Saturday, October 13, 2012

Nica/Tica 2012 part 3/3: Nicaragua

Conscious of the fact that Costa Rica is not really representative of Central America in general, we decided to spend a few days in Nicaragua. Although the distance between Liberia and our destination in Nicaragua was only about 55 miles as the vulture flies it took us a fairly harrowing complete day to get there. 

First, we took a bus up to the border, which is essentially a chaotic mishmash of vendors and scalpers and official offices arrayed haphazardly around a full mile of dusty road. There are no signs, the Nicaraguan officials don't regularly wear uniforms [and some of the unofficials do], and there's no order whatsoever. We were exhausted from carrying all our luggage through the area, nearly heat-stroked and a bit frantic with confusion. But at the same time we knew we finally had a chance to see some non-sanitized Central America, which is what we wanted.

We finally just paid a random impatient Nicaraguan teenager to just show us the ropes. He took us to the fee booths, customs, inspections, etc. There's no way we could have done that without him; the customs building, for example, was an unmarked and decrepit old building hidden behind a giant opaque fence. Anyway, you get the picture--it was chaos. And we proudly made it through. 

We took a taxi straight from the border San Jorge, on the coast of Lake Nicaragua, where we bought tickets for the "Ferry Che" [complete with the iconic mural] which would take us to Ometepe.

Here's a map centered on Ometepe. It is made up of two large volcanoes connected by a very low shoulder. Ferry Che slowly motored us to Moyogalpa, a nifty little town with considerable backpacker influence, on the northwestern edge of the island. We proceeded by 4x4 taxi over a formidably rutted dirt/mud road all the way to the southern edge of the island, near the tiny town of San Ramon.

View Larger Map

Ferry Che, with Ometepe in the background. 

Near San Ramon is a strange facility operated by the Maderas Rainforest Conservancy. It's a field school for biologists and a laboratory for field studies, mostly for primate researchers. They own a large tract of intact rainforest butting up against Volcan Maderas and up to the high cloud forest. We stayed for three nights and saw basically nobody there--occasionally running across staff and once a researcher. Otherwise we seemed to have the whole facility to ourselves besides the occasional backpacker walking through.

Behind the facility is a a dirt track/trail that leads up toward a well-known waterfall on the volcano. Somehow this waterfall has become a mainstay on the Central American backpacker's trail. So even though we were at the most remote location of the whole trip, we saw more foreign [Canadian and French, mostly] travelers here than the rest of the trip combined by at least a factor of three. We started up in the late-morning blistering heat:

The trail was marked as 4km long, and was actually a pretty grueling hike, especially for Littler. Eventually a Nicaraguan guide who saw us picked Littler up and carried her the last few hundred steep meters.

It's hard to overstate the contrast between the suffocating heat of the trail and the downright chilly shade of the waterfall:

So there we were, playing around in the waterfall and enjoying ourselves. We heard a loud group of backpackers come near us on the trail. It turned out to be a large group of twentysomething deeply-tanned athletic Australian guys. They were loudly congratulating themselves about how awesome they were for climbing all the way up. Lots of machismo and back-slapping, which quickly turned a bit chagrined when they turned the corner and saw our kids. [what they didn't know was that we walked from the very bottom and they drove half-way up. That fact alone might have ruined their entire day].

A small group of white-collared swifts played endlessly in the upper reaches of the waterfall. It was hard to escape the impression that they were just having a blast:

We stayed for several hours before reluctantly heading back down. We lucked out and saw a Senticolis triapsis [green rat snake] foraging in the canopy above us. Although not a terribly rare snake in the neotropics it ended up being the first record on Ometepe and one of only a handful officially recorded in an arboreal habitat.

By this point we were pretty much completely out of Nicaraguan money [cordobas]. We hadn't trusted the currency hustlers at the border and we were an hour by 4x4 taxi from the nearest bank. On the way down from the volcano we persuaded a New Brunswickian and a Quebecois to exchange some of our Costa Rican colones for their cordobas at a rate favorable to them. This is the only way we managed to eat for the next couple days and make it back to Costa Rica. It probably would have been a good idea to just take the exchange rate at the border...

We found a small pulperia run out of a rural house about 1km from our place. We ate multiple meals there a day throughout our stay and became quite familiar with the family. Littler and Bud chased chickens in and out of the house, played in the hammock and generally got into lots of wild mischief. Here's what we normally had:

Desayuno: Eggs laid that morning, beans/rice and 3 preparations of plantain.
Cena: Fried chicken, beans/rice and 4 preparations of plantain.

The chicken was often little fatty corners, giblets, etc. All vegetables and animal products were directly from their garden and animals. It wasn't high cuisine but there was something very right about it.

Little had a quite loose tooth that she was determined to lose in Nicaragua:

We walked out to a secluded spot along Lake Nicaragua and played around in the water for a bit. This is just what we do.

The faint white towers on the far shore is the Amayo wind farm, the largest wind power facility in Central America.

Back at our favorite little pulperia.

The walk from the pulperia back to our place.

We walked this stretch of road many times and it always made us feel spectacularly out of place, but also in a fascinating alternate universe [not to mention a little freaked out by walking past the single mansion with fortifications in true Latin-American strongman style]. This is literally the only road on the whole half of the island and vehicles come by maybe once every 30 minutes. Pigs wallow in puddles in the street. Chickens, goats, dogs and horses have free reign over everything. About those horses...

[First bear in mind that the nearest hospital was probably 3-4 hours of travel away from us]

On one particular night [the one previous to the picture above, but in that exact location] there were a couple of run-down looking horses wandering around tied to each other side-by-side. As we walked slowly, we started to hear hooves coming up behind us. We quickly realized that the tied-up horses were heading straight for Littler from behind. We shouted, but Mommy was too far away and Daddy had Bud on his shoulders, so all we could do was watch as the following scene happened in an agonizingly slow moment:

The horses didn't deviate from their path as they bore down on Littler from behind. One horse lifted its hoof and kneed Littler in the back in-stride. She sprawled out onto the ground and rolled face-up. The next hoof came down straight for her face. As it neared her, it appeared to hitch a little bit, catching her on the temple instead. This contact had enough force to push her face out of the way and the hoof landed on dirt.

But that was just the first two hooves. The horses continued at a steady trot directly over our little girl as she had limbs sprawled out all over the place. The next hoof appeared aimed at her arm but similarly seemed to bat it out of the way at the last moment. The last hoof found a single footprint-sized hole in the array of body parts and utilized it.

Little had a single moment of pure terror looking up at the giants bearing down on her, one second of confusion, one minute of tears and then she was good to go. Totally pumped up and ready to roll with life. She had a few scrapes and bruises but that's it. It still boggles our mind that she got out of that without unspeakable consequences.

Our last night, you'd think we'd be absolutely beat. We were, but...

This is the night Little literally tore her tooth out. She had to do it in Nicaragua, but she didn't trust the Nicaraguan tooth fairy [maybe she wasn't a big fan of the current exchange rate?], so she kept her tooth until we got home.

Our last day was just travel back to Liberia. We took a moment to explore around a preserved lagoon, but Littler wasn't too enthused about it:

Budsto peeking out of the upper deck of the Ferry Che.

This sequence needs explanation. Putting back to shore on the Ferry Che, we were broiling and tired, and Little was pretty lethargic. Then she started talking with Mommy about something. And she got super animated. And demonstrative. And enthusiastic. Daddy took about 40 pictures of this exchange but he could have taken 4000--Little was engrossed for almost the entire trip. What is she describing here?

She's instructing Mommy exactly how to make the ice cream cake they would make together when they got home. Sweet Little gets excited by nothing more than the promise of excellent food!

Here's Little's account of the trip, written on our last day at Ometepe [translation below]:

[Ella: A note from Estacion Biologico de Ometepe, Nicaragua. 20 June 2012]
La Selva: We found a caiman and his name was Raymond.  Me and Dad got to hold a frog. I found a really cool bird at night with his eye shine. it's a paurauque. We found lots of cane toads! We saw lots of frogs there mating they are red eyed tree frogs.
Tortuguero:  I [went] zip lining. I also got to go on a big swing. I got to go on lots of boats. I saw cool things on those boats. I saw more caimans and we even saw a crocodile. I made Mount Everest.
Ometepe: We did a long hike to a water fall. I went swimming in Lake Nicaragua. They make yummy food!
From Ella.

Couldn't have said it better ourselves.

We deeply loved our time in Nicaragua, but decided that it was probably not a place to bring the girls regularly [horses notwithstanding]. Daddy got perspective of this one night when we were at the pulperia. He went a couple hundred meters away to take pictures, on the far side of the road from the rest of the family. A flatbed farm truck drove slowly between, overloaded with restless local youth yelling slogans and chants over a loudspeaker and looking like they owned the place. They didn't bother us, but it reminded Daddy of the thin line between tranquility and chaos in a place with the political history of rural Nicaragua where security is nonexistent.

Otherwise, the greatest gift Nicaragua gave us was an intimate feeling for life in a place radically removed from our own life. Subsistence living, genuine but stable poverty. Groundskeepers who use machetes to mow the lawn. Plus... we saw a pair of bat falcons careening over the road one night--that is certainly not something we see at home every day!

This trip had a very different color than our 2009 Costa Rica trip. It was much less... momentous. This time the busing, taxis, food ordering, etc. were just so much less intimidating. We were more relaxed overall but still more productive. Certainly some of the magic of novelty was missing, but it's an inherently magical place and we loved it. It was especially sweet to see the girls gaining experiences that they'll actually remember. Both girls come up with random surprising details from this trip that we doubt will ever fade completely.