Day 41 : Ometepe to Monteverde

It was time to leave Nicaragua and head down to Costa Rica. One of the vans taking us to the dock was a bit late, a sign of things to come. The trip to the dock was good, we passed heavy machinery starting to clean up some of the slips we had crossed on the previous journey and made good time. We were early at the dock so sat and waited, bought things at the small store and watched some of the locals fishing off of the dock. Then the ferry arrived.

The captain wasn’t having a good day. He managed to steer the ferry in a little crooked and then the winch for the loading gate failed as the gate was about a foot off the ground. The next hour saw the boat manually pushed into position and an increasing number of people climbing up to the winch machinery and poke around trying to get it all working. They got there in the end.

Again we had a smooth ride over the lake and arriving at San Jorge we found our bus waiting ready to take us on to the border. This drive took only forty minutes and we got off onto the dusty road to walk up to the border buildings to get our exit stamp. We arrived to find no queue so only had to wait for the official to process our passports which he did quite slowly. On to the next queue in a nice air-conditioned room the Costa Rica entry took no time at all and we moved into the next door restaurant for some lunch.

While eating Josh gave us the news that our onward transport had broken down on the way to pick us up and we would have an extra hours wait. Another half hour and Josh said the bus wasn’t coming at all so we would have to go meet it halfway. Josh organised taxis and we took a crammed two hour journey into Costa Rica looking for the van of Don Taco, owner of the next hotel.

Arriving at the crossroads where the van was waiting I gratefully got out of the taxi to stretch my numb bum. Thankfully Don Taco’s mini-bus was spacious and now we were two people down we all had a good amount of space. We started on the road to the Monteverde area and the last 32 kilometres took nearly two hours, the road increasingly unpaved and hilly. We managed to stop once to look at the vivid pink and orange sunset and then continued to Don Tacos Hotel in the town of Santa Elena.

Sunset on route to Santa Elena.
Sunset on route to Santa Elena

The rooms here were nice and clean with plenty of space. Our first task saw us head into town to get some laundry done and then we joined the rest of the group at a restaurant for dinner. It was Angie’s turn to leave the group, she has been in Costa Rica plenty of times as a GAP leader so didn’t need to take any more shadow training. After dinner we joined those going to a nearby bar and had a drink before saying our goodbyes to Angie. That done we headed back to the hotel to sleep off the tiring day.

Day 40 : Ometepe

The obvious activities on Ometepe involve the volcanoes and taking the option to climb to the top. The wet recent weather meant that this would be tough, the taller Volcán Conception was effectively closed to climbing because of the muddy slopes and it wasn’t recommended to climb the slightly shorter Volcán Maderas either. I joined Andreas, Peter and Stefan to take a shorter walk up the slopes of Maderas to the San Ramón waterfall and Keryn went with Aaron and Cecylia on a guided horse ride near the hotel.

Keryn’s trip saw her ride the horse to see some nearby petroglyphs (ancient rock carvings), walking around to look at the different carvings and investigating the plants at the site. They then travelled along the roads of the island taking in the scenery before returning along the lake shore. They met Leah and Dylan cycling around and got some nice views of the volcanoes in the sunny weather.

One of the petroglyphs.
One of the petroglyphs

Volcán Maderas and the lush vegetation of Ometepe.
Volcán Maderas and the lush vegetation of Ometepe

Cecylia on the horse ride.
Cecylia on the horse ride

Aaron heading towards the distant Volcán Conception.
Aaron heading towards the distant Volcán Conception

After a twenty minute drive those of us walking went with our guide on the path to the waterfall, a 3km journey. We started at a quiet hotel and followed the clearly marked path. A dog joined us as we walked through the hotel grounds, obviously used to people going for walks. The first kilometre was pretty easy by tiring, walking in the sun and heading up the steep path which was wide enough for vehicles to travel along. The farmland gave way to forest as we climbed, the second kilometre offering more shade but we were still all dripping with sweat. A large locust landed on Stefans foot so we took a moment to stare at it. When it flew off its red under wings were visible contrasting with it’s mostly yellow body.

The way to the waterfall.
The way to the waterfall

Each kilometre was marked with a sign and we started on the last third by leaving the wide path and entering a narrower trail that took us into the jungle proper. It was cooler under the trees and we soon came across a stream to our right which the path ran beside in parallel. Coming out from the trees we came to a fork in the stream, to our left a smaller stream flowed down from a waterfall half seen behind the rising bank and to the right the larger stream continued up before disappearing behind a bend. The streams were set in wide banks of mud and rock, obviously when the rains are strong the volume of water was enough to deposit huge amounts of detritus. Walking over the loosely packed materials was harder than it looked, every step had to be checked for loose rocks.

The dirt and rocks of the stream banks.
The dirt and rocks of the stream banks

The dog was still with us and he crossed the stream to the right and looked back, waiting for us to continue. We moved on and hugged the stream for another ten minutes, crossing it at various points while looking for the best path. Coming around the bend we could see a tall waterfall ahead, the narrow flow looking fragile in the distance. We came to a natural viewpoint and stopped to admire the view and have a drink and then it we pushed on for the last clamber over rocks and dirt to come to the face of the waterfall.

Stefan approaches the waterfall.
Stefan approaches the waterfall

Posing in the cool spray.
Posing in the cool spray

The waterfall was tall but didn’t have a huge volume and as such there was no pool we could swim in. Still, it was wonderfully cooling just to stand in the spray and we had a relaxing time taking photos and investigating the area. The smaller waterfall to the left of the main fall was easily accessible and I walked right up to it, washing the sweat from my arms in the cold shower of water. It couldn’t last and we set off back down the path. I lost my water bottle in the process of clambering down a rocky part, the bottle bounced down and into the stream and we couldn’t reach it in the little eddy that it lodged itself into.

Relaxing after a long walk.
Relaxing after a long walk

Naturally enough the downhill journey was quicker than the uphill and we arrived back at the hotel by the path an hour and a half later, hot and tired. We had a cool drink and some food in the hotel, the kitchen brought to life just for the four of us and our guide. The dog also came inside and collapsed under our table, one long walk enough activity for the day. The food took a while to appear and it was lightly raining as we drove back towards the hotel.

Back at the hotel I missed a monkey visiting the kitchen and getting some food, a daily occurrence. Keryn got a few photos. I did manage to get shots of the local Magpie Jays, precocious birds that spent lots of time flying and hopping around the hotel whenever people were eating. Keryn headed out with others to go to the nearby swimming hole and I stayed behind to sit and do some typing with a cold beer or two. The rains started during this time, the water hole people walking back in a cold shower.

A daily monkey visitor.
A daily monkey visitor

A Magpie Jay.
A Magpie Jay

We sat around after dinner over drinks, Keryn and Josh trying to finish off their bottles of rum bought for Ometepe. As such Keryn and I were the last to go to bed other than Josh, an odd occurrence what with our normal early turn ins. It probably had more to do with people being tired and a long travel day coming up.

Day 39 : Granada to Ometepe

The travel today would take us to the island of Ometepe situated on Lago de Nicaragua. Taxis were used to get us to the local bus depot and from here we caught a chicken bus for the hour or so ride down to San Jorge on the lake shore. The bus ride wasn’t too bad but Keryn had to get up in the end out of her seat, the cramped room too much for her knee and back to cope with. We waited at the ferry terminal in San Jorge and boarded once the arriving people had disembarked.

The ferry was large and we sat inside, the rain starting up as we headed to the island. The journey took about an hour and the lake was quite flat so there was no discomfort. The screens inside the ferry played a video obviously aimed at the high end American tourist market with a pretty bus vacuous girl and her young but chirpy boy companion visiting some of the more upmarket holiday destinations in Nicaragua. It was something to watch but the in your face marketing got somewhat annoying.

The town of Moyogalpa was covered in a light rain as we came in to dock, the two volcanoes that gave birth to the island hidden in the mist. We were driven in two vans from the dock heading for the hotel which was situated on the strip of land between the two Volcanoes, stopping once to walk over a large mud slip that covered the road and a couple more times the vans having to take diversions around further slips. After forty minutes of muddy and pot holed dirt roads (and the occasional tarmac) we arrived at our hotel which was itself recovering from the rain, the reception area partially under a thin pool of water.

Walking over the slip.
Walking over the slip

High waters.
High waters

Our room was upstairs and was comfortable enough. We spent the afternoon relaxing and wandering around the hotel grounds. The hotel was right next to the lake, the level obviously high with waterside fixed umbrellas immersed in the water, the beach much narrower than usual. A few went out for a swim and I watched the refection of sunset on the distant clouds, our view east. After dinner we went next door to a small bar where Angie was enthusiastically dancing salsa with anyone who would partner her. We sat and talked and finishing our drinks rose to say goodbye to Claire and Jenny. They had decided to leave the group and join with Jim and Sam in heading to the coast and then down into Costa Rica on a different route than the GAP one. After the goodbyes it was back to the hotel to retire for the night.

Day 38 : Granada

Today we took a tour of the area around Granada, taking in a number of different towns and places along the way. We had breakfast at a waffle restaurant up near the Convento de San Francisco, joining Cecylia at her table. We all walked back to the tour office and joined up with the others coming out for the day. With guide and driver we set out and headed towards the nearby Pueblos Blancos (white villages), so named because the walls of the buildings were often given a simple lime render that made most of the town a simple white colour.

The first town was Catarina, known for its pottery production. At a local house we were shown the steps to make a piece of pottery from kneading the clay through to decoration and firing. The whole process was very manual, the pottery wheel turning under foot power, each piece hand crafted. Most of the tools used were natural as well, stones and wood for the most part used for smoothing and polishing. Aaron had a go on the potters wheel and with some help managed to get a somewhat respectful looking pot at the end. Unfortunately it takes about twenty days from shaping to final product so there was no chance to get anything to take away from his efforts. A few people bought items from the simple shop and then we left for our next stop.

Pottery chimes were one of the more interesting pieces on display.
Pottery chimes were one of the more interesting pieces on display

Aaron at the wheel.
Aaron at the wheel

At San Juan Oriente we had a short walk through the main street, seeing bullet holes riddling the side of a building, evidence of the unsettled recent history of the area. This town was a center for plants, many houses having small nurseries with the plants displayed for sale on the roadside. We walked past a number of these little shop fronts and our guide pointed out some of the more interesting plants. A very short van ride then took us up to a viewpoint looking over Laguna de Apoyo. As we stood admiring the view a rain band came across which sent us all back to the van for cover.

The view over Laguna de Apoyo.
The view over Laguna de Apoyo

We drove down to the lake and had an hour or so of relaxing in hammocks, having a cool drink, a bite to eat and of course swimming in the lake. It was good, more so when the sun came out – for some this was the first chance they had had in a long time to rest in the sunlight. All good things must end and we drove back up the road, stopping briefly at another lookout as we hadn’t had a good chance to look out over the lake towards Granada and Lago de Nicaragua. Moving on the next destination was Masaya and a lunch stop at the Mercado Nacional de Artesania. After eating we had time to wander through the market but didn’t buy much, it was all a little too tourist orientated for us market snobs.

A group photo at the second lookout. From the left: Josh, Andreas, Richard, Aaron, Peter, Stefan, Brendon, Keryn and Cecylia.
A group photo at the second lookout. From the left: Josh, Andreas, Richard, Aaron, Peter, Stefan, Brendon, Keryn and Cecylia

Hammock tassels at the Mercado Nacional de Artesania.
Hammock tassels at the Mercado Nacional de Artesania

We had a stop at a supermarket to buy snacks for the coming days of travel and Ometepe where we would be isolated from shops and then headed out to the Coyotepe Prison. The prison, last used about twenty years previous, was situated on a hill outside of Masaya. In its day the prison was used to house political dissidents with torture a common place undertaking in the seeking of confessions. A bleak place was somewhat turned on its head when we arrived at the gate to find dozens of school-kids in attendance, running around, playing and generally making noises not associated with the site of a prison.

The first level of the Coyotepe Prison.
The first level of the Coyotepe Prison

Down to the second level.
Down to the second level

Stairs to the surface.
Stairs to the surface

We walked up to one of the small towers on the prison walls and climbed up to look over the surrounding countryside. In the distance we could see Volcán Masaya, out next destination, sending clouds of smoke and gases along the horizon. Climbing down we headed for one of the entrances to the prison, the cells set on three levels underground. For the next hour or so we wandered the first and second levels. Most of the cells had been ripped out but we could see the small areas where the prisoners had been kept. The first level had some light from windows in the concrete walls but was also home to bats, wolf spiders and scorpions. The second level was much darker, little to no natural light and strangely no insects that we could see. Turning off our lights in one small second level room we were left in total blackness and could try to imagine for a moment what it may have been like for the prisoners crammed into this room and left for months at a time. The prison was a disquieting place, the guides’ descriptions adding uneasy colour to the drab surroundings. There is a third level, deeper underground, which we were not able to visit. It must be a terrible place.

Back at the top.
Back at the top

Leaving the prison as the light was beginning to fail we drove to the park that holds the Volcán Masaya, one of the few active volcanoes in Central America. Here we were hoping to be able to see the glowing lava still alive several kilometres down the crater. This appeared to be an unlikely possibility, we arrived to the car park adjacent to the crater to find huge volumes of gas and smoke pumping out of the cavity. Overhead a small flock of parrots flew by and then down into the crater, apparently they nest in the crater walls much to the perplexity of scientists what with the high toxicity levels. We had a gas mask each to help us with the fumes (though the masks themselves didn’t seem that effective, gaps and ill fit making them more of a psychological comfort than anything else).

Gas clouds envelop the car park.
Gas clouds envelop the car park

The Spanish Cross and the sunset.
The Spanish Cross and the sunset

The wind changed and the gas cloud started towards the car park so we were driven up to a higher viewpoint where the local guide started out tour. There were a few other groups in attendance and together we followed the guide up a path to a lookout over an older, dormant crater. In the near distance a rainbow was straddling the sky and this coupled with the clouds and evening light gave the place a dramatic presence. Below we could see jungle covering much of the crater floor and the sounds of the evening, crickets and other insects, were starting. The sun started to set over the active crater, edging the clouds with yellow and peach colours while the guide told us about the area. The rain of the last few days meant that the clouds had more volume than usual and this coupled with the prevailing wind direction meant we couldn’t take the usual walk up to the Spanish cross on the far side of the active crater so we just had to catch glimpses of it though the swirling clouds below.

Looking towards Laguna de Apoyo as evening descends.
Looking towards Laguna de Apoyo as evening descends

Walking along the dormant crater rim we took a low path and headed to the far side of the volcano where we could see out to Laguna de Apoyo and beyond. We were denied the chance to go to the highest point for a better view, the rain again the culprit with the higher ground wet and safety an issue with the volume of people present. Back along the path to the vehicles we took a short drive down onto the lower reaches of the active volcano and were all kitted out with torches so we could visit a couple of caves. At the first cave we could see (just) hundreds of bats flying out into the night. When the lights were turned off the soft whooshing of the bats could be heard all around and photos could be taken with a bit of luck, the camera aimed in the general direction of the cave and fingers crossed that the flash would catch the bats in flight. The second cave was an old lava tube, circular and heading several hundred meters underground. The walls were formed of melted rock and above us had a strange texture, smooth and formed like a rocky version of melting ice.

The bat cave.
The bat cave

The walls of the lava tube.
The walls of the lava tube

One more ride and we came to the edge of the crater, this time with the wind pushing the gases away so we could get to the edge. The volume of gas meant there was no chance of seeing any devil glow below but it was still interesting leaning over the edge and staring into the whiteness. That was the end of our tour so we headed back to Granada where we had dinner at the local Irish pub. A long day had us more tired than usual so we then found our way to our room for a well earned rest.

Day 37 : Granada

With two full days in Granda we took this as a slow day where we would spend little money and just wander around the town. Setting out mid morning we walked away from the Parque Central towards Lago de Nicaragua. The most interesting thing we saw was a game of little league, both teams in their nice uniforms and for the young age of the players they seemed to take it all very seriously. The town got more run down the closer to the lake and the ferry terminal everything seemed to have been left to slowly decay, the buildings with peeling paint and somewhat overgrown vegetation. The long pier was closed to the public (except of ferry days I guess) and messages proclaiming no entry spray painted crudely on the gate. The water was dirty, flotsam on the beach and it just wasn’t pleasant.

The lakeside park.
The lakeside park

We walked along the park next to the lake shore. The grass was getting quite long and was mixed with all sorts of creeping vegetation. There was a playground, the swings broken and metal rusting, and the seesaws in a similar state of disrepair. A couple of sorry looking horses were cropping the grass, ignoring us as we walked by. Keryn chose a different street to walk back towards town but we were quite quickly turned around by a tourist police man on a motorcycle. He pulled up in front of us and with sign language (his helmet was still on) got me to put my camera away and informed us to walk back the way we had come. This morning walk wasn’t the best introduction to Granada.

Keryn on the steps of Iglesia Guadalupe.
Keryn on the steps of Iglesia Guadalupe

We passed old church, white walls dirty and turning grey. I took a few photos of the Iglesia Guadalupe and then we headed back to the hotel. Our last encounter was with an old man who wanted some money. When I ignored him he stepped towards me and slapped the back of my shoulder and proceeded to berate me loudly. We walked on.

Reaching the hotel we took a rest in the lobby. Cecylia came back from a walking tour she and a few others had taken and we quizzed her for a few other places to visit. Hoping for a more pleasant second part to our day we headed into the center of the city.

A mermaid on the wall of Convento de San Francisco.
A mermaid on the wall of Convento de San Francisco

The central courtyard of Convento de San Francisco.
The central courtyard of Convento de San Francisco

Our first stop was at the Convento de San Francisco. Inside the old colonial building a small museum had been set up and we walked past a mural giving the history of Nicaragua from the first recorded native settlements to Spanish colonisation and on to today. Quite randomly there was a mermaid painted on the wall, maybe the signature of the artist. The inner courtyard was planted with large palm trees and the whole place was calm and cool, quite a change from the mornings decay and heat. Each room off the courtyard had a different display, large stone carvings from the pre-Columbus era, pottery, examples of native games, wooden carvings of saints and angels. We spent a peaceful half hour looking at everything before heading out once more.

Old doors on the streets of Granada.
Old doors on the streets of Granada

Lunch was had near the square and we bumped into Sam and his mate Jim as we were heading off to the next site of interest. I haven’t mentioned Jim before (strangely); he joined us way back in Flores on the previous segment of the GAP trip, paying his own way to follow our tour. Sam and Jim had been making their way independently through Honduras and Nicaragua but their path was pretty much the same as our own so we often saw them in towns and cities we stayed in. We chatted to them for a bit, they had only just arrived in Granada, and then headed on to Iglesia La Merceo.

We visited this church specifically because it was a bell tower that can be climbed for views over Granada. Arriving outside the church a man waved us over and after establishing that we wanted to walk the steps for the view he led us over to the locked gate that opened to the stairs. The man didn’t seem to be an official church person, he had a mild form of muscular dystrophy and spoke in a slurred manner but was friendly and seemed trustworthy. Seeing the locked gate he rustled up the woman with the key. We paid the small fee and headed up the narrow concrete staircase to the top of the bell tower.

The view from the bell tower of Iglesia La Merceo.
The view from the bell tower of Iglesia La Merceo

Keryn in the bell tower.
Keryn in the bell tower

Taking the stairs down.
Taking the stairs down

We spent a while looking out over the city and towards the distant volcanoes and lake. Granada looked nice from on high, the terracotta tiles of the rooftops attractive under the grey sky. Once we’d taken all the photos we could manage it was back downstairs and on to the hotel, stopping to pick up laundry on the way. The second part of the day had been much better than the first. We had dinner at a pizza place very close to the hotel and followed it up with good ice cream. Tomorrow we had a full day tour of the area around Granada booked so we headed to the hotel rather than stay out late over drinks.

Day 36 : Tegucigalpa to Granada

We left Honduras today and entered Nicaragua. This involved four different buses and two sets of taxis and went kind of like what follows. The group split on leaving the hotel, three taking the more expensive option of an air conditioned luxury bus all the way from Tegucigalpa to Granada, leaving by taxi to get to their bus station. The rest of us took taxis to a different bus station where we waited for an hour or so for us first bus to depart. This bus took around two hours to get to the border with Nicaragua, it was meant to take over three hours but our driver was a madman.

Another new country.
Another new country

At the border things were going smoothly until Josh asked for our passports to be stamped (a number of Central American countries have banded together, you get one entrance stamp that covers all of them normally). The border official took umbrage to this request and suddenly we all had forms to fill out. Josh himself was given the third degree, all as punishment for a simple request. Don’t mess with border officials in the lesson. We had all got onto a yellow school bus for our next section of journey when the border officials appeared again and Josh was asked to get off the bus and his passport was inspected again. They didn’t find anything they could pull him up on so after a five minute wait we were allowed to go on our way.

Chicken Bus lite.
Chicken Bus lite

The school bus was one of the often talked about chicken buses; a bus that used to take kids to school in America that now takes many more people from a to b in Central America. We had a kind of chicken bus light experience, the bus never really got that packed and there were no chickens. It was only a short journey anyway, after an hour we arrived at the next town to transfer to another bus that would take us to Managua.

We thought we had ten minutes but the next bus started pulling out pretty much as soon as our bags had been transferred so Josh had to run around collecting up those who had gone to find food or toilets. This bus carried us for another three hours or so, with regular mini-buses making the journey from Managua to Granada we did have time at the next bus station for a bite to eat and a toilet stop.

In Managua once everyone was ready we got in taxis and headed across town to a different bus stop where we boarded a mini-bus for the final hour to Granada. This bus soon got very full, and then more full until we were packed to the brim with people. The last hour was probably the most uncomfortable of the whole days travel. We were relieved when the mini-bus pulled up outside our hotel in Granada.

The hotel looked nice but the room were tiny. Once our bags were on the floor we barely had room to move around the bed. Still, the bed itself was comfortable and we don’t go on these trips to spend much time in our rooms if we can help it (other than to sleep of course). Dinner was had at a nice Mexican restaurant a short walk up the main street from the hotel. After two days of bus journeys the night’s sleep was gratefully taken.