Ometepe Island, located in Lake Nicaragua, is a small hourglass-shaped island consisting of two volcanoes- one active, one dormant, and a small isthmus of lowlands connecting them. Full of spirit, natural beauty, and diy goodness. We had heard good things about visiting this interesting geographical wonder, so one day, we decided to put the truck on a ferry and see for ourselves.
The view of Volcan de Maderas across the lake from San Jorge.
The day before we embarked, we ran into this beautiful family of three. We first met Ram, Chandra, and little Ashwin (and Big Birtha, their Westy) while we were in Baja. We had hoped to reconnect at many points in our travels, but it never happened. Randomly, while camping at Lago Appoyo, we spotted their van and decided to hunt them down. It had been six months and five countries later, but we picked up right where we left off! They were game to ferry over to the island with us, so we followed one another to the ferry port, as we radioed back and forth on our walkie talkies.
I am not going to lie- boarding the ferry was the most stressful thing we had done in months. We bought our tickets without any problem, but for some reason, they kept insisting that due to size, our Crystal Starship would need to be the last vehicle to drive onto the boat. We watched countless cars board in front of us as we sat on the side, waiting for the signal. It seemed doubtful that we were going to fit, but the ferry-workers insisted there would be enough space. On our first attempt, we spent a few minutes of reversing and driving forward and wiggling back and forth while people shouted directions in Spanish, and what was apparent to us eventually was conceded by everyone else- there was not enough room on this boat.
So we waited for the next one- actually, the last boat of the day, to see if we had a better shot. The sun was beginning to set already and the mosquitoes were out in force. The same thing happened and we were asked to pull to the side while a myriad of other cars and trucks pulled on in front of us. When it appeared there was no room left, they told us it was our turn. Mark pulled on and angled the truck diagonally. I was watching worriedly from the side with Joey, certain that it was hopeless and we would have to wait until the morning. I could hear the muted sounds of conversation being carried off into the wind and the waves. Suddenly the engine turned off and Mark hopped out.
"What happened," I asked?
"We're on. They said its ok- they don't need to close the gate all the way. They just told me to put the emergency brake on," was something like what Mark told me. Sounds legit, right?
"Ummm... are you kidding?" I asked.
"Not kidding..." Mark said. "It should be ok. I think..."
It was an uncomfortable ride- watching the end of the boat bob up and down with the tide the entire way to the Island, wondering if our tiny little home would slide off unexpectedly into the shark-swimming waters of the massive lake. (Did I mention yet that there are bull sharks in Lake Nicaragua, that enter the freshwater through the San Juan River? Just a sidenote.)
What a test of faith! By nightfall, we had made it and without any life-altering disasters. When we awoke the next day, we were in paradise.
Incredible views of Volcan de Maderas.
We enjoyed a little breakfast-time string jam with the boys.
Swimming and bird-watching.
We spotted monkeys in the trees above, caught frogs, and admired the property-owners orphaned pet deer.
One day, we decided to explore the island (and by that I mean we ate a lot, sampling all the delicious local offerings.) We followed signs leading us to a chocolate beach were we were given the lowdown on making raw-cacao chocolate from the locally-grown beans at El Pital. This was a delightful little eco-friendly camp-resort that was still in the final stages of completion. The chocolate was delicious, the vibes were good, and we were impressed to watch their vision come to fruition.
Keeping things au natural here.
Garden flowers and ice cream shop.
Rainy season was beginning and we started to have the feeling like we were never drying out. Life in the tropics is far from comfortable during this time of year. The heat and rich humidity combine to pretty much suck the life out of any northerner real quick. Also, we started to have moisture issues in our camper around this time too. More of that when we get to Costa Rica next.
But finally, I just want to mention quickly Hacienda Mérida. It is a great location on the southwest side of the lower part of the island. They are accustomed to hosting international backpackers and all proceeds from the guest houses from meals, lodging and canoe rentals go towards a children's school next door. The school is built with recycled and local materials and staffed by caring locals and volunteering teachers from all over the world. This place is really special, one of many heart filled gems we found throughout our travels. Places like this are full of love and make a direct difference in improving their communities. Be sure to stop in there and stay awhile.
We were only a couple weeks into our stay in Nicaragua something very special happened : We were invited to stay in the home of a Nicaraguan family. Opportunities like this don't come around often but when they do, you have to take them- It is a unique chance to be fully immersed in a new culture and language, to see life thru new eyes, and to receive personal guidance directing you to the very best things the country has to offer.
Initially we had met this adorable family of four while we were staying at a sustainable finca near Matagalpa. Their son Santiago and our son Joseph were immediate friends, sharing toys and running thru the coffee plantation making buzzing race car noises and laughing mischievously. They were quite a pair! We shared a delicious lunch and nice conversation with his parents and grandmother, noting how lovely they all were, yet what we were not expecting at all was to have an invitation extended to us to stay with them in their Managua home. Not knowing what to expect, we accepted and looked forward to this chance to spend more time with our new friends.
A few days later, there we were, pulling up to a secured entry gate on the outskirts of Managua, leaving the rest of the city behind. Our hosts welcomed us into their beautiful home and made certain we were comfortable with accommodations far better than we had seen in months: our own room, an air conditioner (?!), a private bathroom (with hot water!), basically our own wing of the house! At first I felt a bit out of place with my dirty hiking boots and messy hair, but a hot shower later, I was beginning to feel like myself again! Joey and Santiago were busily pulling out every toy in the playroom, Mark and Luz were chatting over a cold Toña, and I was admiring the colorfully modern artwork that adorned the walls when suddenly I realized we had been transported to another world- there we were in the heart of Central America yet it could have been easily confused for New York or San Francisco. It was a pleasant surprise from the dirt floors and tin roofs we had become so familiar with. And yet- this is Nicaragua too- a view not often seen from the outside world. It's always refreshing to be able to see beyond the stereotypes of a country (and most likely, we shattered a few of theirs too, when they realized some Americans actually live in the bed of their pick-up truck!)
Over the next seven days, we shared meals and stories, laughter and connection, watching our children play. We were accompanied on one adventure after another as they guided us to some of the best attractions of the region. We were given private tours and treated to upscale meals. They took us under their wing and offered us the best of everything- so excited to share with us the wonders of their country: the homemade gallopinto (a rice and beans dish famous in Nicaragua), the locally grown coffee, the high-quality exported beef, the world-renowned cigars. They were so well-connected that anything we inquired about, they seemingly knew someone in the industry who could give us a behind the scenes look! We had a chance to visit the German academy where Santiago attended pre-school, they gave us a tour of the capital city, Granada, and accompanied us to the markets of Masaya, making sure we got exactly what we were looking for at a fair price. Here are some pictures of a few of our adventures together:
One day, Luz decided to take us on a little afternoon outing while Jaime was at work. First we drove to the Lago Appoyo mirador to take some pictures of the scenic crater lake. There we browsed the rainbow-colored artesianal goods at the market and bought the boys a pair of hand-made wooden guitars, so they could practice together in their flamenco music band. Afterward, Luz took us to one of her favorite restaurants offering traditional Nicaragüense fare for lunch. We enjoyed the simple yet savory cuisine of this region: fried plantains, yucca, gallopinto, fresh homemade cheeses.
Next we headed to Granada, the colonial capital, where Luz gave us a little driving tour through the city. Located beside the largest lake in all of Central America - Lake Nigaragua – the city of Grenada is just a stone's throw away from over 360 small island, known as the Isletas, that were created thousands of years ago when the Volcan de Mombacho errupted, shooting its cone of debris into the lake. Pictured above, you will see a glimpse into our private boat tour of the Isletas, which can only be accessed via water. This was undoubtedly the highlight of the day for the boys, who were jummping in anticipation of our river-boat ride. We enjoyed the rich bird life and, of course, the isolated island of hungry monkeys.
One evening, we decided to do a night-viewing of the active volcano Masaya. For a small fee, it is allowed to enter the national park to view the volcano at night in 15-minute increments. The dark skies allowed us to see the bright bubbling lava as it swirled inside the caldera. I can't quite explain what it was like to stare down into that blazen cavern. Looking within, the Nietche quote from Beyond Good and Evil kept coming to mind, “for when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” Indeed, the chemical gasses eminating from this natural, flaming underworld were beginning to make me dizzy, and I realized WHY there was a 15-minute limit to this viewing!
When the weekend came, Jaime announced that he had a special excursion planned for us. He was planning to introduce us to his cousin, Alfonzo, who owned a large rice farm. We drove to the north side of Lake Nicaragua to meet him. After an amazing lunch at the local steakhouse (one of Nicaragua's top exports is their high-quality beef) we all drove together to see the family business. Alfonzo's father was a rice farmer, and before him, his grandfather. The tradition of rice cultivation had been handed down from generation to generation, and from it, the family had earned their good fortune.
This was our first time ever seeing a rice plantation, and given how much rice we eat, it was very interesting to us! We love learning about where our food comes from, how it is produced, by whom, and the industry behind it. We had a chance to see every stage of production, from when the seeds are planted, to how the grains are harvested, and afterward burned to maintain the mineral content of the soil, and lastly, leveled with a laser before the seeds are re-planted. It was a very informative process and we were happy to learn more about another aspect of Nicaragua's industry. Alfonzo was jovial and welcoming, so sincerely happy to be sharing with us his family legacy.
After a week with our amazing hosts, we reluctantly knew it was time for us to move on if we were to meet our deadline in Costa Rica. Jaime and Luz seemed genuinely sad to see us go, offering “One more week, please, we have so much more we want to show you!” We promised we would see them again- maybe in Nicaragua, or maybe somewhere else in the world, when we would have an opportunity to return their kindness and host them in our own home.
Before we left, they had one last very quirky surprise for us, one that we will never forget- as we were about to head out the door, they started to play Bon Jovi on the highest volume- “Never say Goodbye.” The whole family started dancing and singing along. Jaime had a lighter ignited over his head and everyone was laughing as they sang. We were tickled. What a way to say goodbye. Our new friends will forever be in our hearts. Their humor, their generosity, and their sincerity will not be forgotten.
If there is one lesson we learned along this whole journey, it was shown to us by these beautiful new friends- that no matter how different we may have been or how totally foreign, there is always room for friendship, hospitality, sponatneity. It isn't every day a total stranger puts their life on hold to invite a new person (people) into their life, into their private home, without any assumptions or judgement or suspicion, to be treated like a member of their own family. Jaime, Luz, Valeria, and Santiago- we look forward to the day we see all four of you again!