Wednesday, 4 June 2014

On top of Ometepe

Arriving at the port in Granada in plenty of time for our boat, we're accosted even as we queue to buy our tickets by a friendly chap named Willie who unsurprisingly is in cahoots with a hotel on the island and can do a "very good price". He's friendly and we're not too fazed by his sales pitch, as really he's just short cutting the inevitable throng of hotel sellers which we expect to encounter on our arrival in Ometepe.

We do however have to ask him to cool it for a second while we figure out wtf is going on with our ticket purchase - they are priced at 104 cordobas (£2.50) but the lady is all flustered as she doesn't have any change... at all. Why would you do that? The lady started to stress until I told her that she could keep the 2 cordobas change from our 2 tickets (all of 5 English pence), although with the flap she was in she's probably still trying to balance her till a week later.

With this little conundrum dealt with, Willie is back on the case and having started at $15 another for a private room, I've negotiated our way down to $12. I'm still pretty pleased with myself when he pulls out his notebook to write in our names and $, and I can see that a few others are paying the full $15, and no pairing is paying less than us - result.

Next stop is a bag check by the military - as usual out here this is mostly a token effort but they do like to half empty your bags and touch pretty much everything before they give the ok and pass you to one side of the bench to repack 4-7 months worth of crap. The biggest issue that we saw was a couple that had to pack their cervezas into their bags as this is a booze free cruise - tough day for the military there.

Once aboard the boat we're pretty pleased to find that we can upgrade to first class (that's a deckchair on the upper deck) for a whole 75pence. With our new seats secured we sit back for a 4 hour jolly across Lake Nicaragua - the lake is 8,624km2, so more than 3 times the size of Luxembourg, and our destination is an island formed of 2 volcanos in the middle of this.

We soon discover that Willies work is not over yet, and he's (very politely) trying to book us on one of the main tours available in Ometepe - a hike up Volcan Concepcion. This is a biggie (in tourist terms), from near sea level up to 1,610m, billed as "extremely strenuous" by Lonely Planet. LP also says "Volcan Concepcion is a pretty serious 10-12 hour hike, the last bit up steep and slippery volcanic scree. Be prepared for intense heat (the sun, not lava), and also for chills at the summit". Of course Willie wants to get us signed up right away, lest any other tour operator get their claws into us, and after more negotiations we get this down to $20 each but we mustn't tell the others that he's giving us such a good deal and blah blah blah... and he clearly says this to everyone.

Soon after we agree to this, our deck chairs on the open section of the upper deck seem less incredible as the wind picks up and the rain starts so we shuffle our deckchairs under the covered section and enjoy the ride.

We arrive at our humble abode via taxi bus provided by Willies cousin, and having paid our money to Willie and signed our lives away we head out for dinner with Ted who will also be on the trek, we then get ready for another early start (5am departure) so I set my alarm for 4:40, and set out everything that I'll need for that ungodly hour. Carly decides that she just needs to "get up and go" so opts for 4:50am - take note, this detail will be relevant later.

We begin with a very easy stroll from our hotel to the nearby shop (shack) which surprisingly is open at 5am. We load up on some sweet bread pasty things, Oreos, water, and a selection of mangos, bananas and oranges. You may not be aware but these fruits are part of the fruit group known as the "squashables" which is why they are ideal to be thrown into a backpack and bounced around for the next few hours.

The hike itself takes us 9 hours door to door, with about 7.5 hours of that the "proper" hiking up and down, the rest being the walk between our hotel and the entrance/exit of the national park. We have a good few breaks along the way, sufficient that we reach the top at pretty much right on 10am, despite only having been "moving" for 2 hours 40 minutes. So we could have got up and down much faster overall, but had various stops to eat the squashables, amble along past pigs, cows, dogs, horses, howler monkeys, and pick mangoes and avocados from the trees.

It's on one of these trees that someone spots a giant "owl moth". I'd like to be able to add in the awesome photo of this beast but OHHHHH NOOOO! Looks like someones "get up and go" this morning didn't include putting the camera battery in, nice one! For the 2nd time this trip we've gone on an epic trek carrying a big, camera shaped paper weight.

Moving on... the trail heads off vertically and so do we, into the clouds, through jungle and along what was the old lava trail. The climb really is strenuous (thanks Lonely Planet!), and I manage to fall upwards adding a matching gash to the leg that had escaped uninjured from the volcano boarding. CP is loving the walking sticks on the way up, won't shut up about them and it's not until the way down that I actually understand why. The weather moves from scorchio to wet and windy in the clouds, shaded under the vast jungle canopy with the biggest Jurassic park ferns you have ever seen, and finally freezing cold with gale force winds at the top - all four seasons in one trek.

Unfortunately the view from the top is zero - too much cloud and we can't see even a metre into the crater that the gale force winds are trying to push us into. Such a shame as we were pretty chuffed with ourselves for making it to the top and a view woulda been nice!  Still, we made it and We hang around long enough for the obligatory summit photos in the snarling wind and then get started on the the journey down.

Going back down was twice as hard as going up, with loose rocks and scree, wet slippery sections, and a ridiculous steepness to deal with. We started a "fun game" with Ted to see who would slip, slide, or fall the most. The wooden walking poles saved us all many times, although the knees (or at least, the bony mess where our knees used to be) in particular are taking a hammering. The concentration with every step to stop yourself falling was immense and it became both mentally and physically tiring. Can only imagine what Andy May went through win Everest...this was a speed bump in comparison! By the time we reach the easier stuff further down, it's not the difficulty but the tiredness that becomes the danger, with all of us managed to stumble of lumps and bumps that are barely there - there are times that we're dealing with body shakes as we try to safely negotiate our way down. CP seems to be enjoying hate frolicking down but even she tires by the end of it. Meanwhile one of our guides, aged 65, pauses for a quick yoga stretch while he waits for us to catch up. On to the proper flat stuff and it's still an effort not to fall over the heat and dehydration taking their toll.

There's a light interlude when Carly spots a herd of cattle being led between fields, and within them a bull with the biggest balls (that's cajones) ever, and proceeds to communicate this to the farmer via a series of actions and hand gestures, almost all them inappropriate - but apparently  the message was accurately conveyed, with the farmer responding by mimicking all the (still inappropriate) gestures.

Finally we're passing our little grocery store again and stop in for the soon to be favourite beverage of choice - ice cold melon juice in a bag, drunk using a patented "boob squeeze" action.

This is quickly followed by a celebratory beer at the hotel while negotiating tomorrow's scooter rental. This is a prolonged process where they start at $40 for the day and immediately drop to $30. We push hard for $25, before Willie and his nephew (very incestuous tour company this one) agree... and then try to charge $5 for a 2nd helmet to make it $30 again by default. Behave ffs!

Finally we drag ourselves to the local pasta place to eat. At this stage we could probably have blended up lard and still run up a serious calorie deficit bug pasta is a better option, especially as it gave Carly the chance to demonstrate her advanced Spanish skills with the line "how grande is your pasta?" (Again! together with appropriate hand gestures demonstrating size) - luckily the answer was very grande indeed (and rather tasty too tbh) and then it's a nice early night and a very big sleep.

In the morning (unexpectedly and unnecessarily awake at 4:30am again..) it's clear that we've made the right choice by opting for a scooter instead of bicycles, as our legs are destroyed! It's like we have done 10 of Jon Le Tocq's boot camp sessions in a row and broken the prowler in the process. After a quick breakfast of the remaining squashables, the scooter guy is on time (whoa...) and as I'm stood on the bike getting some last minute instructions ("Brakes... stop. Twist, go!") my legs are shaking just keeping myself and the bike upright. Please stop talking and let us go!

We set off for Moyogalpa, the main port on the island and different to where we arrived a couple of days ago. There's a gentle tap on my shoulder as we motor along which probably indicates a request to stop for a photo (there's a battery in the camera today!) but I've been promised a coffee once we get there so there's no stopping for man, woman, or beast. Cp insists on driving after this as her gentle taps we're going ignored. The entire town of Moyogalpa is mostly laid out on a slight include which means entertaining viewing for the locals as we shuffle our way up and down the gentle slopes before finding a place that promises a great iced coffee. It seems they overstated the greatness, and although they were refreshing drinks, they seem to have been made with the left over dregs of someone else's espresso.

Next stop is Punta Jesus Maria, conveniently located down a 1km sand and dirt track. When we make it there we're rewarded with a splash about in the sea and an incredible view - and not for the first (or last) time we look up with a big sense of achievement and say "we climbed that!"

We spend most of the day on the scooter, exploring the paved parts of the road around the island, leaving the unpaved roads that cover about a quarter of the island for tomorrow on the bicycles that we've decided we are going to hire. The scenery is beautiful, and every time we look up at Conception, we feel a sense of achievement. As we watch the cloud clear over the course of the day, we see it in its full majestic beauty, and find ourselves taking photos of it from every possible angle - including when we realise that the main road crosses over a new airport runway, which provides a great view as we stop right on the crossing. The security guard doesn't really appreciate this perspective, and is quickly out of his little hut to move us on.

After we had returned the scooter, we had a slight issue trying to check out of our hotel as the clothes we'd left to dry outside our room had disappeared and no-one seemed to know where they had gone. After asking all available staff members (fat girl watching TV, other girl reading a magazine, bloke outside meandering), and showing them the empty space where the clothes used to be, we head back to reception to find all staff have returned to their positions having done precisely f-all about locating our precious items. Getting slightly frustrated and increasingly angry Rich kicks off in best EspaƱol, and it's as if all staff have had a memory black out of the previous 10 minutes. Eventually someone "remembers" that they have "tidied them away" from the washing line, and a crumpled ball of still wet clothes (shorts, socks and jocks) miraculously appear, covered in dirt. Thanks for that!

With a final glare at the would-be clothing thieves we jump on the bus to the other side of the island. Teddy had booked us into a hostel earlier that day, a place called El Zopilote which is famed for being a hippy hostel set on the side of a volcano. We'd popped in earlier on the scooter to confirm that we'd be back at 5pm on the bus to check in. The bus stops at the turning before our hostel so we jump off and stride up the road for about a kilometre (isn't it nice to stretch the legs again!?).

Arriving ahead of schedule we have a chat with the people at the El Zopilote "bus shop" who are excited to see us again and send us up the long, oh so long, path to the hostel reception. It's a serious trek up there over rocks and hills in crazy heat with all our kit (the sign says 200m but that is an outrageous lie!) to discover that, conveniently, the lady on reception does not speak any English, and despite our names being on her book in black ink, she had literally just given our room, the last one, to another couple. So the guy on the bar speaks English, the people at the front gate speak English, the woman sweeping the floor speaks English, but the lady on reception that might have to deal with guests, answer queries, and deal with problems speaks no English at all... riiiiiight! Luckily I've done the "how to kick off in Spanish" chapter, so this is easy pickings, not that it helps - she's given the room away because we've arrived late, too late apparently, despite us being told about 6 hours ago that we had a room reserved and all was sorted. There are no rooms or beds left so amount of chat will get a different result.

There's some strong rage as we bag up and trek back down to the road, calling various nearby hostels along the way, and the bus shop crew at the front gate are surprised to see us plodding past again, but do offer some more accommodation options nearby. Eventually we find a place which is conveniently located 5m from where the bus dropped us off a full hour ago, and yes, they have beds in a dorm for $7 a night...bargain!

We spent the evening watching a beautiful sunset over conception and chatting with a lovely Asian American couple over a bottle of £1.50 rum, before a dinner with another couple at the hostels restaurant. We trade the usual travel stories and discover that they've just arrived from the Oasis hostel in Granada. We tentatively ask "is there a large, excessively hairy guy slumped in a hammock, swinging like crazy and playing on his MacBook 24 hours a day?". Answer... THERE IS! He's definitely on the run from the law.

With dinner and rum finished, it's time to sleep. Or try... CP will later claim that she hardly slept (due to a wobbly creaking bunk bed) however as our 5 bed dorm had a fan dedicated purely to cooling her face, I find this hard to believe. [CP here... I maintain that I hardly slept despite said fan as it was not just heat but creaking bed, cramping legs and sore head making sleep impossible.] Meanwhile I have the bed (single bed, no bunk, shoulda been a steal) that the fans don't quite reach so wake up at 4am melting, and go for a cold shower to revive myself. When Carly emerges at 7:30 and comments that "it is so hot in there", it's not well received by me. With CP headed for the shower she hands me a bag of damp washing that has been drifting slowly towards mould for the last 24 hours. In the absence of a washing line, I opt to lay out her undergarments on the concrete decking. It's 7:30am, and if my feet are already burning in the sun, then her clothes will be dry by the time I've convinced her that it's a good idea to have ice cream for breakfast. It didn't take much convincing...! Although the family that emerges from their private room on to what they could (incorrectly) claim to be their private decking area, and has to navigate their way around her bra and pants probably aren't as impressed with my ingenuity.

With breakfast taken care of as planned (ice cream sandwich, it's the good half of a maxibon back home), we go to check out with a plan to rent bikes from our hostel for a few hours. Checking out saw another example of the short-termism of the local tourist trade, trying to squeeze every extra tourist dollar out of us. We had the "special of the day" for dinner last night, essentially a partly discounted regular menu item. But because the charge for dinner was just put on our tab, we apparently have to pay full price. We're told that to take advantage of the special you have to pay for it on the day it's ordered, but you can't do that as no bill is offered until you check out. As above, I'm now proficient in arguing in Spanish, so while the guy on reception is resorting to google translate to explain himself, I'm calmly explaining in Spanish that yes, I understand him, but I don't care - we are definitely only paying the special price! Part of me can't believe that I'm arguing over less than £1.

The guy recognises that he's beaten, especially as the special we had yesterday is still being advertised as the special today, and accepts that we will only pay that price. With that issue dealt with, we then ask to hire 2 bikes from him - I called it short-termism earlier because had they not given in over that tiny bit of the bill, we'd have taken our $$$ elsewhere for the bike rental. And CP would have hammered them on TripAdvisor...

Unfortunately a lot of places here (especially in Ometepe) realise that people will be here once only, for a couple of days, so it's as if the attitude is to fleece as much cash (or clothing!) from them as possible in that time, as there's very little chance of that person returning in the future anyway. Still, it is a growing tourism industry still learning to find its feet and in the scheme if global travel, Nicaragua is still a damn great and ridiculously cheap place to travel, it just needs to learn a bit more subtlety in its tourist fleecing!

On to the bikes.. almost instantly we're at the end of the paved roads and on to the rocky off-road stuff. We ride through real local life past the typical little farmhouse ranches, usually set up with a tiny shop up front, with yards full of mango, coconut, and avocado trees, and a range of pigs, horses, cows and of course the usual collection of cats and dogs. The pigs roam free and we compete with them, and the little children of the village, for the best mangos that have fallen off the ever shedding mango trees. These are people who live pretty much a subsistence life, simple, unassuming and seemingly very happy, although they do love a little reminder of the revolution, with FSLN logos adorning power line poles, speed bumps, generally anything that can be painted.

We spent the next three hours biking over 15km of dirt roads to Merida and back (having immediately turn back as there's nothing there and we're not even a quarter of the way round the "off-road" area, so binning our overly ambitious plan to complete the full loop), really exploring the local countryside, stopping for bantz with locals, eating more mangos, watching bright pink chickens (!) and a whole litter of piglets, a quick swim in the lake and navigate along some pretty epic roads in the sweltering heat. The constant views of the volcanos remind us that 1) the views are still incredible, 2) yes, we climbed that, and 3) our legs are still ruined. But it is the real rural Nicaraguan life and it is special to be seeing it like this before it becomes like we have heard parts of our next destination, Costa Rica, is like - developed and reliant on tourists spending (comparatively) big money. It really is beautiful here.

At some point on the long road back from Merida we bump into the Dutch couple that had inadvertently snagged "our" room in El Zopilote, and we're happy to hear that it was actually not all that nice and it was over priced. Then again this couple continue to tell us that they haven't enjoyed Ometepe, Nicaragua, they skipped Fiji as they heard it was in the grips of a dengue fever outbreak... I'm not sure where they've been that they have enjoyed, but they seemed happy enough, despite being only halfway on their long walk with their massive back packs to Merida, the nothing "town" with the only interesting thing being a sign advising us that turtle eggs are not a substitute for Viagra...

We grabbed a lazy lunch and swim at a highly rated place called Little Morgan's, having the best bacon and egg roll ever (the "Big Brekkie Sammy") and playing pool on the oldest and most decrepit pool table that looks like it might have been salvaged from the Somme sometime around 1914, and then headed back to meet Teddy at the bus stop outside our hostel to start our journey into Costa Rica....

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