Magpies and Magic: Isla de Ometepe

We arrived back in San Carlos when it was still quite early in the morning, and our first order of business was to find an ATM and a place to have a filling breakfast.  Once we were fed, we wandered around the town and market a bit before heading to the dock ticket office to secure our tickets for the ferry to Ometepe.  The boat itself did not leave until about 2 pm and was scheduled to arrive on the island at about midnight. Everything went according to schedule for the first four hours…and then, while docked at a village to drop off and pick up passengers…we started to hear loud clanging sounds from the engine room.  Something, apparently, was broken down and the next five hours were spent with varying sounds of banging and hammering as the crew tried to fix it.  Eventually, we were again underway, this time under the blinding light of the full moon, and we pulled into our stop of Altagracia at about 5am.  Most of us younger backpackers on the boat banded together to get a taxi into town and found a place that was open and serving breakfast by 7am.

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Later that morning, we found a bus that was heading the way we needed to go and off we went on a rattling, rambling trip out to the end of the pavement.  We still had to walk a kilometer uphill to reach our destination: Finca Magdalena.  The coffee plantation is more than a hundred years old, and the old hacienda has been converted into very basic hostel rooms that host a plethora of hippies and artists…and us.  From the sweeping porch, there is a fantastic view of the gardens and Volcan Concepcion in the distance.  Everywhere we looked, there were these fabulous blue birds with two feathers sticking straight up from their heads.  They proved to be the local magpie species and the unofficial mascot of the island.  We spotted many as we explored the national park that backs up against the finca each day.

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On our first expedition, we followed the signs for the petroglyphs and discovered little pockets of the carvings all along the path.  Some are over 2300 years old.  As the story goes, a shaman of the Nahuatl in Mexico had a vision of a paradise…and island with two hills surrounded by water.  They made their way south and knew this was the place the moment they laid eyes on it. It was a mystical place ever since, with many petroglyphs like these found all over the island.  We followed the path out into the plantain plantations and into the rugged fields before turning back to the hacienda for the day.

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On our second expedition up into the rainforest on the sides of Volcan Maderas, we decided to hike halfway to the crater, after hearing that there was a fabulous lookout there and it didn’t require a guide to get to that point.  The path led through thick patches of trees…cacao, bamboo, and the wild species flourishing.  We spotted a milk snake, a speckled racer, and a huge troop of howler monkeys passed right over our heads as we were sitting having a rest.  Halfway up, we reached the lookout that provided a view of Concepcion, the lake spreading ahead, and the sweep of forests and towns working their way up the volcanoes’ sides.  With the shifting cloud cap over Concepcion and the shimmering blue of the lake, we could see why this place was seen as a magical paradise.

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Each day, following our morning explorations, we would have a nice siesta in our room before descending down to the main road for a walk around the local villages below.  It was easy to find paths down to the lakeshore and admire the fishing boats and rough beaches on this side of the island.  Passing through the villages, we were treated to encounters with women selling tamales from buckets, speckled pigs running to and fro, and the islanders living in their natural rhythm.  Colorful houses and gardens lined the side lanes, and various eco-hostels and wifi-touting restaurants lined the main road, trying to lure in the growing number of visitors.

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After three nights in the hacienda, we packed our bags and made our way down to the road.  While waiting for the bus, we were passed by…hundreds of runners!  Once a year, a famous endurance race takes runners up and over both the volcanoes and all around the island…and it just happened that we were sitting at the bus stop at the right time on the right day of the year to see them pass by.  Our bus finally came, and we rode to Santo Domingo, the village famous for its beaches.  Except, due to the race, all the rooms were booked!  We walked a couple kilometers along the road to the Ojo de Agua (the Eye of Water), where we laid down our bags and changed into swimsuits for a refreshing swim in the natural pool.  There were plenty of coconuts to drink and plenty of shady spots along the water’s edge to loll and sip at them.

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After drying off and changing, we walked back out to the road, feeling much less grimy and sweaty, and flagged down a collective van that took us back to Altagracia, where we hopped a bus to the island’s largest town, Moyagalpa.  At the foot of looming Concepcion, the town bustles with locals and tourists.  We had only a couple hours of daylight to wander around the streets and see the sights, but we were charmed by the colorful and friendly vibe here.  The smell of barbecue led us down an alley to a local restaurant where the owners looked very surprised to see us come in.  They were even more surprised when I described what I wanted for my dinner, but they were very accommodating.  Thus fed, we headed back to our little hotel for showers and an early night.  We were aiming to take the 6am ferry over to the mainland, so we definitely had to get to bed.  Boarding the ferry the next morning, we saw racers from the event and several locals heading to the mainland for work…but our attention was completely riveted by the spectacular sunrise coming up behind Ometepe as we chugged away.  With the shifting cloud caps on both volcanoes lit up with the dawn, it really did look like a magic island.

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Upon landing, we caught a taxi, then a bus for the short trip to Granada, one of Nicaragua’s fabulous colonial cities.

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