Wednesday 26th November (Day 12)
We left Rincon de la Vieja at around 8.30 a.m. for our journey across the border to Ometepe in Nicaragua.
When we reached the lower levels, the roads were very dry and dusty and clearly the area had not received the rain that we had experienced for so long.
The border crossing comprised, on the Costa Rican side, long queues of trucks, dilapidated buildings and a very long line of people. We stood for over half an hour in hot sunshine with little progress. Jackie negotiated some deal whereby we were fast-tracked for $3 per person on the basis that we had a ferry to catch.
We stopped in a rather run down but typically Latin American town to buy food for lunch and then continued to the ferry. Lake Nicaragua is extremely large and has within it two volcanoes which comprise the island of Ometepe. The lake was a little rough but the strong warm wind was very enjoyable.
An hour later, we arrived on Ometepe where our luggage was taken by “porters” who each carried three cases and waded through shallow water whilst we walked over a make-shift path of sand bags.
Our impressions are that this is a much poorer area than we have been used to but people seem relaxed and friendly. A lot of the houses are extremely basic, some being made only of palm fronds or wood.
Our journey across the lake had been dominated by our views of the active volcano La Concepcion which we were constantly photographing complete with a small trail of black gasses coming from the crater.
The journey to the hotel consisted mainly of going around the base of the volcano to the far side of the island and a much closer view of Maderas – the other volcano.
On this occasion, our hotel at Santa Domingo comprised small round huts and attractive a multitude of flying insects including midges.
Thursday 27th November (Day 13)
Our accommodation at Ometepe was in round, brick-built individual dwellings with thousands of pebbles pressed in concrete adorning the bathroom and the top part of the walls. Ours had a double bed and two single beds but little else.
Today we went on a day tour of the island taking in some early rock carvings (200BC to 600AD), a coffee plantation, a small town with pre-conquest statues, lunch by the lake and ending swimming in the Green Lagoon.
The day was thoroughly enjoyable with very warm temperatures and yet a cooling breeze in the shade. The slow progress over the unmade roads gave us plenty of opportunity to see first hand the simple dwellings and the life style of these friendly and laid back island people. Much of life is no doubt very hard yet there seem attractions in the beautiful surroundings and the seemingly lack of time pressure. Many people seem to be just sitting or are standing talking. We also saw lots of children since they had broken up from school yesterday and apparently do not return until 15th February. No doubt they were doubly happy.
The petroglyphs number around two and a half thousand and are found all over the Volcan Maderas region.
The coffee production was by a small co-operative and in its simplicity formed a stark contrast to the scale and mechanisation of the Costa Rican company that we had visited.
The pre-conquest statues dated from around 800 AD. They showed a mixture of animal and human features.
Our swim in the lake was a refreshing interlude and equipped us for an hour’s walk back to the hotel cabins. It was only Helle, Adrian and I who chose not to return by minibus. It gave us a chance to see more birds, including parrots, and take yet more photos of both the volcanoes
We had greatly enjoyed our stay on Ometepe where life is slow and leisurely and reminiscent of days several centuries back. It was commonplace to see women washing mountains of clothes in the rivers and also people washing their hair and bodies there.
Friday 28th November (Day 14)
Our earliest start so far this trip saw us leaving Les Kabanes Hotel at 7.30 a.m. for Granada. Breakfast was arranged especially early at 6.45 a.m.! Jill was particularly glad to get to breakfast as, in the bathroom, she had pulled the towel off its hook to dry herself when an ENORMOUS black tarantula like spider dropped with a plop and scurried into the corner of the shower! We barricaded it into the bathroom and did not venture in their again.
We headed for the ferry port to return across Lake Nicaragua – and a local small shop was opened especially for us as some folk wanted to buy tshirts etc. Jill got a black one inscribed Ometepe and Nicaragua.
Again we climbed the ladder to the top of the ferry for the return journey to San Jorge. We were met by a new mini bus which took us to Granada in about an hour and a half.
The hotel (The Alhambra) was on the cathedral square and would be rated 4*. It was a spanish style, colonial courtyard building dating back probably to the 16th century originally. Its glory was a little faded but it was one of the best we had stayed in so far.
Our rooms would not be available until 2.00 p.m. so we left our luggage there and went off to seek lunch.
A short afternoon tour took us to the principal sites (on foot!) We noticed the considerably greater heat but nevertheless accepted the challenge of climbing the 71 steps to the top of the bell tower of the oldest church in town. From the top there was an impressive view over Granada out towards Lake Nicaragua – we could even see the twin volcanoes of Ometepe which we had left earlier.
We all visited a local tour office known to “Explore” and chose different tour options for the next day.
In the evening we all met together for a meal and to share Nick’s birthday cake.
Unfortunately, that night we had little sleep. It was the first of a 9 night festival of The Virgin. However the karaoke bar close to our room may be a normal feature – it closed down at 3.00 a.m. when people heading for mass took over and church bells and fire crackers provided additional “backing”.
Saturday 29th November (Day 15)
Following a breakfast at the hotel restaurant, overlooking the square, we set off on a tour with Helle. The principal attraction was the Masaya volcano, the first active volcano we think we have ever seen at such close quarters. It was a little offputting to read the notices instructing all vehicles to face the exit (ready for a quick getaway should an eruption occur!)
Byron our guide told us that a few months ago there had been a strange incident where a vehicle remained in the car park when the national park was closing. A search was mounted for its occupant – with men clad in special suits even searching right into the crater – no one was ever found and there were no telltale vultures hovering where possibly a death had occurred. It was concluded that the car driver had been kidnapped by someone in another car and driven away.
Our party of six arrived at the crater before anyone else and we enjoyed at least half an hour watching the ever changing cloud of fumes and taking photographs of the spectacular scenery. We were able to walk up to a large wooden cross with a lookout – one had been originally sited there in the 1520s to subdue the devil in the volcano!
There was an informative museum dealing with the geology, flora and fauna of the area. It was amazing to learn that parrots live within the crater and have adapted to the constant fumes.
We stopped twice by crater lakes, each with spectacular views to Lake Nicaragua – one being at La Catarina. We then moved on to Masaya town and a craft market within the volcanic walls of what had once been a fort. This town is the home of many indigenous people who have clustered in the area and were given special rights in the early 1990s to own their own land.
Our final stop was to see a small pottery workshop where a potter who, whilst apparently well known, seemed to earn very little from his work. He demonstrated the whole process of making a pot and we bought a very small example as a souvenir.
Our guide, Byron, was particularly informative and also laid back. He had learned English as a 13 year old when he had opted to attend Saturday school each week in Managua - some long way away from his home. He told us that Nicaragua has a population of just over 5 million, unemployment of 55% and compulsory education between 5/6 years of age and 12. Health care is free but there seems to be no unemployment benefit. He told us that many families rely on relatives abroad sending home money for them.
We also learned that Nicaragua is the poorest of the Central American countries (after Haiti) and we had certainly noticed this to be true in the houses and the lower prices.
In the evening we went to a street café where we were constantly attended by hawkers and street entertainers. A small group of teenaged boys did some really quite skilful acrobatics and break dancing – one being double if not triple jointed!
The square and surrounding area were full of people attending the continuing celebrations but we were totally unable to see what may have been the main attraction.
We spend a much better night have pleaded our case at Reception which resulted in us being moved to a third floor room well away from the karaoke bar!
Sunday 30th November (Day 16)
We had been due to go on to Managua today but advice from the UK Foreign Office had been that the area should be avoided due to political unrest and violent demonstrations there. “Explore” therefore opted to change the route rather than take a risk and to go our revised itinerary was to take us from Granada to Esteli instead of Managua.
In fact, it would seem that the violence had calmed down and things had reverted to normal – but the decision had been taken and could not now be altered.
On our way to Esteli, we again visited La Catarina and its flower nurseries followed by the market at Masaya where we bought a CD of local music.
We travelled on, and near our destination stopped at La Casita, an organic food and plant centre which a Scottish man had set up 25 years nago and was still running. Jill had an organic yoghurt and muesli and Adrian, rice pudding!
Finally we arrived at “La Panorama” which was to be our replacement hotel for one night. It looked modern and appealing from the outside but, whilst we were waiting for Mario to unload the luggage from the roof of the minibus, we noted that all the windows had bars on them. When we got into the rooms, we found that much of the furniture was falling to pieces and the walls were made of something resembling hardboard. The showers had bare electric wires so we didn’t risk using them! All in all it was reminiscent of an old soviet hotel. However, it did have free wifi with an incredibly fast connection and this extended to our room as well.
Three quarters of an hour after arriving at La Panorama, we left for a trip to Esteli town centre. We had about an hour there and Adrian, Helle and I walked around together, it was a very strange town with armed guards outside its banks – usually situated at street corners. There were also many murals adorning house walls and communal areas – these usually depicting revolution and some devoted to children’s causes. We saw no other tourists and were stared at by the locals in a way that suggested we were a relatively rare sight.
Back at the hotel, we were able to sort out our Icesave claim so we were delighted about that. Flushed with our success, we went out for a group meal in Esteli’s best hotel. The meal was excellent (although we first had to set out several tables at which to sit since Jackie’s prior reservation had not resulted in them being ready for us!) It was particularly good that the hotel gave all profits to support street children and the prices of food were excellent also.
Monday 1st December – to Roatan, Honduras (Day 17)
We left the hotel just before 8.00 a.m. which theoretically gave us a leisurely drive to the border and on to the airport where the revised itinerary would involve us in catching 3 separate flights to Roatan.
The diary continues under the title of “Honduras”.