Nicaragua: Managua, León, Granada, Isla de Ometepe

Latitude 11.56452°N Longitude 85.57902°W

Friday, November 1, 2002

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We've spent the last four days in Nicaragua, visiting Managua, León, Granada and the tiny Isla de Ometepe in the Lago de Nicaragua.

Nicaragua has proven to be the cheapest place we've visited in Central America, this clearly being due to the country being the least developed as far as tourist services go. On one hand, it was a pleasant change to be able to walk the streets as an obvious foreigner without attracting the swarms of touts commonplace in the neighbouring countries. But the flip side of this was that after you had taken your fill of the simple Nicaragüense ambiance of these towns, there was little else to do. Consequently, our stay in Nicaragua was brief and after several days we were on our way to Costa Rica.

One of the most memorable experiences we had was our visit to the twin-volcano island Isla de Ometepe situated in the huge Lago de Nicaragua. We decided to travel there using a ferry service that departed from Granada, arriving four hours later.

After spending a few days in Granada, we had become part of yet another informal small group of travelers all heading in the same direction thorugh Central America. In our group this time were Jonas and Marita from Norway, Pete and Esther from Holland (the obligatory Dutch component), and Eva and Jeanette, also from Norway. We had all seen each other plenty of times on the buses and border crossing entering Nicaragua, and at this point we fell naturally together into a group. It did not surprise us as we all arrived at the pier independently to catch the same ferry to Isla de Ometepe.

After piling as much cargo as could fit on the tiny ferry without it sinking, we set forth across the lake, departing only one hour behind schedule. As we slowly approached the island we could make out the impressive peaks of the twin volcanos Concepción and Maderas. But soon bad weather intercepted us and a strong thunderstorm completely hid the volcanic island from view.

By the time we arrived at the dock of Altagracia on Isla de Ometepe, we were in complete darkness and the deluge had reached biblical proportions. The timing of our arrival, clearly, was impecable. We all saddled up with our backpacks and one by one stepped off the ferry to become immediately soaked to the skin. A tout quickly approached offering free transport to the Hotel Castillo, which by chance was the hotel we planned to visit first anyway, so we surprised him by aggreeing. He led us to his vehicle which we could only dimly see - it appeared to be some kind of flatbed pickup truck, into the back of which we were all escorted, backpacks and all. When the back of the truck was full more people were crammed into the front seat, and soon it was stuffed solidly with backpackers, looking like some kind of attempt for a flatbed truck capacity world record. The driver jumped in and off we went up an impossibly steep dirt road that led to Altagracia. With all the heavy rain most of the road had been washed away, leaving behind only boulders and rocks which the tortured vehicle bounced over, swaying so violently from side to side that the hapless passengers in the back were almost thrown off. We turned a bend and were confronted with what at first glance looked like a raging river, yet undaunted, and amidst our screams of horror, the driver shifted down, pushed the truck into the stream submarine-like, and struggled to maintain grip as it climbed. The rainwater was now well over the wheels and doors and almost up to the windscreen, and the interior was taking in water like a sinking ship. Suddenly the front wheels fell into a huge underwater hole and got stuck, and as the water level rose we all started to seriously wonder whether the driver was in his right mind and if we were all going to be swept away down the mountain into the sea. But the truck had unbelievable torque and after spinning the wheels like crazy managed to pull out of the hole and struggle upwards again. After some time the track leveled out and started to look like a road again rather than a stream bed, and we arrived - soaked but in one piece - at the hotel.

The next day the torrential rain had abated and we mulled over our options for activities. Keiko and I finally settled on catching a local bus that goes around the island to Balgüe, where we would visit the Magdalena Farm and trek through the jungle to see ancient petroglyphs. The bus trip afforded an excellent scenic tour highlighting the extremely rural and primitive nature of island life. The mudlogged dirt road passed a countless succession of farms each with full complements of animals such as chickens, turkeys, pigs, horses, cattle, sheep, goats and so on. Services even as basic as electricity and water seemed non existent. When we got off the bus and started walking down the dirt trail to Magdalena's Farm, I got the distinct feeling that every single disease mentioned in the Lonely Planet Guide - malaria, yellow fever, hepatitis A & B diptheria, tetanus, typhoid, cholera, rabies, tuberculosis, poliomyelitis, chagas' disease, and God knows what else - were all well represented in the rural settings here. We prayed that the repellents, vaccinations and prophyllactic drugs we were taking to protect ourselves would work as promised and took particular care to avoid touching any plant, human or animal!

Magdalena Farm with its ancient petroglyphs proved somewhat interesting, but the other main attraction - hiking to the top of the volcanos - was unfortunately not an option. Both peaks remained stubornly enshrouded in the low-hanging, sickly hot humid mist and clouds, and the recent rain had rendered the trails so muddy and treacherous that most locals were advising against them.

And so it was that after a few nights on Isla de Ometepe we had absorbed as much of its rural charm as we could stand, and decided to move on.

Photos: (click on images to see full size)

Rocking chairs seem to be de rigeur in all Nicaraguan householdsA typical public bus: Traveling from Granada to Leon in chauffeured luxuryThe central cathedral in León, largest catherdral in Central AmericaIsla de Ometepe's main roadPiggies!Ancient petroglyphs on Isla de Ometepe
Typical homestead on Isla de OmetepeKeiko getting friendly with the localsAlmost able to see the peak of Volcan Concepción...

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