Day 9: Managua
We decided that, in the end, it really worked out for the best that our flight got changed since it meant a good night’s sleep for us + an unexpected visit to Antigua. We enjoyed our stay at Hostel Guatefriends where it felt as though we got to have our first night of sleep that didn’t include loud dogs barking all night. Waking up at a reasonable hour, we headed into the airport and made it through security in seventeen minutes, far less that the 1 hour we had planned for so we went to a nice restaurant and had french toast for breakfast. The french toast, covered in strawberries and marscapone cheese, was a nice change from the overload of beans, meat, and rice that we’d been having for the past week. Having eaten our share we jumped on our plane and enjoyed an incredibly smooth hour and fifty minute flight to Managua International Airport, switching the focus of our trip from Mayan ruins to volcanoes. The volcanoes had really begun the day before in Antigua, but they continued as we flew somewhat low over El Salvador and peeked into the tops of the volcanoes as Aaron identified which volcanoes and towns we were flying over.
Our hostel had arranged for there to be a taxi waiting for us with my name on a sign so Aaron and I were excited to feel a little famous. Unfortunately we got stuck in customs because we only had a $100 bill to pay the $10 tourist fee. The customs agent checked Aaron in as I speed walked to the ATMs just past customs and returned with the required $20 in my hand.
Successfully through customs, we greeted our cab driver who was holding a sign with “Antnia Albaum” written on it upside down. It was fantastic.
One wild cab ride later we were deposited in our hostel where the owner, Michael, showed us our room and confirmed that we were all set to go see the Masaya Volcano that evening. He said we were the only two on the tour so far and that it was a quiet evening so he expected it to stay that way. Taking advantage of having five hours to kill before our tour, we walked to the nearby mall and pulled out the thousands of Córdoba (really only a couple hundred dollars) that we expected to need for this section of the trip. From there we decided that it would be a fantastic idea to walk downtown to the old cathedral and some cool tree statues that we saw next to the lake.
About two miles later we had made it to our destination and were convinced that the next time we think it’s a good idea to walk 2.5 miles in 95 degree heat, we should just take a cab.
Realizing we’d better get back to the hostel, we hailed a cab who brought us back to the mall — we stopped for ice cream and some snacks in the supermarket — and then we walked back to the hostel. We thought we might rest for a bit before heading out to grab a quick dinner at the fast food restaurants in the mall and then heading out to see the volcano.
I decided that it was totally worth it to jump in the pool for half and hour and was well rewarded when I braved the freezing cold water and immediately cooled off and got in a good work out for my arms and shoulders doing circles in the small pool (Shout out to the Managua Backpackers Inn for having an awesome little pool).
Finally we were on our way to the volcano in the company of our young cab driver, the son of the cab driver who had brought us from the airport. His son was a couple years younger than me and had just finished medical school. He was doing his residency and would be a full doctor in his own right in the coming April. He told us that he was driving cabs with his dad to help afford it, though these days he spends more time at his residency than in the cab. He was looking forward to becoming a doctor and then pursuing four more years of study to become a general surgeon. He was in good spirits to take us to the volcano and we were glad to have him along as he joked with Aaron about the Harleys in line behind us to enter the park and showed us videos of the town where he does his residency. He also told us more about the protests that had happened in April 2018, all but halting the tourist economy in Nicaragua that was very slowly rebounding.
As we finally got to the front of the line, Aaron and I paid the entrance fee and were given paper bracelets to show that we had paid. We were then instructed to drive up the hill where we would be stopped at the museum. We could either go into the museum or wait in the car where every fifteen minutes cars were allowed to drive the rest of the way to the volcano. We were all for skipping the museum, but when we got up there they told us we had a full fifteen minutes to wait (just barely missing the last group I suppose) so we decided to go wander through the museum. It was mostly aimed at kids, through Aaron and I appreciated the large 3D map that should the active volcanoes with little plumes of smoke coming out of the top of them. As we passed a whole display about bats and I told our driver how much I liked bats, he pointed up to bats that were hanging out on the ceiling. They scattered as we passed under them, and Aaron was once again pooped on, such bad luck!
Finally, finally, we were allowed to drive the rest of the way to the top. Our driver worked to pass the other cars which I didn’t really understand until we reached the top before the other cars and were able to get to the best lookout first. While many others had to fight for spots, Aaron and I were comfortably squished into a corner where he attempted to take photos of the lava and I just watched it boil, just like you might stare at a fire. It was equally enchanting.
Day 10: Ometepe
Ometepe is a small island in the middle of Nicaragua Lake (Cocibolca). It was created by two volcanoes, much like the volcanoes in the “I Lava You” short by Pixar. To get there, one must take a two and a half hour bus ride from Managua to Rivas, then take a cab the 2.5 miles from the bus stop to the ferry, and then take an hour-ish long ferry across the lake to the island.
We left sometime just after nine and grabbed the first cab we could to the bus station. As soon as we arrived we had bus drivers and their money takers yelling at us to go on their bus, frantically asking us where we were going, and pointing us towards the correct busses. Thank god we both speak spanish. I dealt with the cab driver, who I had thought told us the ride cost 150 cordobas, but since I gave him a 200 and he handed me back 100, he must have said “100 — 50 each.” Once that transactions was over I caught up to Aaron, clutching his wallet tightly as he told me what the guy next to him was saying — namely that an express bus was leaving for Rivas right now and it was 100 cordobas per person. Sounds right to me 🤷♀️. We had another driver rush up and point us to his bus saying that it was empty, but it wasn’t an express so I waved him off. As we neared the bus, four people around the door waved us onward and into the bus, almost like when you are running through a tunnel of people’s hands after a soccer game. We were rushed onto the bus before I was able to see the destination on the front of the bus so I crossed my fingers and assumed that the Nicaraguans were telling the truth and that we were headed to Rivas. Once on the bus I was directed into a seat that was clearly already full and the two people sitting there definitely weren’t planning on creating space for me. As they urged me to sit I protested that there was no room and continued down the bus. There was the space on the end of one of the benches that they then insisted I sit in, I felt a hand grab my backpack and almost protested when I heard him telling me to take the backpack off, he would put it on the shelf. Before I really had comprehended what was happening my backpack was on the shelf over our head, my daypack was in my lap, Aaron’s wallet was in my hand, and Aaron was being shuffled to the end of the bus where they found him a bucket to sit on in the aisle. We pulled out of the station during this commotion and were headed to the highway before I realized that the Dramamine was still in my purse and I had no way of getting it to Aaron as people were already standing in the aisle.
After hearing one man trying to sell us some miracle vitamins that would supposedly cure a whole host of things, and then being offered sandwiches, cold drinks, nuts, and everything else under the sun, a guy came around for us to pay for our passage. When he finally made it to me, I explained that I would be paying for myself and Aaron, but that Aaron was sitting in the back and that we were going to Rivas. The conductor nodded and asked for 200 cordobas, not even ten dollars, for the both of us and I handed it over. I then tried to stand up and futilely use hand gestures and mouth words to explain to Aaron and that I had paid for both of our tickets. Unbeknownst to me, Aarons hand gestures and mouthed words meant that he was suggesting that I pay for mine and that he would pay for his. Positive that Aaron didn’t know what I was saying, I decided to sit back down and wait until the ticket guy was closer to Aaron so that I could try again with more context. In the meantime, Aaron sat down and reached into his shorts to grab his wallet and then realized he didn’t have it and low-key panicked, having the nice folks sitting near him helping him look for his wallet. When I finally stood back up again, Aaron’s wallet in hand, and once again tried to hand gestures that I had paid us us both, I saw the look of comprehension on his face. When he sat down again, I heard the whole area give a laugh. Aaron told me afterwards that he had explained that his wallet was with me and someone else had joked that leaving your wallet with your wife is probably the safest place for it. The bus finally arrived in Rivas and we hopped down into the waiting arms of taxi drivers and bicycle-taxis who really wanted us to pay them to take us 2.5 miles to the ferry to Ometepe in 88 degree weather. We waved them off and ducked into the nearest gas station to eat something and compare stories from the bus ride.
Fed once again, we conveniently forgot the lessons of the day before and confidently set off with our backpacks down the road 2.5 miles to the ferry station. We arrived exhausted, hot, and for me, a little sick, and declared that we would most definitely be taking a taxi to get back.
We had to pay a $1 tax to get on the ferry and then we had to pay 100 cordoba each for the ferry tickets themselves. We then climbed on the ferry and, despite being about 40 minutes early, were just able to grab two of the seats on the top of the ferry in the open air. We sat for forty minutes until, five minutes before we left, some of the crew came up and started handing life jackets out to everyone. We hesitantly put ours on and then watched as the crew eventually gave up handing them out when about 90% of the passengers had one. After the hour-ish long ferry ride, we arrived in the dock and stumbled off the boat onto Ometepe. We walked up the hill to Elmer’s Tours where we met Elmer, who was waiting for us with a 125cc dirt bike and advice as to which volcano hike he recommended for the next morning. We decided on the half day hike up the Volcano Concepción (the tall pointy one which the cloud over it) to the vista where we could be able to look out over the Volcano Madera, the shorter volcano with a crater lake in the top of it.
Decisions made, deposits paid, rental agreements signed, Elmer helped us load up the bike with our bags and we sped off to the AirBnB that would be our home for the next four nights. We arrived to find the kind of luxury cabaña that you would expect in an upscale area in Hawaii or the Maldives. Located on the shore of the lake, the cabaña was on ten foot high stilts. A bed was in the upper portion along with a fan and some outlets for our phones. Underneath it were hammocks hanging from the legs, a beautiful view of the lake, and a large table that seated four people with four home-made chairs surrounding it. Everything looked like it was made with local trees that were cut down on the property, it was an amazing space and the property was excellent as well. With an outdoor composting toilet, a shower that strongly reminded me of the accommodations we would be staying at in just a week and a half when we went to La Finca Siempre Verde in Costa Rica, a restaurant run by our host’s family, and private beach access, there wasn’t much else we could wish for. Before we left to find dinner, we asked our hosts for the WiFi password just in case we came back and they weren’t around and then we went into to town to find food and snacks for the hike the next day and dinner.
We ate at a small restaurant that Elmer recommended where I got the world’s cheapest filet mignon that was delivered covered in bacon and Aaron got a Hawaiian pizza. Fully fed we headed back to the cabaña to shower and get ready for bed as it would be an early start the next morning.
To our delight we returned to find buffalo toads jumping all over the property and fireflies flashing around the lake, it was all I needed for this place to be absolutely perfect. When we found ourselves feeling a little peckish just an hour later, we ordered smoothies from the restaurant onsite that came with re-usable straws in fantastic, gigantic, square glasses.
Day 11: Volcano Concepción
I slept with my phone next to my face. Between the fan and the waves on the lake, I wasn’t sure the alarm would be loud enough to wake us at 5:30am. I was startled awake at 5:30 and Aaron and I were up at the bike at 5:55 where Elmer was waiting for us. We drove the short drive to the volcano and I goggled at the fact that we could ride on a motorcycle at 6:00 in the morning in late December and i could be wearing shorts and a tee shirt and be perfectly warm. We arrived at the trailhead and started up into the jungle. At the beginning, Elmer stopped often to show us the plants we were walking around and telling us their traditional medicinal uses. We also, almost immediately, ran into a pack of howler monkeys and when Elmer made a howler monkey call at them, they immediately took the bait and began yelling back. As we admired them (and kicked ourselves for forgetting the camera) we could see that many were babies (at which point we kicked ourselves harder). Continuing our journey we stopped after we went through a fence that noted that we were entering the national park, barely having begun the hike I was already feeling a little winded. Elmer cut some sweet lemons off the nearby tree and had us taste it, a common practice by Nicaraguans who skin the very outside of the lemon and then squeeze it and suck the juice out. It wasn’t the tastiest thing in the world but it was super refreshing.
We continued out walk and it got steeper as we headed to the first vista. A little cabin on stilts had been built here for our enjoyment and I, very naively, thought we were halfway and that the other vista would be along the path that was similar to this one.
We left that vista, walked through a gate, and started climbing. And then we didn’t stop climbing until we reached our stopping point. It was the steepest hike I’d ever done in my life with an elevation gain of 3400 feet over a distance of 2 miles. We began the trek at 600 feet above sea level and finished it at 4000 feet above sea level (and those intrepid hikers who carried more water than we did would climb another 1000 feet to the top of the volcano). The most exciting thing to happen on the hike up was the spotting of a capuchin (white face) monkey, which completed the monkey trifecta of Central America. We had now seen all three breeds of Central American monkeys in the wild. While Elmer would have happily skipped up the mountain, I do not scale mountains so easily, and, paired with my meager breakfast, I kept to a reasonable snail’s pace. Elmer was content to go at my slow pace and commented that he always tried to go with the slower tourists up the mountain because there were some guides who would go too fast and then laugh at how tired the tourists were. Stopping quite a few times for water, and once for food, we slowly made our way up the volcano moving from clear-ish skies, to cloudy skies, to entering the cloud itself, to then, finally, being above enough of the cloud to be able to see chunks of it floating past but not being above it because that’s impossible (the Concepcion Volcano is famously always wearing a cloud hat because of the geography of the island, it’s almost impossible to hike it and get to have a clear day). The trail was so steep that I was often reminded of our hectic climb up St. Kitts, though this was a much greater elevation change, and sometimes I could almost hear our guide from that hike in my ear yelling, “Pull the roots! Push the trees!” And so I pulled roots and pushed trees and climbed and climbed.
Finally making it to the top (or at least, what would be the top for us, we were still 1000 feet from the real top), we cheered for ourselves, Aaron and I took a selfie, and we sat down and ate the rest of our lunch. Before we continue down the mountain, I would like to just add that Elmer was a fount of information for the entire tour and we were so, so glad that we hired him to be our guide up the mountain. #ElmerAppreciation post. Not only did he point out the wildlife for us, educate us on plants, and keep us on the trail (a feat in itself as there were many trail signs that we followed and many more that we quite deliberately did not follow because a new trail had been built or because that particular trail was only for going down, not up), he also told us more about life in Nicaragua, his work learning English as a second language, and his experience of the tourism industry post-April 2018. Apparently the tourism industry took such a big hit that Elmer had planted food at his house because he was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to afford the staples (beans, rice) and wanted to make sure he could still put food on the table if the tourists didn’t come to the island. At one point Elmer was explaining to us why he was always hesitant to rent his motorbike to tourists and he told us that in the past he’s had tourists come to the island and try to rent the bike without knowing how to properly ride a motorcycle and had done some expensive damage to the bike. We told him we had a bike at home so we understood where he was coming from. He asked us how large our bike was as his is only 125cc and while it’s perfect for the island, he guessed we had something larger. His eyes almost bugged out of his face when Aaron told him that our bike was 1300cc.
And, of course, he asked about Aaron and me, and told us about his baby and his girlfriend. For folks thinking of visiting Ometepe, make sure you have Elmer take you up the volcano and rent you a motorcycle/scooter/ATV, you won’t regret it.
Once we were fully rested, Aaron and I were ready to head down the island and Elmer pointed us toward the trail we hadn’t come up. The way the trail works is that it is one trail for the first section, then it splits left and right and meets again about 700 feet later, and then it’s another 1000 feet to the top. By the time we got to the top fork, Aaron and I had one full bottle of water left, shaky legs, and a concern about not being able to make it to the top with so little water, and about the condition our knees would be in if we made it to the top and then had to walk down 4400 feet. So we felt that we were successful at the top of the fork and we were happy to go back down.
Instantly the terrain changed, whereas before we were walking in a forest-like atmosphere that verged on the biome of a rainforest occasionally (but felt too dry to really be a tropical rainforest) we were now walked down a path that truly felt like the rainforest. Clearly this was an outcropping of the volcano that daily felt the full effects of being encased in a cloud. The trees dripped on us, the plants got larger, and the route became very slippery. I had lots of fun using some branches as a monkey would to swing down to the step below, until I was betrayed by an extra slippery branch and got my leg caught in a root as I fell and had the very real fear that this could be the moment that I simultaneously dislocated my shoulder and tore my left ACL. Luckily nether fate passed, and I made it through with a long, shallow scrape on my leg and a slightly sore shoulder (but it’s been sore for weeks from too much typing at work so that wasn’t anything new).
Freed from the clutches of the rainforest, the ground quite suddenly gave way to a 6-12 inch layer of loose stones and sand. Aaron and I found ourselves slipping and sliding down the rocks when it became very shallow, and up to our ankles in sand when it was deep. More often than not it was deep and Aaron and I both found ourselves gleefully laughing as we bounded down the mountainside on a cushion of rock, occasionally having heart-stopping moments where we slid a few feet, arms flailing around us for balance. The sensation was akin to what we thought walking on the moon might feel like, it felt like there was less gravity, our steps were lighter, and each step took us farther.
Making it to the end of the section, we both emptied our shoes of the accumulation of sand that was creating an insulating layer inside my shoes. Once again I found myself feeling thankful that I had bought a new pair of Merell water trekking shoes for this trip. Not only did they survive the rock-skiing, but they were able to stop me from falling many times as we descended through the wet rainforested section. From there we were well beneath the clouds, the sun was shining hot, hot, hot on us and our legs were exhausted. As we descended I suddenly heard the sounds of Star Wars blasters in the forest around us, knowing it to be a bird and not actual blasters, I looked around curiously and made finger guns, attempting to line up its calls with my finger-blasters. Aaron eventually found the source of the sound in a White Throated Magpie Jay, which Elmer had said was the national bird of Nicaragua (I think?) because its coloring matches the flag.
It felt as though we walked forever before once again finding ourselves at the vista where I had originally started feeling hot and tired, and thought that at that point we were halfway. Upon entering the cabin we found two Argentines cooling off and enjoying the view. How did I know they were Argentines? Because only Argentines would hike up to this vista point with their own flask and maté and bombilla (special straw for maté), and then sit in the vista and make maté and drink it. My heart leapt at the sight of Argentines and even though I don’t really like maté, I was dying to ask them to share their maté (which is not really something you do unless you have your own maté cup and bombilla). They started talking to us, their accents confirming their nationality and they mostly spoke to Elmer, wanting to know if they needed a guide to go higher. Elmer explained that it was strongly recommended as tourists who go alone often get lost or hurt, and someone had died in the past so it’s better to go with a guide. After a few more questions about the process of going with a guide and exchanging numbers so they could contact Elmer later, we finally finished our walk, with my achy legs somehow carrying me to the road, and then up the road a little ways to the house where we had parked the motorcycle. We bid Elmer a fond farewell, saying we’d see him on the 2nd of January when we dropped off the bike and then we got on the road and drove until we found a little store selling water.
Purchasing the giant thing of water, I made small talk with the older gentleman who ran the shop, he had insisted on introducing himself and shaking our hands, and saying well-met before he was willing to sell us his largest bottle of cold water so I felt the need to have a conversation with him and subtley explain that our haste was not due to disrespect but more so that we just got off the volcano and had run out of water and were low-key dying from dehydration. He was happy to talk to me and once Aaron and I had drunk enough to feel slightly human again we bid him goodbye and drove back to the cabaña where the shower awaited us.
Or at least, it did after I asked our host why the water wasn’t on and he looked horrified that they had forgotten to turn in back on after (I assume) working on it earlier in the day. Having re-hydrated and showered, we felt human enough to go do laundry. Once everything was hung and drying, we got back on the bike and rode into town to find food.
On our way into town we encountered our first police checkpoint where the officer demanded to see Aaron’s license and the insurance on the bike which we handed over. As we were waiting, another tourist couple on a bike pulled up behind us. The police officer handed back our documents and went to demand theirs, not seeming to understand him, Aaron and I helpfully told them that he wanted their license and the insurance for the bike. As they looked for it the police officer said something to Aaron and I, which we didn’t catch. We asked him to repeat and he said quite clearly, and in Spanish, that we should tell the other tourists that they have to wear their helmets when riding the bikes. We turned, beginning to translate and one of the tourists, quite put out with the whole situation said, “yeah, yeah, I know, I have to wear my helmet.” Unimpressed with their act, we decided that they clearly didn’t need us to translate and just didn’t like the situation they were in. The police officer seemed to realize that as well because he shooed us on our way and we took his cue and left.
Deciding it was worth it to eat our way through Moyogalpa, we started at one restaurant and ordered savory crepes and smoothies and then we walked to another one where Aaron ordered tostones and cheese curds (Central American style and they tasted more like the oil they were fried in than cheese) and I attempted to order a pizza, then changed my mind last minute and ordered fajitas, then forgot I had done that and promptly spent the whole time waiting for my food imagining how good the pizza was going to be, only to be given a plate of chicken fingers and fries. Aaron and I were so exhausted that we decided that no one remembered what I had ordered and this tasted fine, so everything was fine.
Our last stop of the day was back to the grocery store for more bottles of water and some hostess cupcakes called Pinguinos (Penguins). Aaron had gotten his last grade from the semester after we got back from our hike so we took the cupcakes back to the cabaña and celebrated by eating them in front of the sunset while the first fireflies of the evening began to appear.
Day 12: New Year’s Eve
Sore from our hike the day before, we decided to take it easy on New Year’s Eve with a long ride around the island. There’s one main road that goes around the island in somewhat of a figure 8. We knew that some parts were unpaved but were sure the dirt bike could handle it so we set off. For the most part we didn’t see any wildly exciting sites, though we got some great shots of the volcanoes and the plantain fields on the islands. We also noticed that the further we got from Moyogalpa and the main tourist town on the Madera-volcano-half-of-the-island, the fewer tourists we saw, and the more horses and even some ox-drawn carts we saw on the roads.
We ended our jaunt around the island at Punta Jesus Maria, a long stretch of sand that, when the lake has more water, can give the illusion that someone is walking on water. Due to the low water levels and the angle of the sun, the effect was less pronounced and we decided to return in the morning to take photos. We did, however, stop at the tourist shop so I could buy a keychain: a small scrap of coconut shell with a drawing of Ometepe scratched into it.
We returned to the cabaña and relaxed, fetching our laundry down from the lines, reading books, and recovering from the activities of the day before. Eventually we decided to head out to dinner and scouted around town to see what was open. As we scouted, we once again passed by Elmer’s shop and stopped to say hello and see if we could adjust the headlight a little lower as folks were flashing us, thinking we had our high beams on. Once we had fixed the light, Elmer invited us to his house for Nacatamales, something we had mentioned offhand that we were interested in trying but that we hadn’t been able to find for sale around town. We gratefully accepted his invitation and followed him over to his house, which was located on his family’s compound. While he put punt the plates, we sat with his family and chatted and I pet their dog. Once everything was ready, we joined Elmer and enjoyed the nacatamales and exchanged stories. We were super grateful to Elmer both for the meal and for sharing part of his New Year’s Eve with us. Pleading exhaustion, we headed back to the AirBnB around 8:15, planning to go to sleep early.
As we navigated the bumpy road, the dirt bike lost its footing after we unexpectedly knocked into a couple rocks that pushed the bike into sand and I was unceremoniously dumped on the ground. Aaron managed to control the bike’s fall so it survived with just a little bend on the brake handle but was otherwise unharmed, whereas I acted on instinct and broke my fall with my wrist, leaving me with (I suspect) a lightly sprained right wrist, unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you think about it) the wrist that was already injured. Luckily I’m no stranger to a light sprain so now I’ll just have to resist the urge to continue my nightly update of this blog to let my wrist rest for a few evenings. This evening, however, the chief concern will be that we are sleeping in a house of straw and our host family (and every other Nicaraguan) is setting off fireworks right next to us. Happy New Year!
Day 13: Ometepe
With over half of our trip finished, we decided that we needed a day to rest and recover, and I needed a day by myself to read. I spent the morning happily reading and napping in the hammock while Aaron took the bike and did another look around the volcano. Around lunchtime he returned and asked if I wanted to go with him to get lunch and see the procession they were setting up for that evening. The restaurant was further than I had expected and I was starving by the time we arrived. The slow service I expected, but the headache-inducingly loud music played by a drunk guy who had brought his own boombox to the restaurant made the long wait absolutely unbearable until finally one of the guys who worked there told him to turn it down and he soon after packed up. The one saving grace of the restaurant was its excellent view of the waves overlooking the lake.
After stuffing our faces with food, we headed up to Altagracia to see the decorations for the 53 World Holiday of Peace, it seemed like some sort of religious processional that began in the church and involved all of the little girls in the town around the age of 7 or 8 to dress up all in white; presumably they would be angels.
We returned to the cabaña to finish our relaxing afternoon and I attempted to go swimming in the lake but found that even 100 feet from the shore, the water was still hip deep. I decided it wasn’t worth attempting to swim in three foot deep water and I got back out to enjoy the hammock again.
We had planned to eat at the restaurant onsite run by our host family but we ordered too late and by the time we requested our dinner they only had fish left. With that sad news, we jumped onto the motorbike and went to get dinner in town.