There are easier ways of getting to Isla de Ometepe than an eleven-hour ferry ride that arrives after midnight. There’s one other way; taking a one-hour ferry from San Jorge, 1.5 hours from the capital of Nicaragua or the border with Costa Rica.
Sometimes I like to make things hard for myself. There was an appeal to crossing from Costa Rica to Nicaragua by boat rather than by land, from Los Chiles, up the Rio Frio to its confluence with Rio San Juan, where they meet Lake Nicaragua, at the Nicaraguan town of San Carlos. The border is crossed somewhere along the Rio Frio, where we pull aside at the Nicaraguan border post and open our bags for the soldiers to give a cursory once-over. Actual immigration procedures happen after docking in San Carlos.
San Carlos is a border town, and a port town. Either of those two separately generally lead to some shady elements, both together caused major culture shock coming from the tourist paradise of Costa Rica. It doesn’t have any gritty, ramshackle charm; it’s just a working town full of working people.
There’s no reason to stay longer than necessary. I had arrived on a Sunday, having to wait until Tuesday at 2pm for my ferry to Altagracia. I was in San Carlos for almost forty-eight hours; twelve would’ve been plenty.
I found a $3 a night hotel room my first night. I wandered the streets. Drunks were passed out on benches on the Malecon. The market made me feel like I was in the Central America I remembered from Guatemala.
Men and boys were more physical in a play-fighting bordering on real fighting than I had seen in Costa Rica. When a I finally found a place to buy a bottle of liquor to help pass the time on the ferry, I had already checked out of my hotel, but left my bag so I didn’t have to carry it as I bought my ticket and changed the large bills spit out by the ATM for smaller ones, so I sat on a bench on the Malecon passing time.
Drunks are easy to spot. Their eyes would lock hungrily on the black plastic bag sitting next to me, staring it down as the slowed their pace walking by. You’d think I had a naked woman sitting next to me, but I think if I had a naked woman on one side and the bottle on the other, they’d still be more interested in the bottle. It was still early to go and get my bag and have to lug it around, but the bottle was drawing unwanted attention and I needed someplace to conceal it.
There is not much to say about the eleven hour ferry ride. They rent deck chairs for $1.20, otherwise it’s sitting upright on padded benches in the cabin area. The sunset was nice, the deck chairs not much more comfortable than a semi-reclining airplane seat so, eventually, after seven hours, I ended up sleeping a bit on the deck along with most other passengers.
We arrived an hour late, and I had booked a hotel seven miles away. They promised they’d wait up. They also said it would cost $30-35 to get a taxi there. When the first taxi who corralled me in the mob at the dock quoted me $20, I was thrilled. We drove a mile up a rocky, dirt road before hitting cobblestone. There are times, like after spending eleven hours on a boat, the last half in the dark, out of sight of land, rolling with the waves, trying to sleep, that my life doesn’t seem real, that I am actually here alive doing this. Sights passed quickly at 1am, the wind blowing in my face through the open drivers window and latin rap on the radio. We swerved around two women sitting on the lip of the road smoking, one in a white nightgown. Three cows block our way, plodding along. We swerve again to avoid a family that set up plastic lawn furniture on the road, up at 1am drinking and talking; it’s Semana Santa so many are off work. We pass near the shore and waves break in white lines. Cow and horse manure, fecund vegetation smells fill my nose. I can’t believe how well this has come off. Sometimes travel is hard; sometimes it works out.
We arrive at El Porvenir, where a security guard is waiting and quickly shows me to my room, where despite the time I don’t fall asleep till 3am from exhiliration.
Later I rent a bike, first heading south toward Balgue
and then back north to Playa Santa Domingo and Altagracia.
I buy three cans of beer and head back to the hotel to Skype-participate in the going away party for my former manager, then eat dinner while watching the sunset next to Vulcan Concepcion.
I’m supposed to check out the next day, but I decide from what I’ve read I’d rather be here than Moyogalpa, where I need to catch the Saturday ferry to San Jorge and then move on to Granada. I rent a bike again, and ride west to Merida, and then back to Playa Santa Domingo, riding back along the hard-packed sand of the beach.
The next morning I walk 1km down to where the bus to Moyogalpa stops; I ask at the tienda to confirm this is the bus stop. The woman pauses, and then tells me there are no buses today; it’s Good Friday. She tells me the only way I’m getting to Moyogalpa today is by taxi or walking. Moyogalpa is about 17 miles away, but she doesn’t present walking as a joke. I have three options: $40+ for a taxi; wait till tomorrow and catch the early bus and arrive in Granada much later than planned after travelling all day; or walk. Sometimes travel works out, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Seventeen miles is a normal hiking day for me in the mountains. I figured it would take about six hours at the most. So I started walking.
As with an eleven hour ferry ride, there isn’t much to tell about a seventeen mile walk along a two lane,lightly trafficked road on a volcanic island. It was hot, 95F. I was making good time until I got caught up in a religious procession between Playa Santa Domingo and the turn-off to Moyogalpa.
I avoided looking at my watch, but there were kilometer posts to mark my progress or lack thereof. Rocks seemed to keep getting in my shoes. About halfway, after stopping to remove a piece of gravel from my left shoe, I forgot to reinsert the insole, which i didn’t realize until I stopped to shake another rock out 2 miles later; i wasn’t going back. I finished in 5.5 hours.
Moyogalpa made me glad I didn’t arrive a day early. It’s a fine place for a base to explore, but not to spend much time, though it was nice to have a choice of places to eat. I ate a late lunch at very nice local place, so at 7pm I decided to drink my dinner. There was a hotel bar restaurant around the corner from my dismal hotel. It was run by a French expat woman, and it was colorful and charming, but it wouldn’t have been out of place in any other backpacker hotel in the world. Full of backpackers who gather in these places to compare where they’ve been and what things cost, and how this place reminds them of X place they need to name-drop, seemingly trying to one-up each other, or badmouthing mere ‘tourists’ who don’t understand what it means to really travel. One guy just could not stop using the word ‘sweet’ as a modifier. I felt guilty for being there, but there I was, too.
I walked the streets for a bit afterwards. I went to a bar in an half-finished building by the ferry port. In Chelsea or Williamsburg, or The Mission, or any other scenemaking neighborhood, this would all be affectation. Here it was just somebody making use of what’s on hand.
I got caught up in another religious procession. The singing in both was so truly awful, I wondered if they were using some scale my ears were just not familiar with, but they accompaniment, trumpets, saxophones and drums, had a wierd ragged charm that to my untrained ear wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Charles Mingus album like Three or Four Shades of Blue.
In the morning I left for Granada.