Monday, June 16, 2014


June 13, 2014

My Teacher, Arleen
Parade for Feast Day of San Antonio
                                                                                                                              It was sad to say good-bye to Bernarda and Fatima and to the girls who had stayed in their house with me.  We stood around, chatting, in the kitchen so long that I was a couple of minutes late for class.  Friday was my last day of Spanish class and I was really sorry to be leaving so soon, although I didn’t mind leaving Granada.  We spent the morning working on the subjunctive tenses, a subject that I could have reviewed for several weeks without fully grasping all of the subtleties.  It was the feast day of San Antonio and we had to take a break to watch a procession of students from the San Antonio Catholic School pass by.  There were dancing girls and a drum corps.  The morning passed very quickly and soon it was time to say goodbye.  I went up to the pool area because I had heard that Leticia was up there.  There were four very cute ducks begging at the bar.  I stopped to take a picture of them and they attacked me.  One of the males bit my foot several times.  Everyone at the bar was laughing because he really had it in for me.  I finally had to leave.  I found Leticia back inside the hotel and we said our goodbyes.  Then I rushed back to the house to eat one last meal, grab my luggage and set off across Granada to the Tierra Tours office where I met my shuttle to San Jorge.

Attack Ducks
Bus on the Beach at San Jorge
I met a father and son from South Florida on the shuttle bus.  They had been having a wild time in the bars of Granada.  When we got to San Jorge, they headed straight for the nearest beach bar.  After having spent a week without beer, I was quite willing to join them.  The view from San Jorge was fabulous.  “Ometepe,” comes from a Nahuatl word meaning, “two mountains.”  As we drove down the road towards the ferry dock, we suddenly saw the Volcano Concepcion rising out of the water, its crown obscured by clouds.  San Jorge was a pleasant surprise.  There was a wide beach with a scattering of bars and restaurants.  Perhaps even more surprising that the gorgeous view were the numerous wind generators strung along the shore between San Jorge and the far end of the lake.  Lake Nicaragua is one of the low spots in Central America where the wind howls through when there is a difference in pressure between the Caribbean and the Pacific.  These winds are called Papagallo winds.  Sailors have to time their crossings of the Gulf of Papagallo (on the Pacific side of the strip of land between the lake and the ocean) to avoid periods when the winds are strong.  It is a perfect spot to harvest wind energy.

Wind Generators on Lake Nicaragua

The Che Guevara
The day we crossed over to Ometepe would not have been a good day to sail across the Gulf of Papagallo.  It was fairly rough on the 80 minute crossing to Ometepe on the Che Guevara.   We went up to the top deck and were treated with constantly changing views of the two volcanos and their associated clouds.  Unfortunately, towards the end of the crossing, I dropped my camera in the toilet.  I managed to salvage the SD card, but the camera failed to work, even though it was inside its case and didn’t get terribly wet.  When we got to Moyogalpa, the village on Ometepe where the ferry lands, we all disembarked and headed up the street towards where the hotels were.  I left my friends and went to the Hostel Escuela Teosintal, where I got a triple room with air conditioning for $25 per night.  It would have been $15 a night if I hadn’t turned on the air, but the inn keeper didn’t tell me it would be an extra $10 per night until after I had turned it on.  As hot as I had been for some time, I decided it was worth the money to be able to sleep soundly.  I ate an authentic Italian style pizza Margherita and then went back to my hotel for the evening.  Loudspeakers mounted on the top of cars had been a common form of advertising ever since we reached Mexico, but Moyogalpa was the first place I had ever heard an upcoming funeral being announced in that manner.  Nicaraguans use horse drawn hearses, some of which featured pretty etched glass sides.  You could tell which carriages were hearses because the horses were draped in black, crocheted netting.

June 14, 2014

While hotel breakfasts are rarely exciting, they are awfully
Volcan Concepcion
convenient.  As my hostel did not offer one, I had to get up early and go in search of food.  I met up with my friends from Florida at the door to one of the few places that looked open, so we all ate breakfast together.  I had a nice breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast with very tasty coffee mixed with hot evaporated milk.  The place where we ate breakfast also rented scooters and my two friends decided to rent scooters for the day.  I left them there and went off to see what my options might be.  Moyogalpa has numerous tour operators, but most of them were closed during the rainy season.  I did find one called “Little Nathaly” that rented scooters and bicycles and also offered tours to climb the volcanoes and visit other places on the island.  I arranged to go to several places on a scooter with a guide the following day and also talked about climbing volcanoes.  I really wanted to climb Maderas, the smaller peak, but it was a $50 cab ride to the trailhead.  Concepcion was convenient to climb from Moyogalpa, but was a 1600 meter climb.  I agreed to come back and talk about it again the following day, since she needed to gather a group, anyway.  It was also possible to climb just half way up, which sounded like a sensible alternative, although I had never been good at climbing only part way up a mountain.

Church in Moyogalpa
I wanted to spend the day acquainting myself with the island.  I took a bus to Altagracia, the other sizeable village on Ometepe.  I assumed we would circle the north end of the island, which would have been the shortest distance, but instead we headed south and then crossed over the isthmus between the two volcanoes.  The views were pretty spectacular.  Both peaks were shrouded in clouds on the way there.  The highway crossed the air strip, which had temporary rope barriers strung across it to keep vehicles off.  There were gates on either side such as one would find on a drawbridge.  Apparently, the highway is closed when a plane is landing.  That must require advance planning. We passed a couple of the attractions I would be visiting the following day and picked up some backpackers from a finca that included guest accommodations.  
Ox Cart in Altagracia

Altagracia was kind of a disappointment.  While it is the largest town on the island, it was much quieter than Moyogalpa and offered even less in the way of functioning restaurants.  I walked around the town and finally stopped at the only one that had any patrons (two) and had a tasty lunch of a fried chicken quarter with rice, salad, and tostones (deep fried plantain patties.)  Two hungry dogs sat beside my table and stared at my food with big, sad eyes.  The mother dogs are the saddest ones because I know they have hungry puppies somewhere, too.  After lunch, I went inside the restaurant to pay and ended up staying to watch the World Cup match between Uruguay and Costa Rica.  I was happy to see Costa Rica win.  I took the bus back to Moyogalpa after the game.  I was hoping the bus would continue on around the island, but it went back the way it had come.

Volcano Model in Altagracia Park
When I got back to Moyogalpa, I rented a bicycle for a couple of hours to ride around the north end of the island to see what was there.    Moyogalpa consists of a couple of major streets running east from the water about six blocks up to the highway.  It was small enough that some giant speakers mounted on the back of a truck at the top of the hill could be heard throughout the entire town.  Who needs radio?  Moyogalpa had its own soundtrack.  It was a fairly steep slope.  I rode up the main drag and then headed north on the highway.  I climbed up a fairly large hill.  There was a lot of bicycle and motorcycle traffic, but not much in the way of cars, which was nice for cycling.  The road was paved with concrete pavers, like we would use for a driveway in the USA.  After about half an hour, the pavement ended and the road quickly degenerated into a rocky and sometimes muddy track.  I could see why the buses didn’t go that way.  Pigs were rooting in the leaves to the side of the road and bicycles, motorcycles and cars wove all over the road, trying to find the smoothest bits.  There was quite a bit of traffic, despite the condition of the road.  The weather had cleared and I had spectacular vistas of Concepcion.  I was heading downhill and, after about 20 minutes, I started to question the advisability of riding further down a terrible road into a remote area during the late afternoon.  I turned around and headed back.  At one point, I stopped to take a picture and two teenage boys tried to charge me a toll.  I told them I didn’t think so and we all smiled at their teasing me as I rode off.  One of them lost his chain shortly thereafter.  I figured it was his comeuppance.

Piggy Rooting by the Side of the Road
Riding back up the dirt road was easier than I had feared and I made it without further incident.  I then had to ride a little further uphill on the paved road, but most of that was downhill and I covered it quite rapidly.  I was actually going about as fast as possible on those pavers and was passing most of the locals.  I found it hard to believe I had ridden that far uphill without wearing myself out because I hadn’t ridden a bicycle in months.  This was especially true since the first five gears didn’t work on my rental bike.  I got back about 5:00 and had time to catch the second half of the World Cup game between England and Italy back at my hostel.  After the game, I went out for dinner and ate a fish filet in garlic with salad.  It was nice to finally have a meal without rice or beans.

June 15, 2014

I got up early because I needed to meet my guide at 8:00.  I had my last Lara bar for breakfast, since nothing was open at that hour.  The tour company wasn’t really open at that hour, either.  The girl wh
Beach on the Maderas Side of Ometepe
o operated the desk looked like she had just awakened and my guide arrived on time, but then had to eat breakfast before we could leave.  My guide’s name was Jonathan.  He had grown up in Managua and then gone to live in Costa Rica with his sister who had married an American.  He learned English while living with them and then moved to Ometepe, where he had family, to work as a guide.  He was a nice young man who clearly enjoyed nature and history.  We traveled on a 200cc motorcycle that was more of a dirt bike than anything else.  That turned out to be necessary because the second half of our journey to the San Ramon Waterfall was on a tremendously bad dirt road.  It took us a couple of hours to get there.  We followed the same road the bus had taken to Altagracia and then turned off to head onto the Maderas Volcano half of the island.  Jonathon turned off the road and rode along the beach for a good part of the way across the isthmus.  We saw some trippy black and white striped birds that looked kind of like a cross between a bald eagle and a turkey.  Jonathon said they migrated to Nicaragua from Canada.  Someday, I will figure out what they were.  The paved portion ended soon after we reentered the road and we continued on a rocky, rutted track that was muddy in places, but still carried a fair amount of traffic.  At one point we passed an intrepid Blue Bird school bus which actually provided the area with public transportation.   I no longer have as much padding on my rear as I once did and my poor butt was in mortal pain by the time we arrived.  Just about the time I thought I couldn’t take it any longer, we stopped to watch a troop of howler monkeys.  Jonathon was very good at imitating them and the alpha male had to come over to see who was invading his territory.

San Ramon Waterfall
Jonathon with a Crab
The San Ramon Cascada Park charged a 75 cordoba (about $3) admission and I paid an extra 50 cordobas for permission to bring the bike in.  There is a 5km walk up to the falls and we were able to ride about half of it.  Jonathon, however, was a very good driver.  Most of the people with rental motorcycles abandoned them somewhere along the way.  It was extremely steep and rocky.  Eventually, we were forced to leave the bike in a parking area and continue on foot.  We weren’t headed for the top, but we were actually climbing a good ways up the Maderas Volcano.  It was shady, but hot and humid and my shirt was soon soaked through.  My bottle of water had bounced out of the side pocket of my pack somewhere along the way.  We climbed through the forest and Jonathon pointed out lots of creepy crawlies like carnivorous black beetles and millipedes.  We also saw lots of lizards and a troop of capuchin monkeys.  We climbed a couple of kilometers up a steep, rocky path and finally arrived at the foot of a tall, mossy waterfall.  There was a small pool at the base and I waded in and cooled off a bit.  The water was very cold and it was shady there, so I didn’t immerse myself.  There were numerous crabs living in the pool, some of which were quite large.  It was weird to see crabs in fresh water at what must have been 1500 feet above sea level.  Jonathon caught a couple and we had fun taking pictures with them.  

Me with a Big Crab
The hike back down was a bit slippery, but much easier.  I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of getting back on that motorcycle, but I made the best of it.  Jonathon dodged around rocks and wove back and forth across the road, looking for the smoothest parts.  One ill placed mango or cow pie could have been the end of us, but we survived, despite a near miss with a large hog and a close brush with a heifer who changed her direction just as we were about to pass her as we threaded through a herd of cattle.  I got a kick out of a group of horses being herded by a man on a bicycle.  After we had reached the paved part of the road again, Jonathon suddenly pulled over because there was a troop of howler monkeys in the trees right by the road.  We even saw one run across the highway.  Apparently, they don’t usually approach the road, so our sighting them there was unusual.

Sinai Restaurant
Beach at Charco Verde (Volcan Maderas in Rear)
We stopped for lunch at a hotel and restaurant called Sinai.  I had roasted pork, salad, and plantains with pineapple juice.  The only thing I could get Jonathon to let me buy him was a glass of melon juice.  After lunch, our next stop was Charco Verde.  “Charco,” in Nahuatl mean, “puddle.”  Charco Verde was a nature preserve centered around a green pond close to a pretty beach.  The water was very low, despite it being the rainy season, because it has been unseasonably dry this year.  We walked through the forest and observed a very lazy troop of monkeys dangling limply over tree branches, taking a siesta while the babies swung through the branches and, yes, hung from their tails.  There were small green iguana and blue tailed lizards absolutely everywhere.  Black headed trogons flitted through the branches.  It was a pretty spot.  The beach was attractive, also.  Large trees shaded the sand.  It would have been a nice place to swim and laze about in the shade if we had had more time.  As it was, we walked along the beach to the edge of the cove and back, checking out the birds.  We returned via the opposite side of the pond, having taken a circular route.

Charco Verde

Another quick, thankfully fairly smooth, ride brought us to Punta Jesus Maria, our last stop for the day.  Punta Jesus Maria is a long sand spit that forms every year during the dry season at the point where the currents coming around the two sides of the island meet.  We walked out to the point where it was so narrow that I could have stood with a foot in the water on each side.  It must have stretched for at least a quarter of a mile.  One side was choppy, with white caps, and the other side was calm.  The spit acted as a natural breakwater.  According to Jonathon, the two sides are often reversed, depending on the wind and the tide.  Lake Nicaragua is immense.  It is connected to both the Caribbean and the Pacific by rivers.  During the 19th century, one of the reasons that the U.S. Government sent marines to Nicaragua during their civil war was that we were interested in building a canal across Nicaragua.  I still don’t see why the canal was eventually built in Panama.  During the gold rush in California, Cornelius Vanderbilt brought people across Nicaragua via this route, charging them large fees to take this short cut to the gold fields.  Lake Nicaragua has some notable marine life.  It is inhabited by fresh water sharks and prehistoric looking alligator fish with snouts and teeth like alligators and tails and fins like fish.  I saw a skull of one on the beach at Charco Verde.  The sharks used to be more numerous, but were hunted almost to extinction for their fins. 

Jonathon brought me back to Moyogalpa by 4:30 and I had time to rest a bit before going out for dinner.  We agreed to meet the next morning at 6:45 for a climb up the side of Concepcion.  I decided not to try to make it to the top.  A 5000’ climb up a 45 degree scree slope in worn out running shoes seemed like a bad idea.  We decided to scale it back a bit and just do 3000’, making a loop up and over the old lava flows.  We agreed that if the two of us went alone, we could travel at my pace.

June 16, 2014

I almost overslept, since I forgot that my phone was still on California time and my alarm would have gone off an hour late.  Fortunately, I woke up, anyway.  It was hard to sleep once the birds started hopping around on the tin roof.  Jonathon picked me up at 6:45 and together we walked down to the office where he picked up three liters of water and ran out to get a loaf of bread and a bag of beans for his breakfast.  I had gone out for pizza the night before and had had a couple of slices left over for breakfast.

Climbing Through Pastures
We started our climb from Moyogalpa itself, dispelling any hopes I might have had that I wouldn’t have to climb the entire 1,000 meters.  We walked up to the Central Park and then headed up a dirt road behind the church.  We followed the road through plantain plantations until the road became a trail and then gave out altogether.  From that point, we walked along barbed wire fences through pastures, unfastening and refastening the barbed wire as we went.  Finally, we ascended beyond the fenced pastures, through dry forest, although we did continue to see cattle almost all the way.  On Ometepe, at least, they fed two types of cane to cattle instead of hay.  The green kind made the cows fat and the purple kind increased their milk production.  Cattle were often fed a combination of the two.  Many of them looked like they needed more of the green kind.  I often saw cows and even sometime pigs and goats with forked branches secured around their throats.  This was to keep the incorrigible ones from going through wire fences.
Alpine Cows
View Towards Punta Jesus Maria

View from 1,000 Meters
                                                                                                                                                                  From the ferry, we saw huge, eroded ravines in the side of Concepcion.  Once we left the pastures at the halfway point, we climbed up a rocky spine alongside one of these ravines.  It was very steep.  Jonathon said it was a 30 degree slope.  It was at least that steep.  There was no path.  The wind was absolutely howling.  This kept us cool, but nearly caused me to lose my balance several times as I picked my way up the slope.  Clouds were pouring down the mountain.  We climbed up and up.  There was a tremendous view of all the places we had been the day before.  We climbed until we passed a cliff in the forested part of the mountain and then we traversed a bit in that direction.  Finally, about 10:30, we reached the 1,000 meter point.  Clouds were swirling around us, obscuring the view at times.  It looked like rain.  We saw another group who had taken a shorter, steeper route and reached the 1,000 meter point just before us.  They were continuing up the remaining 600 meters to the crater.  Their route looked at least as steep as the way we had just come.  Jonathon wondered why they were taking the trouble, since there would be no view at the top due to the clouds.  I felt fine and was sure I could have made it to the top, but was just as glad not to be going since it looked like it was going to get wet.  We stopped for a few minutes to catch our breaths and eat something and then headed down when we started to get chilly.

Forest of Plantains
We descended via the path the other group had taken upwards.  It was a very steep, direct path through the jungle to the bottom.  The path was wet and covered with leaves.  It looked treacherous, but wasn’t really so bad because there was almost always a tree, vine or root to hold onto.  We saw lots and lots of both howler and capuchin monkeys in the trees.  At one point near the bottom, we came across a ceiba tree that had been buried in a landslide during Hurricane Mitch.  Ceiba trees are immense and usually have no branches for the first 100 feet or so.  This one had been buried in 30 meters of debris and its branches were at ground level.  It still appeared to be thriving, although everything around it was new growth.  After a while, the path passed through plantain trees and eventually became a dirt road.  The dirt road intersected the paved road near where the pavement had given out on my bicycle ride a couple of days earlier.  Jonathon and I walked along the road to the nearest bus shelter and waited for a bus.  We never did see one, but caught a ride back to Moyogalpa in the back of a pickup truck with about 10 other people. 
Concepcion from the Bottom

I said goodbye to Jonathon after giving him a hefty tip, went to the grocery store for some Gatorade, and retired to my room for the afternoon.  I intended to nap, but never actually did.  I ended up watching Netflix on my phone, a great invention for traveling.  The night before, I had realized that I had access to at least some of my music via Amazon’s Cloud Player, which came in handy since my iPod had died back in Mexico.  I downloaded the Prince Royce album that was playing absolutely everywhere in Central America.  Music doesn’t take up much space and makes a great souvenir.  Around 5:15, I went out for one last plate of roasted chicken and then returned to my room to pack and finish up my blog before leaving for Costa Rica the next morning.

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