With one dormant and one very active volcano (the last eruption was a pretty violent one in 2010), Maderas and Conception respectively form the hourglass shaped island of Omotepe. It was a harrowing ferry journey across the lake, whipped by strong winds creating conditions so rough Matt spent the entire journey sat in Porkchop’s driver seat with his foot on the brake.
Our park brake cable had disintegrated back in Mexico and this was the only way to prevent the van from lurching across the deck, coming within millimeters of taking out a side mirror against the side of the ferry. Every wave smashing against the bow reminded us that even these rough sea conditions were nothing, at times the lake can be so hazardous that navigating it is impossibly dangerous and all crossings cease. After an hour plus journey we arrived on the island, docking at the port of San Jorge
With light fading and destined for lodgings at La Pirata (pirate), we dodged the pigs, horses, goats and donkeys on the road, wasting no time in slow driving….apart from a small stretch where you have to traverse the runway strip of the local airport. Luckily air traffic out here is random at best. Arriving as el sol sets, we switched off the engine under an enormous blooming ceiba tree within a breath of the lake shore. These trees have such a majestic appearance you can’t help thinking of the Tree of Souls and Eywa from the movie Avatar. Being Matt’s Birthday there was nothing for it but a few quite brews in the onsite restaurant.
Waking to the sounds of striking yellow Great Kiskadee birds, we left the tranquillity of La Pirata to find a place closer to the Maderas side of the island in order to summit it’s peak. Arriving in Santa Cruz, first we checked out El Zopilote, and although Matt looks like an unwashed hippy, he’s got nothing on the ones hanging around here, and we were glad the entrance was so rutted the van couldn’t journey up the driveway.
Reading another blog where a couple had free camped on Playa Santa Domingo, we struggled to find an access point and again were glad as this was the windward side of the lake and conditions were not ideal for a peaceful lakeside sleep. Our last option on this side of the island was Little Morgans, but after navigating their steep, narrow driveway we were confronted with what looked like a Glastonbury festival fallout.Zombified faces, eyes that were unseeing and hadn’t slept for days and no camping facilities…yep, we weren’t too sad about leaving that place behind either.
Failing to find what we wanted here, we navigated 180 degrees around the east side of the island to Hacienda Merida. A working Hacienda from a bygone era, producing coffee, cocoa, fruit and sugar can, the current owner has moved back from the States to reinvent this once successful farm into a serene destination for travellers. Close to the kick off point to ascend Volcano Maderas, the Hacienda serves as a great respite for many people seeking refuge from the party vortex of San Juan Del Sur. With an onsite restaurant serving up reasonably priced nightly buffets, great banana/coconut ice cream smoothies, classic hammocks and a palm lined jetty, Hacienda Merida fondly became our favourite place in Nicaragua.
Owner Alberto has implemented both a school to teach the local kids English (as tourism is the islands main basis of income), along with an incentive for the other locals to keep the island pristine. The onsite school has been mostly constructed, walls and footpaths, entirely out of plastic bottles, filled with smaller pieces of plastic trash stuffed into them.
Most of the guides that escort you up the volcano have a prerequisite of a minimum of three of these bottles per shift to work. Alberto also gives the local teenagers an incentive – they will ride their bikes up to 10km to use his WiFi free of charge, so long as they bring a bottle full of plastic trash with them each time. The impact this has had on the surrounding area is really noticeable, compared with the trash strewn hike of Santa Marta volcano in Guatemala. We barely saw a single piece of trash the entire hike.
Touring around the hacienda with the owner and seeing the work in action gives you that warm fuzzy feeling inside, knowing that the hike booked for the next day goes mostly back to the island community.
With itchy feet hanging to don the trekking boots once again, and with a waterfall a five minute (well 15 in Porkchop) drive away, we set out for San Ramon waterfall. With the infrastructure in place to either ride a motorbike, horse or take a ute (truck) taxi midway up, we opted against any of these options, setting out from the entrance gates on foot. Exiting from the upper part after passing both the ticket booth and restaurant (great for some sunset romance with a special one), we find ourselves on an unkept road leading into private farms.
Flanked by Eucalypts tree whose scent instantly evokes memories of home (Australia), Matt takes note to pick some juvenile leaves on the return to brew a ‘Billy Tea’, with Sarah unconvinced about Matt’s recipe of only eucalyptus leaves and hot water (yeah, she’s an Ozzie too!). All species of eucalyptus are endemic to Australia and those seen anywhere else in the world have been transplanted there. There’s some interesting info on how these trees are helping some of Nicaragua’s poorest inhabitants, along with potential environmental impacts here.
Through the avocado and orange trees (don’t get any ideas…there’s loads of signs warning you not to pick them as its private property) the path turns to passable concrete in order to assist vehicles making the journey. From the hydro electrical plant the track narrows through humid forest until you reach the waterfall. Without even trying you’ll most likely see numerous stunning blue and white throated magpie jays and big blue morpho butterflies. A dry season cascade of water spills from 40m above into a clear refreshing basin, begging for you to wash off the sweat and dirt gathered on the hike.
This place just exudes butterflies and rainbows. Walking through the water towards the falls, a miniature full rainbow appears right in front of you, and whilst standing there a blue morpho butterfly the size of an outstretched palm fluttered between Sarah and the falls, solidifying the ethereal vibe of this little oasis. Butterflies and rainbows, what more do you need. Taking lunch whilst enjoying the serenity with only a handful of others present, we basked in the late afternoon warmth of the sun.
Descending with our fresh eucalyptus leaves in hand, that night we organised a tour for the following morning up Volcano Maderas, then withdraw to the van for a brew of Billy Tea.
‘Is this not poisonous?’ enquires Sarah.
‘Hell no!’ comes the answer from Matt ‘unless you’re a Koala in which case you might feel stoned’.
Combining the leaves with a black tea bag (turns out Sarah was also right…in colonial times the leave were used to flavour billy tea, not drunk on their own), the brew is known for such benefits as treating bronchitis and a sore throat. Sipping our tea we watched and waited for yet another savoured sunset to painting the sky in orca shades as it sets westward over the lake.
Nica’s nice, but don’t just take our word for it, check out more photos on Flickr!