Once across the Costa Rican border and into Nicaragua, we could feel that prickle of excitement that comes with a new, unexplored country. The roads were dustier than in Costa Rica, the countryside drier, the people browner. Old American school buses, straight out of The Simpsons, but patterned with clashingly bright colours and pasted with religious verses and pictures, ferried the population between towns, groaning and bulging with crowds of locals. We climbed aboard one of these ancient specimens and made our way into the city of Granada, and from there we searched for the hotel that my mum had mentioned in an email. We found it only one block from the main plaza, a beautiful ochre colonial building arranged around a small courtyard filled with a paddling-pool sized swimming pool and outdoor kitchen.
The next day was spent waiting in the thick, burning heat, until darkness fell and a taxi picked us up. An hour later, we were stood in the arrivals area of the airport. I was so excited that I could barely keep still and instead leapt about, much to the confused amusement of other people waiting around us. After only a few minutes, mum and dad came through the doors, wheeling their luggage and looking around for familiar faces. Our reunion hug carried the weight of several months apart.
The day after my parents arrived, they handed me several notes from Jo, my sister. They had me laughing, and nearly crying too, and culminated in the unwrapping of Substitute Jo: two photos of her face in a protective plastic folder attached to a length of string, so that I could wear her around my neck wherever I went and include her in family photos. This may sound embarrassing to some of you, but I wore Substitute Jo with pride, hardly noticing the strange looks, and took her with us everywhere.
As we soon found out, Nicaragua is the land of volcanoes. The first ten days of the holiday with my mum and dad were a series of episodic experiences as we moved between a few of these, and so I present you with: The Volcano Series.
Episode One: Ometepe
We left the city of Granada and arrived at the shores of Lake Nicaragua. Each clutching a small sandwich bag of orange juice freshly squeezed from a roadside cart, we boarded a ferry and headed for the island of Ometepe. As we glided towards it, its topography struck me; two volcanoes rose out of the water. Both volcanoes were conical, and the larger was still active, a column of smoke forming into clouds above its peak. When I opened the guidebook to look at a map of the island, I realised that it was a figure of eight shape, with the entire 30,000 people of its population living in a series of towns and villages around the narrow base of the volcanoes.
When we arrived on Ometepe, a taxi drove us around the base of the northern, active volcano and crossed to the base of the southern volcano. Because we were travelling with mum and dad, we guessed that the luxury level would be upped a bit in comparison to our usual backpacker standards, and on Ometepe this came in the form of Finka del Sol, an Eco farm. Sam and I were led to a round adobe cabin, painted yellow and with a thatched roof. A short way up the path, mum and dad were looking around their own blue cabin. We were shown how the compost toilets worked (scoops of rice husks acted as a substitute or flushing, surprisingly it worked a treat!), informed that the water dispenser was filled from a volcano spring, and told that as it was sunny at the moment, there was plenty of solar-powered electricity to go round. We went on a wander around the small farm, through a fenced off area for goats and sheep, kept to make cheese, where we ran into a passing troupe of howler monkeys, and up to the breakfast spot, next to the owners’ own, larger, adobe cabin and separate kitchen hut, where hummingbirds flitted between large red hibiscus blooms and blue jays called out to each other with a distinctive warbled call.
Whilst mum and dad got over their jet lag and let the hustle and bustle of their working lives drift away, we had a few lazy days. Not that we had any other alternative: the heat was overpowering, almost unbearable. By only ten o’clock each morning it was at least 35°C, and I don’t want to know what temperatures it reached by the middle of the day. It was all we could do to sit still and breathe in the heat. We managed to make it down to the nearby sandy beach a couple of times and drift about in the cooling waters of the lake. It was an odd sight to see horses drinking from the shores of what otherwise looked like the seaside. We had an unpleasant incident during our second beach session: in the time between dad getting into the water and Sam and I getting out and walking towards our bags, someone managed to pull dad’s backpack behind a rock and take his iPhone and iPod. Sam and I must have unwittingly disturbed the thief(s) before they could strip away everything, because they also took odd small items like sun cream and a penknife, but hadn’t yet got to a couple of other valuable items, including Sam’s DSLR camera sat among our stuff. All things considered, we were lucky really.
After a couple of days, we arranged to go for a walk through the cloud forest which ascended up Maderas, the southern volcano. As I prepared for the walk, I pulled on my right walking shoe and felt a searing needle of pain pierce through my right big toe. Ripping off my shoe, I began howling with pain as I gripped my big toe, completely unaware that my face was streaming with tears. I should say that the culprit who delivered the sting, a scorpion, was not a lethal species and I didn’t need medical attention. It was, however, bloody excruciating. I sat there, unaware of the ghastly sound I was making, clutching my toe for a good half an hour, until the pain began to subside and I could just about walk on it. I managed to get a look at the translucent brown creature when I extracted it from my shoe and released it into the grass and, despite the pain it had caused me, had to admit it was pretty damn cool, even its long, mean sting. Unsurprisingly, I had to skip the walk. Sam, mum and dad came back with reports of another encounter with howler monkeys as well as a sighting of white faced capuchin monkeys. I meanwhile spent the morning interspersing my writing with two minute showers, followed by drip drying, a feeble attempt to cope with the heat of the oven that the world had become.
Episode Two: Mombacho
After several days unwinding and cooking in the heat of Ometepe island, we crossed the lake back to the mainland and returned to Granada for a few days. Episode Two of the Volcano Series featured Mombacho, and began with a short taxi ride out of the city. We were dropped off in the car park at the base, and driven up the side of the volcano in a huge 4×4 truck, to the visitor centre, where we realised that the whole volcano was privately owned by an award winning coffee company, and that the research centre had been partly, funded by the British government.
From the centre, we set out along a trail through the cloud forest, circling one of the craters. We were led by a guide, who chatted to us about the ecosystem whilst pointing out its flora and fauna, such as the spikey bromeliad plants growing along the branches and in the nooks of certain trees, or the Monkey tail fern, the tallest fern in the world. We paused at a number of wooden platforms to peer through the trees and across the crater, which was thickly draped in a layer of tumbling green foliage. Midway along the route, we emerged in grassy meadows filled with a number of bright orchids species, with stunning views across Granada, Lake Nicaragua, and Las Islas, hundreds of tiny islands scattered like fragments into the huge lake. A small path to one side led to a steam vent, where hot sulphurous steam from the neighbouring active crater rose out of the grassy vegetation, steaming up dad’s glasses. Near the end of the circuit, our guide spotted a two-toed sloth up in a tree, languorously turning its head from side to side as it chomped on leaves.
As we sat waiting for the next 4×4 to take us back down the volcano, our guide came running to tell us that she had found several red-eyed tree frogs around a small pond behind the visitor centre. We excitedly followed to have a look, and found several of these beautiful creatures, vivid green with bright red eyes. The males had blue patterns on their hind legs which could only been seen if they stretched or jumped. We hung around watching them until the next 4×4 arrived.
Episode Three: Masaya
Towards the end of the first week of mum and dad’s holiday, both mum and Sam became quite ill, so we took things slowly for a day or so, and when we went for Volcano Round Three, we took the easier option and hired a taxi for the day.
Hector, our taxi driver, began by driving us to El Coyotepe Fort, on the edge of the Masaya Volcano calderas. The watchtowers at each corner of the structure gave us great views across to the peak of Masaya volcano as well as across the town of Masaya, built in the basin.
Though the fort was built in the 1890s, its history was overshadowed by its later use. From 1944-79, while Nicaragua was under the dictatorial regime of the Somoza family, the fort as adapted, with several underground floors built so that it could be used as a prison and torture camp. Hector led us around three underground floors of concrete cells, faint blood stains on the walls of the torture rooms still discernible and words and phrases scratched into the walls, such as ‘only Jesus Christ can save me now’. Bats now inhabited the deserted cells and flitted around our heads as we walked through the prison. The place left me sombre and quiet for a while, as we drove away and towards the peaks of Masaya.
We began at the Masaya Visitor Centre. There were a number of interesting aerial models of the site, as well as Nicaragua as a whole, which put into perspective the two chains of volcanoes strung across the country. We then drove up to one of the four craters. It was an active crater, belching out a thick haze of sulphurous fumes. These were so strong that visitors were only allowed to stay up there for ten minutes each, and even then, we spent most of that time madly coughing as we stared down into the thick white steam. The sides descended into the shifting haze but the bottom of the crater wasn’t visible.
After visiting the peak, we drove into the town of Masaya, and wandered a large market of local artisan crafts, then headed to a viewpoint close by which looked down across Lake Apoyo. With a depth of three hundred metres, it is the deepest lake in Central America, a vivid circle of blue, held in the bowl of several mountainous peaks.
To round off our tour of the Masaya Volcano area, we stopped by San Juan de Oriente, a village known for its handmade pottery. We climbed down some concrete steps and found ourselves in a smoky, dark workshop. In one corner a fire blazed away, heating a kiln. Besides a wooden table littered with pots of bright paint, a woman carefully drew a design onto a large bowl. Upstairs, the shop was stocked with many beautiful pieces; vases, bowls, and pots glazed with different colours, intricate patterns carved into their surface depicting local people and animals.
Nicaragua threw a fair few challenges our way those first ten days, ranging from a robbery on the beach to a scorpion sting, from two people struck down ill to a mini flood in our hotel (the rainy season started one night and was intent on proving to us exactly how it got its name). But as we travelled between the volcanoes, the country slowly began to draw me in and intoxicate me, with its landscape, its people, its rougher, unpolished feel, its complications and clamour.