Central America #8: Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua – speeding on scooters and getting lost in the jungle

Warning: this is quite a long one…

Ometepe Island is famed for its astonishing twin volcanoes and is often the first or last stop for travelers in Nicaragua, due to its proximity to the Costa Rican border. Many a traveler I’d bumped into had cited it as a trip highlight, so I was looking forward to it.

But first I’d have to get there.

During the trip, as I was doing express tourism, I accepted that there were days that would be have to be sacrificed and spent travelling on buses in order to get from one place to the next. My reluctance to pay well over the odds for shuttle buses between locations meant that on this occasion I had to take a series of local buses, so I sought the advice of the hostel owner, who very adamantly told me what to do to get to the Nicaraguan border.

I got up at about 4am as the first bus required from Monteverde towards the border left at 4.20am. It was headed towards Punta Arenas but I got off at La Irma, as did a couple of other foreigners on the bus. La Irma is a simple bus stop where major roads converge and is actually the name of a restaurant. I had been told that there would be a blue bus from the company Deldu passing by at about 7.30am that went directly to the border, so I ignored two or three buses heading to Liberia, in the right direction, in the hope of this particular one coming. Unfortunately it didn’t turn up, but a large and fancy NicaBus going to the border did pass by, but wanted 20 USD to get to the border, which a couple of girls from the US paid, but I declined, and instead got on the fourth local bus to Liberia which came a while later. From Liberia, buses to the border (Penas Blancas) leave at least every half an hour, so I’d advise getting straight to Liberia instead of hanging around waiting for a direct bus. In the end it all worked out at about 10 USD for the trip, about a third of the price of the shuttle bus, worth my while for the inconvenience of public transport.

There was a heavy police presence at the border due to dozens of Cubans being camped out there, having been refused entry to Nicaragua. Rumour had it that they were on the way to the US, and had landed in Ecuador, making their way up to Uncle Sam by land. Officially, the Nicaraguans were protecting them from the Honduran and El Salvadorian gangsters who would kill them as they passed through their countries, but in reality Nicaragua is a socialist country and holds strong ties with Cuba, so was probably acting in a diplomatic manner.

In order to leave Costa Rica you need to pay 6 USD, and to enter Nicaragua it costs 1 USD in the first queue to pay an admin fee for being in the border zone, before footing another 12 USD at immigration. The queues were quite long and slow, which presented taxi drivers with ample opportunity to harass incoming tourists and convince them to take a taxi instead of local transport. I’d been warned beforehand that Nicaraguan taxi drivers were complete liars and would say anything to get you into their taxi.

This was definitely true. They claimed there was no onward bus to be caught at the border, but I talked to some locals who reassured me that there was. It’s just a case of walking straight on until you spot buses on the left-hand side, staying firm as taxi drivers tug your arm and slowly negotiate down their price. One offered me a ride for 10 USD having originally tried to charge me 30. I found the bus that would take me towards Ometepe Island (all of them at the border go to Rivas or Managua in the right direction) and duly paid just a dollar, casually handing the money in Cordobas to the charger, although I saw that a couple of other foreigners had paid a little more on the bus and despite complaining, the guy taking the money just played dumb. As soon as locals spot foreigners in flip flops and shorts with huge backpacks, they see gold, so my jeans and trainers, allied to the fact I travelled with a relatively small backpack and my ability to pass for Mexican (they say it, not me!) often did me favours in this respect.

The diddling wouldn’t end there however, as the bus chargers and taxi drivers are well-connected, so after about an hour on the road, people headed to San Juan del Sur or Ometepe were told to get off. I had been warned that they tell you to get off a few blocks before Rivas bus terminal, so thought about staying on, but ended up getting off with the intention of asking a passer-by how close the terminal was. As it happened we were dropped into a swarm of taxi drivers, some with cars and others with bicycles, all claiming that there were either no buses to San Jorge, from where the ferry to Ometepe left, that the last one for the day had left, or even that there was no bus terminal in the city. Anything to get your custom. All I wanted were a few minutes to have a look around and try and locate public transport, but they were so in our faces, that I eventually gave in and negotiated a ride on a bicycle taxi for 3 USD, down from 10, in which you sit in front of them in a kind of carriage while they pedal you along. Like a tuc-tuc, but not motorised.

I’ve had the conversation about negotiating with locals many a time with fellow tourists, and it’s a complex issue. On the one hand, you don’t want to be ripped off by vendors and taxi drivers charging you about five times the going rate, but at the same time, you need to realise that there comes a point when bargaining can go too far, especially if you consider that many of the locals live difficult lives, and for the sake of a few dollars you wonder if it’s worth it. Yet if you adopted this attitude every time you have to pay for something, you’d end up blowing all of your budget on unofficial tourist taxes. I reckon a good way to help out taxi drivers would be to set fixed prices, because the fact that they can charge what they like, and will, creates a vicious circle in which most tourists grow to completely distrust and even dislike them. Of course, local buses are always cheaper, but if you knew you were paying a set price, even if it were more than the bus, then I think a lot more visitors would be willing to pay.

Anyway, back to this particular bicycle-taxi ride, and the guy taking me, who must have been about 14 or 15 sadly, was really struggling to pedal properly as there were a few ups and downs on the route. It took us about 15 minutes to get there and we spent it chatting all the way. Obviously, not so far into the journey, a local bus on its way to the docks drove past us, and my chauffeur even tried to convince me that I could pay my 3-dollar fare in Cordobas to the tune of 300. No Sir, I had already researched conversion rates and 1 dollar was equivalent to 27 Cordobas. This seems like something of a rant, but I’ve always had a reluctance to take taxis and an experience in San Salvador a few weeks later would vindicate the disdain I feel towards them. So, the guy was getting tired, and I suggested to him that we switch for a while and that I pedal while he sat down. He happily acquiesced, but almost to his own downfall, as I realised the vehicle was difficult to control and almost mounted the kerb and tipped it over. Thankfully he rescued the situation by gripping the frame of the cart and steering it back into the road. We eventually got to San Jorge, and due to his good humour and for allowing me to ride his bike, I gave him 5 USD, which he seemed pleased enough about.

There was no ferry from San Jorge to Ometepe for almost an hour so I walked along the beach and had a beer while gazing out at the twin volcanoes of the island. I was witness to quite a comical incident as some locals got their pick-up wedged in the sand while trying to fill up tankards of water from the lake (the water from the lake is drinkable and there was a shortage in San Jorge at the time). Quite ridiculously, they tried having a horse tow them out of trouble before realising that such efforts were rather futile and that a bus might be a better option.

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Car stuck in the lake

The ferry came on time at about 4.30pm and the journey over to the island took about an hour and fifteen minutes, costing under 2 USD. The boat was certainly filled to the brim with a couple of cars to boot and I figured that there might not be enough lifeboats or jackets to go around in the case of disaster, but what can you do apart from shrug and get on with it? I got chatting next to a French girl on the boat and we decided that we’d have a look for accommodation together once we arrived.

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Approaching Ometepe Island

No sooner had we disembarked than an older lady with silver wispy hair on a bicycle who looked a little like Rousseau from Lost approached us and asked us in a French accent if we had somewhere to stay. I indeed had a place in mind and almost waved her away saying that we were fine, but the hostel I mentioned happened to be hers, so she took us there.

Hospedaje Central was the cheapest bed I got in six weeks at a cool 5 USD per night, though the lady had to do a little reshuffling of beds before being able to accommodate us. The hostel restaurant and bar was rather busy, so Aurelie and I indulged in a few big bottles of beer to share at just 2 USD per litre, and I then ate a typical Nicaraguan meal which involved polenta and vegetables and wasn’t the best thing I’d ever eaten. Should have stuck to rice and beans. As it was a Friday, we went for a wander around at night but there wasn’t much atmosphere unless you’re into drunk middle-aged men shouting loudly at each other.

I’d heard about renting motorbikes to get around the islands as on a bicycle you would need more than a day, and had been advised to get one with gears as they handle rough terrain better. However, my only experiences of manual motorbikes had been on limited occasions on friends’ vehicles in Brazil and Colombia, so I opted for an automatic scooter for 20 USD for the day, no deposit or showing of driving licence needed. The guy who rented it to me most likely instantly regretted it as I asked loads of stupid questions about how to indicate and brake. Anyway, within a minute or so I got the hang of it, I mean if you can’t ride an automatic scooter you’re quite special, and I took off towards the horizon.

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Decent road for scootering

The roads were extremely well-maintained for the first part of my journey and I wondered what these warnings of difficult tracks had been about. After gaining confidence I really put my foot down and would even reach speeds of between 80 and 90kmh on the way back, overtaking public buses and tractors hither and thither with the wind in my face and excessively dragging my helmet over my forehead. Over the day I probably covered over 100km and was running on air at one point as the fuel bar ticked dangerously down, but luckily I found a petrol station and was able to leave the tank full upon returning the scooter.

First stop was Ojo de Agua, a natural swimming pool where I paid about 3 USD to have a chill for about an hour before setting off to what was rumoured to be a beautiful waterfall up high in the mountains in an area where the motorbike guy had strongly recommended me not to take his scooter. I ignored his advice and karma would get me later. The road there was extremely rocky and bumpy and I had to plod along at about 15kmh on the very edge of the track, my lower back screaming all the way.

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Ojo de Agua

I eventually got the entrance to the waterfall trail, which cost another 3 USD, and I had to park my white beast across the road and hope no one would steal it. The trek up to the top was rather challenging, taking more than an hour, and I briefly went off-piste before a few people on their way back down told me I wasn’t on the right trail. But boy was the reward at the top worth it. As opposed to the freakishly powerful waterfall I’d been to in Monteverde, this one was simply a friendly flow of water running down a vertical cliff face from a height of about 100m. Truly stunning. Though as it’s a prime spot for tourists, I couldn’t really spend that much time in there as you get in the way of other people’s photos.

I headed off back down the trail, and karma struck back. The motorbike guy had obviously cursed me as I somehow ended up off the trail again, not remembering at which point I’d come off. It did look like the same trail I’d mistakenly taken on the way up, so I figured there’d be opportunities to get back on the right one further down.

No, Sir, there wasn’t.

I was on a kind of dried river bed and had by then committed to continuing along the way for too long to be able to backtrack. And I felt as if I’d gone in a very different direction to the correct trail. So I figured that it was best just to keep on going down until I reached the base of the mountain, wherever that might be. Yet it kept on going and going, up and mostly down over huge rocks and through hanging tree branches. I saw several empty bottles of water with labels on them so concluded that other people had been lost down there recently too.

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Part of the river bed where I would get lost

I wasn’t overly concerned until all the animals that I would have preferred to see under more controlled circumstances decided to appear. A plethora of butterflies of all colours, birds flying literally past my head. Monkeys swinging playfully from trees and raccoons bounding around everywhere. Delightful if you couldn’t just see raw jungle and blue skies overhead.

And then came the roars.

I’d read in various museums and guidebooks that the jaguar is native to most Central American rainforests, yet rarely seen. Beautiful animals say the few who have come across them in their natural habitat.

The beastly roars continued and seemed to be getting louder and closer. I felt like I was in the Nicaraguan version of Jurassic Park (it was filmed in Costa Rica), and without looking back, I started to run as fast as I could, turning my ankles on the jagged rocks below, and pricking my skin on thorny plants. Several times I disturbed spider webs and had to tear them from my face, and I also got caught in a storm of bats. Too much wildlife for one day. The scary sounds continued to bellow and I kept on running.

Thankfully after about 10 minutes of non-stop fleeing my predator must have given up.

I have since learned that the noises I heard were probably those of a howler monkey, which sound very much like wild cats and supposedly like to spook unwitting tourists for their own amusement. Sons of eggs!

Having not paid much attention to where I was going for the time being, I was glad to be able to see what I believed to be the sea beyond the trees. I must have been getting closer. I got on to a trail and thought I was home and dry, but it suddenly stopped and I had to get back on to the riverbed. It was probably about an hour away from when the sun starts setting, and in the canopy of the jungle it gets dark extremely quickly, so I began to become a little preoccupied and started thinking about how I’d survive in the jungle at night.

I even said a few silent prayers and was soon rewarded when another alternative trail opened up, one which was certainly in use as it was too well-maintained not to be. When I saw recent tyre tracks my fears were allayed and about 10 minutes later I emerged on to the main road, much to the bemusement of some locals to whom I said hola.

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Luscious greens seen from the waterfall trail

I was totally disorientated and had ended up on the other side of the waterfall entrance from which I’d approached. Upon arriving at the entrance I retrieved my intact scooter and went on my bumpy way, a little concerned that I might not be able to get the bike back for the requested time of 6pm. Thus I had to really put my foot down on the way back, though I didn’t help myself by taking a wrong turn and zooming in the wrong direction for about 10 minutes. I thought I’d never get back in time to the hostel to return the scooter, but eventually made it without about five minutes to spare.

After having a shower, I bumped into Aurelie, who had become embroiled in a conversation with a couple of Nicaraguan males, one of which spoke decent English and French, but would become cringeworthingly flirty not too long after, latching on to Aurelie’s wish for a dessert and saying that he was sweet and could thus satisfy her hunger. He was pretty ugly to be honest and the charm was never going to work, though his persistence did become awkward.

I conversed with his mate in Spanish. Now, one thing I really noticed in Nicaragua is that they aren’t really used to talking to tourists. Admittedly the country is a relatively new tourist destination, and of course, the majority of visitors speak either zero or very poor Spanish. However, I consider that I understand pretty much everything people say to me in Spanish and I’d go as far as saying I’m rather fluent and grammatically correct when I speak the language, hence why I kept getting asked if I’m Mexican. Yet this guy frustratingly insisted on speaking to me in robotic Spanish, such as saying what can be roughly be translated as ‘I. Taxi driver. Past. Now. No. One day. See American. I say him’ and so on. Perhaps most of his listeners have such poor comprehension that he has to communicate to them like this, but I was like come on brother, I’m speaking to you coherently here and wondered why he continued like this. As I say, they’re probably not used to foreigners speaking their language and are thrown off if they don’t sound exactly like their neighbour.

I later had an interesting conversation with one of the hostel workers, a Nicaraguan, who incidentally spoke Spanish normally. He said that he didn’t like how tourists came from their better-off countries to work in more impoverished countries as volunteers in exchange for accommodation and food. He bemoaned the fact that they were taking jobs away from the local population and suggested that if they have enough money to pay flights, drink beers and do extreme sports, then they should be able to pay 5 USD a night to have a bed. One to think about, workaway.com. Ironically I then ended up chatting to a Brazilian girl who was doing just that in the very same hostel. I don’t know where I stand on this one.

Anyway, I got a relatively early night as I had to take the ferry the next day at 8.30am so as to get to San Juan del Sur. The following morning I went for breakfast and after being asked by a man speaking broken English whether I wanted a taxi from San Jorge on the mainland (how he knew I was leaving that day I don’t know), I started talking to a couple of Nicaraguan girls on the table opposite me. They were airline employees based in Managua and were also on their way to San Juan, if only for lunch. They offered me a ride to there from San Jorge after we got off the ferry, an offer I wouldn’t decline, and said that if I happened to pass by Managua that I should call them and we could meet up and get something to eat and take a mini-tour of the capital. One of them, Monica, later explained that she also believed in karma and had felt obliged to do a favour for a visitor. She said that once she had been a little lost in a dangerous neighbourhood in Chile and had been given a ride for free by a taxi driver who had a daughter living abroad and had hoped that someone elsewhere would do the same thing for his daughter as he had done for Monica. To be fair, I wasn’t exactly in imminent danger, but the point still stands: what goes around comes around.

I’d stopped counting the good deeds and lucky occurrences by then.

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