From Tortuguero to Pearl Lagoon April 8 - May 2


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Published: December 25th 2017
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Geo: 11.94, -85.96

The day before we were due to leave Tortuguero we asked the receptionist to call Jungle Tom's Safaris to confirm we were on their list, as they had overlooked us on the way out. She did and told us they would arrive at 2.00pm the next day. We waited on the jetty until 2.30pm and then asked her to call them again, 'just in case!' They said the boat would arrive in a few minutes and it did.

It was the same boat and driver who brought us to Tortuguero and we jumped in and set off. We were the only people on the boat which we thought was strange. I asked the driver if there were other people but he gave a long, breathless, stressed response which I could not understand. Then he left the wheel, moved forward (for decency's sake?) and started unfastening his trousers, hauling them up again, re-fastening them, and then starting the whole manoeuvre again. It was only later I realised he had been literally and metaphorically girding his loins! We took a different canal from our inward journey and after a few minutes we realised the problem was that the water level was so low that he knew he would have difficulty. Soon, he opened the tool box, withdrew a couple of tools and jumped over the side. He managed to lift the outboard motor a little higher and he pushed the boat upstream through a narrow gap. He needed the motor as we were going upstream but it was too shallow to use it.

We struggled on, and as a couple of smaller, shallower boats passed they spoke to him, telling him it was worse ahead, and looking very doubtful about our chance of getting through. It became more and more of a struggle with the driver out of the boat more than in. Then suddenly, one of the small boats came back upstream. He had delivered his passengers and come back to rescue us. We clambered across into his boat and our very relieved driver turned round to head back to Tortuguero.

It was still difficult manoeuvring amidst the exposed trees in the river but at least we could use the outboard. Soon we reached the pick-up point to transfer to a minibus and found a driver and group waiting for us. We had been forgotten again! I don't think the organisers at Jungle Tom's have a system to deal with people using them for transport alone although they seem to manage their tours very well.

We returned to San Jose and took a day to organise our onward journey to Nicaragua and re- sort our luggage.

We had decided to take the Transnica bus to Rivas, in Nicaragua, and then a taxi to San Jorge where we could take a ferry across to the island of Ometepe the next day. Transnica was chosen because we had to cross out of Costa Rica and into Nicaragua and we had read that Transnica "do everything for you, only stopping short of holding your hand", according to the Lonely Planet. They were very good but it was more like an international flight than a bus journey. We had to buy a ticket a day ahead, then turn up an hour before departure time to have our luggage weighed and checked in and fill in numerous forms, exit from CR, entry to Nicaragua, luggage declaration etc. Then they checked our completed forms (I received an "Excellente!" for my efforts!) and helped others who were struggling. Then we were off, and all went very smoothly apart from at the border. It is a crazy system whereby everyone gets off the bus and queues to exit CR and have documents stamped, then back on the bus for 300 metres to the Nicaraguan checkpoint and everyone off again. This time we had to unload all the luggage from the bus whilst it was inspected. We had to haul it up steps and then lay it out on huge tables and stand by it for half an hour. Then a customs official walked down the line taking our declaration forms without giving the luggage a glance, after which we had to carry it back to the bus and load it all again. We should have then been on our way but unfortunately we had a band from the US on the bus with their instruments and Immigration took them away for another hour.

As soon as we crossed the border it was evident that Nicaragua is much poorer than Costa Rica. Houses are simpler structures, often with thatched roofs, and many people were cooking outside over open fires. You will see from the photographs that Nicaragua is not covered in flowers as are Costa Rica and Panama. There is no tourist infrastructure and even accessing wildlife is difficult. People here are struggling to 0pen up the potential of their country with so few resources.

We stayed in San Jorge overnight before taking the 9.30 ferry to Ometepe the next day. It was chaotic getting on the ferry but we managed to get seats inside next to 3 ladies our age. They were traveling together and one was a Nicaraguan/American jazz singer who was very entertaining so the journey passed quickly.

After a rough taxi ride on a dirt road full of potholes we finally arrived at Hacienda Merida on Ometepe. It is an island, in huge Lake Nacaragua, formed from 2 volcanoes which ran together when they erupted forming a figure of eight shaped island. One of the volcanoes is dormant and one still active. They rise to 1300 and 1600 metres respectively and are covered with cloud forest. We would have loved to get to the top, but it is a 10 hour hike so we declined. We did one hike to a waterfall which was exhausting. Luckily we managed to get a lift on the way back after walking for nearly 4 hours. I never thought I could be so grateful to be hauled up onto a flat back truck! It was bliss to sit despite the bumpy road.

Hacienda Merida is an interesting place, not so much a hotel as a hostel and community centre, but incorporating a small bilingual school (as they call it, I think it is a language school teaching local villagers, children and adults, to speak English as well as a tradional school for youngsters) run by volunteers at present but hoping to obtain government funding for a permanent teacher in the near future as their numbers are up into the 30s. HM is also recycling rubbish into building materials as well as treating organic rubbish. The owner is very active in supporting sustainable tourism and the community. They have lobbied the government and the Bank to seal the road out here. That would make a tremendous difference to the access. At present the bus takes 2 1/2 hours to travel 25 miles. It has been agreed but the start date is not known.

However, the lifestyle is very basic, as in the village around it. There are few facilities apart from a well, wifi and a blender for fruit smoothies, (the banana & coconut is delicious). Clothes washing is done at a stone sink and in the restaurant/social area if something brushes against your leg it could be a dog, chick, or pig, and the horses wander past too but are thankfully too big to go under the table!

We decided to stay here over Easter as most places are fully booked for the holiday and the ferries stop on a number of days in Holy Week.

One evening we went on a kayaking trip into the swamp, saving ourselves some effort (so we thought!) by taking the lancha or speedboat to the swamp, towing our kayaks behind. Unfortunately, the water level was so low, as it is the end of the dry season, that the swamp was sealed off from the lake by mud flats. We had to get out of the speedboat into a metre of water on top of 40 cms of mud! I am not exaggerating.It was a horribly weird feeling sinking down up to the calves in very soft mud. Then we had to haul the kayaks about 400 metres to the swamp. It was worth doing as there were loads of birds including Limpkins and Tiger Herons which we had not seen before. It was hard work doing the trip in reverse to get the kayaks back to the speedboat and then we broke down on the way back. But they soon sorted the problem and we climbed ashore at Hacienda Merida, exhausted and covered in mud.

I have had a few Spanish lessons from employees here and it is very good way to learn about their life, hopes and concerns as they tell me in Spanish. They want a sealed road, and an increase in tourism to help reduce poverty but they are concerned to retain their Nicaraguan identity and culture. Oracio from Reception told me all the myths and legends of Ometepe, as well as about their culture, their dancing (which is very important, ), their food and customs.

Maykel explained the history of Nicaragua. It is very sad and the reason they are so poor now compared with Costa Rica and Panama is largely a result of dictators and interference from the US. The International Court imposed heavy fines on the US Government (Reagan's Administration) for illegal activities in Nicaragua but they have never paid a penny. If I were from the US I think I would be too ashamed to visit here. Maykel was telling me about the huge number of child soldiers taken from their families and made to fight. Many were killed quickly as they were so young and inexperienced. Maykel is 22 and many of his fathers generation were lost in this way and family members too. Before the latest US involvement in the 60s Nicaragua had a reasonably healthy economy.

But Maykel's main concern now is that the same pattern of dictatorship will repeat itself as the present President has just changed the Constitution (which had been amended after the last dictatorship to prevent anyone staying in power too long) so he will not have to stand down after his term of office.

Hacienda Merida was a lovely friendly place to be, there were always people around chatting between walks or kayaking, working on computers, kids having breakfast before school or at their breaktime, the ladies laughing and giggling in the kitchen and Alvaro the owner encouraging people to take on little projects, some volunteers here specifically for that purpose, or visitors like us whom he encouraged to translate a history of Ometepe into more readable English! It was like being on retreat, or 24 hour comfort eating without the need for food!

Reluctantly we tore ourselves away after Easter and headed to Granada for 2 nights before moving on to the Caribbean east coast settlement of Pearl Lagoon. I will say more about Granada when we return there later.

The journey to Pearl Lagoon is a mammoth undertaking, only about 300 miles distance but very difficult to get there in one day. We took 2 days, the second of which involved 9 hours travel time to complete 3 hours in 2 panga boats. We had to spend 6 hours waiting for enough people to arrive to fill the pangas.

Eventually we arrived and spent 5 nights there so we could relax. It is a totally different world from the west of Nicaragua. Spanish, English and Creole are all spoken so it is difficult to know which language to start in. The people are the descendants of pirates, who used the lagoon as their base for a very long period, and slaves who escaped from shipwrecks on the coast. Bluefields where you change pangas is named after the Dutch pirate, Bleufeldt. Around the Lagoon are a number of tiny communities with different origins. For example, in Orinoco there are Garifuna people, who still retain much of the Yoruba religion from Africa. We read an article describing how there was a recent recording of one of their special celebrations and purely by chance a visitor from a village in west Africa saw this in Managua and recognised the songs and rituals of the village as identical to her own 'unique' village songs. For the first time the people of Orinoco knew where they originated. Some have now been to Africa to visit 'their' village. These communities are really isolated and most can only be reached by panga.

In Pearl Lagoon we stayed at Casa Ulrich run by the extended Ulrich Family, Fred (who grew up in Nicaragua but was educated in Switzerland and France) and his wife, their son and daughter, partners and grandchildren. It was very comfortable and the food was delicious. One day we went out in a panga to the distant Cays, tiny desert islands surrounded by beaches and coral. It is a strange place as the Cays belong to the Communities but some outside developers (with or without formal approval?) 'sold' individual Cays to foreigners and built properties on them (only one per Cay as they are only garden sized). The Communities went to the courts and won so now the houses are left derelict. We had lunch on one that had been built by an English woman. It was horrendous, the main house being round, not very big but bright pink, with a small heart shaped pool by the side in bright blue, paths picked out by multi coloured spotty toadstools, many with concrete butterflies on them. In a place of such natural beauty it was garish to say the least.

Another day we hoped to go and visit some communities but unfortunately the boat was full. So Fred Junior arranged for us to go on a panga across the Lagoon. It wasn't ideal as the panga was going to take 2 hours to cross to the other side, drop off a group of 7 French people who were going hiking to find 3 volcanoes only identified from aerial photographs in the 60s and never visited, waiting 4 hours for them to return and then coming back across the Lagoon. As it seemed the only option we decided to do it.

Anyway, the French group were an hour and a quarter late, turning up at 9.45 instead of 8.30am. This worried Fred Junior for 2 reasons, they needed to leave on time to get back before nightfall, and in trying to track down where the group was by calling round a few places, he discovered they were out trying to find a boatman who would take them for less despite having very cheap fares from Fred!

Finally they turned up, with an older man, the 'Volcano' expert seemingly in charge of a group of mixed ages, and then started 15 very ugly minutes. Sorry Nick, I know many French people are polite and cultured but not this group! They arrived, one woman sat and put her feet across the table, the rest stood and (honestly I am not paranoid) sneered at us (Jim and I) very loudly, but without sound. No, I didn;t think that was possible either! The leader turned to Fred and in Spanish asked who we were. Fred said we were going on the boat. The French guy said no they are not, they are not coming with us, but in a very rude, abrasive manner. Poor Fred was flummoxed as people don't behave like that in Nicaragua. Fred explained that we were not walking with them just riding in the boat and that there was plenty of space but he argued and argued, saying that he wanted a discount, then that if he did not enjoy the journey he would pay nothing, but Fred stayed calm and kept repeating that they had only booked a ride, not the whole boat. Then suddenly the French guy said in English, as if we had kept them waiting, “Stop wasting time and get in the boat”.

So Jim and I climbed in at the back where we were standing, put on life jackets and sat down, while they all jumped on the front. Suddenly there was another outbreak of discussion and they said something to Fred, who, looking totally bewildered and watched by his mother, asked us to stand up. I said 'why' and poor Fred said, “He doesn't want you to sit there!” At which point Jim and I stood, climbed out, hung up our life jackets and went upstairs to the restaurant. Fred Senior was there and asked what was wrong and we just said that we would not go with that group. His wife followed us into the restaurant as the boat pulled away from the jetty Fred said, 'Oh so they have gone,' to which his wife replied in Spanish, “Only to the next jetty, Fred told them they have to get off the boat there, they are bad people, we do not want clients like that”. In 2 minutes Fred Junior returned, full of apologies to us but also very shaken. In fact we all had to retire to the decking with beers on the house to 'forget those bad people', and work out a Plan B for our day.

It turned out well as Fred called another man with a very small boat (thus using less petrol) to take us to visit two places on the Lagoon, a more interesting trip and definitely more exciting in a small boat on choppy water.

The first visit was to meet a lovely man, Joe Scott, who has built 'a mansion' at North Point, destined to be an upmarket B & B. It has taken 15 years so far. He bought a parcel of jungle, cleared the dead wood, built the house and is restocking the grounds with fruit and indigenous trees to encourage birds and protect wildlife. The house is the most luxurious we have seen in Nicaragua with huge rooms all with Lagoon views, a superb kitchen with hand made wooden cupboards and island, and beautiful soft furnishings. He hopes to open in July this year but it seems he said the same for July 2009! He said he wants everything to be perfect before he opens. We had a tour of the house and the birds in the grounds, although I did get badly stung by ants as I stood still to take a photograph!

Then we stopped at La Fe, one of the tiny Garifuna communities. We walked around in the heat of the day while people rested on their verandahs. Everyone was very pleasant and chatted, the children followed us around and then an older lady took us to the edge of the village to see the school, telling us that she had 19 grandchildren in the village (all our followers!). She also said that no rum is allowed in La Fe, the community decided to ban it as it only causes trouble and they don't want their children to see drunkenness or violence. It was a wonderfully calm place with no traffic, just pigs, chickens, calves, horses and very relaxed people speaking very clear English.

At dinner that evening, the boatman from the boat that had been full and whom we had not met came to our table, introduced himself, said how sorry he was that he had not had space for us and even more sorry that we had had to meet “those bad people”. There is a real sense of being looked after in Nicaragua.

We decided to try and return to Granada in one day. It seemed it might just be possible as a bus leaves Pearl Lagoon once a day at 5.30am. What a journey! But we did make it as the buses stop around 8pm and we caught one of the last ones out of Managua. It took 15 long hours on very hot buses, crowded most of the time and carrying everything that needed to move along the route, parcels, chickens, 2 metre long pieces of 4” x 4” wood, chain saws, fruit and produce, as well as people selling food and drinks to passengers. The first bus from Pearl Lagoon to El Rama travelled very slowly, partly because the road is in very poor condition and partly because a wheel needed changing, but also because the driver stopped frequently to talk to people in their homes by the side of the road, sometimes dropping off notes or parcels. The bus seems to be the social event of the day. A very entertaining journey but tiring.

So now we are back in 'Spanish' Nicaragua, in the lovely colonial town of Granada where we are going to spend a week as there is a lot to see and places to visit outside the town. But more about Granada next time.


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