway back to the hotel which has definitely seen better days, its cleanliness is of dubious quality, but it is a roof over our heads and a space to meet and I do have a fairly spectacular view from my balcony! Unusually for a Hispanic country everything shuts up shop at 5pm which makes shopping for supplies difficult when we go out early and are not back before 5pm.
This evening we finally met up the elusive “Everywhere and nowhere man” Eduardo. We are sure that he must be involved in some sort of covert operation under the guise of being the man who knows everyone and has a finger in every pie. It is clear that he has an agenda and that despite there being some element of choice for our trek on our World Challenge information sheets, in reality we were going to do what suited Eduardo! After some heated debate and it was “agreed” that we would climb Concepcion the following day.