San Jose, Costa Rica
None of our trips are complete without Jeremy getting bitten on the neck by some wierd tropical insect. And who knew cute furry caterpillars could abseil from trees, land on your shoulder and sting you?
As I watched the inch-wide rash blistering and swelling before my eyes, I calmly suggested he sat down and stayed still while I kept an eye on him. Inside I was wondering how quickly one might get to a hospital from an island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. We described the perpetrator to someone who worked at the finca we were camping in, and luckily were told it was not dangerous. Another crisis averted.
Given recent events, the fact that a mildly aggressive caterpillar is the worst thing we can report from the last two weeks says something about the blissful time we had in Nicaragua. As well as being many other fabulous things, it is camping heaven. Just the tonic we needed after so long without the van.
When leaving Honduras, bound for Nicaragua, we whizzed through the border in record speed. As we signed the last piece of paperwork the Nicaraguan customs officer high-fived me.
‘Yep, I’m going to like this country’, I thought.
Western Nicaragua is pretty much a massive ticking time-bomb of fuming volcanoes. So first stop was the ‘ring of fire’ – an area with a chain of 12 active volcanoes. We drove along an impossibly straight and flat road with the most sublime view of the volcanoes ahead.
In the tiny village of San Jacinto, we’d hoped that the hotel there might have room for camping, but it looked closed. We were just dilly-dallying about, wondering what to do, when we noticed lots of people waving and pointing towards what looked like the end of a dead-end street. “What are they waving at? They don’t even know what it is we’re looking for,” huffed Jeremy (and I mean huffed!).
Wrong. As we drove slowly towards them, nestled in the corner just before the end of the street was the most perfect little shaded campground, called Rancho Las Hamacas. It had a platform overlooking natural bubbling mud pools, sulphurous steam rising from them against a background of two spectacular volcanoes.
We climbed the very active Volcan Telica the next day – a fairly tough three-hour hike up that ended with peering over the rim of the steaming crater and listening to the monstrous grumbling below. Eek.
With aching muscles, we set off the next day to the left-wing city of Leon, a key hub of Sandinista support, and to the tiny museum of ‘heroes and martyrs’, which is maintained by a committee of mothers whose children were killed during the conflict in the 1970s and 80s. The town is also peppered with feisty political murals and memorials.
On the way out of the city we were pulled over by the police for driving the wrong way down a one-way street. After much discussion and pointing it looked liked we were going to get away with it, but one of the officers kept leaning in the window and mumbling something about buying a drink. I didn’t even have to play the dumb foreigner – I really didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. I said, “I don’t want a drink, thank you’” and we drove off. As we did so Jeremy said: “He was drunk, he wanted us to buy him a drink!” Oh.
And that comedy of errors was the closest we’ve come to being asked to bribe a police officer in 9 months of driving through Mexico and Central America.
A few miles down the road we camped behind a hotel on the Pacific at Las Peñitas, and ate fresh fish with coconut, and the best fries we have encountered in a long while. The owner – a French woman – invited us to join her and a bunch of local surfer dudes who were driving back into Leon in a truck for the evening, to watch an open-air concert organised by the French embassy. That sounds civilised and cultured, we thought. At 4am the following morning we finally dragged her, blind drunk, out of a night club and back into the truck.
There was more camping utopia at the volcanic crater lake Laguna de Apoyo, where we swam in the pristine water, with howler monkeys bellowing in the trees above. In the gorgeous colonial city of Granada, we met up again with my former BBC colleague Lynda, and after lunch walked past a bar just in time to glimpse England losing to Italy on penalties in the Euro 2012 quarter finals.
While there we camped in a slightly weird lake-front ‘tourist centre’ – basically a strip of bars and restaurants along the front. It seemed like the only feasible place near town, but felt a little bit sketchy. We asked one of the wardens about camping safely, and she radioed her security colleagues, telling them to meet us at the car park. As we drove up they were waiting to guide us into a space, and then more or less acted as our personal security guards for the rest of the night. One guy slept near the van with a dog for the whole night – now that’s service.
However, it turned out the innocuous-looking restaurant next door was actually a dance club – so with music blaring till 3am we had a fairly poor night’s sleep. We headed off early next day towards the port of San Jorge, via another very active volcano, Volcan Masaya. It’s one of the only volcanoes where you can actually drive to the rim, but we’d heard it was closed due to excess activity. We turned up to find it had just been re-opened but officials had limited the time you could spend at the top to just 5 minutes, for safety reasons. So worried are they by the threat of an explosion or rocks being hurled from the crater that you have to park facing outwards so you can make a rapid escape!
We ended up running over our time, because at the top we spotted two other road-trippers from Germany who were driving a big truck – Sabine and Thomas – and had a chat with them while the steam belched out of the volcano behind us.
Back down in San Jorge we bought a ticket for the next day’s ferry to Isla de Ometepe – an island on the lake that is made up of two massive volcanoes – and then slept on the beach next to the port.
We had lovely memories of Ometepe after visiting 10 years ago, and it was just as spectacular as we remembered. We had a good long stop at a wonderful finca/hostel for 5 nights. Finca Magdalena is an organic farm, at the foot of Volcan Maderas, which is a co-operative owned by several families. We camped next to their stunning garden which was constantly full of butterflies. A little deer wandered around wearing a red neckerchief – very communist! At night the fireflies took over from the butterflies and lit up the trees in their hundreds.
On the second day, we saw two very tired people returning with bicycles, with one of them saying: “that was the hardest cycle of my life”. ‘What wimps’, we said, with a smug little smile. However, we did wimp out of climbing the volcano, which was a fairly horrid 6-8 hour muddy climb into the clouds. We decided to cycle the 35km road around the base of the volcano instead.
It was the hardest cycle of our lives.
Six hot hours of up and down on a ‘road’ made up of jagged boulders and slippy stones. Ouch. But what scenery. We stopped for a fried fish lunch in a little bay with a view of Volcan Concepcion, one of the most iconic views in Nicaragua. Can’t grumble really.
While there I was busy writing a couple of articles for the BBC Travel website [an online commercial venture that’s not accessible from the UK, I’m afraid]. A piece on camping in Mexico & Central America and a related photo slideshow. Thanks to our fellow road-trippers at Life Remotely, Earth Circuit, Apollo’s Journey and From A to B for their help with it.
Our last two nights in Nicaragua were spent on the gorgeous beaches north of San Juan del Sur. Surfers flock here for the fabulous waves – it was the most tourists we’d seen in one place for a long while. While there we bumped into Sabine and Thomas again. We camped in one surf camp that had howler monkeys living in the trees above us. The cacophonous sound they make can be quite disconcerting when it wakes you up at 6am.
But at least they’re not as scary as caterpillars.
Things we now know to be true: Howler monkeys make very effective alarm clocks.