Published: May 26th 2010May 26th 2010
Isla de Ometepe
Back on the good old (and sometimes very
old) chicken buses, we were heading for our first Nicaraguan destination, Isla de Ometepe. After a bus ride with our Canadian counterparts, then a taxi to the ferry port, then realising we needed to get some money another taxi back to town, then a bicycle taxi part of the way out of town, then a hitchhike back to the port, we were on the ferry. A lot of travelling considering that earlier in the day we had our 6 hour bus from La Fortuna in Costa Rica!
Ometepe is an island formed by two volcanoes that rose out of Central America's largest lake, Lago Cocibolca (the indigenous name meaning 'sweet sea' - indeed here freshwater is called 'agua dulce' which means 'sweet water'), later renamed by the Spaniards as Lake Nicaragua. The lake is really huge (our guidebook tells us it is 8624 square km) and travelling to the island, the ferry being rocked by the waves as much as the ferries that travel across the channel to France, and then later swimming in the lake, it is hard to imagine that you're not at sea. Indeed, a
really forceful wind blows off of the lake almost continously, and some people come here to windsurf. It's not until you get a mouthfull of the 'sweet' water that you remember it is in fact a lake! We had many a swim here, by day and by night, as it was unbelievably hot.
There was also a beautiful outdoor pool fed by a partially dammed river a kilometre or so out of town that we visited called El Ojo de Agua. We spent a couple of nights at a small friendly hotel and a couple of nights at an ecological farm (that wasn't a farm in a commercial sense, though they certainly grew plenty of stuff) that had cabins up on a hill. They fired up their pizza kiln thingy every few days and made some amazing pizzas. The highlights of our stay on the island included seeing a great load of cows and horses being brought down to the beach to drink from the lake each day, and a walk halfway round the base of one volcano, following the shore, where we saw mango-tree lined villages that were blanketed in mangoes in all states of decay. We stopped
at one spot to chat with a man who was picking himself some mangoes from a tree full of monkeys. His wife brought us out 7 mangoes for us to take with us. We found the people here all really friendly and helpful, with nearly all of the kids that were leaving school smiling and saying 'hola'. The only chap who bucked this trend was the chap who turned us away from the entrance to a waterfall because we only had a 200 cordoba note or 111 in change to pay a 120 cordoba entrance fee (cordobas being the unit of currency). One day we sat and had some gallo pinto for breakfast at a family's little comedor. Sat eating our fried rice and beans with fried plantains and fried eggs liberally coated with spicy sauce we were accompanied by a baby in a hammock, chickens pecking around our feet, dogs wandering around, a horse tied up by a nearby tree and a family of pigs snorting and scurrying around us while the lake lapped at the shore 15 metres away.
After 4 nights on the island we took the ferry back across to the mainland and then took
Ojo de Agua
Nice place to cool off!!
a bus north to Granada, a colonial city sat on the northern shore of the very same lake, which Sarah will now tell you all about.
Granada is described in our guidebook as "the goose that laid Nicaraguan tourism's golden egg", and for such a popular spot it did have a rather small bus station, pretty much a petrol station with an extra large forecourt. Generally you can assume when taking a bus to a destination, if everyone suddenly gets off, you have arrived. However the lack of shiny new bus station did perplex some young English girls on the bus, who, when I told them we had arrived in Granada, sat firmly rooted in their seats and informed me rather snobbily that they would wait until we arrived at the bus station. Ben and I sniggered between ourselves and felt very mature and well travelled. Especially when we saw the same girls at a hostel nearby exclaiming loudly "25 dollars EACH?" when told in English that the room they were looking at was $25 for the whole room. Oh how superior and smug we felt when we informed the hostel man that the room was very
nice, but a little too expensive for us, we would look at some others and maybe come back later, all in excellent Spanish (our hotel, restaurant and bus Spanish is amazing... shame about the rest!), while the girls looked on in awe at us, the incredibly talented and experienced travelling pair.
We did find a cheaper hostel, and while the hostel man was showing us the balcony that overlooked the quaint, colourful streets of Granada, we looked down to see two French Canadian girls that we had travelled with a little in Ometepe. They had returned to their hostel to get their bags to catch the bus to Managua to go to the Canadian Embassy, as they had just been robbed at knife and gun point on a deserted beach at Laguna Apoyo, a volcanic crater lake that was due to be our next destination! We gave them some guidance on what to do (cancelling credit cards, getting a police report) as we are now unfortunately very experienced in these matters! Luckily for us, our actual robbery in Cuba was very uneventful, just a bloody nuisance afterwards!
Granada is a lovely city, with beautiful colonial buildings and churches,
Eruption emergency evacuation
Pointing towards the volcano!!
including one church where we climbed the bell tower to get a great view of the city and the surrounding volcanoes. We spent a day wandering around, and briefly visited the "Tourist Park" by the lake, which was a surreal, and very boring, compound with closed restaurants and an infinite number of childrens playgrounds (we were too old!). Strangely enough we didn't see a single gringo, just lots of locals wandering about looking confused. No wonder the entry guy let us in for free! However, it all picked up as for dinner that day we went to an Irish pub and I had FISH AND CHIPS!!! It was also pretty damn good!! We also found loads of places that did ridiculously cheap mojitos (approx 40p each) so we had a couple of those too.
We decided to take the risk and go to Laguna Apoyo as Ben was getting swimming withdrawal symptoms, so we took a shuttle bus run by a Granada hostel to it's Apoyo counterpart. The lake was very beautiful and the water was perfect - the best swimming water since Semuc Champey in Guatemala. We stayed for 2 nights (and only just managed to drag ourselves
These are Â£1 a pop in Tesco!
away after that!) in a lovely, if a little strictly run, hostel called "Crater's Edge". It was a bit more expensive that we usually pay, but the setting was perfect so we decided to treat ourselves. It also had kayaks, free all you can eat breakfast and a diving platform! The owner gave us the impression that there wasn't much else in the area, but we went for a walk one day and found a little local restaurant where we got some cheap food and the owner tried to rip us off. But Sleuth Sarah was onto him and we caught him red handed, trying to charge us rather a lot more for the food he should have! He won't try and fool a tourist again! Well, he probably will.
The dinners at Craters Edge were a whopping $8 each (thats more than our entire daily food budget in Panama, which was more expensive than Nicaragua) but we decided to splash out and it was worth it as the food was very good and we got to eat it overlooking the lake with candles and all!
After 2 days of swimming and more swimming, we caught
the local bus on to Masaya, a nearby town famous for it's handicraft markets, especially for hammocks and pottery. We found a very very cheap hostel (£6 for a double room) and spent a day checking out the markets and the town. The town had two markets, one very clean and shiny touristy one where we looked around and found things we liked, and one more less clean and shiny local one down the road where we bought all the stuff we liked for cheaper! We took a walk down to the Malecon, a promenade that overlooked Masaya lake and volcano, and completely confused two kids who were trying to ask us for money with a mixture of very bad Spanish and English!
We found a lot of people begging for money in this part of Nicaragua, especially in Granada. At times it was sad, especially the children, but other times it was easier to say no, for example when one lady grabbed my arm and shouted "one dollar" at me while sniggering to herself. At times it's very easy to feel like you are only considered a walking cash machine. We were however advised not to give money to
the kids, as many have found out they can earn more money from begging than from being in school and getting jobs. Many parents force their kids out on the streets to beg (people are more likely to give money to a child than an adult), so the parents can relax at home and not need to work. There are also tons of places for families to go and get free food, shelter, clothing, advice and skills training in the area, run by volunteers and NGO's. It's a tricky situation to be in, as you never know who genuinely needs the money, but we try and help the communities we are in through visiting locally run tourism ventures and volunteer programmes, like Quetzaltrekkers in Guatemala and Nicaragua - all the proceeds go to projects to help local street kids.
Our second day in Masaya we took a bus to the nearby Volcan Masaya National Park, where we were nearly poisoned (probably) by the sulphurous gases being belched from the very large, very deep active crater. This was believed by early Christian settlers to be the entrance to Hell and you can imagine it! It was also feared by the
native people before the Spaniards arrived, and they regularly appeased the devil within with a virgin sacrifice or two. A famous monk also lowered himself into the crater looking for gold! You can drive your car right up to the crater's edge, but you are warned to face your car way from the crater.. just in case! A few years ago an Italian tourist's car was squashed by a stray boiling rock thrown up by the volcano.
We went on a tour of some lava tunnels that are now home for 3 types of bats, and it was very strange and a little worrying to imagine a river of boiling lava running through them!! We went for a walk around one of the older, inactive craters, which was very spectacular and had a forest growing inside. We also had a great view of Masaya, Manuaga and almost Granada. Somewhere along the track we took wrong turning and ended up on a perilous walk along the crater's edge. At one point we disturbed what must have been a hundred vultures - never a good sign!! Eventually we found the track we should have been on, safely down the hill and not
dangling over the precipice as we had been doing.. oops. We got back to the main crater and walked up to a cross that had been erected to exorcise the evil within the volcano (naturally). After getting a bit dizzy from the gases (it is only recommended to be in the crater area for 20 minutes) we got a lift back down the hill and back into fresh air.
There are more photos below