Banana boat to Costa Rica

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There is a twice weekly ferry that leaves Altagracia on Isla Ometepe for San Carlos, a town situated at the mouth of  the Rio San Juan and gateway to both Costa Rica and the east of Nicaragua. We were heading there, still unsure if we were to finally leave Nicaragua or spend some final days on the river. It was to be a memorable 24 hours. Just before heading for the port down a sand and gravel track we bumped into Chris, the Alaskan cyclist we had met in El Salvador. It was great to see him, such a character, and he filled us in on how the cycle had gone for himself, Seth and Parker. The heat had affected them too and we were surprised that they were still behind us. He told us of Adam, another cyclist who had done pretty much the same trip as we had and who would be on the ferry, heading for San Jose and then home. It is still hard to believe that we have almost ten more months ahead of us. We had been told that the ferry was already quite full, the first leg of its journey is from Granada to the island. We should get down to the ticket office early. However, no one was entirely sure of the time it would leave, we figured that 6pm was a good guess and somewhere in between the  range of times we had heard.

Ferry and port may conjure up visions of a big boat and busy terminal but quite the opposite is the case. A crowd of people trying to form some sort of queue at the window of a little office, a couple of small comidors selling food and beer, and some bit of concrete at the waters edge where the ferry could berth. Somehow they would squeeze a couple of hundred people on board and several tons of bananas, all loaded by hand. There were two levels, an open top deck with a small enclosure and the cheaper lower deck, the bananas piled in at the back and all the luggage thrown in the hold. The banana boat was the aquatic version of a chicken bus. We arrived to discover they had stopped selling tickets as the boat was full. Several phone calls later, and maybe a siesta in between, word was sent out that more space had been found. That was relief for sure. Darkness was descending by the time we had sorted out the details, paid for our bikes and bags and settled down to a few beers with Saul, Teresa and Claire, and some others we had met on the island. The ferry had docked and now we had only to wait until all the bananas were unloaded, all the bags destined for the island removed from the hold, and all the bananas reloaded again. That was a lot of beer time. Nessa was tucking into a bottle of Flor de Cana, a beautiful Nica rum we had bought to see us through the 12 hour trip. We met up with Adam and talked of cycling, and in a surreal moment, two French cyclists we had last seen on the road to Comitan in Mexico got off the ferry, so many cyclists in one place for brief moments before heading again in different directions.

We were both looking forward to the trip, heading across the lake and towards fresher, cooler weather. And it was overnight, and we would see the sun rise before reaching San Carlos. It seemed like a turning point in our ride through Central America, only two countries to go before reaching South America. The ferry itself was unlike anything I had experienced before. The boat was full and so dozens of people, ourselves included, were on the open deck, rucksacks piled in the middle, huddles of passengers trying to keep warm and stay out of the wind, and the boat rocking, intensely at times and spray showering down on deck. We were out of the worst of it, but all those on one of the side gangways had to head for a more sheltered spot on the already crowded deck. The other side gangway was a maze of hammocks for the lucky few to have got a spot. At least you knew it was safe, this was a solid and sturdy, if small, vessel. By 8pm it was ready to sail and soon all we could see of the island were some lights and the two volcanoes silhouetted by  the full moon.

Although it was still early, there was a silence on board, as people whispered to each other and began to settle down for a long night. We settled down to some rum and coke, somewhat in awe of the rocking boat on the vast lake. This didn’t last long though , some official was soon looking me straight in the eye while pointing at my big plastic cup and somehow not believing me when I kept saying it was only coke. That was the end of that, our cups and bottle were confiscated, and Nessa was doing her best to stop me getting kicked off at the next port as I protested about taking the bottle, I wasn’t going to give it up that easily! Typical that the only two Paddies on board got into trouble for drinking. Still, no one had told us we couldn’t drink alcohol but I guess it makes sense. Soon after we had our thermarests out and fell asleep with surprising ease.

The ferry made two short stops overnight, everyone half waking, wondering where they were and settling back down again. The night passed gently as the wind calmed and soon day was breaking. The sunrise over the Solentiname Islands was wonderful, the lake still and reflecting red and golden in the early rays. We could see San Carlos in the distance, and the mouth of the Rio San Juan as it merged with the lake. This was an incredibly beautiful spot, deliciously green after weeks of dust and dry brown earth and intense heat. We waited as the cargo was unloaded, all the bananas again by hand, followed by more produce and finally our bags. An impromptu wholesale market got under way at the dock and soon the bananas were heading off in the backs of various pickups.

We were still unsure of what we were going to do, continuing up river was very tempting but boat schedules in Easter week were unpredictable and seemingly unknown. In the end it came down to the toss of a coin and heads it was, so we were heading to Costa Rica. We hardly had time to think, as Nessa sorted out immigration, I fought off the money changers and watched the bikes and we were hurried onto a boat that was leaving immediately, an hour up the Rio Frio to the border at Los Chiles and into Costa Rica. We leave Nicaragua with so many good memories, the warm, friendly and open people, always smiling, always helpful. Still, we are happy to be underway again, it feels like we haven’t been cycling much in the last few weeks and want to get back on the road. Life is good!

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