Nicaragua, the largest of the countries in the Central American isthmuses, a very much up and coming destination for backpackers and holiday tourists, is often cited in magazines and websites as a top holiday destination to discover and explore. It was a renewed sense of adventure that we passed through customs and border control relatively hassle free, jumped on a bus after shoving off insistent taxi drivers, and made our way to San Juan Del Sur.
Zipping past kilometres of wind farms that had been constructed in the last couple of years as part of the governments promise to decrease air pollution, we passed the hour happily scenery and people watching from our old American yellow school bus. We were heading North along the Pan American Highway with views of two majestic volcanoes on our right, with the Pacific ocean somewhere in the unseeing distance on our left making our way to Rivas, a city where we were to change buses for another smaller local bus to our final destination.
After jumping off the bus and walking to the other bus station, we were, as usual, harassed by a host of taxi drivers who had dollar signs in their eyes as they saw another two gringo’s. We had read that often it can be cheaper if you get four of you in a taxi from Rivas to San Juan Del Sur, so we bartered and negotiated a price that we were willing to pay for two of us. Sure it was more than two bus rides would have been, but it would be direct to our hostel and a lot more convenient and comfy.
Being surprised by one taxi driver who seemed considerably cheaper than everyone else, we checked, double checked and triple checked the price and destination, but he seemed to be sticking to the low monetary figure, and we figured that he just wanted the business.
Move forward 5 minutes and you would have seen me leaning out of a taxi car door as it trundled along a busy street, slowly but perceptively moving into barren areas, shouting at the taxi driver to stop and causing a commotion, as Han fretted over a large knife the taxi driver had just displayed on the seat next to him. Magically and amazingly the price had just doubled as soon as we made about 100m from taxi rank that we were understandably unwilling to pay. Shouting in our pigeon Spanish that we wanted to get a bus and let us out, it was with nervous requests that the taxi driver got out and opened the boot for us to get our bags.
We walked back the 300m to the bus station; we were surprisingly calm and serene about the whole situation. If we had managed to get to more desolate areas a couple of minutes further down the road, things might have been different, but opening the door and shouting whilst still in relative busy streets seemed to have sorted out the situation and 10 minutes later we were on a bus to San Juan Del Sur reading the guide books about the up-and-coming surfer beach town.
Over our two nights at this black hole of a down under backpacker area; Aussies seemed to converge on the party driven “Funday Sunday” town to never escape and be lost in an eternal struggle of finding themselves on a bus out of there but not missing the next big party, we stayed at a hostel with an amazing infinity pool overlooking the ocean that was renowned for parties, as well as a downtown sandy floored type A backpacker abode.
The main highlight though was the main reason that we wanted to visit the area, the Olive Ridley Turtles and their arribadas. In only 7 places over the world a phenomenon known as an arribada happens; thousands upon thousands of turtles converge on a beach over a period of only a couple of months to lay their eggs before swimming back to the ocean. 50 days after the mother turtle lays around a hundred eggs, a hundred baby turtles dig their way out of the hole, climb on top of each other in a very much cute ‘awwwww’ driven way and escape to freedom in the ocean.
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Only 1 out of 1000 eggs are thought to mature to adulthood, as natural predators such as dogs, birds, lizards and racoons scour the beach digging up the eggs, as well as local indigenous people who believe the eggs to be a delicacy, take and destroy the eggs before they hatch.
As we toured the beach with our red flashlights, a mother turtle came up on the beach and we spent a mesmerising 20 minutes watching her slowly clamber up the beach, find a suitable spot, dig a hole and lay the eggs before carrying out the most dedicated sand castle pat down I’ve ever seen to hide them all. Being amazing swimmers, but not meant for walking on land, it was then another 10 minutes as she slowly made her way back to the ocean via a circuitous route to disguise where her eggs were, moving her flippers to push her massive bulking weight along before reaching the welcoming cool waters where she belonged.
It was an amazing thing to experience, and showed to me more than other animal driven views, just how clever, determined and amazing the natural world can be. Another hour on the beach though was in some ways more exciting and more exhilarating as we found hundreds of baby turtles either just emerging from their sink hole nests, or slowly making their way to the ocean. Han and I followed one from start to finish, that we predictably named Jimmy, as he first made his way from the hole, past his brothers and sisters (giving them a final wave and high five), getting lost a few times and heading the wrong way (“no Jimmy no, its this way, come on son”), having two false waves that didn’t quite catch him into the ocean, before one final wave picked him up and threw him into the world that was to become his home.
An hour later we were again in the back of our pickup truck making our way to the place that we were calling home, and marvelling at the fact how lucky we were to see this amazing arribada at work.
With time forever moving along at a predictable rate, however, the next day we were on buses and taxis again making our way to the Ometepe. Situated in the middle of Lago Nicaragua, the island of Ometepe was formed thousands of years ago as two volcanoes rose up and erupted to form the double humped island. Although only rising a mere 1600m from the lake floor, both volcanoes are an ever present visual feast as we caught the ferry and then taxi ride to our hostel on the Southern Island in the village Balgue.
Local legend has it that the island was formed from a Romeo and Juliet esque story. Two lovers from enemy tribes, Nagrando and Ometepetl, fell in love but were denied to see each other. Besotted with each other they tried to keep their love a secret, but Ometepetl’s father found out about the romance and vowed to kill Nagrando. The two lovers ran away and hid in the forest, where they decided the only way to be together would be to commit suicide. As they slit their wrists Ometepetl’s tears never stopped falling and created the lake, while her breasts grew into the two volcanoes.
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With this story in mind and not wanting to miss an opportunity to climb all over a woman’s breasts, we sorted out with a local guide a hike to the top of Volcan Concepcion in a couple of days, giving us time to experience the end of a local festival where a rodeo seemed to be the main attraction. Climbing over a ‘very much man made’ wooden structure, watching kids sneak in through holes in the supports around the bottom, trying not to rip my clothes on the barbed wire, clambering over a structure that reminded me of scenes from local fighting pit in the beginning of Gladiator, wondering when it would break and fall from the thousand or so people watching from on top of it, Han and I watched in awe as bulls were whipped and driven into a frenzy before a man tried to mount the beast and stay on for as long as possible. Throw in some quite amazing horse work and lasso displays, and we were both horrified and fascinated by the traditional display and festivity.
We had 3 nights in total in Balgue, a small farming village that is the ‘end of the line’ for the road around the Southern Island, which was perfect to start to immerse ourselves in the culture, wandering up and down the streets and hiring a bike to visit some further afield places and natural springs. We wandered for breakfast a couple of kilometres up hill to drink coffee from the local coffee plantation, ate at a local family restaurant as a display of natures Christmas lights blinked in-front of us that were being produced by tiny insects who clambered over the beach and trees, and took our time on the island.
The middle of our stay found us out of breath at the top of Volcan Concepcion, literally looking down over the edge of the crater into the swirling sulphur driven plumes of smoke, free running down volcanic sand slopes, and twisting and winding through the various degrees of fauna that altered drastically as the altitude, the climate and the air changed quickly in such a short space of time.
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With heavy hearts, weary legs but excited minds we were back on the ferry 4 days later to visit the first of our deuce of colonial towns, making our way to the founding city of Granada. We waved goodbye to the imposing Volcano as it slowly became smaller, and we slowly became wetter as a storm hit the boat on the way back, and reflected on a great first week in Nicaragua.