A Travellerspoint blog

Mudslide Maderas

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Having reached the top we were feeling pretty beat after around six hours of walking. Just look at those happy faces.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Posted by gadgetex 18:09 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

WARNING: This post may contain Mojitos

sunny 32 °C
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If you're starting to want to thump us for all our lazing about in sunny climates, be warned, this is not a good post to read! We're beginning to wonder if we might face a welcome home hit squad when we return... :-S

So... the stunning city of Granada is the focal point for Nicaragua's relatively small tourist industry. There is lots going on, with entertainment in the streets like these dancers, plenty of bars and restaurants, a slightly crazy market and a busy central square. Its got the most stunning architecture of anywhere we've seen on the trip, every street could be a postcard.

Info for fellow travellers: Granada is an easy place to live in, and have a good time in, and you really don't have to spend much to do that. While we were here we were on a budget of $300 a week (only £179) for the pair of us ($20 per person per day, plus $20 for onward transport), and we came in more than $50 under budget while still managing to eat out (combined with some home-cooked meals involving a lot of eggs, beans and tortillas), stay in not-too-shabby hostels and have couple of rounds afternoon mojitos every day! Actually all of our travelling works out a lot cheaper than if we'd sat at home for 6 months, and although "The Budget" (it is sacred) has got tighter as time has gone on, we're still having loads of fun with what we've got.

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Granada is the most pristine colonial city we've seen on our trip and is centered around the central square overlooked by the Cathedral of the Incarnation with its traditional yellow and white facade.

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We spent a lot of afternoons at Azucar bar on the busy Calle La Calzada - quickly learning that you don't sit at the pavement tables if you don't want to get hassled to buy bracelets, pots and sunglasses all the time (although the pots were very pretty). We chose Azucar for its gorgeous courtyard garden at the back (above), and cheap, tasty mojitos (only 40 cordobas for two, that's, er... 95p!) The bar staff started to expect us around 2pm! And just down the road, there was a gelateria with hammock swings in case we got too hot again after we'd finished our mojitos (Sorry, we did warn you you wouldn't like this post!)

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Our hostel was situated in the middle of a maze of market streets with chicken buses and scooters constantly trying to push through the hordes of shoppers and vendors - total chaos, really good fun when you're not carrying all your belongings for 6 months and trying to find a bed for the night!

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On our final day we visited a church and climbed the belltower for a sunset view over the city. As ever we had a great view of the cathedral and also out over the rooftops of the city as the sun went down behind the hills on the horizon.

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Before we left we had to try for a selfie with the cathedral in the background. This turned out to be more difficult than anticipated but in the end we got it.

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And so we had to leave Granada and our daily mojitos for Isla Ometepe. But before you decide to hate us too much know that we had to cross the lake on an old ferry for four hours whilst desperately trying to keep our lunches down.

Posted by gadgetex 13:41 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Laguna de Apoyo

sunny 25 °C
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Back in Nicaragua, we decided to top up our Spanish skills again at a school attached to the Estacion Biologico - an environmental research station next to Laguna de Apoyo. This time around, we had a teacher each.

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As well as cramming our heads full of more grammar, we learned some useful things about Nicaragua - for example, don't ever argue with your partner, because there is a legend that if you do, this nocturnal half-person-half-monkey-like-creature will come and steal your chickens.

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The Estacion itself does a lot of work to combat the illegal felling of trees in the conservation area (like those on the right that have been cut for their valuable cedar wood). They systematically monitor sightings of the many different bird species and insect species in the area. Pablo (below) also provides free nature tours to students of the school, cares for scrappy looking parrots with broken wings, and likes to torment squeamish gringas with the centre's slightly ghoulish collection of bits of dead creatures.

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We saw some 'petroglyphs' down by the lake shore - symbols carved on rocks by indigenous inhabitants prior to the Spanish conquest. The carvings have survived on these hard rocks for many centuries, but in some cases nature seems to be trying to take them back.

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One afternoon we climbed into Pablo's 'rustic' old Jeep and took a ride to the mirador (lookout point) where you can see the whole laguna from above.

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On our way back to Granada at the end of the week, we stopped at Masaya - a busy and attractive town with a famous artisanal market, and an enormous open-air fruit and vegetable market. Here are a couple of shots of the latter as its winding down in the late afternoon.

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Having brushed up on our Spanish we were ready to move on to Granada where, as you shall see, we put our skills to good use.

Posted by gadgetex 12:38 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Escape to Boquete

sunny 32 °C
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After wading through the litter to escape Bastimentos, it would be something of an understatement to say we were keen to move on. We were, in fact, desperate not to leave Panama thinking that the whole country was a hideous disaster. It wasn't an easy journey, given that bus drivers in Panama like to treat their passengers to radio like this. The principle seems to be: if your brain isn't bleeding, its not random enough yet. Try another foghorn.

We were also down one laptop charger. It had originally broken in Guatemala, and we'd got it fixed in about 3 hours, but then it burned out again. We must have gone to 8 or more repairs shops across Costa Rica and Panama and not one of them would agree to look at a charger. We learned a whole lot of technical Spanish vocab that we will probably never use again. We got very close to ordering one from a Costa Rican store, until the live chat sales rep hung up on us and went home for Christmas. And then eventually we set up an account with a Panamanian shipping company, gained an address in Miami, ordered the charger from the US, and twiddled our thumbs in the city of David for a week waiting for it to show up. Up to a point, it seems like in countries here with more developed infrastructure and procedures like Costa Rica and Panama, it can actually be more difficult to get simple things done!

David is an oppressively humid mid-size city not far from the western border with Costa Rica. Its not a tourist city, and we didn't see many gringos. Its a busy, fairly affluent place with a pleasant gentle buzz to it, and quite a bit cleaner than Bocas. We stayed in a great and spotless budget hotel called Residencial La Avenida, which boasted the world's most patient receptionist. She tolerated our stumbling Spanish, indefinite plans and Clos spillage on her sheets ("lo siento... un accidente... con un vaso de vino...eek"). And probably began to wonder if we were planning to live there.

Although David isn't a tourist city, its a short bus ride to Boquete - an pleasant mountain town, with a small tourist scene revolving around hiking and the annual Feria de las Flores y del Cafe - Festival of Flowers and Coffee. As luck would have it, they were holding that while we were in the area, and we caught the first day.

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As you might guess, you're supposed to admire the flowers, and drink the coffee... but when we were there there was no water on site yet. and so no coffee! Couldn't argue with how flowery it was though.

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And you can't have a garden without some terrifying gnomes.

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As soon as we'd got our laptop charger, our budget decided for us that we had spent a bit too much time in relatively pricey Costa Rica and Panama, and also sadly that we could not afford to fly to Brazil and Argentina (where living costs are 3 times as much as most of Central America). Really, the chance to return to see more of Central America was tempting enough on its own, and we weren't too sad to jump on a bus and zoom northwards, back to Nicaragua.

Posted by gadgetex 20:15 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

Bocas del Toro: Island Paradise

Panama's number one location!

semi-overcast 28 °C
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Having rung in the new year in Puerto Viejo it was time for a change of scene. Just a short boat ride from Puerto Viejo lie the Caribbean islands of Bocas del Toro. During our journey a fellow traveler showed us his brand new Lonely Planet guide which lists Bocas as their number one destination in Central America, so we knew we were in for a treat.

After a huge post-new-year queue at the border, a crossing over an old railway bridge and a water taxi to Isla Colon we found ourselves in Bocas town.

Thanks, it would seem, to the Lonely Planet recommendation, the accommodation in Bocas is some of the priciest we've seen in Central America with rooms in regular hostels costing as much as we splashed on a luxury room in Antigua.

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Luckily we'd found a much more affordable option which turned out to be a short hop away on Isla Bastimentos. And so we climbed aboard a water taxi to Basti enjoying the warm evening air as we skimmed past the colourful Caribbean stylings of Colon and the neighboring islands whilst our drunken boat driver enthusiastically, and repeatedly, wished us a happy new year.

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Waiting for us on Basti was our very own cabin on the seafront. Needless to say as we got off the boat we were excited.

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And that was when we realised we'd made a terrible error.

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Because Bastimentos is one great big rubbish tip. Children and adults alike can be seen dropping (throwing) rubbish where they stand despite the signs around the island begging them not to.

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Walking through town we were treated to the sight of piles of beer cans, polystyrene, old fridges, a steering wheel, old nappies, bottles, shoes, shattered plastic furniture and rusted heaps of old metal, all melting into the sea. Needless to say we didn't go for a dip.

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The island, which is a turtle nesting site, turned out to be so disgusting that we decided it would be best to leave the next day, but as luck would have it we both came down with a nasty stomach bug that night and were forced to spend another day bedridden on landfill island.

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And so the moral of the story turned out to be this: Make sure you read the smallprint, because you may end up on a landfill instead of Lonely Planet's island paradise. And don't go to Lonely Planet's number one destination unless you've got money up to the eyeballs.

Next time we visit the city of David to await delivery of a laptop charger and go to the mountain town of Boquete to see a flower and coffee festival with no coffee to drink.

Posted by gadgetex 20:06 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

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