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“Where’s the Paper?” Nicaragua Part 2: Ometepe Island

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Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

IMG_3694Remote. Rural. Lush. Ometepe Island, formed from two volcanoes, sits in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, one of the world’s largest natural lakes.  We debated all week what claim this lake should make, so I had to look it up.  According to Wikipedia, its the 19th largest freshwater lake in the world (and the largest in the Americas.)  Ometepe was our 2nd stop in Nicaragua.  The first was  San Juan del Sur;  read about that adventure in Part 1 of the “Where’s the Paper” series.

From the small port town of San Jorge, we boarded a ferry for Ometepe. You can also take a boat, but we were told, in broken English and emphatic mime that the boats were tiny and rocked a lot on what can be windy/rough waters.  So we took the ferry, along with dozens of other tourists (international and Nicaraguan.)

IMG_3752The Ferry itself is unimpressive.  Worn looking.  Old.  I did see life vests but didn’t bother assessing how many there were.  The timing of our trip was days after the horrific ferry boat sinking in South Korea.  For better or worse, we had been cut off from all news and didn’t learn of that tragedy until we returned home.  I never felt unsafe on our ferry — except for the allergic reaction that our food allergic son had shortly after we departed.  Luckily, the ride was just over an hour and provided stunning views of the volcanoes on Ometepe!

Most ferries to Ometepe arrive in Moyogalpa — the largest town on the island.  Getting transportation in Moyogalpa is easy when you arrive by ferry — taxis areIMG_3680 lined up and eager for business.  We had to wait for the truckload of bananas to move onto the ferry before we could leave, ironically, the only glimpse of that fruit we would have for the 3 1/2 days on the island!  Our rental property was an easy 10 minute drive away, and our driver luckily knew how to find it!

Nestled in a quiet town called Los Angeles, our farm is called Finca Macedonia.  A beautifully lush farm, filled with mango trees, lime trees, avocado trees and more.  A flock of roosters wandered around, beautiful birds abound and a few horses rounded out the wildlife we experienced.  I found the rental on VRBO, and it was amply large and modern, especially compared to other available lodging.  On Ometepe, you can stay in an upscale eco-lodge, or in a hostel.  There tourist infrastructure is very limited on the island, and this was the ONLY house we could find to rent.  It was important to us to have access to a kitchen to be able to manage our son’s food allergies, and so we were very pleased to find the farm house!

IMG_3684The farm keeper and his family live on the property, and saw to our needs during the stay.  My boys loved playing with his girls, and while Emerson’s English was limited, it far surpassed our Spanish, and he made sure that we found the path to the lake, and he arranged for fresh fish for us, which his wife prepared in a traditional grill with rice and beans and plantains!  We picked many mangoes and limes, and Emerson gave us each a large avocado, which unfortunately didn’t ripen before our trip concluded and we had to forfeit our fruit.

In general, our time on Ometepe was sleepy and hot.   Our fans in each bedroom did the trick, but as in San Juan del Sur, nights were loud with cicadas, birds, roosters and dogs.

The day after we arrived, we ventured onto a local bus, and ended up sitting next to a couple from New Zealand, an American and a Croatian.  All of them young, and adventurous — not knowing where they were staying the night, and taking each day as it came.  They reminded us of our younger selves, and also made it clear how different travel is when you have three children and an older parent with you!  These travelers helped us navigate to our destination, and we exited the bus to find the Charco Verde Eco Reserve.

IMG_1118We had a slick brochure from the tourist office that made the Eco Reserve a top destination on Ometepe Island.  But we were a tad disappointed.  The nature walk was nice — we saw monkeys and some beautiful plants and birds.  But we didn’t see anything inside the reserve that we hadn’t seen on our farm or in San Juan del Sur.  It being located adjacent to an upscale hotel and restaurant was a fortuitous coincidence for us, as we enjoyed delicious Nica snacks, drinks and their beach.  The boys rented a paddle boat, and enjoyed cooling off in the lake.  We were so wiped out by the heat and all the walking that we had the hotel call us a private car to go back to the farm.  Private transportation in Nicaragua is expensive, but we were too tired to walk the 1/2 mile back to the main road and wait for the bus.

Our sense of remote isolation was amplified on Sunday, as we understood that public buses are not running.  So we made the day a lazy one and enjoyed the farm and a nice hike/swim with Emerson and his daughter. We made our 3rd trip to the local store — literally inside someone’s home — to replenish our soda supply (which, ah hem, we needed to polish off the rum that was purchased on day 1.)  It turns out that the town only gets fresh veggies/fruit delivered on Monday or Tuesday — and we left on Monday morning.  We ate simply those few days, chicken, canned veggies, rice and beans…  cooking in the house was our plan, and proved harder than we would have expected.  It was HOT on Ometepe, and our home had no air conditioning, so cooking made us feel like we were in an oven.  Luckily, we had ample space outside to sit and try and catch a breeze.

IMG_1120As we packed up to leave Ometepe on Monday morning, the grown ups were more cheerful about leaving the island — for various reasons.  We wanted fresh fruit and veggies, I wanted to be closer to transportation and feel like we could access modern medicine should there be an issue, and we craved air conditioning.  I realized how soft I had become in how much the heat bothered me.  The kids never complained.  Even my mom was more comfortable on the farm than my husband and I (she had grown up spending summers on her grandfather’s farm in Canada.)

Our ferry ride back to San Jorge was quick and uncrowded.  The Easter crowds had dispersed, and things felt less hectic on the return.  Our prearranged transportation was waiting for us as we walked off the ferry!  I loved how easy it was to arrange transportation with Iskra Travel!  We lucked out and Mike, our first driver from the night we arrived, picked us up and took us on the 1 1/2 drive to Granada.

The Bottom Line

My husband and I are city people.  There, I said it.

Ometepe Island is great for hikers or adventurous travelers who need little modern comfort.  In hindsight, I don’t think we prepared enough for our visit, or knew what to expect.  If I were to go again, especially with kids in tow, I would either arrange to have a private car/driver meet us daily or else rent a car.  The island is large, and we would have had a better experience had we seen more, but once we were at the farm, the “schlep” to make transportation work was greater than our desire.  As a mom of three kids (11, 9 and 5) and one of them having serious food allergies, I was nervous about being so remote “just in case” something were to happen.  There are medical facilities in Moyogolpa, the main town where the ferry comes into, but I would have been at a total loss as to how to get there if we had needed it!

Where’s the Paper?”

That’s what I heard when the first rooster loudly cried out — I must admit that not everyone in our group heard that, but once I heard it, I couldn’t not hear it.  I will probably forever more hear “where’s the paper?” when others hear “cock-a-doodle-doo.”

“Where’s the Paper?” Nicaragua Part 1: San Juan del Sur

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Playa de Madera SunsetSan Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Pacific coast beauty.  Lush tropical growth butting up against dry dessert-like landscape.  Hippy surfer beaches with clove-smoking tanned Americans, riding in the backs of pick-up trucks.  Mango trees. Banana trees.  Monkeys and roosters.  San Juan del Sur had a bit of everything for the first of three stops in our 8-day, whirlwind journey around southwest Nicaragua.  Me, my husband, our three kids (ages 11, 9 and 5) and my mom; first time to Nicaragua for all of us and it did not disappoint.

We decided to travel to Nicaragua for many reasons:

  1. Easy flights from the Washington DC area (we flew Delta via Atlanta into Managua.)
  2. Affordable airfare (we flew Tuesday, returning Wednesday for $400 per ticket.)
  3. Crime against tourists in Nicaragua is lower than in some neighboring Latin American countries.
  4. The tourist infrastructure is enough established that we could plan our accommodations and travel, but not overly developed and “touristy.”
  5. We wanted to show the kids a part of the world very unlike what they know.

Mango RosaWith the help of a close friend, we decided we would visit three places in Nicaragua: San Juan del Sur, Isla de Ometepe, and Granada.  We plotted our actual itinerary based on accommodation availability and timing of our flights.  For San Juan del Sur, I found Mango Rosa while reading travel reviews on www.tripadvisor.com  I don’t think we could have navigated this adventure without the great feedback and advice on Trip Advisor!  I’ll add my own review of our hotels there as well.

Getting to San Juan del Sur was more of a trek than we had anticipated.  Our fault — we only skimmed the details in the guide books, and relied greatly on friends accounting of our itinerary. Arriving in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, at nearly 8pm local time (2 hours behind EDT) meant the kids were already beyond tired.  Our prearranged transport through Iskra Travel was waiting for us outside of customs, and our driver, Mike, whisked us away from the dark airport — at which point we learned that Mango Rosa was nearly 3 hours away!  The kids quickly conked out (with husband to soon follow) while I tried my best to see beyond the headlights and take in this new country.

  • Cow crossing signs (just like our dear signs)
  • Pick-up trucks filled with everything — goods, people, animals, speeding down the dark 2-lane highway
  • Pedestrians walking in the road.  At night.
  • Cyclists, in the middle of the lane.

This kind of highway travel is not for the feint of heart.  Coming up behind a car without taillights on, at full speed, requires an adept and alert driver.  Mike did great, but I must admit feeling great relief when we arrived safely at Mango Rosa at 11pm.

We quickly settled into our private house, and soon found out that good sleep is hard to get for us city folk!  Howler monkeys, roosters (who don’t just cockle-doodle-doo at the crack of dawn) and dogs make for a night time cacophony many decibels louder than I personally appreciate.  The trees over our house were filled with monkeys.

Time change + sunrise at 5am + very loud roosters who sing out “WHERE’S THE PAPER?” endlessly (+ excited kids) meant we were up EARLY.  Mango Rosa offers a lovely menu of breakfast choices, and fresh fruit smoothies, which got our first day in Nicaragua off to a great start.  My mother arrived shortly after breakfast (her flight was delayed from the previous night, thanks to an earthquake warning in Managua, something that didn’t deter our Delta flight from arriving, but her Copa Airlines flight through Panama was stuck.) We generally vegged out by the small pool and lulled in our hammocks until late afternoon.

Pick Up TransportWe took a ride to one of the small Pacific beaches, Playa Madera,  in the open back of a pick-up truck, and spent many hours luxuriating in the warm waters and enjoying local beers while people watching.  Most of the beach goers were American or Canadian — with some Nicaraguans in the mix as well.  Two bar/restaurants (one with a hostel above) dotted the small beach, known for its killer surfing, and competing loud music blasted from both — sending us out into the sun to escape the noise.  We enjoyed watching fabulous surfers and obvious first timers, jumping our own waves and watching a great sunset before returning to Mango Rosa again in the open truck.  The kids thought it was fantastically dangerous, exciting and “lawless” to get to ride that way.

Another loud night led to a gloriously hot and windy morning where we had to hide the kids from the sun.  I forgot to pack the aloe and our SPF 50 didn’t do the trick (or we failed as parents and didn’t reapply often enough.)  That afternoon we charted La Pango Rosa (a fishing boat) to take us onto the Pacific for hopefully some dolphin spotting, fishing and swimming.  Right out of the beach we saw a whale breach and that was it for water mammals.  The waters were choppy and the ride was nerve wracking for a couple of the kids.  Once we anchored at another beach and had a cooling swim, the water was calmer and we then enjoyed some drag fishing.  My husband reeled in the first of two 8-10 pound fish.  We were bummed that it wasn’t something more tasty — but were assured that the local staff would take the fish home to use for soups.  The kids were thrilled to catch the fish!  I found myself contemplating  vegetarianism again.

San Juan del Sur SunsetGetting to enjoy another glorious sunset over the Pacific was a nice conclusion to our last night in San Juan del Sur.

Mango Rosa was so comfortable, and easy — with an American owner/manager and a fully fluent English speaking staff, I knew that this was a great entree for us into Nicaragua, and I also knew that our next destination wouldn’t be quite the same.  We left the next morning after breakfast, bidding our tree full of monkeys and the flock of roosters goodbye.

Our Regret

We didn’t actually visit the town of San Juan del Sur.  We were in Nicaragua during the popular vacation week around Easter, when Nicaraguans flee to the coast and create what was described by locals as a crazy party scene in the town.  The American who ran Mango Rosa likened it to Mardi Gras, Nicaraguan style.  I’d have liked to check it out; but my kids had seen on the bar tv an accounting of a death the previous night in the town (and another staff member at Mango Rosa warned that thefts of tourists go way up during the week,) so the kids and my mom (age 71) were deterred and we didn’t push the idea.

Where’s the Paper?

That’s what I heard when the first rooster loudly cried out — I must admit that not everyone in our group heard that, but once I heard it, I couldn’t not hear it.  I will probably forever more hear “where’s the paper?” when others hear “cock-a-doodle-doo.”