So, we knew we wanted to leave San Juan, but we were running into one little problem. We were halfway into Semana Santa, or Holy Week, a massive holiday in most Latin countries. I’d been living in Sevilla, Spain for Semana Santa a few years ago, and the entire city essentially shut down as it hosts some of the most serious and elaborate events and processions in the world. In San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, Semana Santa means something completely different.
It is one of the most popular destinations for domestic travel, but any of the religious and traditional undertones of the week seem entirely absent. As the rum and beer trucks rolled into town and stages were constructed for beachfront concerts, it began to (further) contribute to the party atmosphere in the air. Apparently Semana Santa in San Juan is an excuse for a long weekend (Thursday through Sunday) of complete debauchery, with increased rates of obnoxious drinking, illicit drugs, and crime. The more stories I heard about the beach town over the course of my week there, the more I wanted to leave. It was tricky, as the pumping music in beachside bars and the throngs of people made it seem a bit appealing, but the gist of what we got was it’s basically a mess and we were better off escaping.
Okay, but to where? A national holiday means, of course, that all of the popular holiday destinations tend to be booked up well in advance and/or the prices skyrocket. We decided we’d like to go to the Corn Islands, off of the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. Little Corn sounds like a slice of Caribbean paradise and, though I’m sure I’ll get my fill on this trip, still made the wish list. Unfortunately, when we went to book the flight we’d inquired about the previous day, it had been entirely booked up (for four days) due, of course, to the holiday weekend.
We returned to our original plan, which we had altered due to the seismic activity. We decided to visit Ometepe, an island in Lake Nicaragua, which happens to be home to two large volcanoes. We asked around, kept an eye on the news, and decided that we should be reasonably secure on the island, despite the earthquakes shaking ground around Managua.
We got an early start in San Juan and hopped on an express minibus that took us to Rivas for 20 cordobas each. In Rivas, we flagged a taxi that took us the remaining distance to the lake edge, the ferry terminal in San Jorge, for 125 C total. There, we had the good luck to arrive shortly before the departure of the 7 a.m. ferry, which cost us 50 C each. There are ferries and lanchas that make the crossing from San Jorge to Ometepe (arriving in either Moyogalpa or San José del Sur). The crossing can be rough, and the lanchas aren’t known for their steady crossings, but they certainly offer a slightly more exciting experience than the ferries. In Moyogalpa, we jumped on a bus headed to Altragracia (16 C), where we then transferred for one that would take us to our destination, Zopilote (17 C). There are buses in Moyogalpa that will take you all of the way to Balgüe and will drop you off anywhere along the way, but they leave much less frequently. This had been one of our most hassle-free travel days to date, as there were little mistakes or long wait times, and we arrived in Zopilote feeling good, if a bit tired from the 5:30 a.m. start.
We hadn’t been able to make a reservation, as Zopilote, as well as many of the other accommodation options on the island, don’t accept them except for long-term stays. As we planned to camp, this luckily didn’t turn out to be an issue. Zopilote is a working finca, or farm, and produces the majority of the food on offer at the restaurant. It’s a beautiful, sprawling, permaculture design that is integrated exceptionally well into the hillside with lush Volcán Maderas rising in the distance. From a vantage point, one can see the vastness of Lake Nicaragua stretching out into the distance, with no shoreline visible. While on the island, it certainly feels more like you are alongside the sea rather than a lake.
Zopilote is a pretty solid budget option, with camping and hammocks running $3 per person, and dorms about $5. Meals cost $2.50 for a basic veggie tipicá option and up to $9 for the (rather miss-able) lasagne. It is chockers full of the hippiest breed of travellers, and it caters to them. A re-purposed school bus at the entrance boasts a wide selection of hippie goodies and exchangeable books, there are free yoga sessions on offer in the mornings, and thrice-weekly pizza nights attract guests from miles around.
Ometepe has a lot on offer, and we only sampled a sprinkling of it in our five days there. Many accommodation options hire out bikes, motorcycles, and horses for reasonable rates ($5/day for a bike, $25 for a motorcycle), which aid in exploration of the island. There are two volcanoes on Ometepe, Conceptión and Maderas. Volcán Conceptión, still active, is the monster of the two and is located on the north side of the island, close to the main docking point of Moyogalpa. We stayed on the south side of the island, close to Volcán Maderas.
One of our days involved hiring bicycles and exploring a little ways back the way we had come. Our main destination was El Ojo de Agua, a recommended natural mineral pool. I was envisioning small, natural stone pools hidden away in the trees. When we arrived, paid our $3 entry, and entered the small park, however, we were greeted by the masses. El Ojo de Agua is essentially a large swimming pool that harnesses the flowing mineral waters. Water is constantly streaming in and out, and the natural bottom does make for a rather earthy feel. I don’t know if it is because we were visiting on Semana Santa weekend or whether it always so busy (I’m guessing the former), but the place was packed. Families clearly came and camped out for the day, toting picnic lunches, inflatable water mattresses, and – in the kids’ cases – endless energy for cannonballing into the pool. We had a great time playing around for a bit, even when the back of Tim’s head accidentally cracked directly into my nose. After checking several times to make sure that my nose hadn’t actually broken, we tracked down some ice and spent some time just watching it all unfold.
On the way back, we stopped for lunch along Playa Santa Domingo, Ometepe’s most popular beach. It’s windswept and has a few too many beached fish, but the rising hills and long expanse of sand that plays host to pick-up football games is a lovely place to spend a few hours.
Our other main activity during our time on the island was to scale Volcán Maderas. Guides can be hired for $20-25 total for a couple of people or, for a larger group, $10 per person. We spoke with Tao, a French guy who had basically been making it a mission to scale as many volcanoes as possible down the Pacific line of Central America. He said it was easy enough to climb Maderas without a guide, directly from Zopilote. (Go up to the second Mirador, turn left through the boulders, hop over the fence, turn left, and follow the path. You will reach a house where you need to pay $1 entrance per person. Veer left through banana fields, and then keep going up.)
We left at about 8 a.m., which we thought was a bit late but actually ended up being perfect. As we did it as a day hike, we (ahem, Tim) carried only water (3L each was plenty), a camera, and lunch. This was a welcome break to the overnight camping hikes we’d been doing. I was gloriously pack free! It took us a bit shy of 3.5 hours to reach the top. There is a fair amount of up and down along the track, and we questioned a couple of times if we were going in the right direction; it felt as though we were circling round the crater rather than climbing up to it. Finally, we reached a peak and then started descending (again, questioning, but yes, this is the right way). We reached the base of the crater wall and the slightly murky, greenish lake that now rests in the dormant volcano’s crater greeted us. We stopped for a picnic alongside a couple of other groups, and the heavy cloud cover clearing moments after we arrived. We then set off and explored the opposite side of the crater (there’s a path through the trees there that Tim discovered seems to take you down the opposite side of the volcano along a very sketchy path, though it does happen to be littered with howler monkeys), and finally followed another group up an alternate exit. From the point where you arrive in the crater, take the path slightly to the right that is beside a large wooden bench (looking at the bench, it’s the path to the left). This steep, scrambley path took us up to a vantage point with amazing views of the crater and the lake. The air was a bit hazy beyond the volcano, and there was no definitive horizon. The lake sitting in the crater, with only blue sky visible beyond, gave the impression of sitting at the end of the world, or upon some floating mountain, the ground too far below to see
I’d had some apprehensions, as I noted the terrain that we were crossing, on the way up about the ease of coming back down. My knees have always been a bit less than average, and the semi-recent smashing my right knee got in Australia hasn’t helped. Already twinging on the way up, it wasn’t long before my knees had a deep, burning pain shooting through them with every step I took on the way down. Tim tirelessly found and shaped sticks for me to use as walking poles, which I then proceeded to break at least five of. Finally, we had traversed the worst of it, and had only about 45 minutes of gentle decline left before we were home, where my plans included a thorough shower and some ice for my knees. Turns out the ice was not to be had, so I settled for rum instead. We had a nice, final dinner at Zopilote and planned to head out the following day.
I haven’t been home in Canada for about a year and a half, and have not seen any of my close friends from home since then, or even earlier. Grand hopes of Central American reunions are happily coming true, and three friends are coming down to meet Tim and I in Costa Rica. With their dates confirmed for the 28th of April, we decided we had just enough time to squeeze in a trip to the Corn Islands off of the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. The Corn Islands are somewhere we’d been tossing up going, the major debateable factor the $165 cost of the round trip airline ticket to get there. (Or, alternatively, about two days and $40 each way to do it overland.) Finally, we decided that as we’d want to visit someday, it only made sense to do it now, as we’re a lot closer than we’ll be again for a long time. With that decided, we made some last minute phone calls to La Costeña to book flights for the following day, and to Nicaragua Guest House hostel in Managua to confirm a room and the ability to store luggage, and began to the trek back north to Managua.
We caught buses back to Moyogalpa on Ometepe, and proceeded to wait about two and a half hours for a ferry. We’d just missed the 12:30 one, and both of the schedules we had consulted with ferry times appeared to be incorrect, as the next lancha didn’t leave until 3 p.m. (despite promises of 1 and 2 p.m. ferries). Once we got on the lancha, it was about 75 minutes to the mainland, with a fair amount of slightly unsettling rocking. From the port at San Jorge, we got on the waiting express bus to Managua (80 C each), took a taxi to our nearby accommodation (125 C total) and were greeted by the friendly proprietor of Nicaragua Guest House, who welcomed us with cold bottled water, showed us where to keep our bags, and called us a taxi for the ungodly hour of 4:30 in the morning. Next stop, the Corn Islands!