Years ago, Shona converted my appreciation of Monty Python to the wider inclusion of Michael Palin's travelogues. His journeys off the usual tourist trail were one of the inspirations behind our own adventure. Thus, I can't go too long without some Python references... Apologies to any non-Monty Python fans who read this post. Stop us if we're all getting too silly!
So far our trip has included varied destinations: beautiful multi-coloured colonial cities, mystic ancient Mayan ruins, sun and sand filled beaches, and deep jungle or rainforests teeming with natural flora, fauna and geological wonders. Our last two stops in Nicaragua were week-long sojourns at a finca (farm) on the intriguing Isla Ometepe in Lago Nicaragua, and at a beach house in Pochomil, a quaint fishing village attempting to embrace Nica's up-and-coming surf culture on the Pacific coast.
We set off from Costa Rica to Nicaragua with our new temporary travel family, Peggy and Dave, who would visit with us on Ometepe for a few days. This was the final land-border crossing of our trip for Shona and the kids and once we had struggled through immigration with our limited Spanish we quietly congratulated ourselves that we had managed as well as we had.
Ometepe is one of the largest freshwater islands in the world. As the ferry pulled away from the mainland the imposing view of the island's two volcanoes increased the sense of adventure. The good karma started right off the boat, as we met Jose Luis, a friendly young baseball-obsessed taxi driver who would become our island guide over the following week. We planned our day-trips with him around his baseball schedule. He was the pitcher for his team and they were on a winning streak. We often saw groups of kids playing baseball, rather than soccer, improvising with oranges or rocks due to the lack of actual baseballs.
The finca we rented for eight days on Ometepe was a large property with panoramic views of the beautiful lake and numerous fruit trees. We were located at the base of Volcán Concepción, an active volcano that last erupted in 2012. A fruit bowl full of oranges, limes, mangoes, carambola (starfruit) and tamarind from the property greeted us on arrival. A short walk revealed that there were also grapefruit, coconuts and avocado trees on the property. The fertile growing conditions in the volcanic soils and the high cost of importing pesticides to Ometepe, allow for almost all the delicious local produce to be organic. It was difficult to find many things that were not produced on the island, the best cheese shop was certainly uncontaminated by cheese. The caretakers of the property sourced us some lake fish which combined with the finca fruit was the start of a feast. Once again, the Nicaraguan Flor de Caña rum with limes from the tree outside made fabulous mojitos.
Being on a farm did have its drawbacks. Several roosters could not tell the time, crowing at all hours of the day and night. We think one hen was also confused, as it continually growled like a howler monkey. Then there were the flocks of parakeets with beautiful plumage that liked to loudly squawk outside the window at daybreak, they were not Norwegian Blue parrots and had definitely not expired.
Our day trips around the island always included marvelling at the views of the volcanoes. Volcán Concepción is one of the best examples of a classic conical volcano shape. The top is almost always covered in a cloud dome as the emissions from the cone generate moisture that rolls down the steep slopes. None of us were willing to hike the volcano which requires a 4 am start and over 6 hours of ascension without much chance of unrestricted views inside a cloud. But we were lucky enough to view the bare peak with its ominous crater a couple times late in the afternoon when the heat burned off any humidity.
During our stay on the island we enjoyed visits to Charco Verde Nature Reserve and Lagoon, (risking meeting Chico Largo - a devil that turns people into cows - there were an inordinate number of cattle roaming the island); San Ramón waterfall on Volcán Maderas, (where Jose Luis earned a big tip by piggy-backing Fraser all the way down the volcano trail); 3000 year old petroglyphs; bike rides; and swimming spots where we thoroughly enjoyed the salt-free water after weeks in the ocean.
Isla Ometepe seems lost-in-time as the world speeds ahead. Change may be coming though, in the form of a massive new Chinese-financed canal across the country and Lago Nicaragua. The proposed project is already underway (although final studies, plans and approvals are incomplete!) to build a wider and deeper passage than the Panama Canal to accommodate supertankers. For those interested in further details of this controversial project, check out this article from the Guardian.
Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (behind Haiti) and the hopes are high that this project will lead to improvements in the standard of living. But most people we spoke with definitely seemed nervous. These ships will endanger flora and fauna reserves as well as jeopardize the tranquility of everyday life on Ometepe. Currently the main sources of income on the island are tourism and fishing, still done in small dug-out canoes and 2 person dinghies. While we hope for economic prosperity for the people of Isla Ometepe, the impact of the canal may have far reaching consequences that may negatively and permanently change the region. We are extremely glad to have seen the area before large ships rule the lake and hope that the friendly people we met will be able to adapt with few negative results.
From Ometepe, we headed up to Managua to pick up our rental car for the week. We fumbled our way through the chaotic un-signed streets of the capital and travelled to Pochomil, on the Pacific. We were searching for some pure relaxation as our trip begins to wind down. The break from active travel came at the right time as two of the kids began to feel under the weather. Fraser cried out that he was not dead yet, while Mirren insisted it was only a flesh wound. We used the week to recover on the beach and in the pool, and to just enjoy some pampering. One of the locals, a renown cook, came to our Casa twice to prepare some outstanding Nica tipico dinners for us: Pescado a la Pochomil and Ceviche. Upon finishing, we could eat no more, not even a teeny wafer thin mint!
After almost 4 months of travelling and hearing multiple horror-stories about corrupt law enforcement officers, we were finally stopped by police for some nonsensical check. Unable to kick the ghastly habit, I am the only person in this country who signals a turn, yet still I got pulled over. In my pigeon Spanish, I managed to fumble my way through his interrogation. Ha! I had the required warning triangle in the vehicle (to my dismay, they did not care that I had a jack or tire irons), so no bribe was needed and they let me go. But remember... Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!