Saturday, 18 February 2012


Sunset on Isla de Ometepe.
We floated down the Río Frío from the Costa Rica border on a tiny boat packed with locals, through silent mangroves, past empty wooden huts, gliding alongside herons as they flew just inches from the light ripples. It was some two hours to San Carlos, the Nicaraguan entry point, but we first had to make a stop at an isolated military outpost where a line of soldiers greeted us with stern expressions.

There was nothing to worry about. A soldier boarded the boat, stuck his nose in a few bags and waved us on our way. We were soon at the mouth of the river and disembarking at San Carlos, a small town on the edge of Lake Nicaragua. But the lake would have to wait: we got on to a boat heading back down the Río San Juan, the pride and joy of Nicaragua (apparently). As far as rivers go it’s pretty standard (wide and wet) but it links the most obvious landmark (the big lake in the middle of the country) all the way to the Caribbean coast. The villages along the way, comprising wooden housing perched on the water’s edge, rely entirely on this river and the passing boats. It is their life line, their artery.

On the Río San Juan, the pride of Nicaragua.
We didn’t go as far as the Caribbean. In fact, we went just to the first main village, pushed as we were for time after the day’s bus/boat/border shenanigans. We arrived into Boca de Sábalo as the sun was setting and spent the evening sitting on the decking of a hotel, eating fish, playing cards and watching life across the river in the little village. The next day we made our way back up the river by public boat, back into San Carlos and, after a local meal of chicken and rice (things haven’t changed much since anywhere else in Central America, or South America for that matter) we boarded a boat headed across Lake Nicaragua.

This is by far the longest lake crossing I’ve ever done. Lago Nicaragua is some 65km across, and the island we were heading to, Isla de Ometepe, was a good eleven hours by ferry. It’s a bizarre feeling to be on water with land barely in sight, knowing that this isn’t an ocean but merely an inland lake. We arrived at gone midnight and, after parting with a friend from the San Blas boat who happened to be doing the same crossing, we found our way to the main town, Altagracia, and a dingy hotel.

Across Lago Nicaragua
We rented a motorbike the next morning. (I say rented, but actually we asked our hotel where we could rent one and they phoned a friend who turned up with his motorbike and handed it over to me in return for some money and a promise I’d have it back to him a few days later.) A motorbike is, in my opinion, a necessity on this island because the roads are, shall we say, somewhat substandard and the buses take an inordinate amount of time to traverse its length. Given that it’s only 30km from end to end, it seems unreasonable that a bus should take four hours.

Everyone talks about two islands, since there are two volcanoes, but in reality the two are linked by a thin strip of land. Altagracia is on the ‘big’ island, and from there we rode along a tarmac road to Santa Cruz, in between the two volcanoes. From there, the road becomes more a stream of rocks that go vaguely in a direction around the smaller volcano. We took it as far as Mérida, a village on the southern edge, and stayed two nights in a hostel that struggled with possessives, plurals and possessive plurals. Monkey’s/Monkies/Monkeys Island (depending on which sign you’re reading) was hidden away in the trees above the coast, where the sunsets were astonishing and the food big, tasty and fishy.

We spent a day riding around both halves of the island, the huge, misty volcanoes looming over us wherever we were. We stopped for coffee and stale buns in another tiny pueblo where the eight year old son of the proprietor insisted on guiding us (free of charge except for a ride on the motorbike!) to see some hidden rock paintings. These drawings of animals and people are some 1700 years old and are now just strewn through the jungle, left to nature by the Niquirano people, long forgotten.

Petroglyphs and a young guide on Isla de Ometepe.
We had lunch in Santo Domingo, where the water laps at the underside of your table as you feast on delicious fish soup; where weird, black and white birds perch on the back of your chair waiting for your leftovers; and where monkeys dance in the trees, yelping with humanlike fascination and delight. We visited Punta Jesús María, where a strip of black volcanic sand stretches out into the lake. We left the island the next afternoon by boat (much quicker this time) for San Jorge, and onwards by taxi to Granada.

Punta Jesús María, Isla de Ometepe
Granada is beautiful. Its colourful streets and low-rise buildings remind me of the small Colombian towns, where people go about their daily business with a certain pride of their locale. The central square is populated by stalls of streaming street food and families making use of the shady trees. The lanes just a block away are dense with a never-ending market where one can find anything you might desire. One man was selling phone chargers of all varieties, and nothing else. By night, the pedestrianised central street comes alive with locals and tourists alike, all enjoying the warm evenings and cheap beer at the many cafés. Bands play traditional, rhythmic music every hundred metres or so, and ladies roam amongst the tables selling snacks and cigars.

We took a bus to León, stopping for a few minutes in the capital, Managua, only to change buses. (It’s not supposed to be great.) Our hostel had a swimming pool (somewhat of a relief given the heat of this city – isn’t supposed to be getting cooler the further north I go?) and we made use of it in between wandering around the quiet streets. It may not be as stunning as Granada, but León feel s more alive, like it has more of a soul. Combined with people as friendly as anywhere we’ve been in Nicaragua (which is very friendly indeed) and fantastic, varied restaurants, it makes for a truly pleasurable city. Best of all, the food stalls around the back of the cathedral serve huge plates of meat for next to nothing. Perfect.

The market in León.
We visited a strange museum, which, although housed in a former torture prison, tries to explain Nicaraguan myths and legends. Badly made up mannequins with oddly sized heads stand in front of painting of prisoners in agony.

Weird museum exhibits in Leon.
Our final adventure in Nicaragua involved an attempted climb up the nearby volcano Santa Clara. After we had negotiated the local chicken buses to find our way to San Jacinto and fended off a hundred kids wanting to be our guides, the climb up the perfectly formed cone should have been straightforward. However, we hadn’t reckoned on the thickness of the jungle surrounding its base, nor on the number of bee hives inside said jungle. After a bee-in-hair and a snake-in-grass incident, we cut our losses and returned.

Volcano Santa Clara - too much jungle.
And then we left Nicaragua, heading by bus to the nearby Honduras border. Nicaragua is less developed and less set-up for tourism than its neighbours, especially Costa Rica, but it offers just as much, if not more in the way of outdoor activities, amazing sights and wonderful cities. It’s also cheaper and, in our experience, much, much friendlier. Go there before everyone else works it out!

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