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.
Today was going to be our first test of walking in the heat; a four hour walk on the top of Mombacho and after a few days chilling we were ready for a challenge. Unfortunately, some crossed wires and mis-communication between World Challenge, El Cafe de las Flores and us meant that we only did the short walk. A little disappointing but it was a beautiful walk nonetheless, with fantastic views of the lake which is almost like a sea. It is definitely much bigger than Taupo but I wonder how close it is in size to Lac Leman (Lake Geneva)? Having seen both I think that possibly the French one is bigger but would have to check. Our guide was very informative and told us all about the different orchids that we could see along the path. Delicate little white ones in the forest and larger bright ornage and pink out in the open areas. The pink flowers only last a day but are large and showy. I think we were too late in the day to see the sloths that apparently hang out on the trees but we were excited to see the vultures (zopilotes) that circled overhead.
To make up for our disappointment at not being able to do the longer walk, when we got back down to the cafe, we were offered the opportunity to have a coffee tour. We jumped at the chance and having learned about cacao, we now learned about coffee. Unlike the cacao bean the coffee bean is ripe when it is red and if you pinch the bean between your fingers the bean pops out easily from the skin. It is covered in white flesh that is sweet to suck. the taste reminded me of pomegranate and it was nice sucking the sweet juiciness. We were shown the whole process of harvest, cleaning, shelling but the beans from Mombacho are all sent to be roasted in Managua. Some are combinbed with beans from other plantations others are kept apart so they can sell them as Mombacho coffee.
The water used for washing the beans is brought down from the top of the mountain, it is diverted from a waterfall that falls into the crater that we looked into on our walk. The plantation on M ombacho has been organic since 2006 and the water and the coffee is all recycled and eventually goes back into the soil as fertilisation and irrigation. The discarded husks are composted and used to fertilise the soil and the water runs through irrigation beds to clean it once it has cleaned the beans and then is used to water the crops. It seems that the only pests to the coffee tree are a small beetle and the coffee rust fungus. Trees can grow as tall as 12 metres but they are kept short so that the hand picking of the beans is easier. The harvesters wear baskets around their waists so that as they pick the beans drop straight into the baskets. Apparently instant coffee is made from the inferior beans before the last two layers of husk are removed – I have always been a coffee snob and now I know why I prefer “real” coffee! Interestingly espresso coffee beans have less caffeine in them than medium and light roast.
Tomorrow – on to Ometepe to climb a volcano.