A Jones Nicaragua Special

San Carlos / Introductory Ramble

Map of Nicaragua
Small map of Nicaragua
Another long break from writing and it feels like the things I did a month ago are ancient history. It's also a little bit foggy since we did so much; though "so much" will probably turn out to include large parts drinking and doing nothing, often on beaches or Caribbean islands (or both).

So I'm back in San Carlos, aka the arsehole of Nicaragua. It's not bad really, and has it's own special charm. But it's not great either. The main problem is that it's a complete bitch to get here from pretty much anywhere else in Nicaragua. Funnily enough you can normally get here quicker from any part of Costa Rica than you can from any part of Nicaragua.

You could fly here but for backpackers the only time you'd normally spend $30 is on an all-night, brain-curdling bender. The kind that includes breakfast in another country. Followed by another day of—probably—terminal drinking.

You can also take a boat for sixteen hours across huge Lake Nicaragua. Watching the occasional person throw up, and the more frequent person spit on the floor. All the while keeping an eye on your bag to guard against theft.

The final option is an eight hour bus-ride—though seventeen due to mechanical failure is not unheard of. This includes a bone-juddering, final three hours as the driver rides a bucking mule of a bus over a road so pot-holed an appropriate simile hasn't been discovered.

We took the bus this time. It was the worst bus-ride of my entire life, up to that point. Normally I'd think that anybody who talked about the "worst bus-ride" was being a whiny bastard. How bad can it be? Let's just say it's the travelling equivalent of Chinese water torture, except the slow dripping (ie the pot-holes) has been replaced by a firehose that changes the shape of your forehead (ie bum). A million shakes a minute combined with so much noise that you have to shout to be heard. Luckily it only gets this bad for the last three hours.

Faster than a speeding chicken Normally a bus-trip in Nicaragua is like a modern-day caravan trek through the longest food bazar in the world. Only the stalls are hours apart and the food is always the same. From the moment you have—you hope—your backpack strapped to the top of a bus, to the moment you have it dropped on your head every time you stop you're offered food and drink. This is not so bad, especially if you're hungry or thirsty (duh), but the vendors have this insidious, brain-curdling way of telling you what they are selling, "pollo, pollo, pollo, pollo" (chicken), so that it sounds like a single sound drilling into your brain. Especially bad if you're on the cusp of sleep. You pray that someone will buy something, shutting them up so you can regain control of your happy thoughts.

However, you can't leave sight of the bus to try whether to halt the descent into madness[1] caused by these mind-controllers or buy something that isn't made of chicken or tortilla. This is due to the slippery grasp on time Latin Americans have, a place where "ahora" (now) means soon(ish) or at least eventually. You have to use "ahorita" (right now) to mean now. Normally this means that everything just takes longer to happen (if it happens at all that is). However, in the environment of the bus these laws get inverted and a bus driver telling you you've got twenty minutes probably means ten and if he tells you you've got five just sit tight. It's probably because the bus driver is desperate to get away from the mind-controllers.

[1] Other forms of madness may be caused by continually falling asleep only to hit your head against the window, "Mmm-zzz," BANG, "Ow, ..., mmm-zzz," BANG, "Fuck! ..., Mmm-zzz," BANG, "Christ that hurt!" etc.

Another factor of this "bus disappearing leaving you stranded in the middle of nowhere" problem is a bus that's 90% full appears in the mind of the bus driver as if it were 100% full. This is exacerbated by a readiness to completely ignore the word, "FALTA!" ([people] missing!).

Alex almost missed getting back onto the bus because of this. Though most of the fault lay with the endemic problem of Nicaraguans not being able to count. In an "Alex pays fifty for three times six worth of goods" transaction Alex got twelve cordobas change. Since Alex doesn't speak any Spanish her only recourse was to point at her open hand to indicate that she wants more change. Done repeatedly when misunderstood. Done faster as visions of the bus disappearing enter her head. Eventually she gets understood but the person serving her had to consult with grandad before giving Alex a little more change; but still not enough. Round she goes again. Alex did just make it (with all her change), pegging it towards a bus that the driver was subtly trying to move on as I tried convincing him to stop—maybe he thought people wouldn't notice if it moved slowly enough. It's kind of odd how important five minutes is to the bus driver when you consider that the whole trip is eight hours.

San Carlos.
San Carlos. [original]
Pissing it down, San Carlos.
Pissing it down, San Carlos. [original]

So San Carlos isn't so bad. Sure there are millions of mosquitoes, the heat during the day turns you into an irritable psycho, there aren't any tourist attractions and the men can be unreconstructed pigs who'd sooner show a woman his tongue than give them the time of day. The river (Río San Juan), the lake (Lake Nicaragua) and the surrounding greenery are gorgeous. Though you shouldn't swim in it because of the parasites you might catch. (Note: you can swim in other parts of the lake and river without worrying.)

One thing that is completely and utterly nutty about San Carlos is the "war" between dogs and chickens. On the one hand you have dogs that howl at each other and at nothing. Then you have roosters—everywhere—only a complete nobody doesn't have two dozen chickens running around outside their house screeching any time they feel like it, not just the traditional when the sun comes up. But somehow, some union of evil forces found only in San Carlos unleash the truly grotesque travesty of roosters cock-a-doodle-dooing and waking up dogs who howl in reply and vice versa (keeping you up all night except for about two hours between 0300 and 0500). It would be funny to those who hadn't lived through it. And in the light of day it is funny, "Ha, ha, stupid animals." But at night it's different, "Boohoo, stupid me."

There are about a million volunteer organisations in San Carlos (okay three). It's necessary as well—the Río San Juan region is the poorest and least developed part of Nicaragua (not counting the autonomous regions on the Atlantic coast). Politicians are always making empty threats along the lines that if you don't want us then maybe Costa Rica will.

The threats are empty for two reasons. The obvious is that it's impossible, the government would never let it happen. Second most people in the region wouldn't want to see it happen. Though Costa Rica is the most stable and prosperous country in Central America their attitude to their poorer brothers in the north is disgusting. Along with common misconceptions of Nicaragua being dangerous (it is probably the safest country in Central America) you get unabashed racist sentiments. Recently when Yvonne crossed back into Nicaragua she heard an immigration official talking about a Nicaraguan family that often crossed into Costa Rica and referrred to them as, "poor, ugly and dark." And there are millions of stories of illegal immigrants who work in Costa Rica not getting paid for their labour; being jeered to go to the police. In fact in Costa Rica you often getting, "Nica's fuera" grafitti. It's a shame that shuch a friendly country is sandwiched between two such unfriendly nations (Honduras to the north).

But that's now. Then was much more interesting. Then included such delicacies like San Juan del Sur, the Corn Islands, Ometepe Island and Matagalpa.

San Juan del Sur

Alex and I stopped off here first, after Granada, where I filed the last report. We weren't really intending to stay here for very long. Enough time to let Yvonne go to Costa Rica (one country south) and come back again into Nicaragua (she has to leave every three months for visa reasons). At the same time I was trying to hook up with Neil who should have been saying goodbye to Rachel around this time. They were also in Costa Rica. I'd fired off a few e-mails before we'd arrived in San Juan with details of where we were going to stay. The basic idea, and hope, being that all four of us could hook up together and go to the Corn Islands. Amazingly enough and against all odds it worked out. All four of us did meet up and the Corn Islands plan started to come together. Before that glorious, improbable day Alex and I spent four days exploring the town and its surroundings.
A sea slug, San Juan del Sur.
A sea slug, San Juan del Sur. [original]
Sea anomalies, San Juan del Sur.
Sea anomalies, San Juan del Sur. [original]

The town itself is a pleasant enough fishing village which reputably goes mental at night. We never saw much of that though a middle-aged German tourist did go nuts later on—after we had already left—and shot quite a few people. (Obviously when I was talking about San Juan del Sur going mental I was referring to party till you puke behaviour; not psychotic episodes.) For us it seemed a quiet and pleasant getaway. The repeated stories which we heard of forty to sixty thousand people descending during holidays and paying $10 to sleep on the floors of small rooms crammed with people seemed fictitious.

During the day we clambered the the rocky shoreline that stretched around either side of the main beach, looking into rock pools at all sorts of weird plant and animal life. Like sea slugs and brightly coloured fish. As well as hermit crabs and other, unspellable sea creatures. And huge caves with threateningly cracked ledges above you; always ready to let rip and clonk you on the head. If you waited long enough (in a safe place) you could see or hear small parts of the cave fall to the ground.

It's an busy and excited Sunday morning when San Juan del Surienenses decide to throw stones at pelicans and wound one enough to be able to capture it, San Juan del Sur.
It's an busy and excited Sunday morning when San Juan del Surienenses decide to throw stones at pelicans and wound one enough to be able to capture it, San Juan del Sur. [original]
Perfect sunsets served every evening, San Juan del Sur.
Perfect sunsets served every evening, San Juan del Sur. [original]

The pelicans which populate the area in great numbers were also good fun to watch. Such strange looking birds but entertaining as they rise slowly and then dive-bomb for fish. One Sunday we saw a whole flock of these birds swooping and twirling near the bay. It was really impressive. And then it was impressive how stupid people can be as we saw a gang of people chuck rocks at the pelicans until one had its wings broken and could be carried away. God knows what they wanted to do with it. It was a horrible sight to see. Especially the way everybody was having a great time while they did it, laughing like maniacs. I almost started chucking rocks at them until at the last minute I changed my mind and took some pictures instead.

You also got a perfect sunset everyday as the sun disappeared from a cloudless and pollution free sky. Though afterwards you were left with the question of finding where the party is at. (Spot the clumsy linking paragraph.)

One solution seemed to be Ricardo's bar. But with two imprisoned parrots in the tiniest of cages, including one parrot that seemed ready to die at the slightest push, I always felt guilty giving my tacit approval simply by being there; and not saying anything (the head honcho was a lot bigger than me ...). These caged or tied up wild animals you can find pretty much anywhere in Latin America, or at least the poorer parts. From a cappuccino monkey in Ecuador that had had its front teeth pulled out to prevent it biting people to spider monkeys in Nicaragua suffering from hospitalisation (ie boredom-induced insanity, head clutching and rocking back-and-forth being classic symptoms). It's terrible since, without a doubt, it's always illegal to keep these wild animals in captivity. It's just never, ever, enforced.

The other problem with Ricardo's bar was the kiddie-winkie nature of the patrons. We went there once to watch a video and had to endure Ultimate Stupidity. The movie was in English and had English sub-titles. The sub-titles were of the very detailed kind where everything that can be heard is described. "Door slams." "Spanish music playing." I believe the sub-titles had been turned on (DVD you see) for very various people's benefit, people learning English, for example, and in case the volume of chatter got too high. Fair enough, it is a bar after all. Anyway, where the Ultimate Stupidity comes in: a group next to us, constituting of people—as was painfully obvious—who had just met, were trying to break that initial social awkwardness with cheap jokes and asides. These derived from the movie sub-titles. It's funny enough, just, the first few times, maybe. High-budget movie: "Explosion!", low-budget comedian: "No shit!", newly acquainted crowd: "Ha ha." But the repetition made it really annoying. Also the fact that they were all, seemingly, too stupid to grasp the original purpose of such detailed sub-titles: to inform a deaf or hard-of-hearing audience of information they would otherwise miss. Not that I did anything about it—even though it drove me crazy—I just thought I'd tell you about it.

We also met up with a funky American guy, Jeffery, who very impressively managed to neutralise immediately all negative aspects of his heritage (ie being American). Not that I have a negative impression of Americans, much. An academic, researching (or at least writing papers so as to make money) such things as sustainable development and other green meets green issues (ie economics meets environment).

The reason he was down in San Juan was to write a comedy about a utopian future where a couple of time travelers from the past have to be returned to a murder that they were taking part in. It's the law of the future you see. He'd finished it by the time we turned up and was in the unenviable position of trying to find a publisher/producer for the book/screen-play. I tried to help him come up with some X meets Y concepts for movie producers and we came up with such things as: 48 hours meets Pi. Good luck I suppose.

The Gang, San Juan del Sur.
The Gang, San Juan del Sur. [original]
The search for Alex's nose.
The search for Alex's nose.

So Yvonne and Neil turned up. Woo-hoo. Incredibly they turned up together. We'd been waiting for so long, about six days at that point, that Alex and I were seriously wondering what had happened to them. To both of them. I couldn't believe my ears when I heard them laughing and chatting outside our room. Yvonne had simply e-mailed Neil in San José, they'd met up and had bused it here to San Juan. Just that easy. (Yvonne complains that it took a long time to get to San José, 16 hour boat ride across the lake, 2 days to San José and she got ill. Supposedly she thinks I should be impressed that she made it as quickly as she did. Whatever.)

It soon became apparent that Neil and I would be soon going separate ways seeing as he'd had enough of traveling and I didn't want to rush through the rest of Central America. Not that I have enough money to be going anywhere fast; but that's a separate matter.

The first night we celebrated the reunion by drinking two bottles of rum. And playing endless rounds of shithead. I also have about twenty pictures of Alex covering her nose with various objects hand, bottle, glass, cards, etc. She'd burnt her nose a bright, Rudolph red during the day and I thought I'd try and get this on camera.

Eventually we left Sun Juan del Sur, for Managua from where we would start towards the Corn Islands. Basically there are two options: fly and land/sea. Flying was $100 return so that was a no-no. Land/sea involved a bus to Rama, a river-boat to Bluefields and a ship to the Corn Islands. They talk a little bit romantically about this overland voyage in the Lonely Planet ...

The trip from Managua to Bluefields has long been a favourite with travelers. The easiest way to make the trip is to fly, but the journey overland is what many people like best about visiting the coast.

WHAT MANY PEOPLE LIKE BEST!? Who are these people?! Who wrote that section?! What drugs are they taking?! The Lonely Planet definitely needs to purge some of the maniacs currently working for them. Further on in the same section you find a nugget of truth hidden in the debris of bold-faced lying, "Most people find it a tiring but very enjoyable journey." Wrong! Just tiring. Generously I'd allow "worth-while journey" instead but I'm still in shock about the "like best". What I like best is falling asleep in such a crooked position that Stephen Hawkings has better posture. What I like best is being in such a bad mood that words drip from my lips like poison. What I like best is that the bus shakes about so much that when I get off I have sea-legs.

Night Bus
So yeah, what a load of bullshit. The road is terrible. Except this time it was worse. This time it was overnight. I may not have mentioned this yet but almost all buses in Central America are ex-American school buses. Squashed seats with no back support. This is fine for short trips but on longer trips it's almost impossible to find a comfortable position to relax into and fall asleep.

When we finally got off the bus, maybe ten hours later in Rama, we were in a hysterical state of release. The torture was over. This simmered to a muted despair when we realised we weren't going any where anytime soon. Theoretically this was an express service. We'd asked in Managua whether the school bus was really an express bus simply to be told, "Yes, of course." The express side we figured out, or rationalised, was the quick connection onto Bluefields by speedboat.

When we got to Rama, early in the morning, most of our bus got the express side, the others (ie the slow ones and all the gringos) had to wait for more people to arrive until the second "express" speed boat was full. In the end we had a couple of coffees and played cards for about two hours until a couple of people arrived and we could blast it to Bluefields. Thankfully the boat was fast and it only took us another ninety minutes to finally arrive.


Bluefields [original]
Kids from Bluefields.
Kids from Bluefields. [original]
Chaotic, dirty and Caribbean. I'd wanted to visit this place ever since I'd gotten to Nicaragua. It sounded really interesting, never pretty, just interesting. The population is mainly black and mostly speak English or a version of it anyway. Superficially similar to the other Caribbean places I'd visited in Costa Rica and Panama though a lot less touristy. Sort of like a Caribbean version of San Carlos.

In the end I have to say I came away slightly disappointed but then there isn't really anything to see in Bluefields. The main enjoyment is simply trying to soak up the experience of being in such an out of the way place. The disappointment also stemmed from a local guy who tagged along with us tapping us for the odd beer, breakfast, lunch and dinner whenever possible. It can be a problem when locals speak the language since resourceful con-artist can usually make a good living off tourists. (This was also a nuisance in Panama where you'd get somewhat confused, less than convincing pleas such as: "I'm from Haiti, you know, civil war, and could I please have some money for my children, you know, for a cup of coffee.")

We tried to find a place to stay as soon as we arrived, and succeeded. No sleeping on the streets for these motivated and resourceful travelers. After a brief rest we started trying to find out how to get to the Corn Islands. This proved to be very depressing. The standard response was that it would be a four-day wait for us until a boat goes. Though nothing was ever certain. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe not at all. What time? Pick a time, any time. Ask two people when there's a boat and you leave with four different answers since two more people would turn up and give their opinion as well. We heard a story about a couple of tourists who'd been in Bluefields for a week trying to get a boat to the Corn Islands. In the end had to go back because they'd run out of time. By dinnertime we were starting to believe it would happen to us.

Ka-Splam! A stomach churning boat ride to the Corn Islands.
Ka-Splam! A stomach churning boat ride to the Corn Islands. [original]

But luck was with us. I managed to speak to a captain of a boat that was leaving the following morning. Or at least he said he was the captain and that he was leaving the following morning. All we could do was get down to the docks early and hope that it would work out.

And it did work out! There was a boat going to the Corn Islands. It was wonderful. Well actually it was okay (but only in that we got to the Corn Islands). We waited for about five hours to get going and then, once we had started, we waited for about five hours for it to get there. The trip itself was very rough, with one incidence of throwing up and lots of incidences of nausea. Except for Neil, stomach of steel we were all feeling a little sorry for ourselves by the time we got to the Corn Islands. Neil simply felt a little bored.

Corn Islands

We arrive and, to cut a long story short, we get a house to ourselves the following day; $30/day for the four of us. The first night we pay $20 for two cell-like rooms. We get lead there by a proactive local, who professes to be a guide and in a seemingly friendly capacity shows us around. We realise a little later that we're going to have to pay him something and feel that $2-3 is fair. The guide himself never mentions any price at all, until at the end he comes up with the round number of $10. He gets shown the stupidity of telling someone the price after the service has been given (and of not allowing potential clients to decline his price and service or of not even explicitly mentioning he's providing a service). And, equally, the gullibility of tourists since we give him $5 in the end anyway. We should have given him nothing for being such a greedy bastard. That may sound mean but the "guide" must have been pretty stupid or, more likely, think we were pretty stupid, to ask for $10 after having heard that we were looking for a cheap place to stay for the last thirty minutes.

The rooms in this hotel, the Beachview, are atrocious. As is the service. I ask for some hot water (for coffee) in the morning—or, rather, ask if I can boil some water—but get told, "No, we are running a business here." Which is funny because the business-like woman who tells me this doesn't offer to sell me a cup of coffee but instead simply pisses off.

Chilling out, Big Corn Island.
Chilling out, Big Corn Island. [original]
Our next door neighbours on the Big Corn Island.
Our next door neighbours on the Big Corn Island. [original]

Anyway, that's a summary of the bad. The good is amazing. The good is this house, with two bedrooms (and an extra bed in the living room) and a kitchen and a bathroom. It's really clean. Like really, really clean. And you can see the sea and the beach from the front porch as you sit in the rocking chairs provided. And the people who rent it are friendly, and professional. It is wonderful. We try to stay for as long as possible, ignoring our increasingly desperate financial situation until the last possible moment. We spend most nights playing cards and board games (Siedler von Catan!) and drinking rum and chasing crabs in the garden with flashlights. During the day we often lounge around wondering where the time keeps disappearing. Occasionally we go for excursions: to the beach, to a restaurant, snorkeling (Yvonne and Alex get sun-burnt to the proverbial and end up scratching and complaining and using towels to sit down and cushion their damaged bottoms for the next week or so) and scuba-diving (well not me but Yvonne and Neil go).

It was a perfect holiday home and it was painful to leave.

In the main "town" there were quite a few grumpy people who had no right to be involved in the service industry. Like the woman who denied me hot water at the Beachview, they were much better at ignoring people and their needs. Needs which should be easily accomodated in obvious ways. For example, Restaurant: provide food to customers in a timely fashion and make sure they get the food they ordered. Or, Shop: charge customers for products they bring to the counter and try not to look like you're sucking a lemon.

The reality is a tad more complicated, and begins a little like this. Take orders for food and drink from customers who have managed to find a menu and have called your attention numerous times. (Note: when asked for the menu pass it to them with your back turned—this really happened.) Look puzzled when they ask for an explanation of the food you provide but agree with anything they suggest.

Exaggerated example that happened to us: Is the fish milanesa a dog covered in chocolate? "Sí.". Really I thought it was fried fish covered in a layer of sauce, cheese and ham. The waitress goes and calls the chef. The "chef" who becomes our waitress for the rest of the evening won't commit to much regarding this fish milanesa except to agree with us that, yes, it does come with cheese. Only when all our food comes (which was on the whole good if expensive) the fish milanesa is simply a fried fish. We ask the "chef" why it doesn't have cheese. She disappears and doesn't return until the end to collect the money.

The "big" shop in town was also a nightmare. Funnily enough it was opposite this restaurant of dead service, Fisher's Cave. Service in this shop was so cold, so unfriendly that you felt ill every time you had to go in there and buy something.

However, these were exceptions even if they were exceptions that cropped up a lot. Like in the small airport were you had to shout, almost, to get attention; and then wait for the member of staff who has deigned to serve you has walked over and is—almost—looking at you; ask your question; interpret the grunt you receive in answer and fume as they walk away again. This attitude almost seems like a form of gaining respect (at your expense). The more of your back the customer sees and the less time you spend talking to them the better.

Fantastic house, possibly not hurricane proof, Big Corn Island.
Fantastic house, possibly not hurricane proof, Big Corn Island. [original]
Beach Cat, Little Corn Island.
Beach Cat, Little Corn Island. [original]

Really though, apart from these excursions into the big city, pop: 146 (joke), things were fine. And we really did want to stay as long as possible.

Christ! I almost forgot. Country music. Believe it or not the Corn Islands, a Caribbean island with a mostly black population, listen to country music. Like really, really listen. I'd read about it but hadn't felt scared. That came later. All those stupid songs like, "I've reserved a table for two for me and my loneliness [because I'm a country singer and everybody hates me]." There was also a healthy amount of reggae. Fortunately without Mr Bob "take continuously, 24 hours a day" Marley. (Warning: tangent.) I swear there is a market out there for Che Guevara / Bob Marley t-shirts. And I don't mean on different t-shirts. If they were on the same t-shirt—maybe one guy one each side or in some sort of combination: Che Guevara smoking a giant joint while Bob Marley reads, er, anything—then some people would never have to choose again; they could permanently wear the same t-shirt.

After twenty four hours of transportation hell, the road to Managua.
After twenty four hours of transportation hell, the road to Managua. [original]

Finally we had to leave and in a journey that is isn't worth telling we finally got to Managua after twenty four hours traveling. Yes, it was hellish but only hellishly long.

After a night in the big city (Managua) we busted it on to Granada where I said my final goodbyes to Neil and busted it even further on to Ometepe with Alex and Yvonne. Neil and Yvonne got very drunk that night in Granada, short circuit, spending all the money they had in their pockets. Literally: towards the end of the night they were checking they had enough money to pay their bill, and more importantly, how many more rum and cokes they could buy (two rum and cokes each and a final "double"). And if the owner hadn't wanted to go to sleep they probably would have run a tab. Unfortunately I had to chicken out and got to sleep.

Actually in Managua we went for a grill at a cheap place round the corner from our hostel in Martha Quesada. It was uneventful except that the food was suprisingly good and the waitress was a comedy genius. When she come with our drinks she set a beer down on the table such that it fell over, spilling into Neil's food. Apologising furiously she picked it up, setting it down such that it fell in another direction, spilling into Alex's food. The waitress was distraught but we thought we were going to die laughing.


Ometepe and the Concepción volcano, and a good way to drown your camera, Lake Nicaragua.
Ometepe and the Concepción volcano, and a good way to drown your camera, Lake Nicaragua. [original]
Ometepe, though the world's largest freshwater island, is actually small-ish. It has two volcanoes, Concepción and Maderas and is a simple to understand figure of eight shape. (Or a simpler to understand shape of two volcanoes in a freshwater lake being formed close together and touching at the base.) On the whole it's gorgeous, inspiring, and extremely beautiful. Again the sunsets are magnificent and you can usually get a volcano into the background of a photo.

Like most places in Nicaragua it was a little irritating to get to. A four hour boat ride, with a four hour wait. (Sound familiar?) It got a little choppy halfway through. The choppiness eventually lead to water slopping onto the upper deck where I had just started to sleep and lead to standing for the rest of the trip. It also prompted me to take a ridiculously foolhardy picture—foolhardy for my camera—of water crashing up at the front of the boat as the boat slammed down into the lake. It's an okay picture but I was frightened I'd buggered the camera. It turned out to be okay though.

Eventually we turned up in Altagracia, one of Ometepe's two main villages. We checked in as soon as possible, ate and slept.

Following a turgid bicycle ride around part of the island (and another nights sleep) we moved onto San Ramón, humble starting point of the waterfall hike. And it definitely was humble. The place we stayed at—the only place to stay (and eat)—was a farm/restaurant/guest-house. Several pigs, cows and chickens. One meal on the non-existent menu. A 2m by 3.5m room (with two bunk beds).

Concepción volcano, Ometepe. More excitement in San Ramón, Ometepe.
Sunset, San Ramón, Ometepe.
Concepción volcano, Ometepe. [original] A beautiful sunset [original]
makes up for a day of watching a calf and a pig sleep [original]
The waterfall is that a way, a dead monkey is our guide, San Ramón, Ometepe.Why people come to San Ramón, a hundred metre high waterfall, San Ramón, Ometepe.
The waterfall is that a way, a dead monkey is our guide, San Ramón, Ometepe. [original] Why people come to San Ramón, a hundred metre high waterfall, San Ramón, Ometepe. [original]
Hostel Mérida and the Maderas Volcano, Mérida, Ometepe.
Hostel Mérida and the Maderas Volcano, Mérida, Ometepe. [original]

The animals were probably the most exciting thing about the place. You could usually count on something they did to distract you for some time. "Hey look! A calf licking a pig!" Actually that was probably it.

The meals. Ugh. Nicaragua is a lovely place and the people, away from the Atlantic coast, are some of the friendliest I've met out whilst travelling. There is one slight problem. Gallo pinto. Beans and rice. Once again, it's the repetition that makes it disgusting. Or even worse when it's the main meal. Or the pits, when it's for breakfast. Far too heavy. It makes me feel ill when I see it first thing in the morning. (Though why a full English breakfast should provoke the opposite reaction I don't know.) Three times a day we were offered rice, beans, friend plaintain (a savoury type of banana) and a salty, dry white-cheese. Yum! Well, no actually.

The rooms were flea-infested. Or infested with something. I woke up the next morning with a ring of terminally itchy bites around the bottom of my leg. I woke up the morning after that with a ring of itchy scabs, and eventually woke up one morning with a ring of white scar tissue, and in even further on—one hopes—I'll wake up and the whole ring will be gone.

Anyway, we went to this waterfall. The reason we were in the village-ette after all. It was a easy-ish two hour hike to the base of the waterfall. We passed the grotesque skeleton of a monkey on the way which was incredibly fascinating for some reason. Everybody professed an opinion for why it had fallen the way it did. All these opinions became meaningless when the kids, who were guiding us, started moving it and we realised that it hadn't been left untouched, like a sacred relic, the whole time. The waterfall was good as well. Obviously not huge like Niagra or Foz de Iguaçu but still beautiful.

As luck would have it we met up with the owner of a new hostel built up the road at Mérida. The owner, who I took an immediate dislike to, offered to pick us up later on and take us there. Sounded like a good deal.

And it was. Except for the lift which consisted of standing up in a metal frame hooked onto the back of a four wheel motorbike. Okay when going slow. Terrible when going too fast over a bad, bad road. Especially when you keep slamming your ribs against the metal bars of the frame. Anyway we got there intact though my opinion of genius-boy owner kept sliding.

The hostel in Mérida, Hacienda Mérida was brilliant. Good, clean mattresses and everybody was eager to please. And there was a buffet. Woohoo! Variety! Even the people who came to stay were friendly and good fun.

If only for the owner. Essentially he was one of the good guys. For starters he built the damn place which I enjoyed so much so any complaints should really fall flat. But ... he did have a few annoying character traits. For instance this stack of stories that he told patrons. Stories that were okay to hear the first time. However, if you spent any time in the vicinity of the hostel (or his voice) you would keep hearing these stories. It seems petty to complain about it when he was clearly doing his best and would listen attentively if you had any qualms or suggestions. And act to make things better or implement your suggestions.

But ... there were also a few strange aspects of his behaviour. First were the monkeys on the island. Very odd. He received (or maybe paid for) some monkeys which he had then put on tiny, tiny islands. Sure it was better than a cage, or merely bigger than a cage, but there was no food on these islands. Except for the food people brought to the island by kayak. Tourists were often encouraged to go and feed them, or at least go and look at them (and hence hire a kayak). Which we did, though not without reservation. It was quite pathetic. A small hill of an island with about seven trees. The worst was whenever you turned up in your kayak the monkeys would just wait there, watching to see if you had any food. People did ask what the deal was but they usually got some confused explanation that it was temporary or a research project. God knows. But since they were ex-pets there's not much hope for them. If you put them straight back in the jungle they probably wouldn't know how to feed themselves or be able to protect themselves from the other monkeys. And finally, they'd probably try and find humans to feed them.

Second was somewhat bizarre reactions to things in his environment. For instance, I mentioned this monkey skeleton that we saw on the way up to the waterfall that our kid guides had showed us. His response was to ask me where it was and then say that maybe he'd get it for the hostel. Which sounded terrible. Not for any specific reason (thought it would be a pity if the local "guides" weren't able to point it out to people). It just felt wrong.

These were all vague problems with a place that was great for us. While the madness of Semana Santa raged on around us (47 killed) we could hide away in a place where it couldn't touch us.

A tangled tree, Maderas Volcano, Ometepe.
A tangled tree, Maderas Volcano, Ometepe.. [original]
Maderas Volcano's cloud forest, Merida-side, Ometepe.
Maderas Volcano's cloud forest, Merida-side, Ometepe. [original]
Maderas Volcano's Laguna Verde, Ometepe.
Maderas Volcano's Laguna Verde, Ometepe. [original]

The main reason we'd come here was to climb the Maderas volcano, 1300 metres high. It was an amazing climb (well, walk/crawl). Though it did take 13 hours ... what 100m and hour? Yeah ... it was a little nutty in places. Like the way down which was a pure descent on the muddiest hillside I've ever seen in my life. That bit was a nightmare—I was absolutely filthy by the time I got to the bottom.

The way up though. Yum! It was beautiful. The first part was simply forest with the occasional shaded coffee plantation. Later on we got to cloud forest. Magical. The climb at that part stopped from being a simple slog up a steep and forested hillside. It became a complicated climb through all manner of tumbled trees. Sort of like negotiating the world's longest organic climbing frame. Everything was moist and mossy to the touch and your view was limited by the constant cloud that hung around you. Absolutely, stunningly beautiful. The landscape didn't seem to be real, but from another planet, some Tolkien fantasy world.

The goal of the walk was to get to the Laguna Verde. A lake formed in the old crater of the volcano. When people talked about a descent into this crater I expected a grey and sharp-stoned wall that we would have to negotiate with the use of ropes and harnesses. When we got there I started to realise that it would be a muddy, fumbled mess of a descent.

The guide had brought harnesses along but some of us decided to just hurry on down with the use of a stretchy rope. To my mind it was fairly terrifying. One slip and you're plummeting ten metres. Though I did talk to a Canadian who negotiated it without the use of a rope and thought it was fine. She was working in Newfoundland as a guide so was obviously some sort of forest freak, mountain girl. Or something. Anyway, the girls opted for the harness and abseiling down. It quickly became frighteningly apparent that the guide had no idea of how to let people descend since half way through the abseiling he would let go and start climbing down. Not really the idea. Alex would test to see if the rope was taut and see that the guy wasn't even holding the rope. Great.

Yvonne decided it would be much more sensible to stay at the top and I don't blame her. She did try and come down but the guide did his trick of letting go of the rope as she was halfway down. It didn't exactly inspire any confidence in her ability to get down (without falling down). She went back. There will be an accident at some point. Probably serious. And good luck getting the poor bastard back up again to civillisation.

Anyway, we eventually made it to the lake which was gorgeous. Green everywhere, including the lake. (Hence the name I suppose.) It was even nice to swim in and cool down. Though the whole bed of the lake was a clayey mud. Very freaky when stood in.

Grumpy howler monkeys, Maderas Volcano, Ometepe.
Grumpy howler monkeys, Maderas Volcano, Ometepe. [original]

The whole time during this torturous road we had a kid and his dog with us. The kid learning the route. The dog ... I don't know. I'm sure in the mysterious canine world of stupidity meets bliss it must have seemed like a good idea in the beginning. Yay, a walk. Later on as he watched his master descend into the lagoon he must have changed his mind. To be honest he probably changed his mind the first time his master pushed him over a falled off a fallen tree and down two muddy metres. When we were down in the lagoon the cold and lonely dog whined and wailed almost constantly. And in case you're wondering he did make it back safely.

So you might be wondering where the tales of drunken debauchery are. Well fear not because there is one.

Guarón. Hmmmm. Home-made alcohol. Home-made alcohol that costs $10 for a gallon. A gallon that comes in a petrol cannister.

How did it begin? I don't know. It was full-moon. That was one reason. There was a hippy chick who felt that should be celebrated. "Full moon party man." There was an Irish girl who felt that alcohol should be drunk. And I did bring the idea up in the first place. Except that the idea was "proper" rum. Nicaragua's high-quality, yet easily affordable Flor de Caña. But I quickly got convinced by some Dutch guys (what is it about Dutch guys and drinking dangerous amounts of alcohol?) that going to a place selling home-made alcohol was a better idea. So that. Was that.

So we went. The place was interesting. Sort of like a large living room with beds but without walls. Seriously: a large canvas roof, electricity, etc but no walls. I have the feeling that they were victims of an eviction notice—there are lots of land claim disputes leftover from the civil war—and had had their home bull-dozed. In fact three or four weeks before we'd turned up, very soon after the hostel had opened, this event had brought on a small demonstration which, along with stone throwing at the police enforcing the eviction notice, ended in the police firing in the direction of the crowd. Ooops. I don't believe anybody got hurt though trousers were probably dyed a delightful shade of shit.

So we tried some of this Guarón they were selling. Tasted okay, quite smooth and felt, deceptively, low in alcohol. Somewhere near 30% or so.

It took us ages to some though. This was because they were using ridiculous measurements, a tenth of a gallon for example. In the we showed them what we wanted them to fill and asked how much it would cost. We also asked if they had anything else we could use to fill more with—3 litres wasn't enough. They produced a gallon bottle that looked like it should be used to carry petrol. Just to be sure I smelt the bottle and asked if it was clean. They said yes.

That same night was the women's night off. The women who cook at the hostel I should clarify. Intead the men who worked there cooked instead. I don't think I've eaten so many boiled vegetables in one sitting. Bleugh. Nevermind, we had stuff to wash it down with.

Sylvie fire-dances on Guarón, good luck, Mérida, Ometepe.
Sylvie fire-dances on Guarón, good luck, Mérida, Ometepe. [original]

Things started off well enough but soon descended into a nightmarish chaos. The guarón was deceptively strong and before long people were experimenting with fire-dancing, arguing about organic gardening and doing yoga as the sun came up. (I wimped out early and had to get all of this second-hand.)

The next morning was horrible though. My head felt like a jumble of rusty wires being scraped together and against the inside of my skull. Every thought leaving a metallic taste in my mouth as it grated its way trough my brain. That's when my true addiction came to life: Siedler. Even though every second sentence of mine was starting with, "Fuck!", squints eyes, "Sorry ...". I managed to gather some people together to play this super board game. It was a bad idea for once, especially since the concentration was making me nauseous.

Eventually we had to leave Ometepe. To try and get to Matagalpa in the north. It was decided (not by me) to leave at 0330 so we get to Matagalpa in one day. As one, dry and funny as fuck Israeli pointed out when we first here this bus was not leaving tomorrow, it was leaving tonight.

And it really was the middle of the night. It took us two hours to go, maybe, 50km but we got a boat and made it back to the mainland where we caught up with the tail-end of the lunatic behaviour of Semana Santa; the biggest celebration of the Nicaraguan calendar. People swimming—most fully clothed—at 0700 in the morning. Woo-pee. Well not really. We had our heart set on Matagalpa with its cooler climate and its Bavarian cottages.


Bavarian cottages? Yeah, I know. Mausi Klein (which sounds like "Mousey Small" to me when translated) is the descendent of German settlers who came to Nicaragua to grow coffee in the 1800's. She and the other Mausies—apart from growing coffee in the Matagalpa region—also rent these cottages, they've named Selva Negra or Black Forest or, in the original, Schwarzvald.
Rusted relic from many years ago, Matagalpa.
Rusted relic from many years ago, Matagalpa. [original]

It's quite a nice place, though very expensive. Alex and Yvonne were really looking forward to having some German cooking. In fact in my limited experience Germans are almost as bad as Italians when it comes to complaining about how much they miss home cooking. You'd think though that the Italians with their mono-cuisine of endless variations of tomatoes, olive oil, pasta and cheese or Germans with their sausages, beer and potatoes would welcome as long a break as possible. Not that I'm narked after having to endure endless variations of fish and chip jokes. (Luckily they hadn't heard of other highlights of British cuisine like beans on toast or spaghetti in tomato sauce.) Or the bizarre, annoyingly repeated opinions of Yvonne that Heathrow airport was the dirtiest airport in the world.

In the end there wasn't any German cooking anyway. Serves them right. The coffee was nice but that pampas at (wild cat with spots) in a cage at the front seemed terribly ignorant and really spoiled everything. I should be enured to it by now but it still makes me feel sick.

Matagalpa freedom fighters
Matagalpa freedom fighters [original]

Matagalpa itself was a nice enough town. Not colonial but very relaxed though possibly still showing the scars of the contra wars. Though I might have had my judgement swayed by the fact that with Semana Santa still on the town was almost deserted. We had serious trouble finding a decent place to stay (though in the end we found a real gem).

I think the highlight for me was being able to have my first hot shower in seven weeks. And the climate in Matagalpa was cool enough that I could enjoy it.

San Carlos / Conclusatory Ramble

You might be wondering where I got this huge amount of time to write this. Well I was supposed to be working in San Carlos again for a clinic / pharmacy. Hopefully this letter will explain. As it was I had four days to try and write this instead of moping about after saying goodbye to Alex.

Xxxxx Xxxxx
San Carlos, 13/4/02

Xxxxx Xxxxxx
Clínica San Lucas
San Carlos

Dear Ms Hilda Duevel,

It has come to my attention that you are not satisfied with the work that I did at the clinic. Admittedly I didn't find anything wrong with your personal computer. (Apart from not being able to change the screen-saver passwords for which I apologised.) Windows was not installed twice, I didn't find any viruses and the computer did not seem unacceptably slow. I am sorry if you disagree; but like a doctor trying to treat a patient who is not ill there is little I can do about this.

However, the work of designing a pharmacy database, which I feel was the real work I had been hired for, started well. After consulting with Mr Julio Orozco, and for a lesser time with Dr Stefan Tannenberg, we made a start with a database design. This design when implemented would have become the pharmacy database.

Enclosed you will find a copy of the design that I finished that same night. Overtime work I did in good faith, believing I would still have a job the next day. Work you will be delighted to know I did not charge the clinic for. (I had given the design to Ms Claudia Hirtbach for her to deliver but include it here instead, for completeness)

For you to complain about my performance I find insulting and ridiculous. The only person entitled to complain is myself. I delayed taking a job in Managua so I could work for the clinic. I never expected that you would change your mind after half a day. I do agree that a ready-made database is a good idea. However, exploring other possibilities before hiring me, rather than while I am working, is an even better idea.

Luckily the $20 the clinic "wasted" on my goes a long way in San Carlos but by no means do I judge the extra four days I have spent here a valuable use of my time.

In future may I suggest you deal with such matters, and especially those of a financial nature, in a more professional and organised manner,

Yours sincerely,

Xxxxx Xxxxx

The world's cutest cat family, James goes soft in San Carlos.
The world's cutest cat family, James goes soft in San Carlos. [original]

So after that mess I had these days to write most of this report up. Nothing else really happened though. Just floating around the house watching pirate videos rented from the local video store, taking the occasional cat picture and walking around San Carlos. On the last few days Yvonne turned up which was good as it meant I managed to get absolutely hammered with her one last time in San Carlos for old times sake, splitting a bottle of delectable Flor de Caña rum between us. That made the next day's bus journey slightly surreal as I struggled to prevent myself from reversing the previous night's binging.

I also had plenty of time to reflect on Claudia's prematurely nostalgic depiction of the road from San Carlos to Managua. My belief being that it was hell. Claudia held the opinion that it was an adventure and that when they finally repaired the road, filling in all the pot holes and reducing the journey time from eight hours to the four hours it would take given a decent road, she would be sad. She would think it a shame that other people wouldn't be able to experience the pure adventure of the "old" road. At the time—positively lashed—I thought she was completely nutty, refusing to believe this adventure crap and saying that there could be nothing good to be said about a shitty road. I still think she's nutty but maybe she has a point ...

Now I'm in Managua working for a Dutch NGO. Things are going okay, slow but okay. However, when I came back after my first day's work I switched the World Service of the BBC on and was confronted by a documentary on the changing face of the tulip industry (based in Holland). This on a day when the Dutch government has resigned (over Srebrenica) ... a couple of months later a Dutch politician would also be assasinated. Mundo bizarro.

Counter and Guestbook

Counter Sign Guestbook View Guestbook

Granada Photo Gallery

View of the Mombacho volcano from the roof of the old hospital, Granada.
View of the Mombacho volcano from the roof of the old hospital, Granada. [original]
Crowds follow a group carrying a statue of Jesus for religious reasons, Granada.
Crowds follow a group carrying a statue of Jesus for religious reasons, Granada. [original]
Darth Vader inspired riot police, Granada.
Darth Vader inspired riot police, Granada. [original]

Corn Islands Photo Gallery

Beef MASTER? Fortunately I never saw this open, Big Corn Island.
Beef MASTER? Fortunately I never saw this open, Big Corn Island. [original]
Say no to drugs, violence, imprisonment and knives in the back that leave you dying in a pool of your own blood, pills and a smoking cigarette, Big Corn Island.
Say no to drugs, violence, imprisonment and knives in the back that leave you dying in a pool of your own blood, pills and a smoking cigarette, Big Corn Island. [original]
Who de king of de coconut ting? James and Neil 'climb' the only coconut tree they'll be able to, Picnic beach, Big Corn Island.
Who de king of de coconut ting? James and Neil 'climb' the only coconut tree they'll be able to, Picnic beach, Big Corn Island. [original]
Playing Siedler on the beach, Picnic beach, Big Corn Island.
Playing Siedler on the beach, Picnic beach, Big Corn Island. [original]

Ometepe Photo Gallery

Concepción Volcano, Ometepe.
Concepción Volcano, Ometepe. [original]
Jane wrinkles her nose as Alex tells what can only be a disgusting story, Ometepe.
Jane wrinkles her nose as Alex tells what can only be a disgusting story, Ometepe. [original]
It could all go horribly wrong for Carlos, Mérida, Ometepe.
It could all go horribly wrong for Carlos, Mérida, Ometepe. [original]
Sunset and the Concepción Volcano, Mérida, Ometepe.
Sunset and the Concepción Volcano, Mérida, Ometepe. [original]
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