I recently went on a whirlwind 6-day tour of southwestern Nicaragua with two friends from University and my best friend, Jane, who I work with in an active travel company. This was the first time friends from my “travel world” were meeting friends from my “non-travel world”, which was an interesting social experiment for me. I could see poignantly for the first time the parts of myself that have so greatly developed during traveling: a conquered fear of talking to strangers and asking for help, being able to live in rugged if not disgusting conditions, and an open-mindedness to darn near everything.
The four of us met up in Nicaragua’s colonial city Granada, and took a ferry-trip together to get to the Island of Ometepe in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. Ometepe is made of two volcanoes: the baby Maderas and the giant Concepción. The sun was already set by the time our ferry launched from San Jorge’s mainland port. The world was lit up by the full moon, which seemed to be rising directly out of the mouth of Volcano Concepción. We often think of transit as a means to get from one place to the next, the sooner the better, but I couldn’t help but think on that night-time ferry ride toward a volcano glistening under the moon, “this is why I travel!”
Since we had such a short time for our Nicaragua trip, and we still wanted to get some beach time in, we booked only two nights on the island and quickly started planning our days. Day one, we rented bikes to cruise the island. We wove through the lively town of Moyogalpa to find the main cobblestone road that wrapped (at least partway) around the island. We didn’t have a specific goal other than seeing what there was to see, finding a place to kayak, and making it to a nearby point for sunset. Shortly after leaving Moyogalpa, we passed over the newly built airstrip. We stopped to marvel at how miniscule the runway was, and as our eyes trailed inland along the strip we noticed Volcano Concepción towering over us for the first time. She became our guardian for the rest of the day; no matter where we pedaled the giant lady Concepción was always clearly in our sights.
We eventually found a quiet beach resort with kayaks and decided that would be our halfway point for biking. We lounged in the sun and meditated over the waves crashing on the lakeshore. How wild! We made it to Punta Jesús María before sunset, and had time to order Toñas (Nicaraguan beer) and watch the local teenagers play soccer on the beach. The narrow point of sand juts out into the lake, water lapping up at both sides. We shared some magical moments as the sun was setting, making it appear as if we were walking on the water that lapped over the sand. The point reached directly toward the section of horizon where the sun was setting, and Volcano Concepción devoured the opposite skyline. This is why we travel!
The next day we set out early with a guide to hike to a viewpoint 1,000 meters up Volcano Concepción. Along the way we learned about a plant pod called “huevos de burro” or “donkey’s nuts” due to its oval shape and the glue-like substance you can squeeze out of it. We also tasted some termites, and felt the violent wind the higher up we traveled. After we made it back down five hours later, we were ready for lunch before catching our ferry back to the mainland. We checked our watches: 2:00 PM. Perfect! Our ferry was at 4:00. The ocean beach was waiting for us!
We devoured our sandwiches and fresh fruit smoothies and even had some time to kill before meandering down to board our ferry. It seemed strange to us how many locals were sitting along the walls of the dock as we walked onto the boat, but I asked someone in line if we could go ahead and board and he said “Sí!” with a big smile. So we did.
We got our prized seats on the top deck, and were soon joined by three other gringos. 4:00 quickly became 4:30, and we were still sitting in the same place. As no one else was boarding the ferry, we started to get nervous. I spoke the best Spanish in our group, so I was elected our spokesperson.
I waved to a local gentleman on the lower deck, “Señor, ?Está todo bien con la lancha?” Is everything all right with the ferry?
“No, todas están canceladas por el viento.” All of the boats were canceled due to high wind that made the lake waves too rough. Nicaraguans on the whole are very friendly people, but they would have let us sit on that canceled ferry all night without telling us. In fairness, they had about as much information on what was happening as all of us gringos.
Suddenly, our craving to make it to the beach in San Juan del Sur was lit on fire. Could we hire a private boat? No, apparently we could end up in prison. Could we leave from a different port to go to the other side of the lake? No, the waves were worse over there. We later learned that the boat departures were all canceled after a small ferry had capsized in the waves and the passengers had to be rescued by a larger ferry. By the way, bull sharks inhabit Lake Nicaragua! My anger dissipated and we instead became thankful to spend another night on the island, but we better sprint to find beds! We made it back to our hostel to survive bed double-bookings, a light bulb shattering over our luggage during extra bed setup and pet deer having easy access to our rooms. Who cares? Get the rum out and let’s play cards!
We woke up at 7:00 AM the next morning to check the ferries. Our friends who left for the 6:00 AM boat had not returned, so our hopes were high that the boats were running. I ran down to the port to check, and was greeted by our friends’ gloomy faces. Apparently ferries would be canceled for the entire day. We were trapped on the island!
My fire was really lit by this point. Not only would we totally miss out on our beach time, I had to get back to San Jose, Costa Rica to catch my flight back to the U.S. in two days! Our group of four had now grown to seven gringo survivors, so we banded together to get hotel rooms right by the port. We sent one messenger down to check every hour to see if the Nicaraguan Navy had changed its orders about crossing the lake, and started making plans of other activities to do on the island so that our day wasn’t an entire wash. My friend Kevin went for one final check at the port before we would take a taxi all together to the mineral pools on the other side of the island.
Jane and I looked with disdain at our disgusting hotel room. I guess we’re open-minded about darn near everything except disappointment. “What if Kevin comes back and says the boats are running?” I asked with a sarcastic smile on my face.
“We would go,” Jane answered matter-of-factly.
Five minutes later Kevin came sprinting into the hotel, “BOATS ARE RUNNING!”
Without hesitating we all threw our things back into our bags and started running toward the ferries. There was already a line of 250 people waiting and we weren’t sure we would fit on a boat. Jane and I were the last two, as she had run back to tell our new friends to hurry up, and as we were walking on a guard told us we couldn’t enter.
“No, no, our friends are on here, we’re getting on.”
“No life jacket, no space.”
Jane and I looked around. Everyone had life jackets but us. We were getting kicked off the boat.
By this time we were so separated from our other friends that we couldn’t tell for them to stay on, that we would fight to get on the next boat. We figured out that we could get in line for the next small boat on the other side of the port, and Jane and I made it through the gate as the last two people to board. Just then my two university friends ran up to the fence.
“We weren’t going to leave you!” They huffed.
We were glad to see them, but there was no room for them to get on our boat now, either. I asked the guard what our option number three was. There was a medium-sized ferryboat that was last in line to be loaded. Like Goldy Locks and the Three Bears, this boat was perfect for us. We were the first to board (at a cheaper price, since it wasn’t full-sized), so we got prime seating and life jackets. And, as irony would have it, our boat was the first out of all three to leave port. Apparently the first huge ferry refused to leave until 15 more people got off the boat, and no one was offering.
Culture experienced, tragedy avoided and play time accomplished on the San Juan del Sur beach.
This is why we travel!!