30.01.2014 - 12.02.2014 31 °C
The volcanic island of Ometepe is one of those places you hear about time and time again when you're travelling through Central America. Settled in the middle of Lago Nicaragua, a giant of a lake that stretches all the way from Granada to the border with Costa Rica, the island has a unique geography - its essentially two volcanoes linked by a narrow land bridge. Given that travellers of all persuasions kept banging on about it, we decided that we'd better take a look, and given that we were in Granada, it seemed a sensible option to get the ferry direct from there one evening. It takes four hours, and it is not a comfortable ride. Enough said about that, I think!
The travellers weren't lying though, Ometepe is pretty stunning. We landed in Altagracia - it doesn't yet have much of a tourist scene, but that means it does have some brilliantly cheap places to eat and drink. We also hung out in Moyogalpa for a couple of days - plenty of hostels and restaurants here (we'd recommend lunch at the Cornerhouse for its chunky sandwiches because they bake their own bread, makes a good change from sugary sliced stuff). And we took a trip to the quiet beach at Punta Jesus Maria (below).
But we were really gearing up for the challenge that we'd set ourselves - to hike to the top of Volcan Maderas.
Our base was Finca Magdelena, an agricultural co-operative which also has rooms to rent for hikers and provides guides for tours up the volcano. The co-op is situated in pleasant gardens with birds and howler monkeys to see and decent value meals to be had.
But we were there to climb Maderas, a trek that the receptionist told us would take about three hours up and less than three hours down. We asked whether it would be ok to do the walk in sandals and were told it should be ok. Based on that we figured we'd be back in time for a late lunch even including extra hours for walking in sandals. Let's see how we did:
We started the trek early on a cool, foggy day, optimistic and enjoying the easy paths at the lower half of the volcano, stopping frequently to look at any wildlife, plants or dust motes that our two companions took an interest in. One of them also seemed determined to stop and mark his territory about every ten minutes, perhaps leaving a scent trail for our easier descent. Thanks to their tireless curiosity this section of the walk was slow, but we didn't mind too much as we were so far unaware of what the second half of the volcano would be like.
About half way up the volcano the path gets progressively muddier. Our sandals were not up to the task - as the mud got in between our sandals and our feet, it got quite difficult to stay upright. We were still feeling cautiously confident despite the mud even after Izzie fell into it - at least at that point there was little left to lose in the way of dignity. However as the path goes on it just gets worse, turning into a hideous mudslide punctuated by pointy rocks. Even so we decided to push on as we were not too far from the top based on our guide's encouragement and wildly optimistic time estimates which took no account of how slow our sandals were making us in the mud.
Most of the way up, we were able to stop at the mirador and take this picture of the spectacular view we were treated to before pushing on for the crater and laguna.
Having reached the top we were feeling pretty beat after around six hours of walking. Just look at those happy faces.
And after descending into the crater (you need to cling onto the guide ropes for this bit and lower yourself down a steep narrow path) we were able to have a bite to eat, paddle in the chilly laguna and enjoy the sights. Of course there's mud in the laguna too and if you go into the wrong part you can get stuck. Previously a group had had to make their clothes into a rope to pull somebody out of there. Our companion who had insisted on pissing his way up the whole mountain now added to the ambience by standing knee-deep in the laguna and repeatedly spitting at the shore. We were delighted for his company, and desperately sad when he abandoned us to our sandal nightmare on the way down, bounding off into the distance like a mountain goat.
So then we had to get back down again. This promised to be even more entertaining than the way up as not only were we completely knackered and the volcano still muddy but there wouldn't be enough time to get down before dark. So having slogged our way back down through the muddy upper half of the volcano we were left picking our way down the 'easy' half of the volcano in the dark with the one faulty torch that our guide had brought. They sent out a search party, but by that point we'd nearly made it to the bottom. To be fair to our guide, he did bring us down safely in some pretty awful conditions. Finally we arrived back at the co-op 13 hours after we'd left and thankfully in time to get some food and a beer before the kitchen closed.
The lessons: NEVER, EVER HIKE A VOLCANO IN SANDALS!! [And always take your own torch]
We staggered back to Moyogalpa the next day, and spent the two following days recovering and avoiding stairs (ouch... ouch... ouch...)
Our final stop in Nicaragua was Leon, again, and we spent a few days at the nearby beach town Las Peñitas. The beach here is enormous, beautiful and mostly empty - we saw about as many fishermen as tourists. There was some great fish to eat, and we spent our days drinking rum on the beach, swimming and collecting shells. Perfect!
After this, we powered through Honduras and El Salvador (which was the only country in Central America that we didn't spend any time in,, sadly - another trip!) and stopped in Antigua, Guatemala to return to one of our favourite restaurants for Valentines Day. La Toscana is a fantastic Italian place and the owner was touchingly pleased to see us back for a third time, many months after our last meal there. The food was wonderful - definitely recommend this place.