Isla Ometepe

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 I love ferries, especially the small local ones running over short stretches of water, opening up otherwise inaccessible worlds or simply shortening a long journey into something more exotic, more exciting. Memories of past journeys have been on my mind over the last few days, Inverie to Mallaig one cold Easter in Scotland, bringing us back to reality after days hiking through the highlands in Scotland, snow in the air, the freezing line at the waters edge covering the mountains in translucent white, or heading to Clare from Tarbert across the Shannon on another visit home to Ireland, the 5 minute ride across the river at Kings Lynn with Al and Tim on our epic bike tour, journeys caught up in adventures of the past. The same sense of wonder was with me last week as we boarded the little ferry that would bring us to Ometepe, two conjoined volcanic islands on Lake Nicaragua with Concepcion dominating the view, active, currently rumbling and throwing up plumes of smoke and ash.

Islands have their ecosystem, both social and natural. And island people are a particular kind, separated from the mainland, insular but outward looking, surrounded by water but with thoughts of escape, wondering what is beyond the horizon. The people of Ometepe are said to be the most welcoming of any in Nicaragua, kind and friendly and smiling. And we had the added pleasure of yet another form of transport after a windswept and hot ride to the little port of San Jorge.

It has been a very chilled five days here, two spent in Soma, a little posada in a  tranquil garden and three up here at Finca Magdelena, a cooperative coffee plantation with a big rambling building of rooms, a cafe and views over the lake and tropical growth and Concepcion ever present, a dark hulking pyramid that glows in the setting sun and leaves you feeling at once small and inconsequential but so lucky to be here and alive and feeling and seeing, just being. Yes, Nicaragua has done that to us, enveloping us in its serene beauty and friendliness, the welcoming chillout room after a wild ride through all of yesterdays parties.

There is plenty to do on the island, with a hike up to the top of Concepcion being a favourite. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to go as it is off limits at the moment. But we made up for that by enjoying the coolness of the lake. It is perfect for swimming, you have the feeling you are in the sea apart from the lack of salt. There are kilometers of golden sand along with beaches of black volcanic sand. The water is warm at the surface but much cooler beneath, a perfect mix on a hot day. You are as likely to find pigs and chickens wandering around as to see others on the beach. The same goes for the streets with horses ridden bareback, wooden carts pulled by oxen and bicycles being more common than cars and the like, and mostly transporting local produce. Volcan Maderas, the smaller and older of the two, is now covered in vegetation and cloud forest, one of only two places in Nicaragua where this accurs. There are lots of howler monkeys up there, sounding very like dogs barking in the distance. Life moves at a different pace here, time is of another dimension, people strike up conversations without being prompted, and sunsets at the finca were incredible, leaving us feeling more relaxed than at any other time on the trip so far.

We had a great chat with Saul and Teresa last night, and Claire, a French girl staying here. All conducted in Spanish! Saul is a Nica and Teresa from Valencia. Both work for an NGO on sustainable tourism, an area that can have you talking well into the small hours. While Ometepe is a beautiful place, with so much to offer and so much potential, it can also be very frustrating for a traveler. There is so little information here, it is hard to connect the dots, the roads, apart from one, are brutal and make traveling the short distances a days work. We actually spent a day in chicken buses without getting anywhere and wondering at one stage if we could get back to where we started. It does allow you to see life up close though, but still. At least if you make it here you are probably in a trance state of mind that it doesn’t affect you like it may elsewhere. There is a lot of potential to be realised and some simple measures would help begin this process. And the benefits would be great.

We are getting ready to leave, we catch another ferry tonight to San Carlos, a town on the Rio San Juan and local border crossing to Costa Rica. Our plans are fluid though, and we are unsure when we will cross. The San Juan is a big river flowing to the Carribean and it has lots of history. It forms a natural border with Costa Rica, Nelson fought here, and Mark Twain sailed up on his way across to the pacific. It was the main crossing point between oceans before the Panama canal, the final thirty kilometers were crossed by land from the edge of the lake. And it flows through beautiful untouched nature. Saul and Teresa are both living down the river in El Castillo, they have offered us a place to stay with a family they know and a chance to explore. At the same time we are anxious to be on the road again, and as it is  Semana Santa, everything shuts down, Easter being as big as Christmas over here, and offering a chance to catch some of the festivities in San Jose.

So tomorrow, who knows, another country or a different part of this one, enticing options and more adventure. Panama is getting closer and already we are getting excited about Columbia and South America and the prospect of friends joining us for a time.

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