Ometepe & San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

We left Grenada on a chicken bus heading to Rivas – our ultimate goal: the dual volcanic island – Isla de Ometepe – on Lake Nicaragua – the largest lake in Central America. The great thing about being an obvious backpacker is you just need to orbit within a few-blocks of any possible bus station and someone will find you and walk you where you need to be. More people, more money – and any bus’ maximum occupancy (and luggage capacity) is any number just shy of infinity. Just don’t pack any fine china in your backpack.

After about an hour, we were dumped on a corner and forced to take a 30 Cordoba($1.75) pp taxi ride to the ferry port, San Jorge. With one of the small ferries out of commission, we wound up waiting an hour for the next boat – which fortunately turned out to be the cheaper Launcha Karen (30 C vs. 60 C pp for the Ometepe Ferries #1 & #3). Like the buses, boat maximum occupancy is also considered merely a guideline – how many people and produce can you fit onto a 30 foot ferry boat?

By 3PM we were on the island. To stay the night in the port town of Moyogalpa and hike the Maderas Volcano, was going to cost us a US$40 round trip taxi ride at 5 AM and a US$25 guide – plus hotel. Taking a gamble that there would be a bed (or a least a roof) at the only lodging (Finca Magdelena) near the volcano, we decided to risk it and try to make it via public transport. Leaving on the last bus at 4PM and arriving in Alta Gracias, we, along with only one other couple, got off the bus and managed, with the help of the friendly folks of Alta Gracias, to find the dirt road and the last bus out of town to Balgue. Another hour later, we were huffing it up the 1K dirt road, in the dark, to the lodge. Although the dilapidated farm house had tiny cobweb laced rooms and bracingly cold showers, we reasoned the US$8/night and convenience of hiking the Volcano would be worth it.

The grueling hike had us employing rock climbing skills and upper body strength we didn’t even know we had. 3.5 hours later, soaked with sweat and slicked with mud we made it to the top – which was covered thickly in cloud with only an edge of the crater lake peeking out. Feeling a bit cheated, the wind suddenly rushed in, the cloud was swept away and the sun lit a beautiful, misty lake surrounded by forest. It was stunning and absolutely worth the Herculean effort to get there.

The way down was faster as it consisted of mostly slipping and sliding accompanied by lots of arm-waving, cursing and giggling. Animals and birds skittered about and the butterflies fluttered in droves, including the beautiful Glass Wing butterfly. We even saw Howler monkeys romping around only yards away. All that was worth it until we had to scrub the mud off in the frigidly cold showers – ladies, don’t even THINK about attempting to wash your hair. From all the muffled screams and curses coming from the shower stalls, we were not the only ones feeling the discomfort.

The next day and another 2 buses, one ferry and a taxi ride later we were in San Juan del Sur – a quaint little beach-side town with little open-air restaurants and other surf beaches nearby. We stayed at the friendly Hotel Nina’s for $15/night and shared a bath with the other couple we met on Ometepe. For 50C pp, we took a transport to Maderas – the closest surf beach. From there you can walk for several beautiful miles over beaches and rocky outcrops. Back at Maderas, where we’d catch the 5 PM transport back to San Juan del Sur, we had enough time to boogie board. We debated trying to surf, but for $35 and less than 2 hours until we had to leave, we figured we’d stick to what we knew. For $5 we rented a board for an hour. The waves were some of the biggest we’d ever been in. Getting out to the crests was a challenge, but when you caught one, it was like a roller coaster ride – what a rush!

In San Juan del Sur we enjoyed the local fare grilled at Pasados Juanita across from Nina’s, the relaxing rocking chaired-porch of Nina’s, the funny worm etch-a-sketch beaches and a bit of volleyball on the beach. Having had a taste of the coast we were now ready to leave Nicaragua and head into Costa Rica for Cynthia’s final leg of the trip.

For more pictures see the Ometepe – San Juan del Sur (SJDS) picture gallery.

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