Editor’s note: Our host in La Fortuna, who was a great source of information on the area, highly recommended a tour with Giovanni. He said that Giovanni had an almost magical ability to spot animals, and that no one had ever failed to rave about his tour. So we signed up, even though it meant leaving at 5:30 am! We thought the price tag was a little steep (that pesky “per person” thing again), but when we saw what Giovanni was doing — preserving his own little section of the rainforest from development, reforesting it, and developing a path that will be handicap-accessible and tailored to the blind, we actually ended up making an additional contribution. And, we certainly got our money’s worth. When our morning tour had ended, Giovanni saw how much the girls loved the sloths. So he told us he’d meet us again in the afternoon and take us to a place where we could see babies up close and touch some iguanas. He led us on a drive about half an hour away and delivered on both promises! Giovanni told us he thought Lanie should be a tour guide, since she loves animals so much. And now, on to Lanie’s review:
Mom booked a tour. It was from a guy who made paths in his own reserve. In the big reserves, the animals avoid the paths because of all the people. We woke up early to see the animals. Here they are!
We saw about 5 toucans. They were so colorful! Our guide called them froot loops. We saw two different kinds together.
Blue jeans frog
Blue jeans frog (Strawberry poison dart frog)
They are venomous. The are small with blue legs and a red middle; that is why it is called the blue jeans frog.
Red-eyed tree frog
They are small. They are green. They look like Monty. (Monty is a stuffed animal that Lanie bought at the women’s craft cooperative store in Monteverde.)
We saw 6 sloths in the morning. They were really fuzzy. Later we even saw a baby! We saw a three-toed sloth and two-toed sloths.
Basilisk lizard (“Jesus Christ lizard”)
We saw a big green lizard. It is a basilisk lizard. They can walk on water. The one we saw was in a tree.
In the secret part of our tour we pet a baby sloth. Our guide looked in all sorts of small trees, then he found the sloth. It felt like a stuffed animal. It was so fuzzy! It moved and we left.
We’re settled into life here in Costa Rica, which has largely meant making peace with seeing the money flying out of our bank account. We sure ain’t in Nicaragua anymore.
Nadia contributes to the economy by adding another country to her growing toenail clipper/bottle opener collection.
To be fair, the two main places we’ve stayed thus far — Monteverde Cloud Forest and Arenal Volcano — are major tourist destinations. There are many, many things to do — and all of them cost big bucks. We were very happy that we’d done ziplining and some guided cloud and rainforest tours in Nicaragua. The main thing that’s killing us is that here, everything is charged per person. This makes sense to us for some things, but perplexes us when it comes to hiring a tour guide. If one of us wanted a guided tour, the guide would take that person around for $18. But if five of us want to tag along — well, now we’re up to $18 * 5.
For obvious reasons, we don’t have many good pictures from the night tour. This is a phosphorescent beetle, kind of like a firefly, on Lanie’s head.
So, we’ve been pretty selective on which of the vast array of available activities to pursue. In Monteverde, we signed up for a night tour of the cloud forest, but skipped the guided daytime tour and just walked around on our own. The night tour was pretty cool, and we saw some interesting animals — a sloth, an olingo (which apparently is related to the kinkajou), a tarantula, a porcupine, and a glowing beetle — but the place we did it was mobbed with groups of tourists, all crowding around the same trees and bumping into each other in the dark. (We also did the El Trapiche tour, as previously described, and this was unanimously felt to be worth the hefty price tag based on the food samples provided.)
Our first view of Volcan Arenal.
We set out for our next destination, Arenal Volcano, with some trepidation. I think we may have failed to describe the drive to Monteverde because we’re trying to block it out of our memories, but “harrowing” would be a good word to describe the boulder-strewn barely-a-road through the mountains (surrounded by beautiful scenery that we were unable to appreciate because of (a) motion sickness, and (b) the terror that at any moment the car would break an axle or get a flat tire). When we finally arrived, we parked the car in the driveway and pretty much didn’t move it again until it was time to leave.
It’s five o’clock somewhere.
If you look at a map, Monteverde and Arenal seem to be quite close together. However, because the drive involves 45km on a dirt road followed by a long drive around a lake, it takes 3-4 hours. Bob and I focused our thoughts on the microbrewery that we had read was halfway to our destination, and forced ourselves into the car.
This drive, though terrible by ordinary standards, turned out to be a little easier than the previous one, so we were pleasantly surprised. The car only made horrible clunking noises (as it hit the rocky road) a few times, and we only stalled a couple. For the most part, we didn’t need to shift into first and chant, “I think I can…” to make it up the hills. And oh, that magical moment when we got to Lake Arenal and the pavement began.
Things went so well that we actually arrived at the brewpub, our planned lunch destination, about 10:30. Fortunately the owner was friendly, and happy to have us sit there for a while using their free wifi — and Bob and I decided to stretch a point on “appropriate hours for beer consumption.” The brew pub was gorgeous, with huge windows overlooking the lake, but the beer was rather disappointing. (I tried a pineapple beer, which sounded quite exciting, but turned out, like the other beer we tried, to not taste like too much.)
And our apartment in La Fortuna, at the base of the dramatic Volcan Arenal, turned out to be terrific. The minute we arrived, the owner William, who lived the next apartment over, had brought his dog out to play with the girls and was proudly showing us all the edible plants that were growing in the yard and up for grabs. The apartment was just a block or two from the town center, easy to find (probably the first time we didn’t have to reverse
our tracks multiple times!), and had everything we needed. The volcano photo at the top of this post is the view from our living room window. The town was cute (though very touristy), with a lovely town square featuring lots of flowers and dramatic views of the volcano rising above the pretty church.
We took our first day pretty easy, getting some schoolwork in and walking to a nearby (free!) swimming hole. (This was absolutely beautiful, with twin waterfalls gushing into a deep blue pool under the trees, but we were warned so thoroughly about theft that we didn’t bring our camera
Also, our apartment has iguanas in the yard.
with us.) On the advice of our host, we’d booked an animal-watching tour the next day — 5:30am sharp! Read all about it from Lanie tomorrow.
Today we visited Agricultural Disneyland. In touring La Finca el Trapiche we got to observe the cultivation and processing of three of the world’s most beloved foods. Nadia will explain a little bit about all three:
What we saw at El Trapiche:
Nadia snaps off the sweet insides of a cane that has been peeled.
Sugar cane grows in a plant that looks a lot like bamboo. The sugar is the inside of the stalk. To eat it, you cut off the outside layer, then you pull of a piece and suck the juice out of it. It tastes really sweet.
Coffee Coffee grows on bushes. There are three types of coffee. The first type is premium. That is when there is only one bean per berry. The next type is first quality. That is when there is two beans per berry. The last type is second quality. That is when there are three beans in a berry.
Three grades of coffee beans: second grade, first grade, and peaberry
You can eat the red coffee fruit. I tried some. It doesn’t taste like coffee, it tastes sweet.
Lanie shows off a cocoa pod.
Cocoa is grown on a small tree. It grows in a pod. The seeds are coated in white paste called cocoa butter. Cocoa butter is used to make white chocolate and beauty products. White chocolate has no cocoa in it at all. After the cocoa butter is washed off the beans they are dried, roasted, shelled, and ground up with sugar. When you make chocolate, you have to choose what percent of cocoa and what percent of sugar. You also have to decide if you want to add milk.
Sample tastings were everywhere at El Trapiche. Here the adults try moonshine made from cane juice.
Lanie chimes in about coffee production:
Zoe learned she would get $3 for every basket full of beans she picked. Also, sometimes there are snakes in the bushes.
The El Trapiche tour was awesome! First we went around and picked some coffee and ate it. The coffee tasted really good. Zoe had a basket tied around her waist so she could pick red berries off the tree with both hands. Coffee comes in small red berries. If there is only one seed inside, it is the best kind. It is called peaberry. If it has two beans, it is called first quality. If has three seeds, it is second quality.
Everyone was a coffee drinker at El Trapiche.
After you pick it, you dry it. To dry it, you put it in a greenhouse. Once it’s dry you peel it. The peel can be used to make parchment paper. At the end we got to taste the coffee. It was delicious.
With apologies to our friend Carol, who trudged around Costa Rica for a week with one particular quarry in mind, and who left empty-handed, we can report that we visited the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and saw her prized Quetzal before we even left the parking lot.
“Like a waterfall of teal” See what I mean? Kudos to Zoe for getting these pictures with our point-and-shoot camera.
It’s true. We walked to the reserve from our house, about 700 meters away from the front gates, and saw about 20 people standing in the parking lot looking up. Being a veteran of the US National Park System, I sensed something exciting was afoot. I asked a man who looked like a guide: “At what are everyone seeing here?” (This is an approximation of my Spanish now that I’m not speaking it every day. Many people here speak fine English.) And he replied, “Why, the resplendent Quetzal, senor.” “Resplendent” almost always modifies this bird in these parts.
The girls didn’t ignore the coati.
Sure enough, like a waterfall of metallic teal feathers from a high branch in a tree, serenely sat the bird that brings thousands and thousands of expensive cameras with long lenses to Costa Rica. Moreover, as I was inside buying our tickets and inquiring if there was a chance of getting a guide through the preserve, Jen and the girls spotted two more Quetzals (slighly-less-resplendent females). Anyone who bothered to look down saw a trio of coatis, which are like mild-mannered racoons with long noses, practically doing synchronized acrobatics in a empty parking space trying to garner some attention.
Cool, yes. Resplendent? Maybe not.
It was almost too much. As it turned out, it was almost everything we saw for the day. If animals were so easy to find you were in danger of parking your car on top of them, who needs a guide? Am I right? Actually, no. We guided ourselves through the preserve enjoying lovely scenery and appreciating the well-marked, well-maintained trails, but all we managed to observe of the fauna was a big millipede and several nondescript birds. To be sure, we must have walked by dozens of lovely specimens invisible to our un-trained and un-magnified eyes.
Now, a waterfall of water
A suspension bridge gave a view into the top of the canopy.
We might have opted for a guide — they are highly recommended here — if we could have used a credit card to pay for his services, but all of the reserve’s guides were booked and the mercenary squad only accepts cash. Our visit to the Bank of Costa Rica was scheduled for the afternoon. Also, it seems that the pricing system here does not favor our family. One person can rent a guide for $18, it seems, but a family of five has to pay $18 per person, which sounded a little steep for us. Even after the guy told us he’d waive the fee for Lanie it was a little steep.
The reserve turned out to be a nice place to stroll. We saw a waterfall, lots of cool flowers (which also might have benefitted from a guide’s description) and nice views from a lookout point.
After visiting the reserva, we headed back to our house. (The Quetzals had migrated, but the coatis were still scampering around the parking lot.) Nadia and I walked a few kilometers into town to visit the cajero automatico, then we met the rest of the family at a pizza place that turned out to be several degrees nicer than we expected or were dressed for. Who puts a nice restaurant two miles out past where the paved road ends? At least we were there early enough that there were few people to offend with our emphatic lack of resplendency.
During our walk, Nadia and I also checked out a store run by a cooperative of local artisans. It was a Monteverde version of Durham’s own Main Street Makery. It’s good for us that our travel schedule restricts us from buying large items. The furniture, particularly the hand-made wooden chairs in Nicaragua, were beautiful. The hammocks are appealing, too, but even these are just too big for us to haul around. Save our money for more tours, that’s what I say.
Tomorrow we’ll take the rest of the family to the coop to see what they think.
Now that we have left Nicaragua behind, below is a round-up of the favorite Nicaragua experiences of each member of the family. There is a bit of overlap, but not as much as you might think! To read our original posts on these subjects, click the underlined link.
None more white.
Tour of Leon Cathedral roof: This surpassed any expectation I had by at least 1,000 percent. Never have I seen such a pristinely white environment (at least one that did not involve snow). The sight of it was shocking. The sensation of walking barefoot on the clean roof, with its warm — but not hot — surface was a pleasant experience and also a good lesson in why things in sunny places get painted white. If the roof were black, it would have been at least 30 degrees warmer up there and significantly less comfortable inside the cathedral. The contrast between the crumbling facade of the cathedral (it was still beautiful, in a rustic way) and the gleaming roof was also interesting. It is pristine like nothing else we’ll experience in Central America — certainly the antithesis of the nearby (and scarringly sordid) folklore museum. At $9 per adult, this is expensive for Nicaragua, but to me it was definitely worth it.
Crew at La Mariposa. There’s a real diversity here — people young and old, from various countries of origin.
Dinners at La Mariposa School: I think I’ll comment on the food at Mariposa elsewhere, but the environment at the school reached is high point, in my opinion, at dinner time. It was quiet and calm once the teachers and day students went home. Those staying at the hotel gathered at the sound of a bell and enjoyed conversation (almost entirely in English), a $2 Tona or two, and whatever food they served up on a given night. There was no troublesome plowing through menus and ordering. We got what we got, and at it all up. I did, at least. Usually, I ate some of the girls’ leftovers, too. If the Spanish classes, excursions and interactions with staff helped us get used to Central American culture, the dinners helped us acclimate to the physical environment, eating outside in shorts and t-shirts in February was a palpable, if slightly guilty, pleasure. The warm silky breezes and “tranquilo” atmosphere helped soothe any culture shock we experienced during the day. We happily noted the absolute absence of mosquitoes. The compound’s dogs and cats were always close by, often enjoying the attention of a pet-starved child. These dinners also allowed the girls to display a previously hidden talent: conversing with adults. This is something they tend to do at home only under extreme duress. Without other children to talk to, ZN+L chatted happily with our fellow adult guests, many of them grandparents who clearly delighted in talking to young people. Jen and I enjoyed multiple compliments about them.
Picture the UNH Outdoor Pool with a tarzan swing.
Ojos de Agua: I thought swimming in this natural spring-fed pool was enjoyable until Jen commented on its similarity to the now-destroyed UNH Outdoor Pool. She was onto something. There were surely differences: palm trees, a slack line and tarzan rope, waiters carrying trays of food (we never found out how to order any). The similarities became more obvious as I looked for them. The clear, bluish-tinted water was cool and comfortable. The sides of the pool were concrete and stone (and a little muddy at points). People were there to swim and socialize and relax. It should be noted that this attraction featured the best mix of tourist and locals of any place we’ve visited in Central America. We even saw a car with a Costa Rican license plate in the parking lot. One of the workers at our hotel told Jen that the Ojos de Agua is one of his favorite places in the world. My favorite part, though, was that I felt a little like a time traveler, able to skip back into the near past to snatch one more afternoon of an experience that I never thought I’d get to have again. Anyone missing the UNH pool can find solace that it still exists, in spirit at least, on Ometepe.
I’ve already written about this extensively, but it remains a highlight in my memory. I think part of the appeal was that we had no idea what to expect. If we had arranged (and paid for) this tour ourselves, we would have known what to expect every step of the way. But since this was done through La Mariposa, the extent of our preparation was signing up on the whiteboard. And as it turned out, it was one fabulous experience after another: the steam pouring from the active crater, the beautiful sunset from the highest point in the park, the awe-inspiring spectacle of thousands of bats issuing forth for the night, the cool walk deep into the mountain through a lava tube. It was a magical evening.
Our hotel on Ometepe (La Omaja) has to be one of the best places in the world to watch the sunset. Located in the lower slopes of a volcano, it features an open-air restaurant (with great mojitos), fronted by an infinity pool and hot tub, with Lake Nicaragua stretching away in the distance. To the right is the dramatic cone of the Volcan Conception, rising 1,600 meters above the lake. Behind the restaurant, Volcan Maderas rises in green waves.
It was the latter that we’d hiked that day, and it was an extreme challenge to us. Having left the hotel at 7:30 am, we staggered back in at 5:30, just in time for the nightly display. Sinking our exhausted bodies into the warm hot tub as the sky glowed with every color of the rainbow was an exquisite pleasure. Later we would eat enormous dinners poolside, then return to the hot tub as the colors faded and thousands of brilliant stars (far more than we have ever seen at home) emerged above our heads.
Though we loved our time at La Miraflor cloud forest, Granada presented a welcome contrast – hot, sunny, full of people and life. In the late afternoon, the glare of the mid-day sun would soften, and cool breezes from the lake seemed to blow away the day’s heat in the blink of an eye. Around the corner from our hotel was a pedestrian thoroughfare with a grand old church at each end. The street was lined with colorful buildings housing bars, restaurants, and shops, with café tables scattered across the cobblestones outside. The air was filled with laughter and the sounds of roving musicians playing traditional music (and thrilled to serenade you for a $1 tip). For another $1 we could enjoy a mojito made with fresh mint, lime and Nicaraguan rum. It felt graceful and old-fashioned, like something out of a Hemingway novel.
Part way through our trip, we hiked to a giant strangler fig in the cool, misty cloud forest of La Miraflor. The fig had killed the tree it had lived on long ago, and was completely hollow in the center. We ducked through an opening in the interlocking vines and into the cave–like space inside. It was cool and damp and filled with shafts of sunlight from holes in the web of tendrils. I grabbed a vine and started to climb. The fig’s bark felt cool and rough beneath my fingers, and the different strands were the perfect size for me to wrap my hands around. When I looked up and down, the fig was like a vertical tunnel made of intricate patterns and designs. I could see my family standing in the small circle of packed earth far below. I felt as if I could keep climbing all the way up to the tree’s topmost branches high above. I peeked out of the small windows made by the fig’s stems and waved to my dad standing on the ground outside the tree. When I climbed down, I wanted to do it again.
In the city of Granada, Mom booked us a tour of a chocolate museum, but not just any tour. This was a workshop where we got to see how chocolate is made and make some ourselves. This was the perfect tour for me because I love both chocolate and cooking. It was really cool to see how one of my favorite foods is made. Central American chocolate is different from the chocolate we have in the U.S., which is made from beans grown in Africa. It has a darker, richer flavor. I liked it. Even the plain roasted Central American beans taste good. We got to try them after roasting them ourselves over an open fire and peeling them by hand. Then, we ground them using a mortar and pestle. The whole beans seemed dry, but once they were ground, the oily cocoa butter seemed to appear from nowhere. After that, we used the cocoa paste to make two chocolate drinks. The first was made by the Aztecs. It had chili peppers in it. It was much too spicy for me! I liked the second though. It was made by the Spanish and tasted like hot chocolate. At the end, we got pre-churned chocolate to make our own bars. We could put anything we wanted in them. I put coffee, sea salt, almonds, and nibs (pieces of roasted cocoa beans) in mine.
My whole family learned to surf in Jiquilillo, a town on the beach. We all took surfing lessons. I loved surfing and rented a board for the next couple of days. I surfed a lot during those days, but one time stood out. Jiquilillo had beautiful sunsets and we would go to the beach to watch them, but I wanted to keep surfing. So I surfed during the sunset. It was amazing. When you watch a sunset over water from land, the glows orange from the reflected sun. While I surfed, that color was all around me. It was like surfing on the sun.
It was my favorite because I really missed riding and I had a lot of fun because I got to canter a lot. The ride went through the countryside, a village, and some woods. I rode the same horse but I can’t remember his name. He was a brown and white paint.
Zip-lining was my third favorite thing because it was really fun. I was a little scared at first, but by the end I wasn’t. It was special because it was a really unique and singular experience. We also got to fly with a guide, go upside down, and swing on a long rope.
On our last day at La Mariposa, we had a party with great music in Spanish, dancing and piñata breaking. Zoe, Nadia and I made the piñatas with our teachers and went into town to buy candy for them. I felt happy, excited and good. I liked the taste of the candy and the smell of the fresh air. It was special to me having my friends from La Mariposa all gathered around me.
I felt as light as a feather. I was zip-lining at Volcan Mombacho. It was special because I felt a good sense of accomplishment. I tried going upside down, and the guy was jiggling my legs as we zip-lined.
The volcano hike was hiking up a volcano to see the sun set, then hiking to see two caves. I felt very good. It was nice to walk in to a nice cool cave. It was one of the best experiences of my life because I got to see so many cool things.
After this I didn’t walk anywhere at night without my headlamp.
Our second-to-last day in Nicaragua, we found a tarantula in our hotel room. The next day, we found a scorpion attempting to hitch a ride in Lanie’s backpack. Apparently we were no longer welcome in Nicaragua, so it’s just as well that we headed to the border the next day.
Look who wants to come home with us.
Costa Rica logistics have already proven to be far more complicated, for some reason. For the few days preceding our travels, I was spending much of my time hunched over the computer, trying to figure out where we were going to go and how we were going to get there. In the end, we were forced to conclude that we’d need to rent a car for a while.
Our travel day looked like this:
9 am ferry from Ometepe to the mainland
Taxi ride to the border (we’d been planning to take a taxi to the bus terminal and the bus to the border, but for $25 we decided to take the shortcut)
Walk across the no-man’s-land border area, which involved having our passports checked three times by Nicaragua and three times by Costa Rica.
Bus to Liberia, Costa Rica.
Taxi to the Liberia airport where we picked up our rental car. (In shock from the price of the cab ($40! For 9 km! Nicaragua, we miss you already), we go the cheaper route and do not get an SUV. We will regret this decision later.)
Drive for a couple of hours to the place I’d managed to rent last-minute for the night, from airbnb. It was not exactly a palace, and was in the middle of nowhere, but the drive was beautiful.
Drive back out to the nearest town to stock up on groceries, since we have a kitchen.
Drive back to the house because Bob forgot his wallet.
Drive back to the store again and back to the house again. (For the most part we haven’t lost/forgotten things too much on this trip. But this house proved to be some kind of Bermuda-triangle type location with a magnetic pull over our belongings. This will also come up again later.)
I guess the novelty of restaurants really has worn off, because the kids were thrilled to shop for groceries and cook dinner. Bob and I were instructed to sit down and mostly stay out of the way while they worked together to whip up pasta with chorizo, garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, and cheese. (Afterwards, they fought bitterly for about four hours about who would sleep where. But it was nice while it lasted.)
In the middle of the night, Bob and I were abruptly awakened by a very loud, very strange sound. It sounded like someone saying, “HHHHHHahhhhh” in this raspy voice, and must have been right outside the window. (It was so loud, we initially thought it was inside the house.) Bob asked the caretakers here about it the next day, and it turns out we heard an ocelot! (They called it a “tigrillo”.)
Being more aware of the road conditions, we decided we were too far to attempt our original plan of spending a day in Rincon de la Vieja National Park. Instead, we went to a nearby resort that featured hot springs, mud baths, and pools, plus hiking along a beautiful canyon in the forest, with a warm thermal river running through the middle.
It was a very fancy place (though bizarrely, as it was even more in the middle of nowhere) with fluffy white towels and deferential waiters. However, the price for a day’s admission seemed exorbitant. We elected, therefore, to forgo add-ons like zip-lining and white-water tubing. It was very pleasant soaking in the hot river in the middle of the woods, and took the last of the soreness out of our muscles from our previous hike.
Dinner brought another misadventure. We thought we were buying salt in the grocery store, when we saw a packet of white crystals labeled, “Sal ingleterre”. Nadia put some into her signature guacamole, then grimaced as she tasted it. We quickly determined that whatever it was that we’d bought, it was not edible (Epsom salts, maybe?) It was horribly wrenching for us to throw away that big bowl of otherwise perfect guacamole. (Luckily there was another bowl that was untainted.)
As we packed up and headed out the next day, the Bermuda triangle effect struck again. About 20 minutes into our journey, Bob asked, “Did you take the water bottles out of the fridge?” Nope, even though I’d checked the place about 20 times, we’d forgotten all our water and bottles. Back we went, down the rough dirt road, to the amusement of the caretakers. On the road again! Except, about 15 minutes later, Nadia: “I don’t remember packing up my kindle!” After a check of the bags, AGAIN we headed back. This last time, Bob told them, “Anything else we left here is yours.”
Ometepe was our last stop in Nicaragua. From there, after a comfortably uneventful ferry to the mainland (aided in some quarters by Dramamine), we accepted a taxista’s offer of a $25 ride to the border — about 45 minutes south — and began our walk into Costa Rica.
A family of five from the USA makes for a fine seminar in document checking. Most of these people are trainees for the Nicaraguan border service.
The border crossing was not really straight forward. It was more of a zig-zag across a large tractor-trailer parking lot. It suggested some acrimony between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, as if they needed 300 meters and a double row of semis to keep the respective populations from throwing rocks at one another.
Our taxista pointed out disused buildings on both sides of the road about 10 km from the trucks and the parking lot that he said used to be the border. “They were having problems in San Jose and we took some land from them,” is what the taxista appeared to say. “It was many years ago.” I asked him if San Jose (the capital of Costa Rica when I don’t call it San Juan) got angry over that. “Who knows what they think?” the taxista said.
You have to love the Nicaraguans. They took very good care of us, from Leopoldo the night watchman at La Mariposa, to the guy with the potleaf hat on the microbus to Managua, to Marcial in La Miraflor, to this last taxi driver, who gave me tips on speaking Spanish with the Costa Ricans. Basically, after the first major city we got to, Liberia, where many Nicaraguan emigres live, everyone we’ll meet will speak very fast and use strange words. Instead of saying “tranquillo,” the Costa Ricans will say, “pura vida.”
After a long line of tractor trailers, Costa Rica beckons.
It’s more expensive in Costa Rica, too. Many people have told us. “Any question you have, you’ll have to pay $5 for the answer,” somebody once told me. When I express how much we’ve liked Nicaragua, a common response from Nicaraguans has been, “yeah, it’s cheap here.”
So there is a bit of an inferiority complex here, but the Nicos persevere. And they have made a great impression on us. Among the things we’ve appreciated the most has been the public transportation system, which promises to take you anywhere you want in the country provided you switch buses enough times and can get across the larger cities from one terminal to the other. Some American told us early in our time here, “Well…you have to understand that the buses don’t leave until they’re full…” This is a slanderous remark, in Nicaragua at least. Every bus we took (ferries, too, for that matter) left exactly at the posted time. Of course, they have been pretty full, and they tend to get more full as they go along. Still, we found them a very efficient — and yes, cheap — way to get around.
Just a quick word on the term “Chicken Bus,” which is what some people call the local buses. It should be said that while almost all of the local, intercity buses we took were converted school buses, often heavily laden with people and produce, we did not see a single chicken in or on top of a bus. True, we did see one tied to a pillar in the Esteli bus station, but it might have been part of the concession. There was just about every other kind of food imaginable at the terminals.
In fact, I came to the conclusion that it would be pointless to take a chicken on a bus from anywhere to anywhere in Nicaragua because no matter where you ended up, as soon as you got off the bus, there would be more chickens there waiting for you. Chickens are ubiquitous in Nicaragua, except on the buses. In a land of poultry saturation, where almost every night of sleep was perforated by crowing roosters, the chicken buses have been for us a chicken-free zone.
But buses are just one part of the appeal here. I have enjoyed the food, more so than the rest of the family, perhaps. I have become a connoisseur of gallo pinto and I’ve had several fine dishes of chicken with jalapeno sauce. The fruit and vegetables have been very fresh — I even eat beets now, though Jen seems to have abandoned the habit rather quickly. Most dinners have come with a side salad of chopped cabbage that I have liked. Tona beer has been a fine acquaintance on this trip, and the two-for-60 $C mojitos on the main tourist strip of Granada were fine friends, too.
The country boasts two tremendous assets even beyond its budget mixed drinks. The first is its people, kind and patient with my Spanish. Knowledgeable and cheerful, too, as a general characteristic. We have made many friends in Nicaragua. The second is the landscape and natural diversity. It’s been said that we’ll see more animals in Costa Rica, but I don’t know that we’ll have an experience as amazing as the bat cave at the Volcan Masaya National Park, or the crater of Volcan Masaya itself. We may not get as close to a sloth as we did on Mombacho, or as deep in the mud as we did on top of Volcan Maderas. Really, we have no complaints about our experiences in Nicaragua.
It was like a little bit of Durham history, right there in Ometepe.
Especially since the country rolled out a special gift to us on our penultimate day in residence. Traveling from Hotel La Omaja back to Moyogalpa, where we would spend the night before taking the ferry back to the mainland, we stopped at a natural spring pool called Los Ojos del Agua. It was a beautiful spot that caught my attention because it seemed to attract Nicaraguenses and tourists in equal measures. Then Jen pointed out that the pool reminded here of another spring-fed pool we used to frequent. Seacoast NH readers of this blog might recognize a little of the dearly departed UNH Outdoor Pool in the greenish blue water of Los Ojos del Agua. Nicaragua gave us a chance to remember one of our favorite places in Durham — albeit with a tarzan swing, grass-roofed huts, and palm trees — one last time before the future takes over our local outdoor swimming lives. It made us even more sad to say we’re on our way.
When I’ve told Nicaraguans how much I like it here, they frequently ask (after noting how cheap it is) if we’ll come back. I almost always say yes, though I’m not really as sure as I sound. There are many places to visit in this world and we have a limited amount of time to travel. We definitely plan to stay involved in the country, possibly by helping to fund Paulette’s projects in La Concepcion or the orphanage in Ometepe where our hotel owner volunteered.
If we do ever return, it’s not clear that we’ll be coming back to the same place. Most tourists we’ve talked to seem to agree that Nicaragua is poised for major changes in the coming decade. It’s likely we’ll find more paved roads with extra lanes, more walled communities, more mega resorts, fewer drink deals. I hope that the Nicaraguans don’t get left out of this. It’s worth noting that every place we stayed in, except for our hotel in Granada, was owned by foreigners. I don’t think we consciously discriminated against Nicaraguans. It’s possible that foreigners are more savvy about marketing themselves online, where Jen does her research. I hope that some Nicaraguans studying at UCA in Managua today learn to use this tool and become able to grab some of the flood of tourist dollars for themselves. There certainly are tons of reasons why people reading this blog should consider coming down for a week or so, and it would be nice to think of some of our friends, or their children or nieces, benefiting from your patronage.
…or at least, they looked us over, raised their eyebrows, and smiled condescendingly when we said we were going to try to hike the Volcan Madera on Ometepe Island.
I actually thought they were probably right. We had read and heard a lot about how hard the hike was — 9 km one way, much of it straight up. But we figured we’d give it a shot and maybe at least get to one of the viewpoints partway up. So we hired our guide, ordered sandwiches from our hotel, filled up all available water bottles, and headed out at 7:30 the next morning.
Petroglyph on the mountain
Ometepe is a figure-eight shaped island composed entirely of two volcanoes — one active, one inactive. The active one, Concepcion, is a steep, smooth brown cone, rising dramatically from the lake like a child’s drawing of a volcano. Madera is slightly smaller and more irregular, covered with trees and vegetation. We thought we were attempting the easier of the two, but our guide disabused us of this notion. “No, that one is longer, but less hard. You walk the whole way. This one…” Here he mimed climbing vertically with hands and feet, a look of great exertion on his face.
Undeterred, we set off through the already hot sun. Adding insult to injury is that our hotel is on the slopes of Volcan Madera, but in order to get to the trail we had to descend the long, steep driveway — only to climb back up on the trail about a quarter mile down the road.
The previous day, we had cleverly stocked up on small candies to distribute as bribes when the going got tough. The kids began asking for them about half a kilometer in, but we managed to hold off for two or three. The first half of the hike was not easy — it was pretty steeply uphill, and we were all huffing and puffing — but we were still walking upright. A couple of hours in we weren’t hot anymore; we’d entered the cloud forest and a damp wind made us chilly.
We had expected this hike to be long. We’d expected it to be strenuous. What we’d failed to foresee — and what no one had warned us about — is that hiking in a perpetual cloud forest means mud. As we ascended, the ground got ever more wet and slippery, at the same time that it grew ever more steep. Soon we needed to use our hands to grab roots and pull us up the slippery inclines. Did I mention that we were hiking in Keen sandals? Soon we were covered in wet mud, squelching along with every step.
At this point Bob and I began to fixate on an unpleasant prospect: getting back down. We were afraid it would be just too treacherous, especially with our legs growing more tired by the minute. Bob talked to the guide, who suggested a good turn-around spot about half an hour distant, and we resolved to give up our attempt on the top.
Well, 3/5 of the family resolved this. When we eventually reached the spot in question, Zoe and Lanie were extremely determined to go on. A couple of hikers from our hotel passed us on their way back from the summit, and said it was only another 45 minutes or so. This convinced Nadia that we should try as well. Our guide, impassive the whole day, said it was up to us — so in a moment of weakness, we agreed to go for it.
Our guide (who, by the way, was 68 years old and had done this hike for the past 7 days running) shepherds Lanie to the summit ridge.
At this point the really difficult part began — at least for Bob and I. The kids were now in their element, because scrambling up the almost vertical inclines was easier and more fun for them than plodding up hills on foot. They were ahead of us with the guide, who, now that we’d committed, clearly wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. (We kept hearing his voice ahead: “Keep going.” Resting was not permitted.)
And half an hour later, muscles aching and soaked with mud, we made it. And we were rewarded for our efforts. Usually the summit of the mountain is in a permanent cloud, and hikers who complete the arduous journey get rewarded with only a view of swirling white. But our day was crystal clear (according to our guide, the first clear day in at least four weeks). We were able to peer down into the crater and see the hidden lake within it, and look down the other side and see the two perfect circular coastlines of the island, Volcan Concepcion looming between them and Lake Nicaragua stretching away into the distance beyond.
Going down was as bad as we’d feared. Lanie, who had shown truly superhuman strength in making it the whole way up, had a very hard time getting back down once the adrenaline of the ascent had left her. The rest of us weren’t feeling so great either. Unlike most hikes, the descent was the worst part of this one, and seemed truly intermnable.
By the time we’d gotten back to the hotel (this involved going back UP the steep hill, which nearly finished me off) I was definitely at the end of my strength, which made me further marvel at the kids’ accomplishment. Our first stop had to be at the outdoor shower outside the pool, where we discovered that the mud was more tenacious than we’d hoped. Days, and several showers, later, I still don’t think we’re 100% clean. And I’m pretty certain our shoes will never be the same.
But after an outdoor shower, followed by an indoor shower, we had the reward we’d been thinking about all the way down — sinking into the hot tub as the sun set brilliantly behind the lake. Eventually we were able to drag ourselves out and consume large dinners before staggering off to bed.
Ometepe is the first place Jen described to us when she starting laying the plans for this trip. It is an island with twin volcanoes rising more than a thousand meters out of the middle of massive Lake Nicaragua. On the map the figure-eight-shaped land mass seemed very remote and exotic.
Nice view from the bar, eh, Tattoo?
From the ferry, taking in the imposing cones draped in their own cloud tops, we felt like we were arriving at Fantasy Island. Those of us who are older than 40 felt that, at least.
The port city of Moyogalpa welcomed us with a few blocks of multi-colored houses and a very Carribean feel. Our hotel was less than an hour away, on the south half of the island. It is at the base of the shorter, dormant volcano, Volcan Madera. It is the most posh place we’ve stayed at during our time in Nicaragua.
Straight from the guidebook?
We did not find Mr. Rourke at the Hotel Omaja, but after a quick glance at the infinity pool with the cone of the the larger volcano, Volcan Concepcion, strategically placed in the background, Jen realized that the scene was familiar. “I’m almost certain that this was in the one of the Nicaragua guidebooks I used,” she said. It definitely was a view worthy of a guidebook cover. Anyone who wants to check up on Jen’s suspicion can visit the travel guide section of the Durham Public Library and compare it to the pictures in this blog.
The sun sets; Lanie snags the hot tub.
The hotel treats us to sunsets that compare to the sunsets from the surf camp in Jiquilillo. It also has plates of pasta that the girls can’t finish, which is impressive. It has satellite tv with gloriously unadulterated, non-subtitled English programming. And, an almost complete novelty for us in Central America, when you turn on the left handle of the bathroom sink, hot water comes out. The shower has hot water, too.
Jen takes a break from Mojitos.
So there’s not much more we can ask for. But here’s what we do ask for: mojitos for Jen (this is her new favorite drink); fruit smoothies for the girls (the restaurant in the pueblo at the bottom of the hill has two types: one mixes the blended fruit with milk and another mixes the fruit with water. They are both very enjoyable.); pancakes (the banana ones at the restaurant in the pueblo are world-class, particularly with local honey on them; and extra towels. Also, the girls don’t ask, but they wait patiently for the heat to be turned on in the hot tub — then they wait no-so-patiently for the 20-somthings visiting from Canada to get out of the hot tub.
Did we mention there are volcanoes on this island?
Mostly, Ometepe has simply been a pleasant place to be — more than worth the uncomfortable ferry trip from the mainland. We have hiked around a little, once to a waterfall on the side of Volcan Madera, and once through the pueblo to a few beaches on Lake Nicaragua. We’ve gotten to know the pueblo, Merida, a little bit. The girls have a favorite little tienda where the lady is very nice and has lots of candy on her counter that costs a half cordoba apiece. She also sells these fried round pastries with sugar on them. I asked her what they’re called. She said donuts.
This is a seriously tall waterfall.
Today was a rest day. We’re recovering from yesterday’s six-kilometer hike to and from the waterfall (possibly the highest waterfall I’ve ever seen) and preparing for a summit attempt of the mighty Volcan Madera, 1,400 or so meters above our hotel. We currently have no plans to take on 1,600-plus-meter Volcan Concepcion, but we’ll see how our legs feel tomorrow. Actually, we’re not sure how far we’ll make it up Madera. Several people have suggested a lookout point about half way up as a good stopping point for us. Then again, they don’t know about the boot camp training Lanie went through this winter.
The ferry ride was very long. Luckily we took the one that was one hour instead of four hours. All the other people in my family felt sea sick. I did not. It was fun sitting there with the boat rocking on the waves.
Lanie enjoys a mango before we embark.
The man who was collecting money for the ferry solved the problem of feeling sea sick! He took out some hard candies and gave them to us. They were delicious. They helped my whole family. They were little cherry candies with gum inside!
The rest of the ride I was happy. I sang songs to keep myself occupied. I watched Lake Nicaragua and saw we were getting closer to Ometepe Island. It was awesome to see.
As the ferry rounds the island, the waves calm down and the view of Volcan Concepcion gets even better.