Ometepe Island, Nicaragua
Sigh. Volcanoes again. Anyone who reads our blog would know that our prior experiences with volcanoes have been a bloody let-down. Generally because of the complicated science and weather systems associated with the peaks of volcanoes or something. I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. But we figured considering there were two volcanoes, joined by an isthmus, in the middle of the massive fresh water Lake Nicaragua, our chances of actually seeing the volcanoes might be a little better. But first we had to get to the port city of Rivas.
So we trudged down the streets of San Juan Del Sur to the community bus stop, deflecting offers from the surrounding taxi drivers like they were bullets to Iron Man.
‘Taxi? Rivas?’ Nup. (PING!) ‘Ten dollars’ Nup. (PING!)
And onto the dirty old fashioned school bus we got. Faded yellow and black with sticking windows and stuffy air, full of locals with their sacks of cement, rice, cats, fish, pigs, whatever, I don’t know, I don’t ask questions. Belinda and I got a seat in front of the rear door whilst Rebecca got a spot across the aisle next to some little Nica man. We could all clearly see our backpacks stashed near the bags of various whatevers and we set off, billowing plumes of noxious black exhaust onto the streets behind us and waking up the neighborhood. People slowly began to fill up the bus, to the point of packing the aisles; and the conductor, who was a really big guy mind you, still managed to squeeze his way past everyone to collect the dollar or so fare it was to Rivas. By the time we arrive some hour and a half later, I had a native Nica tit in my eye because we were just so damn squashed in together. We let everyone off before we attempted to grab our gear (assuming it was all still there) but before we could, a taxi tout grabbed us and offered us an (overpriced) lift to the port. We agreed on a much more reasonable fare, and before we knew it, we were hauling our gear along the dock to the ferry. There was a serious chop in the water but by the time the ferry set off, it was plowing through most of it without a hitch or roll.
And from out the windows, there they were. Volcan Conception and Maderas. Conception is considered ‘most conical’ in Central America and is about 12,000 or so years old. It likes walks in the park, and last erupted in 2010. Maderas on the other hand, despite being the same age is dormant, sleeping, inactive and is more mountainous in shape. It’s covered in rich forest from which the local population grow stuff like tobacco and coffee. Though Conception is up around 1600m or so in altitude, it’s extreme climbing conditions meant that if we wanted to climb a volcano whilst we were here, it would be Maderas, at a measly 1400m. But we had an hour or to stare at their uninterrupted magnificence whilst we traversed the lake. They were simply awe inspiring, set there together, like a fairytale island in the middle of a tepid sea from which an angry merman terrorises the local population.
Far fetched, but only by a bit, you see, Ometepes native population came from Mexico and as even as early as 300BC began etching petroglyphs into all the volcanic rocks in the area. The first mermen in the sea came in the form of pirates in the 16th century, which forced the population into the hills, the second, and far angrier mermen were of course the Spaniards.
Before we disembarked we’d arranged for a taxi to take us to Finca Del Sol, a lovely little farmstead with room for 10 or so guests. We traversed the one road that does this funny figure eight shape around the island and is neatly paved with the occasional speed-bump at appropriate times. Evidently it’s reduced the commute to the farm from 3 and a half hours to a measly 40 minutes. But that was back in the day where you could walk the dirt road for 20 minutes without seeing another soul, only some 10 or so years ago. Well that’s according to our Italian born host Christiano, who along with his Canadian born wife Sheri, moved to the island after they were dislodged from the Cayman’s by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. They purchased some land here so that they had a place to vacation, camp, all to themselves. Which was fine for a while, but given the eternal necessity to make money, they started the building process of a 3 guesthouses, as well as their own home, on the land.
We had the ‘Bamboo Hut’ which was really nothing of the sort. It was adobe style, with a kind of teepee thatch roof and circular clay walls which were full of fly-screened windows which let in a wonderful breeze during the day and night. The hut was beautifully furnished with old timber and terra-cotta and they had stuff like ‘orthopedic mattresses’ and ‘handmade mosquito nets’. The bathroom was awesome too, none of this ‘put your ****** toilet paper in an open bin and smell it for the next week’ stuff; no, we had a natural drop toilet with accompanying reservoir of sawdust. It was perfect, no water, no smell and someone else to empty it for us daily. But the truly best aspect of the place was the stunning view we had across the hills to the majestic Volcan Conception. You could sit outside the adobe hut in one of their woven deck chairs and simply gaze at the ring of clouds that circled it’s mid-section like Saturn. It was stupidly unbelievably amazing. So amazing that you felt absolutely no guilt simply sitting there and gazing, the entire stay. But we had stuff to do.
The next day we decided to simply walk to the nearby village of San Fernando, and sus out what we thought was a nearby freshwater spring, for a quick dip. We got maybe 600m down the road before the bottom of the Y in my thong strap dislodged itself from the base of my thong (‘flip-flops’ for my international friends; I don’t normally wear thongs unless it’s a Saturday night). So I’m flapping along the burning hot road, resorting to MacGuyvering a solution that involves swapping feet and walking on the underside of the broken thong with the straps kind of twisted around the other way (hard to explain). It’s working for a bit, but starts to cut into my feet. To make matters worse, I get smashed off the road by a startled calf who decides to stroll along with us a for a bit. There’s f’ all on the island in terms of thong shops so my asking around yeilds no solution but we walk the coastal road up and around a bend and by some weird magic this local Nica guy appears, standing in the shade under a large tree. He holds up a flip-flop. ‘Chancletas?’ he asks. ‘******* yes mate’ I say, nah, not really but I thought it, and I wander over to this magical gypsy man who just about saved the soles of my feet. We do a deal for about 6 or so dollars. Probably too much but you’d be a prick if you complained right? So we ask him where the Ojo de Aqua is and he says in Spanish another hour up the road. Rebecca and Belinda kind of crack it but we push on a bit further and find the entrance only some 15 minutes away. Just as well he’s a magic thong gypsy cos he’s terrible at distance estimation.
Anyway we cut through some private property (with permission of course) and arrive at this natural spring, though contained somewhat by cementing and with accompanying restaurant. There’s mostly locals here, a few travelers, but I reckon we’d all felt like we’d stumbled onto natures little secret. The water was absolutely transparent, moving slowly from one end of the reserve to the other before cascading down the hillside to continue it’s journey to the lake. Standing in the water you’d see hundreds of small fish swimming around you, feeding from the mossy rocks, hovering over the white sand. And the water had that powdery mineral feel to it. It made you feel good. It was the perfect reward for the 7 or so kilometers we’d walked to get there.
On the way back we stopped in the
village at some Vegetarian place. An odd choice to begin with, and we should have turned around; but this shirtless skinny German man greeted us with an uncomfortable smile, like he’d just ****** at a business conference. We took our own menus, found our own table and some minutes later he wandered over. With his hairy nipples at eye level we gave our order, he gave it to a local Nica and sat down to enjoy his own lunch. I must admit, he had prime real estate, on the banks of the lake looking down the beach, but the air was slowly filling with aphid-type insects. Swarms of them. We were constantly waving our hands and squinting our eyes to keep them at bay. And we did so for the 45 minutes it took for his staff to make 2 vegetable stir-frys and some eggplant thing. How was that going to sustain us for our mountain climb the next day?
Up early we downed a much heartier breakfast whilst staring at Madera’s brother, Conception, psyching ourselves up. We could do this. It was just 1400m or so, in tropical heat, clambering over jungle and rocks. Sheri had nicely packed us lunch and advised us that we should be taking at least 3 liters of water each. Rebecca and I had a liter and half between us. Not overly confidence inspiring. Thankfully Sheri filled a bunch of bottles she had lying around with the beautiful spring water from the volcanoes. So now, both us were loaded with kilos of water on our backs when our guide Alexi shows up. He had a similar pack too, so I don’t feel too bad. These guide types can be a bit intimidating sometimes with their prowess and jungle-man knowledge. We set off, with the luxury of his decent English. We’ve kind of already just left the Finca and already we’re starting the ascent. I keep my eyes on Alexis shoes so as to know where to step and I notice he has on some Australian socks. You know, those horrible 75 cent pairs that end up giving you tinea.
‘Hey.. Australian socks’ I say pointing. ‘Yes.. I know you are Australian so I wear socks for today. I have all types. American, German, Chinese.’
That’s awesome. The guide adjusts his socks depending on the guests he’s taking. We pay some land-owners a fee of about a dollar each to cross their land. Through barb-wire fences, past ram-shackle wooden farm houses with crazy chickens and pigs running about. Looming above us, all this time, is Volcan Maderas. It seems impossible, stupid, to consider that we’d be anywhere near capable of getting to the top. That point up there. Way up there! It’s shady as we wander through a plantain plantation. Plantains are related to bananas and you wouldn’t normally tell the difference unless you knew otherwise. But they’re used everywhere here. Normally sliced and friend, and served as like a potato cake with rice and fish or beans or something like that. But the trees are much shorter than banana trees so we’re ducking our head a bit, continually walking uphill to get through. On the way though, Alexi points out one of those pre-merman petroglyphs. It’s an awesome one too because it’s of the two volcanos. I don’t know why but there’s something kind of eerie about seeing it.
We kick on and it’s not long before we have a fantastic view of both volcanoes on a short plateau. We’re surrounded by bean plants and grasses beyond which we’re swallowed up by the jungle. A canopy forms overhead and the soil gets slightly damper. There’s trees here over 700 years old, covered with moss like most old things. It’s like we’re in a jungle full of trees from Avatar. Alexi talks a little bit about the wildlife. There’s Capuchin monkeys here, and howlers. Pretty typical. But there’s scorpions too, and they’re potent enough to kill the Capuchins, and leave humans feeling pretty ****** for a day or so. There’s tarantulas but they only come out at night, except when Alexi’s not putting them on his face. Which he does. Weirdo.
So after the first hour, I’m saturated in sweat but I chance a look at the girls to see how they’re going, as they seem to be drifting behind a bit. I have some responsibility in this you see because we have this thing going where everyone gets to choose 1 activity per country, per person, that everyone has to do. And this is my choice for Nicaragua. And the girls are both red in the face, and slightly puffy looking. I say something encouraging like ‘That’s the spirit’ but get stone faced glares back. The climb gets more arduous. Slight inclines over damp mud and roots turns into clay crevices filled with slippery rocks and mud. For the next 2 hours.
‘Use natures hand-rails’ I say with a chirpy smile, pointing to a protruding root that would be great as a hand-grip. Satan glares back me from the girls. I grit my jaw and turn around.. ‘just keep climbing’ I say.. ‘we’re past halfway, they can’t quit now, we’re so close’. I was hurting too, my knee hard started to play up a bit, on the odd occasion where we needed to descend, it was painful, which conjured up concern about how the ‘f’ I was going to get back down off this stupid mountain.
Cloudforest turned to rainforest turned to eerie pixie-village type forest with these black, giant tarantula type tree trunks, covered in glistening lichen and moss, absolutely beautiful. And the air had cooled a bit by now as well; we clambered the last of the few remaining rocks, and still completely enclosed by trees reached an otherwise un-notable post.
‘This is the top’ says Alexi. I look around. I was expecting a wonderful view of Volcan Conception, or if not that, then the island and lake. We were at 1400m! It would be an astounding view! All I can see is lichen, stupid lichen and moss!
‘Is there not a view?’ I ask, exhausted. ‘Hmm.. up there’ he points, to a battered path where you can stand a tree branch, then on tip-toes and peak over a branch. ‘Well then where’s the lagoon?’ I ask, because there’s supposedly one of those too. ‘Down there..’ So.. thinking we’d made it we spent the next 20 minutes descending the red clay mud to the caldera’s lagoon. We collapse, and tear out our lunch bags. It was 12:20pm. We’d left at 8. We’d taken a little longer than normal but that’s okay. We started eating.
‘We don’t have much time’ Alexi says. ‘Have to leave by 1pm.’ And he was right. 4 hours down would mean we’d make it back with minutes to spare before sun down. I would hate to be stuck in that forest with tarantulas and weird guides who stick them on their own faces. I munch my cheese sandwich and get everyone on their feet some 20 minutes later. My knee was hurting, so were Rebecca’s and to be honest, I was worried our progress would be really slow coming back. ‘Let’s go’ I say. The girls take a minute to put Band-Aids on the massive blisters on their heels. I turn around quietly and have a private moment. ‘****… ‘ I felt bad. The girls had done this because of my stupid ‘activities’ idea. Now we were all trapped in a volcano caldera, 1400m above sea level. But we weren’t the last; on the way out, after taking in the ‘view’ we pass a German group (with walking sticks of course) who are only just coming in. One lady’s crying. ‘You’re nearly there’ Rebecca tells her.
Thankfully we were on the way back. And our progress was slow. Poor Rebecca had trouble even bending her knees so any attempt at balancing over slippery rocks was in vain. She slipped over a few times, as did I. We swore a lot. Our shoes weren’t cutting it either. They felt like polished metal walking on wet glass marbles. Our legs and shoes were caked in mud and they were shaking from exhaustion. Slowly but surely we made
it past eerie pixie-village, into rainforest and cloud forest and then back into jungle. ‘Are we gonna make it Alexi’ I ask ‘I don’t know..’ he says with a horrible blank expression on his face. ‘****..’
I’m looking for things that I recognise, a tree, a root, a rock that would give me some indication of where we’d be. By now we’re all walking stiff legged like Frankenstein. Alexi, who does this 4 times a week is sitting on rocks waiting for us most of the time. We’re losing light fast, I keep thinking of the crying German lady. Soon enough we emerge from the jungle to the plateau and we’re all relieved. Even Alexi looks relaxed. We take in the magnificent view of Conception and I think silently all contemplate what we’ve just done. We walk back the last few minutes and I reckon the sun pops beneath the horizon the moment we get back to the Finca. We all have blisters, ****** up knees and are sore all over but we muster the courage to hit a nearby restaurant for beer and dinner.
We’re due to leave the next day but going to sleep that night you set a tiny little benchmark in your head. Done that. What’s next?
Well Granada’s next. We’ll replace the outdoors and mermen with colonial architecture and ex-pat owned boutique coffee shops..