Isla de Ometepe

At the start of this round-the-world trip, we said we wanted some surprises, some ‘unknown unknowns’. Mountain biking around an island made of two volcanoes, dodging mango-munching pigs definitely counts as that.

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Volcan Concepcion, Volcan Maderas and the land joining them together make up Isla de Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. Getting there was our first introduction to Central American transport; you can either pay a lot, or wait a lot. The cheapest options by far, either side of the island ferry from San Jorge, were the chicken buses – old American school buses reincarnated as Nica public transport. But nothing quite lined up. From Granada, the buses to Rivas left regularly enough, but didn’t quite align with the ferry schedule in San Jorge, nor the one daily bus on the island to our hostel. In the end, a medium amount of waiting equated to a medium amount of paying. Waiting until our last day in Granada to book a taxi brought the price down from $45 to $30, and a bit of haggling at the ferry port got us seats on a shuttle at the other end for $7 each – half the price of a taxi.

Given the one daily bus situation, we’d assumed the whole island would be pretty undeveloped. That was true in some ways; a few clusters of houses in different areas, nowhere at all built up. In other ways it felt like a progressive place; a lot of schools for such a small place and a very environmentally friendly mindset; seen all around the island from the eco friendly messages on cafe and shop signs, the visitor information at Finca Magdalena plantation, and the wind farm on the opposite shore of the lake.

Our hostel, Hacienda Merida, had a bit of the undeveloped side and a bit of the eco side. Whilst quite a lot of the road that makes a figure of eight around the island is tarmacced, we’d chosen to stay not only in the middle of the unpaved section, but the middle of the bumpiest, rockiest, hilliest section. The section where a couple we’d met were forbidden from driving their rented moped. Hacienda Merida also runs a bilingual children’s school. The school building is made from recycled materials and uses solar power. Our room, right above the kindergarten, was in perfect earshot of the kids chanting vowel sounds each morning. And what sounded remarkably like, but probably wasn’t, some of the worst Hindi cursing we learnt in Mumbai.

As well as the secluded location, Hacienda Merida had plenty of other plusses: The double hammock on the balcony outside our room, the delicious veggie burger, the bike rental, the homemade bread still baked according the recipe given by a travelling Argentinian baker a decade ago, the jetty sticking out into the lake, the views of Volcan Concepcion (the volcanoiest looking volcano you can imagine), and the perfect position for lakeside sunsets.

We hired mountain bikes from the hostel as a way to explore the island and get a bit of exercise after the dawn-to-dusk feast that was Mexico the week before. Like a poor man’s version of Speed, Rebecca had to stay above 2nd gear the whole time: shift into 1st and the chain promptly fell off. Other than that, (and the teeth-chatteringingly rocky tracks, and monumentally steep slopes!), it was great, and we ended up covering 35 bumpy kilometers!

Sometimes we passed pigs, sometimes huge blue butterflies, sometimes what we called quiff birds, but turned out to be white-throated magpie jays. One section of the track was a complete carpet of fallen mangoes. After skirting around the mangoes, bumping over the rocks, and stopping for the unique views from the road on the isthmus between the two volcanoes, we made it to the paved road on the opposite side of the island, and arrived at Finca Magdalena.

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Finca Magdalena’s plantation is on the lower slopes of Volcan Maderas (the smaller of the two) with trails through the jungle to a lagoon, to some petroglyphs, and to a coffee plantation. After a pretty exhausting cycle ride, we could not wait for a petroglyph. Said nobody ever.

Our first priority was a coffee, brewed from beans harvested from their plantation and roasted on site. After that we set off to explore the trails. Paying $2 to enter seemed ok, but $8 extra for a guide felt like quite a lot. The wooden map at the entrance implied 3 distinct routes: One to the lagoon (and a hoard of territorial howler monkeys, judging by the racket every time we took a few steps in that direction), one to the petroglyphs, and one to the plantation. First up, petroglyphs. The Pre-Columbian population here considered Ometepe to be a promised land, and Volcan Maderas to be a sacred place of the sun god. The petroglyphs (ancient rock carvings) at Finca Magdalena have been left in the original locations where they were later discovered.

Trying to find the coffee plantation was where we lost our faith in the wooden map. After an hour or so walking through the maze of pathways, we were ready to give up when we met a farm worker striding purposefully up ahead. A quick jog to catch up with him, and we worked out that instead of the walk around the side of the volcano we’d been expecting, we had another 45 minutes straight uphill. It was interesting to see the organic and eco-friendly methods used. Rather than deforesting big swathes of land to make way for neat rows of plants (what we were expecting to find), the coffee is grown amongst the trees to preserve the forest and use the natural shade, which means the plants blend seamlessly into the forest. So seamlessly, we almost missed them.

By this point we’d realised that it would probably be a good idea to find somewhere to fuel-up for the ride home. Mangoes were free, and everywhere, but we picked out Cafe Campestre (who grow their own organic produce at their nearby farm) in Balgue for lunch. After a great chickpea curry we got back on the bikes with a serious case of Bike Bum for our final stop; Ojo de Agua. This swimming hole in the forest – complete with tarzan swing and tightrope – was a great end to a long, hot day of cycling.

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