A Tale of Two Volcanoes

Last week, I couchsurfed across the Costa Rican capital, before stalking simians and reptiles along its western shores. This week, I began my journey through a new nation, as I reached unprecedented heights on the island of voodoo and velociraptors.

Day 29 – San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Nicaragua. A country that, until April of this year, was a huge tourist success story. Taking a leaf out of Costa Rica’s book, it was quickly becoming the place to go for eco-tourist getaways and adventure holidays. Then it all changed. The collapse of Venezuela (and therefore the large aid contributions it delivered to Nicaragua) set in motion a whole raft of austerity measures from the government designed to keep the country afloat.

Unfortunately, Daniel Ortega (the long-standing president) decided that instead of listening to/putting up with the inevitable protestors in the capital, he would murder them – and keep on murdering them. Over four hundred deaths later and the situation has hit rock bottom, as he will not stand down, and most Western nations have declared the country a ‘no-go zone’ – destroying the burgeoning tourism industry in one fell swoop.

I felt that introduction was necessary to paint a picture of the country I was in and to explain why I was virtually on my own in San Juan del Sur. A beach settlement built on foreign visitors felt almost like a ghost town – with hotel prices slashed and businesses closing. The town and adjoining beach are absolutely beautiful though, and I was glad that I had not forsaken it – gratified that I could give something minuscule back to the people who are on their last legs here. I hope the rest of the country has not felt the pinch as much…

Day 30 – San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Whilst my first day in the country was quite a sobering experience, I decided that I would contribute as much as I could to the town by, firstly, getting all my laundry done with Maria from across the road before popping to the barber next door for a trim. The ten survival Spanish words I have picked up don’t include ‘short back and sides’ and therefore I left myself entirely in the young barber’s hands – I’ve had worse.

I’m currently treading the well-trodden path called the Gringo Trail: a route that young American’s typically take through Central America. As a result, it is extremely common to bump into the same backpackers from town to town, country to country. Anna from France, whom I had met in La Fortuna about four days prior, was staying in the dorm next to me (not quite sure why – the hostel was empty), but as it was Halloween, we decided to head to the only bar that still seemed to be thriving during the downturn and joined in the festivities. We later gathered that the only reason it had survived was because of the large community of American ex-pats keeping it going: Making Nicaragua Great Again. Good job.

Day 31 – San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua to Mérida, Nicaragua

So today was moving day, as I left the beach for the aptly named Lake Nicaragua (specifically the wonderous island in its centre). Along with Anna and fellow traveller Nick (from Oxford), we began our journey to the port from where we would catch the small ferry to Ometepe.

Now, I had googled this place extensively before that start of my trip, as it looked like one of the most incredibly implausible places on earth – and one that I had absolutely no prior knowledge of. Two mist-covered volcanoes rising out of the lake like the smouldering chest of an Egyptian goddess – it really was a quite breath-taking sight! As we crept nearer to the island, their full scale became frighteningly apparent (with the largest of the two still very much an active force).

Upon our docking, the group split up as we were all staying at different hostels, with mine a three-hour bus ride away. I didn’t quite realise how large the island was, falsely believing I would be able to circumnavigate it on foot within a few hours. By the time I had reached the small town of Mérida, on the slopes of the smaller volcano: Maderas, I was quite ready to hit my dorm and rest. However, upon my arrival, the hostel manager was so grateful to see a guest that he upgraded me to the ‘Honeymoon Suite’ and offered me free dinner. I think I was the first person he had seen in months.

Day 32 – Mérida, Nicaragua

My first full day on Ometepe, and task number one: climb Maderas. Whilst dormant, and a couple of hundred metres shorter than its nearby brother, Maderas posed a pretty big challenge in itself. I was hoping to use it as a warm-up for later, more strenuous hikes, but the extremely muddy terrain, dense forest and insane humidity meant I was almost a spent force upon reaching its verdant summit. A lake now sits where the volcano’s central crater once did, a lake that I had planned to swim in before knowing how difficult the climb to the top would be.

Instead, it was another four-hour scuttle back to the shores of the Lake Nicaragua (bumping into some quite beautiful cattle along the way) for a well-earned cold shower and hammock-swing. On the menu this eve: fried fish caught yesterday by the owner’s father a few metres from the hostel – and still no other guests.

Day 33 – Mérida, Nicaragua to Altagracia, Nicaragua

It took a good twenty minutes to climb out of bed today, with every muscle aching and asking to be left alone. I, however, needed to take a bus back to the larger half of the island – in preparation for my next challenge…

You cannot visit this miraculous place, which I have baptised Jurassic Park for obvious reasons, without climbing the big daddy: Volcan Concepcion. That would be the challenge for tomorrow, after an afternoon celebrating the Nicaraguan ‘Day of the Dead’ in the town of Altagracia. Skeleton costumes and reggaeton galore, it provided a fascinating look into the life of local Ometepians, of which there a very few remaining. It was a superb night, although it was hard not to be slightly intimidated by what loomed over us all…

Day 34 – Altagracia, Nicaragua

A 4:00 am alarm call and another monster hike lay ahead. Along with Anna came Tuur (a Belgian whom I had first met in San Juan), our hostel owner (come volcano tour guide), and his daughter. A motley party of five heading up the steep slopes and into the mist. And in the mist, we remained, for hour after hour, as we became more sodden and more aware that we would see very little of the ‘breath-taking’ view from the summit.

As we had the last swig of rum before the final push on our hands and knees, a sickly smell of sulphur wafted into my nostrils and I was reminded that this beast is very much alive. Despite not being able to see more than a couple of metres ahead, the summit still left me in awe, as I was all too aware of the enormous crater that lay just over the steaming ledge. A rock thrown into its core seemed to descent for hours before making a sound – and one slip could have been the premature end of this trip or any other. We made a cautious retreat.

I doubt I would have been quite as bold had I been able to see what lay in front of me, although it was a slight disappointment that we weren’t treated to the quite spectacular view. However, on our way back down, the haze did briefly clear – affording us a glance at Volcan Maderas, the summit I had struggled towards two days prior. That made our journey slightly more worthwhile. And so it was to the pub, to drink our pains away, and to salute our final night on an island that has been the highlight of my journey so far – cheers Jurassic Park.

Day 35 – Altagracia, Nicaragua to León, Nicaragua

Another moving day, as I waved goodbye to the volcanoes I had vanquished and boarded a ferry back to civilization. Then lay a two-hour ride to Nicaragua’s ‘besieged’ capital: Managua. I had read a great deal about the city, nothing positive, and as a result, wanted to keep my time there to a minimum. I got a taxi between bus terminals, passing several large demonstrations on the way, and got straight on another chicken bus to the far more tranquil city of León.

Although, if I’m honest, Managua didn’t appear all too different from any other large city I had visited, and I am sure that I would have been fine to wander around its centre and visit its ‘historic sights’. Nicaragua has been quite wonderful thus far, and the travel advice given by European countries is bringing it to its knees, I deem intentionally. I can only hope that more people do not heed the warnings and give this nation a go, you will not regret it – just don’t get shot.

J

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