Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Traveling North of the border

Hey all, as you already know I got home from my week vacation in Nicaragua last Sunday. It was a really rewarding week of travel and as much as I would love to tell you every detail I realize that some people probably don't care that in Nicaragua instead of greeting people with something like "buenas tardes" you greet someone by saying "adios". So, I will try to summarize the 7 days and 8 nights as best as I can.

Well, Stephen (co-worker/friend) and I left Saturday and spent a little over 12 hours in transit to reach our first destination, Leon. The 12+ hours included 3 hours spent at the border crossing, roughly 8 hours in the bus from San Jose to Managua, 1 hour in a bus (really a van) from Managua to Leon, and three taxis. Saturday night after dropping our stuff off at the hostel, we wandered around, found a place to eat, and called it an early night.

Sunday after taking advantage of the free coffee, tea and internet at the hostel, we set out to explore Leon. The city is known for its colonial architecture and churches. We didn't come across many tourists, which was a refreshing change from traveling in Costa Rica. Besides visiting churches, we also stumbled upon a museum run by a group of Sandinista war veterans. This "museum" was simply an open room with newspaper clippings, photographs and a few maps lining the walls. For 20 cordobas (about a dollar), we were able to hear the story firsthand from one of the veterans. It was very interesting to hear about the guerilla warfare that took place in Leon.

Monday morning we left our hostel fairly early to make our way to Laguna de Apoyo, a crater lake to the South of Leon. After trudging through the "streets turned rivers" of downtown Leon, we found the bus to Managua and finally got out of the rain. We changed buses in Managua and despite the fact that the van was over capacity (I was standing), the bus attendant continued to yell the destination to anyone we passed on the street, and yes we did pick up a few more people. Also despite the number of passengers, I managed to remove my soaking wet shoes and socks with the help of an old man sitting next to where I was standing. It seems insignificant now, but at the time it was of utmost importance to me.

Eventually we were dropped off on the side of the highway by the road leading to the entrance to the Laguna. Being budget travelers, we opted to walk to the Laguna instead of taking a taxi. After all, it seemed like a good idea considering the travel guide said it was only a 2 kilometer hike. As it turns out, it's more like 6 kilometers from the highway to the hostels that are on the Laguna, but the hour and 45 minute hike was well worth it. We spent the rest of Monday relaxing, swimming, reading and enjoying the local beer, Toña. Tuesday was basically a repeat of Monday with less beer involved. Although it was hard to leave the enticing, friendly atmosphere of the Laguna, we took a bus to Granada late Wednesday morning to keep our trip on schedule.

Granada is a colonial city in Nicaragua and it is well known by tourists and expats alike. Wednesday we explored the city a bit, had dinner at a popular pizza restaurant, visited a Nica wine bar, and then met up with our friend Andrew, who joined us for the rest of the trip. We spent Thursday morning visiting churches and museums and we even climbed a couple bell towers. After a late lunch, we walked to the Lago (lake) de Nicaragua and decided to take a tour of the isletas (small islands). Being low season, we were the only three on the boat. It was a well needed break from all the walking we had done that day.

Early Friday morning, we set off for our final destination, Isla de Ometepe on Lake Nicaragua. To get there, we took a bus to a town called Rivas, then a taxi to San Jorge, and finally a ferry to the island (fully equipped with music videos from the 80s for your entertainment). Once on the island, we shared a taxi with a few other travelers to go to Playa Santo Domingo. The "beach" was pretty much nonexistent, but it was a good location for hiking either volcano, which was the whole purpose of coming to the island. The two volcanoes on the island are Concepcion, which is still active, and Maderas, which is not active.

We spent a lot of time on Friday trying to decide which volcano to climb and if we needed to use a guide or not. Our travel guide recommended using a guide and the locals tried to convince us that there was a "ecological military zone" that made a guide a necessity; however, after talking to other travelers, we discovered that it was possible to do it on your own. So, Friday night after carb-loading on pasta at dinner, we decided that we would hike Concepcion without a guide. Our only concern was the weather; around 9 pm Friday night it started storming, and by "storming" I mean that we could see lightning hitting the water in front of our hostel. Still hopeful that our Saturday wouldn't go to waste, we went to bed early.

To our surprise, Saturday morning we woke to clear conditions and started the hike at 6 am, expecting it to take about ten hours. The summit of the volcano is roughly 1610 meters (5300 feet) above sea level, and the hike itself is around 7 kilometers each way. In the beginning, we had to walk through a banana plantation and then a forest before reaching an area where we could view the rest of the island. The climb to the top was far from easy, especially considering the abundant number of rocks on the trail, but I really enjoyed the challenge. The trail basically ends before reaching the summit (guides won't take you beyond this point). At this elevation, there is far less vegetation and the vegetation that does exist is wilting and covered in ash. The last part of the hike was a little trickier due to the loose sand and rocks, but we all made it to the edge of the crater at the top.

As I sat on the hot sand/rock surface admiring the view of the entire island (we were fortunate that the summit wasn't covered in clouds), I began to realize that I had to climb back down this steep, rocky volcano in my old puma tennis shoes (not exactly hiking quality). Briefly, I was struck by panic and the fact that I was sitting next to the crater of a volcano that had it's last (small) eruption in 2007 didn't help my state of mind. After a few minutes of taking pictures, resting, and for me mentally preparing myself, we carefully began our descent.

Although I spent a good amount of time basically sliding down the volcano, my anxiety dissipated within the first few minutes of climbing down. I was feeling great for the first half of the way down; then, we realized that we were out of water, which is really the last thing you want to happen. For the last two hours or so of the hike, we were all becoming dehydrated (and we were obviously tired). Luckily, we made it down and found water without any serious problems. We arrived back to the main road around 4:30 pm (right before it started raining) and waited about an hour for the bus back to Playa Santo Domingo. For out last night in Nicaragua, we went to the nicest restaurant we could find, which still only cost around $45 for three people (including drinks, an appetizer, 3 meals, and dessert).

Our long day of travel back to San Jose began at 5 am Sunday morning. We waited for the bus in front of our hostel, wondering if we should have spent a few extra dollars and called a taxi. The bus was only 15 minutes late, so we were hopeful that we would still make it back to Rivas in time to catch our 9 am bus to San Jose. The bus ride was longer than expected and we barely caught the 7 am ferry back to the mainland. I have to mention that while riding the bus I saw a Nicaraguan man wearing a KU First shirt. Rock Chalk! Unfortunately, he got off the bus before I could get to my camera.

After a short taxi ride from the ferry port to Rivas, we arrived at the bus station with time to spare. At this point, I was actually looking forward to getting on the bus and hopefully going back to sleep, but once we were on the bus we reached the border faster than I expected. Getting our exit stamps was as simple as giving our passports to the bus attendant and waiting 15 minutes; however, getting our entrance stamps to Costa Rica was a little more complicated because the "system" was down and they were supposedly calling in every passport for verification. To tell you the truth, I'm still not really sure what happened, but what I do know is that normally we would have had to wait in line but instead we gave our passports and customs forms back to the bus attendant who miraculously got each and every passport stamped within an hour.

The sketchiest part of the border crossing was when they told all of us that we had to take our luggage off the bus for inspection. First, everyone lined the luggage up on a few benches outside the immigration office. Then, a customs officer walked by the line of luggage and handed each bag back to its rightful owner. I think I saw him open one bag. So, after getting our laugh for the day, we got back on the bus and left the border only 2 hours after arriving. The remainder of the bus ride seemed to take forever, but I was back at home in San Pedro around 5 pm.

Well, this wasn't exactly the "summary" that I intended it to be, but adding details makes it more interesting. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

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