Monday, May 16, 2011

Nicaragua – Ometepe, life in slow motion

Ometepe beach walk
The island of Ometepe is often called Nicaragua's premier candidate for the eighth wonder of the world. Shaped like the outline of a large number 8, this makes it an especially good choice! Ometepe was formed by two volcanoes that rose from beneath the surface of Lake Nicaragua. Ometepe is the largest volcanic fresh water island in the western hemisphere and only second to Samosir in Sumatra worldwide (read here about our trip to Lake Toba and Samosir in 2001).

The island landscape is dominated by the two volcanoes Concepción and Maderas. The perfect cone shape of Concepción makes it a great subject to quickly fill your camera's memory card. If you are really "lucky" you might even get a shot when it erupts ;-).

Ometepe's 'Vulcan Concepción'
coming into view
Taking the boat from Granada to Ometepe is the best option for a comfortable yet exciting arrival as it offers stunning views of the island at sunset time. The ferry only steams this route on Mondays and Thursdays and unlike our last 'royal ferry' encounter in Honduras is well worth the wait – and at 90 Córdobas ($4) a super bargain.

Concepción with a 'night cap'
There are actually two classes on this boat. The lower deck (where a decent food service is also available) only costs C50 ($2) for the four hour trip and is packed full with locals that don't travel light. The upper deck is air-conditioned, shows movies on a TV and is mainly filled with foreigners – who also don't travel much lighter. The reason we mention luggage is due to the unexpected and meticulous security check at the boarding gate. This ferry terminal has higher security standards than what we've seen at some airports in Asia: Every bag was hand searched for weapons… Makes sense, as a real Latino man always travel with a gun or machete.
Patrick, as a true-blooded Swiss man, smuggled our Swiss Army knife onto the ferry without declaring it! It turned out, that the captain's wheelhouse was right in front of our seat and was not secured with a steel door… we really pushed the limits on this one, glad we didn't get caught ;-).
But seriously, they confiscated a number of Machetes and locked them away for the duration of the journey. They also searched the bags for Alcohol; we wonder who they want to prevent from getting drunk – crew or passengers?

OK we get it! Safety first: thus, no weapons and alcohol allowed on this boat.
Fido must be a dangerous weapon
And a warning to the Paris Hiltons out there: leave your doggie at home; your Chihuahua is considered a dangerous object and cannot get onboard either, seriously!

The four hour journey was smooth sailing without any seasick passengers, kidnapping attempts, dog bites, or drunken crew incidents: we were cleared for landing at Altagracia's dock just after sunset…no last minute strip search either.

Dramatic sunset arrival in Altagracia
The town of Altagracia is the largest on Ometepe and from what we could see has a hotel for every 10 residents. Why so many hotels? No clue maybe because the town is rather sleepy? Sleepy would be slight exaggeration though: it's not as quiet as most towns in Honduras, but that doesn't take much. Our Hotel "Central" was actually quite nice and they picked us up at the dock free of charge in a nice new pickup as we booked ahead by phone. We only spent one night, taking off to the southern part of the Island the next morning.
Arriving in Ometepe is like entering a world that is running at half speed. Everything is running a bit slower, people seem very relaxed and not caring about a schedule much.
Buses on Ometepe run about once every 3 hours, the only alternative is walking or spending a small fortune one of the half dozen taxis – if you manage to find one of them.

Sunset beach volley ball
We took the 10:30 bus to Santa Cruz and settled into an off the beaten track Eco-Lodge called El Porvenir at the foot of the Maderas volcano, then headed for a stroll along the black volcanic sand beach. Ometepe is an island in Lake Nicaragua, a lake so big that we couldn't see the shoreline across – as if it was an ocean. To add even more unusual lake facts: it's the only lake in the world that is a breeding ground for bull sharks. Don't worry; they are only number 3 on the list of the most dangerous sharks, so go ahead with your afternoon swim, it could be worse – great whites, for instance.
The bull sharks are the subject of many local myths that often include that they particularly like to hang around the shores of Ometepe because the people here throw the bodies of the deceased into the lake. Fact is that these salt water sharks are capable of adjusting to fresh water; they swim up the San Juan River from the Caribbean but their numbers have been greatly reduced during the Sandinista regime when some 20,000 of them were caught and butchered at a Granada plant to cater to the insatiable taste of the Chinese for shark fin soup.

The rare species: 'beach cow'
After a sunset beer at the beach, we walked the 1km back to our guesthouse, just to find out that their restaurant closed at 6:30pm – 15 minutes before we arrived. Although a group of six other guests was just being served their meal, we couldn't get anything. The staff didn't even offer to prepare us something small such as a soup or sandwich. That much for the first impression that people in Ometepe are relaxed and don't care much about schedules!

Our options were: walk back to the beach in complete darkness optimistic to find a restaurant that was still open, or dig into our emergency supply of nachos and cookies. Our choice? You guess!

Climbing a Volcano has something mythical to it; it's more exiting than climbing a mountain – at least for Patrick who grew up in Switzerland where volcanoes are banned in order to protect the Alps monopoly on hikers ;-)

It's a long way up to Volcan Maderas
I can't really explain why climbing a volcano has this mythical feel to it: maybe the subconscious thought that it could erupt anytime, maybe the beautiful conical shape, maybe the unobstructed 360 degree views from the top... We read that Maderas can be climbed without a guide (not recommended for Concepción) and since our guesthouse was right at the foot of one of the popular trails up we set off on our own (we normally don't like taking guides.) We set off just after 6am and were pretty much the only people on the trail; occasionally we would see a person tending a field on the volcano's slope.
The path up was not as straight forward as we anticipated; there were a lot of forks and ambiguous turn offs. As a member of the boy scouts, and watching a fair share  of John Wayne movies, Patrick suggested to follow the path that had the most footprints. About 90 minutes into the hike, we came to a point where the path stopped and all we could see was thick jungle. It didn't really look like any hiking trail anymore. Just as we decided to turn around we bumped into a local man that was carrying a heavy cement bag on his back. We asked him where the way to the top was, and he pointed into the direction of the jungle and said something like "Plateau Agua". Since Maderas has a crater lake, we figured that this must be one of the paths up, so we followed the man for about 15 minutes before he stopped at what looked to be some sort of water tank. He was obviously working on adding more concrete to this reservoir.

Just follow the pipes
He just pointed in the hillside direction of the water pipes and said that we could continue this way to the "Plateau Agua"... just be careful not to slip down the steep hillside.
We followed the pipes and thought that the water must come from somewhere, and that this somewhere is most likely the crater lake. The path at this point had become quite challenging and was definitely not meeting the Lonely Planet description of "approved for overweight chain-smokers".

Following the water pipes we soon we came to a river bed... that must be the trail now, especially since we bumped into 3 more man carrying up cement bags along the river. We followed the river and the water pipes for about another 30 minutes of quite a challenging climb and reached the "Plateau Auga", which was a water basin feeding the pipes.

The base was at the foot of a steep cliff with some water cascading down on it-we didn't even get the pleasure of discovering some huge waterfall for our rather strenuous effort.
Literally 'off the beaten track'
Climbing up the steep cliff was not an option, too slippery and no way of getting down again. So unfortunately we had to turn around... bummer, we could see that the summit was very near. Yes we found the path less traveled on this expedition…at least by tourists!

We hiked down the same path again, following our own footprints in order not to get lost and made it back to the lodge just in time to take a shower and checkout before catching the 11am bus to Merida. Why the hurry? Patrick was not willing to spend another dollar at a lodge that let's their customers go to bed hungry.

Merida is a small village on the western slope of Volcano Maderas and probably best known for the nearby "Monkey Islands". We settled in a guesthouse with the same name, and set off with a double kayak to explore the Monkey Islands.
Julane is paddling out to chase
some of those monkeys
They are two small plots of land just off the shore and are inhabited by monkeys that were tamed pets but have been rescued by environmental activists and relocated to this new location without any predators. The larger of the two islands is home to a group of white faced Capuchins. As soon as we approached, the monkeys rushed to the tree branches that hang over the water. We were previously warned that they may jump into the kayaks if they smell or see any kind of food. They may even bite humans. We didn't get too close but have to admit that they Capuchins looked rather cute and unthreatening.

Beware of monkeys:
even this Capuchin can bite.
Two spider monkeys live on the smaller island, and boy are they scary. We must have been at least 30 meters (98 feet) away when they started jumping up and down on the trees making threatening gestures. We have no idea how far they can jump, but were not at all going to experiment with their range. They looked extremely hostile, hungry, and capable of taking a chunk of flesh out of your arm for a lunchtime snack. Although they are extremely agile and interesting to watch, we decided to leave our camera in the bag and forego the photo opportunity. Why? Taking a camera out of a big bag could be mistaken for taking out monkey feed. And we really didn't feel like having wild, blood-thirsty, and hungry company on our little kayak and possibly overturn and end up in the lake – remember there are bull sharks :-S

Later at the guesthouse, we met an American that had been attacked by the Spider monkeys a year ago. He showed us his scars and said he has drifted too close in his inner tube to island and was attacked. He said they even pulled him out of the water. He had some ugly scars to give some credibility to his story, but Patrick didn't fully buy into it. Although this American man had so much hair all over body, he literally looked like a monkey cousin so perhaps on of the monkey fell in love with him?

Walking the pig: another Ometepe
recreational opportunity
Anyway when you go to Monkey Island be careful, on the island you may get bitten by the monkeys and at the Monkey's Island guesthouse you may be separated from a few more dollars than you should (read here to learn more)

Merida didn't fascinate us very much so we moved on after only one night. The fact was that the guesthouses in town failed to impress us although thankfully we did get satisfying meals here…and we arrived really hungry after our dinner-less night and huge morning hike.

Remember that buses on Ometepe only go every 3 hours or so... well on Sunday's there is only one bus from Merida at 8:30am. You're stuck for another day if you miss it. Boy did that bus fill up on the way to Altagracia, we haven't seen as many people during our whole stay on the island as we've seen packed into that bus... the sardine can express took 2½ hours to drive from Merida to Moyogalpa which is only 12km (7.5m) bee-line. But due to the bad roads and the topography the route follows a roller coaster pattern.

Moyogalpa is the 2nd largest town in Ometepe and some guidebooks recommend leaving it as soon as the ferry arrived. We disagree; Moyogalpa is actually quite nice and certainly much more comfortable to stay at than in Merida. Most of the people transferred directly from the bus to the small ferry to continue to the mainland. With the terrible weather and the boat rocking like a like a maniac, we decided to not follow the crowd.

From Moyogalpa you can see very well that the Concepción volcano is still active: the slopes are grey, rough and look like lava has been flowing down the hill very recently. The view from Altagracia on the other side is very different: from there all you see is lush green almost all the way to the top. It was raining heavy most of day, and we couldn't explore too much of town, but what we've seen was quite nice… in a simple kind of way.

Probably the most popular
activity on Ometepe
We are leaving Ometepe on the 6am large car ferry to San Jorge and from there we head over to León: the city of artists and poets. We spent a total of 4 nights on the island and have not fallen in love with it. Although it is very picturesque, we found that most of the places on the island are very basic and rather poor value for money. Since neither of us are the type that likes to hang out on a beach and get sunburned, we found it didn’t offer much more besides the volcano hikes. Some travelers say that Ometepe is the best place they've been to in all of Central America. If you like to relax, read, ride horses and get back to basics, then Ometepe may be right for you. That's the beauty of travel, tastes are different and there's something for everyone.

And don't get us wrong, it's worth visiting Ometepe, just the ferry ride from Granada to Altagracia alone is worth the trip. But the length of your stay on Ometepe greatly depends on what you are looking for. If it is beach and tranquility than you may love it here.