Saturday, September 5, 2009


A friend of mine was passing through Nicaragua last week, and I decided to take a few days off to travel to a few places that I hadn’t been to yet, but they have been on “my list” for a while.
First, we went to Ometepe Island. The island was in the running for the recent selection of the new “7 Natural Wonders of the World,” but since the winners were chosen by electronic voting and given that Nicaragua has spotty and sparse internet access, sadly Ometepe get enough votes to make it to the semi-finals. The island itself is, nonetheless pretty amazing. It is located in Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America (1/3 the size of El Salvador) and located on it are two Hershey kisses-shaped volcanoes, “Concepcion” and “Maderas.” The volcanoes are connected by a small isthmus, forming an hourglass shape. The island’s 35,000 residents as well as visitors must come and go by a small boat or ferry in a one-hour trip.
As we crossed the brown and windy lake traveling to Ometepe, the two volcanoes loomed closer upon us. The tops were shrouded in pillows of white clouds, which is typical, especially since it is rainy season.

I was very surprised at the lack of development on the island. I had expected to see a very touristy and commercialized area, but was met with a typical rural Nicaraguan environment. I found the cheapest hostel (aka a family’s home) I’ve ever stayed in there for just $3/night! The residents seemed like a very tight-knit community and were very hospitable. It made me think of my hometown in Alaska which is also located on a small island in the shadow of a volcano. When tourists arrive on cruise ships to visit our town, it’s not uncommon to hear the complaints of locals lamenting the fact that these foreigners come and “take” our fish, crowd our streets and in general, ruin the ambiance of small island living. The residents of Ometepe however did not seem jaded by all the light-skinned, backpack-lugging foreigners wandering around their little oasis. Most were very friendly and hospitable. The majority of the roads are unpaved and as we walked around the dirt streets past dozens of adobe homes, I saw that people still lead traditional lifestyles despite the thousands of tourists who come to this tranquil place each year. Most people made their living fishing, growing corn and beans or bananas. The island itself is still very undeveloped and wild.

We climbed Volcano Concepcion (1610 meters) which is the larger of the two volcanoes. Its last activity was in 2005. The climb took us six hours round-trip and we went with a guide and some other tourists. The trail was surprisingly well-kept, steep and surrounded by green vegetation. Along the way our guide pointed out several species of insects, butterflies, flowers, trees and we even saw (and heard) a few howler monkeys lurking in the trees above us. The trail was pretty tough at times, and another girl on the hike who had a bacterial infection (aka lots of diarrhea) didn’t quite make it up to the top (we started worrying about dehydration when she stopped sweating). She stayed behind as the rest of us trekked on above the tree-line and were rewarded with a beautiful view of the lake and the island beneath us. It was a rare day with few clouds, and we enjoyed the surprisingly cold breezes that refreshed us at the top.

Another afternoon in Ometepe we rented kayaks and paddled out to “Monkey Island” and got up-close views of some relatively tame monkeys that permanently lived on them. I think they used to be old pets and they must be fed by island residents, but we also heard numerous warnings about their sharp teeth and short tempers, so we didn’t get too close.

Being out in a kayak also gave me a great look at the symmetrical Volcano Concepcion.

After returning to “mainland” Nicaragua from our peaceful time in Ometepe, my friend and I decided that one volcano just wasn’t enough and we decided to climb up Volcano Masaya, which is right outside of the capital of Managua. The active volcano is located inside of Masaya Volcano National Park and last erupted in 2001, spewing hot rocks 500 meters into the air. Masaya was a much easier climb than Concepcion (the paved road might have had something to do with it) but the heat was scorching. There were few trees since previous eruptions had destroyed the forest and we had to hike in the hot midday sun. No matter how much sunscreen I applied, it was immediately sweated off.
Our work was rewarded at the top as we viewed the Santiago Crater, the main attraction; a smoke-emitting, gaping wonder. The smell of sulfur filled the air and the park guides warned visitors to stay at the top for no longer than 20 minutes because the toxic fumes. There is also a cross located at the top of the volcano, placed there by the Spaniards who viewed the active caldera as the “entrance to hell.”

To end the trip, I had to stop at the famed artisan markets of the city of Masaya, right outside of the Volcano National Park. Most of the markets are tourist traps with high prices, but I was able to get some “inside information” on where to buy cheap hammocks (a must-have souvenir from Nicaragua). After perusing numerous colorful woven hammocks of all shapes and sizes (some “family-size” hammocks could fit up to seven people!) I finally picked out a comfortable-looking striped hammock that should be the perfect place for lounging on the front porch of the house that I plan on moving into.
Yes, that’s right, at the end of this month, I should finally be moving out of my host family’s place after five months with them and into my own house! It’s a simple, small house, no toilet (just a latrine) and there are quite a few improvements to be made (such as putting in a fence to keep the neighbor’s chickens out and a good paint job), but I’m excited to have a place to call my own. More updates on that to come…

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