Leaving Honduras for Nicaragua was another exercise in, ‘Let’s just keep going and see how far we can get’. We were aiming for Somoto, a small town in the north of the country that apparently had an exciting canyon close by. The problem with not knowing where you’re going to end up, is that you can’t prepare anything: accommodation, activity, nothing. You have to play it by ear and do it all if and when you arrive. Thankfully, our 6am start from Honduras paid off and we made it to the border via two buses, and two more got us all the way to Somoto where we bumped into (were approached by) an English speaking guy who had a hostel. Sorted.
The hostel was a bit rough and ready to say the least, but it was cheap (very) and it also organised tours to the canyon, so rather than shop around, we decided to just go with it and book through them for the following day. Sometimes saving time and hassle is more important than saving one or two dollars.
The canyon trip was a lot of fun. There was just four of us from the hostel in the group with our guide and we didn’t see anybody else apart from the occasional local all day who were either washing clothes in the river or driving cattle.
So, onwards, into the canyon. ‘Canyoning’ effectively involves travelling the length of a given canyon by hiking, wading, floating, swimming and jumping – the latter being my favourite of course. I love jumping from things into water, be it boats, docks or, in this case, rocks. We’d had a little taste at the Rio Cangrejal as part of the rafting trip, leaping from a six metre rock into the river below. The briefing for this trip had involved a description of a variety of jumps we were to do, with one in particular being a ‘variable height’ jump ranging anywhere from one metre to eighteen. ‘I’ll be going off the very top, clearly,’ said a little voice in my head … but I luckily kept that little piece of bravado to myself.
We began steadily from the top of the canyon, wading and hiking as the walls of rock around us ever so steadily grew in height and narrowed in width. Before long we found ourselves navigating narrow sections where the only option was to jump in fully and float downstream. There was nothing too high to jump from though. Not yet, anyway.
After a couple of hours, we came to a break in the rock where a second river joined the one we were following. We paused here for a short rest, before heading down into the canyon proper. Soon we were climbing up the rocky side walls only to leap into the deep water below from seemingly ever increasing heights. I was all good until we reached an eight metre jump that, from the top, just looked crazy. The walls of the canyon were sheer and very close together, meaning that the water was deep but your margin for error in terms of where you landed was disconcertingly small. Still, after some deliberation with myself, I managed to jump it. (Helena had done it with relatively little fuss; it was only me who was beginning to find this a challenge it seemed).
But then we reached the bit I’d been waiting for, the 18 metre jumping spot. It was a reasonably climb-able rock face that had different spots from where you could leap into the water below. The problem with the very top, was that if you climbed up to that point, it was nigh on impossible to climb back down. The only way down was to jump off. By this point, however, this was of no concern to me as there was no way on the planet I was going up that far. I was going to attempt the jump from ten, but even that looked insanely high.
I had the GoPro with me, and I have a full sixty second video that I took at the top that shows me psyching myself up and repeatedly bottling it, before finally leaping off. I then yell out as I fall through the air for a couple of seconds before hitting the water. Smooth, very smooth! It was awesome though and the video is an amusing little insight into the psychology of fear.
Before long, we were nearing the end of the canyon. The walls receded to reveal a beautiful valley, from where we only had a short walk until our lunch stop. Then it was back to Somoto to figure out our onward travel.
Granada was supposed to be a picturesque city worth a visit; the Isla de Ometepe – an island formed of two connected volcanoes in the middle of the giant Lake Nicaragua – was also a must-see place; and then the coastal town of San Juan del Sur would offer us the chance to do a bit of surfing.
Granada was indeed a very aesthetically pleasing place, with its miriad of churches and plazas, interspersed with cute coffee shops and chic cafes. It’s certainly an easy place to hang around for a few days if you’re visiting Nicaragua. We met a nice crowd of people in the hostel and enjoyed the occasional dinner and coffee with them. For us, though, we were beginning to exhaust our energy for wandering the streets of colonial towns and cities (we’d spent a long time on this in Antigua, Guatemala) and were keen for something new. So once we’d visited the main plaza, climbed the famous bell tower to see views across the city, and had a wander around the local cemetery, it was time to go.
Dicing with death. Again!
Isla de Ometepe is fairly obviously only reachable by boat. When we arrived at the dock, the boat was apparently departing imminently, and so we were ushered aboard very quickly, told to drop our bags, and head downstairs. At the time, we were happy to have caught the boat, but getting on in such haste we didn’t notice a few key things: 1 – the boat was very small, very old, and very wooden; 2 – it had about ten motorbikes on top of it; 3 – it had about a hundred and fifty people stuffed into the bottom of it. We made it a hundred and fifty two as the crew member locked the door behind us.
Now, I’m generally not one to get nervous on public transport – we’d been on all sorts of crazy boats, bikes and buses before now – but there was something very bad about this trip. As we headed out onto the lake, it became immediately apparent that we were massively overloaded, and this was not going to be a short experience. We were moving depressingly slowly and the further away we got from the shore, the more the waves kicked up, rocking the boat in an ever increasing arc from left to right. And it showed no signs of getting better any time soon.
Then the water started coming in; and no, I’m not exaggerating. As the waves collided with the side of the hull, water would either splash through the windows (which were just holes in the side of the boat) or seep its way in between the no longer waterproof seals in the fabric of this vessel of doom.
‘That’s it, we’re all going to die,’ I said aloud, except I didn’t say it to Helena as we had ended up standing in different places (yes it was standing room only down there). This became the rather unfortunate conversation opener with a Canadian couple who ended up listening to my rambling nonsense all the way across the lake. ‘I’m not normally like this, honestly,’ I was saying, ‘It’s just that I can’t see any way this thing is going to stay afloat,’ and then proceeded to analyse in depth potential escape routes and viability of swimming back to shore. At which point would it be quicker to swim onwards to the island?
I’d like to say that it was one of those ‘mock fear’ moments, but it wasn’t. I was petrified.
With our feet back on dry land, and a resolve firmly put in place that we would not be returning to shore aboard the same boat, we ventured inland to find some accommodation.
Ometepe is mentioned as a ‘not to be missed’ highlight in the guide book, but I’m going to be honest here, we initially couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about. Myogalpa, the main town, was a pleasant but not particularly exciting place and we were left wondering, if we weren’t going to climb the volcanoes – which neither of us were particularly keen to do – what were we going to do? The only option seemed to be to get hold of some wheels – it was motorbike time!
Myogalpa’s streets are lined with companies hiring scooters and motorbikes, so after a short shop around, we settled on one that looked to have good quality bikes. The thing about Ometepe is that to explore it fully, you really need an off-road bike (rather than a scooter) as only about half of the island’s roads are paved.
So there we were, outside the bike hire place. Helena was pointing at the scooter and I was stood looking excitedly (like a small child with a new toy) at the much larger, much faster, more versatile, more everything, off-road bike. Having convinced Helena that, ‘No, there’s no way we can manage on a scooter’ and ‘Yes, of course I know how to ride a motorbike with gears,’ I was left explaining to the bike hire man (in Spanglish) that I’d like the bike, but I’d also like a lesson…
‘No problem,’ he said, and off we went to the local baseball pitch where he explained and demonstrated the clutch and gears to me (also in Spanglish) before letting me have a go. It wasn’t that hard really – he said I was a very good student – and so, after returning to pick up Hels, we were off!
We love it when we have our own transport; it just opens up a place to exploration. And that’s what we did, explore the various sights around Ometepe’s figure of eight shaped coastal road. The bottom half of the island was the most fun though, as the roads give way to rocky dirt tracks where the bike really came into its own. The afternoon flew past and suddenly we realised the sun was rapidly dropping out of the sky; it was time to head home. So the last bit of our exploration was spent racing the light to get the bike back in time. Despite my best efforts, the light beat us, but only just, and we dropped the bike back off in the dark.
The boat back!
I’m only going to write one short paragraph about this. We had resolved not to return on the same boat, but we had no choice. It was the only one going at the time we needed. So we reluctantly climbed aboard, took a few ‘Ooh look, isn’t this funny‘ selfies before departure, thinking that it couldn’t be worse than the trip over, surely?
But it was worse. Much worse.
This time, the boat was listing to the right from the outset, so that out of the right windows you could see only lake, and out of the left, only sky. The wind and waves were coming from the left too, so the boat just kept tipping further and further towards the right side. I genuinely thought it was going to spin over. At one point, a big scream went up from the locals as the boat pitched terribly. You know you’re in trouble when the locals are scared. It was horrendous.
Surf’s up in San Juan
We did survive, though. Clearly. And perhaps I was being a bit melodramatic… But, there is one thing for sure – I will not be returning to Ometepe any time soon. San Juan del Sur was our post-traumatic stress reducing destination. Famed as a surf town, Helena and I were keen to have another go at surfing as our efforts in Bali had been miserable bordering on dangerous and we didn’t get the chance in Australia because it was too cold.
I’m happy to report – surfing was a great success! We got lessons – a critical factor in enjoying getting into surfing it seems – and spent a fabulous day at Playa Marsella messing about in the surf with our gigantic beginner boards. It’s so tiring though! From the beach, it just looks like a lot of sitting around on your surfboard, waiting for a particular sort of wave to come so that you can enjoy a few seconds of standing up before inevitably falling off again. In reality, there is a lot of paddling involved, a lot of getting smashed in the face by huge waves that you didn’t spot, and a lot of lying face down on the surfboard which leaves your abs feeling like they’ve been used as Rocky’s punchbag.
We did enjoy it though – we finally understood a little of the charm as both Hels and I managed to catch the occasional wave independently, and stand up, riding the surf like a pair of pros. We did our best to get some decent photos, but were obviously much too busy being amazing. Plus, the GoPro battery ran out.
So, that was Nicaragua – exciting, adventurous, culturally engaging and completely terrifying in equal measure. Wonderful!