Sunday, 31 July 2011

Twin Peaks

THE NEXT MORNING we were packed and out of San Juan within 45 minutes of opening our eyes. No point wasting any more precious moments of our trip. We arrived at the bus station and waited around amongst the rotting filth for transport to Ometepe. I've seen worse bus stations, but this one was still pretty bad. Walk anywhere and you have to keep an eye on the ground to avoid standing in something nasty, anything from a large pile of dogshit to a discarded piece of unidentifiable meat. And keep the other eye on your belongings: thieves love bus stations, and it's easy for one to distract you while his accomplice slashes your backpack. Best to get in and out as soon as possible.

I almost didn't visit Ometepe, the twin-peaked volcanic island south of Granada. Motorbike George hadn't enjoyed himself there; said it was dull, rife with mosquitoes and hot as hell. His view was echoed by a few other travellers, but an equal number loved it. In these instances, you need to go and see for yourself. Ometepe means "two mountains", from the ancient indigenous language. The two volcanoes rise out of the expanse of Lago de Nicaragua, one at either end of the island. Concepcion, considered the most perfectly-formed volcano in Central America, erupted as recently as 2010...and violently. The islanders defied government orders from Managua to leave. In 2005 an earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale shook the hourglass-shaped island, rupturing roads and creating huge fissures. I didn't know all this before we got on the boat; but then, you can't let a hideous death by pyroclastic flow put you off a weekend away, now can you?

George was right in one respect: there isn't much happening, even in the main town. Nightlife is negligible. There are few bars. There are hikes to the summits of the peaks themselves but, with the low cloud during the day, it didn't seem worth it. So we hired motorbikes, grabbed a map, and set off to circumnavigate the island.

The roads are tarmaced between the main settlements, but soon turn to shit. And get shittier. We were on 125cc road bikes which were not ideal, but myself and Stef soon got into the groove, taking turns leading on the rutted, rock-strewn tracks. I loved it. Maxy, on the other hand, didn't. We'd slow up every so often to let him catch up; he generously fell off the bike three times, once for each of me and Stef knew we were OK from here on in. All the accidents that could have happened had happened.

The ride took up most of the day, passing through some tiny villages where the inhabitants rarely saw westerners. They were friendly enough, a big improvement on San Juan's moody bunch. I skidded to a stop on seeing two young boys atop a horse, and asked permission to take their picture; they happily obliged before trotting off into the undergrowth. We took a break at a tiny makeshift cafe where a lad happily played with our cameras while I played with his tiny birds, one of which was quite content to sit on my hand while I drank a freezing Coke. Stef, fearing Maxy had crashed again, doubled back to look for him. Obviously he had.

The Scotsman was pretty pissed off with his steed by now, and possibly at the pace that myself and the Italian were setting, so we went on ahead to the freshwater springs on the way home, while Maxy took it easy to avoid more damage to the bike, and to get himself a few decent photographs. Slowcoach looking after himself, we set off at a blistering pace. We'd passed the worst of the roads by now, and I chuckled to myself at the words of the Finnish couple we'd chatted to at the cafe, who were heading the way we'd come: "The road gets really bad from here" they'd warned us. I could just picture their faces right about now. In fact, a similar face came into view a few minutes later as a group passed us with a few nods...a girl riding pillion with a look of tight-lipped anguish on her face. It'll only get worse love, I thought, as Stef turned round to me and laughed. He was obviously thinking the same thing.

The springs were refreshing, but not hot as we'd hoped. Bloody cold, in fact. Invigourated and dust-free, we headed for a tiny town to eat afterwards, where we suffered the worst of Nicaragua's fayre. And believe me, that's not a standard you want to fall below. It was appalling. Rubber chicken. Maxy caught us up; we warned him to wait until we got back to the main town if he was hungry. Off we went at breakneck speed, the Scotsman a lot happier and far more reckless now back on tarmac.

I spoke to a couple of locals later on about our experiences in San Juan Del Sur. It had a bad reputation even amongst the islanders. One told me that we were lucky to be in a group, as the locals there are known to menace lone travellers in bars, surrounding them and bullying them into a walk to the nearest ATM. I also heard of a couple who were warned not to walk along a stretch of road on one of the more secluded beaches outside the town; they heeded the warning, but later met a German pair who'd just arrived and weren't lucky enough to have found a friendly face: two distinctly unfriendly ones robbed them of everything the had at gunpoint. Nice start to your trip.

The people on Ometepe said that bad things had been happening in San Juan for years. It's only a matter of time before word gets out and people stop going.


Jon and Elayne said...

It's put me right off.

old8oy said...

Go to El Salvador and Guatemala if you haven't been. ES was great, people were friendly. Lots to see in Guatemala.