Folly in Ometepe

Monday, December 28, 2009

Ometepe is an island in the middle of giant inland Lake Nicaragua, formed much like the island of Maui by two volcanoes and an isthmus of volcanic soil connecting them. And it was our next destination, just for a quick two nights as we had already booked ourselves into Pacha Mama Hostel in San Juan del Sur for Dec 28-Jan 2 on the southern coast of Nicaragua. We set out at around 11:30, catching the chicken bus from Granada to Rivas. It took a solid hour and a half at which point we grabbed a cab with a very strange French chap to the lakeside town of San Jorge to get the ferry to the island. There, we paid a tourist tax of 10 Cordobas that may or may not have been real to get into the port and stood on the walkway along the bottom half of the ferry until it became clear that the waves would be inundating us and I nearly had my camera and/or backpack soaked. I found a vantage point on the second level and sat up there watching the distant Volcano of Conception grow larger. This was the easy part.

When we got off the ferry, there were two options. A minibus for $5 or the chicken bus for $1. Which do you take? The taxi driver tells you the bus will take two hours where the taxi is only 45 minutes, but can you believe him? Is $5 a fair price for the distance? We were unarmed with this information and so took the chicken bus. It did indeed take 2 hours and we arrived, again, after dark in Santo Domingo (the nicest beach on the island) only to find every single place full, from the cheap hostel to the expensive resorts. On top of that, the busses were pretty much done for the evening, but luckily we ran into a couple Canadians who had a hostel with space even if it was in the middle of nowhere between Santo Domingo and Santa Cruz. This turned out quite well, as we got rooms for $7 and got to hang out with the Canadians after a much needed dinner. When I say we, I should mention that the French guy had tagged along with us which I don't really object to (I've been the solo traveller plenty of times) but I wasn't a big fan. Still, we all had fun and got some interesting insights into Nicaragua as the Canadian girl had been born and raised in Nicaragua then moved to Canada, so she could discuss the local philosophy on garbage, the reason Phil and I had no luck with the ladies here (apparently, it's customary to ask until you get annoying in Nicaragua so that the girl doesn't appear too eager: maybe as many as six or seven times) and of course her own difficulties coming to Canada.

The next morning we were going to hike to the top of the smaller volcano where there are some great views and a volcanic crater filled with green water but the clouds precluded that and we instead rented some bicycles and set off to make our way around the small volcano, about a 30 km track all said. We had a pretty leisurely ride in the morning, chatting with the very friendly locals, stopping to watch a few innings of a baseball game, lounging and swimming in the lake and snacking on the lunch we'd packed. I'd bought 6 sandwiches for the three of us so we could have lunch anywhere, given half to Jeremy and, as I discovered at lunch, forgotten the other half in the hostel. This was the start of the day's mistakes. From our lunch point near San Ramon, we decided to climb to the waterfall, supposedly 3km. This was arguably a second mistake, although I would not claim it as such. The hike up was hot and relentlessly upwards and we stopped under a mandarin tree to pick a few slightly underripe Christmas oranges at which point it occurred to us that there may not even be much water this deep into the dry season. As we got further and further up, well past the 3 km point in my opinion, we still could hear no water running though we could now see a dry riverbed. Uh oh.

Fortunately, we pressed on and eventually came on some running water, then scrambled up the rocks surrounded on all sides by towering green walls until we rounded a corner and there, at last, was a beautiful waterfall floating down from the crater above. Cold water has rarely looked so appealing as it did to three sweaty and tired backpackers at this point. We had our showers and cooled down then returned to the bottom where time was definitely slipping away from us. I was pretty sure that we were not anywhere near halfway around the volcano but the other guys thought we were and I wasn't going to argue the point. This probably was the biggest mistake of the day as a quick look at the map would've told us we had much further to go around than to return. But instead we pressed on around the volcano to circumnavigate this part of the island. I would be remiss at this point if I didn't mention the 'roads'. They are exquisitely terrible. Large boulders and rocks are strewn and embedded everywhere and the road undulated up and down along the coast like a mating python. Our rental bikes had neither suspension nor the capability to take the punishing abuse these roads offered and instead transmitted it to us through handlebars and hardened seats.

This should say a little about our condition. First of all, we'd hiked quite a ways to a waterfall, not to mention biking a fair distance around the volcano on the aforementioned roads to get here. Our hands were sore, our butts were sore, our legs were sore, and the beginnings of hunger were already stirring. We also got sunburned on the way up to the waterfall and I had a bit of a headache from too much sun, I think. This was how we were feeling when we set off from the volcano on the long road home some 20 km more to go. Jez's chain came off repeatedly if he switched gears and so he had to start walking his bike up hills. Before long we were exhausted and joined him walking. Meanwhile, my bike was starting to fall apart from the shocks and jolts of these terrible roads. I could feel the handlebars were starting to give and pivot a little bit and was conscious not to put too much weight on them. Meanwhile, I was terribly exhausted and would try to eek every ounce of speed I could from the bumpy and treacherous downhill segments. This combination ends as you might expect. In disaster.

I was going down one of the hills about as fast as I could given the rocks everywhere when I felt with a sickening certainty that the handlebars had given way. They no longer supported my weight, they just pivoted freely. I attempted to brake and slow my progress but it was too late. Within the blink of an eye I knew that I was going to go flying from my bike as it hit a rock and then I was gone. I had enough presence of mind to try to land on my feet and also enough to know that I wasn't going to be able to stay on my feet flying downhill from a fast-moving bike in flip flops. I think this is what saved me a more serious outcome. I hit feet first and my legs collapsed, absorbing some of the shock even as I was thrown into a roll. I must have hit with my right hand and hip first, bending my thumb pretty well and also bruising the hip before going over onto my backpack and continuing to roll a few more times. Behind me, Jez thought I was done for but I stood up, nauseous, with a bit of sunstroke, physically exhausted and shaking but for the most part unharmed. My knees had very minimal scratches on them as did my left hand. Only my right hand might have sustained a bruised or sprained thumb.

Jez had saved his last candy for whoever did something spectacular, and that little bit of sugar did wonders for me. We fixed my bike as much as possible, untwisting the handlebars and stretching/bending the brakes so I could limp it home. It couldn't possibly be that far now. This was the theme. Every light, we thought we were there and yet never seemed to be getting nearer. It started to rain for a bit on us as darkness crept closer then subsided as darkness fell. Eventually, we made it most of the way around the volcano to Balgue, tired, hungry, out of water and food, and stopped to eat and drink. While this did wonders we managed to get a ride back the last 5km in a truck to Santa Cruz where we returned our bikes, drank a Coke, and walked back to the hostel, beaten. Ometepe, you win this round.

Getting a ride back that last stretch was the first smart move we'd made in a few days, and we were determined it not be the last. We didn't skip breakfast in the morning and in fact woke up early enough to eat, pay our bills, pack, and catch the 9:00 bus. We took a minibus to the dock instead of the chicken bus. We didn't try to find a cheaper lancha in the rough seas but took the ferry and took a taxi back to Rivas where we caught the bus to San Juan del Sur just in time for lunch. This would be where we'd spend the next five or six days, where we'd be for New Years Eve, and hopefully where we'd reunite with some old friends and hopefully make some new friends as well. And it looked like it would be a lot kinder to us than Ometepe had been (knock on wood). Time would tell.

Ometepe Photos

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