Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Road Back to Jinotepe, and home

By Wednesday the 20th, it was finally time to leave Ometepe, and start the process of heading home. Valerie and I were both thoroughly sore and tired from our hike, we could hardly walk, especially up or down hill/stairs. I think I was kind of tired from having a cold too. We took our time with breakfast and utilizing the internet in the morning (I wrote a whole blog post) and then went to pack our gear up. I was quite tired and slow and for once Valerie was ready to go before me by a long shot.

We kept a decent pace as we rode back to the port town of Moyogalpa, and saw some interesting things along the way:

 This horse refused to leave the center of the road.

This bus finally pursueded the horse to move out of the way. I include this photo here to give you an example of the colorful paint jobs on the buses in Nicaragua.

 A woman and her daughter hang out in front of a small roadside shop. I'm not sure if they were waiting for it to open, or waiting to open it.

 Entering Moyogalpa, the school kids appear to be on lunch break.

 We worked our way through Moyogalpa down to the small harbor area. We found a little bite to eat at a streetside restaurant and turned around to meet this guy:

 Loic Munardo is riding his bike around the world. He started in France, then into Germany, Switzerland... well, check out his top tube for the whole list:

For those of you not familiar with flags, the highlights include The Balkins, Turkey, Iran, India, Tibet, China, Korea, Japan, then into British Colombia, down the US west coast, Baja Mexico, and on down to where we met him in Nicaragua, after he took a day to tour on Ometepe. He is going to continue his journey through central America, down the spine of South America, possibly as far as Tierra del Fuego. Then He's going to hop a plane to Africa and ride north, back to France. He is about half-way through his 3-year journey now. I wish him luck on the remainder of his journey.

We spent the whole ferry ride, about an hour, talking with Loic about his trip. He had done the whole trip on the same tires until just a few days earlier when a sharp piece of metal shredded his rear tire. Fortunately he is running 26" wheels, and tires of this size are commonplace in central America (700c, not so much). He said that most of his XT equipped Surly Long Haul Trucker was working flawlessly, except for his crankset with the external bottom bracket that wears out in just 5,000-10,000 miles. He also suggested that an 8-speed drivetrains would have been better for global touring since 7/8 speed drive trains are common around the world, even in developing nations, where as 9/10/11 speed stuff (he was running 9-speed) is only available in the most developed locations.

Loic said that the people of Turkey and Iran were the friendliest. Tibet was the most beautiful place he visited (though he had to do it on the low-down since its nearly impossible for foreign visitors to get approval to travel there). He said that Southeast Asia was easy to travel through, friendly people, and fairly inexpensive too. He also said that the Baja peninsula was a great ride, which was of particular interest to me since this is one I've wanted to do for a while. Here's his blog, if you want to read about his trip. Its all in French, I'm still trying to figure out if there is a way to translate web pages as a whole.

Once off the ferry we parted ways with Loic, and Valerie and I headed into the little Italian restaurant just outside the dock area for more lunch. We fueled up properly with food and water, and then had to wait a bit for some rain to pass over. It was about 2pm, it gets dark around 6pm, and we had about 55 miles to ride, including 2000 ft uphill. We headed out as soon as the rain stopped, and fortunately had a cross/tailwind most of the way, so we made good progress down the Pan-American Highway.

Sugar cane.

For some reason, I waited until my last full day in Nicaragua to take a picture of the abundant roadside fruit stands. These are well stocked, mostly with melons, but also papaya, mango and tangerines.

I just liked the look of this bizarre billboard. I'm still not sure what they're selling. Nuts?

It was well into dusk when we rolled into Jinotepe. With no lights on our bikes, this got a little sketchy, but then again, everybody else was traveling in a sketchy manner too. After a quick pass through the park on a final desperate search for sloths (there are supposed to be a couple 'pet' sloths in the trees in the town park), but finding none, we headed back to Cesar's house.

Cesar as it turns out was worried about our safety, and pretty upset with us, in particular, me. He hadn't gotten most of the messages and phone rings I had sent him while we were out riding around the past couple of days. And truthfully, I probably should have called him at some point in the afternoon to let him know exactly what time we thought we would be back. Sorry Cesar.

I was tired and hungry, but it was getting close to 7pm, and I had to be up at 4:30 for my flight. So I got clean and started taking apart my bike and packing up my gear. Valerie had some ready-to-eat camp food which came in very handy since most restaurants were closed by the time we finally got out around 8:30. Cold lentils really hit the spot.

I was about ready for bed around 10pm which is about when Cesar came back in a good mood from an evening business meeting. We ended up staying up until midnight talking and trading stories.


I didn't sleep well that night, and basically woke up around 3:30 and couldn't get back to sleep. A cab picked me up from Cesar's place at 4:30 to take me to the airport. The cab ride was a little nuts with the cabbie blowing red lights and doing some risky passes, but overall uneventful, and I kept myself occupied writing a blog post.

I spent most of the last of my Cordobas on tipping the guys who brought my bags into the airport for me (unsolicited of course) and breakfast at the airport. There were a few Americans who had participated in the Fuego y Agua ultramarathon, so I chatted with them for a while. One guy was in a wheel chair due to a severely infected foot. Owch.

I bought some fine Nicaraguan chocolate in the airport, Cesar said it was the best place to get it. This chocolate is rich and flavorful, it tastes 'fresh' compared to the highly processed stuff we get in the US, but I will say it is a bit harsh, so much so that I prefer the milk chocolate to the dark chocolate (and I am usually a dark chocolate fiend).

My first flight brought me over Cuba and the Florida keys.

Then a 3.5 hour layover in Miami gave me plenty of time to get through customs, baggage checking, back through the security gate and into the terminal where I had a surprisingly good lunch at a sushi place there. But I almost missed my flight because my phone did not automatically update to local time as I had expected it to, they almost gave away my seat!

I was pretty exhausted by 4:30 when we landed in O'Hare. I was feeling quite zombie-like until I got something for dinner. But no matter how hard I tried I just couldn't sleep in the airports or on any of the planes.

The flight on the small jet from Chicago to Madison was nerve wracking for me since there was a bit of a storm blowing in. I was pretty freaked out on the landing with snow in the air and a cross wind on the runway. I really only like to fly on days with blue skies and dry runways. Hey, when I was a kid I was afraid to fly at all.

Carol picked me up at the airport around quarter to eleven, and we drove home. It was great to see her again, but we were both too tired to do much celebrating. As exhausted as I was, its kind of hard to unwind after 19 hours of travel, and I didn't get to sleep until midnight.

And that was it for this adventure. I was kind of hoping winter would be on its way out when I got back from this trip, but I have not been so lucky. So far I have had to shovel the driveway 3 times in less than a week... and I'll be doing it for a second time today this afternoon. Why do I live in Wisconsin again?

I plan on writing a few other blog posts about the country, flora, fauna that kind of thing over the next few days. I saw a lot and learned a lot on this trip, and I would like to share.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Climbing a Volcano: its harder than you'd think

For our second day on Ometepe, we wanted to hike to the top of Volcan Maderas, the dormant, southern-most volcano on this island. But it almost didn't happen.

As seems to be customary on this trip, I work up early, this time not due to a rooster (managed to sleep through the rooster this time), but dogs fighting. I finally gave up on sleep and got up to pee around 5:30. The constant and strong wind over Lake Nicaragua slammed the door to my room behind me, locking me out. After I did my business I went by the restaurant/outdoor hotel lobby and explained my situation to the day manager (who fortunately speaks fairly good English). They were fresh out of spare keys for my room, so he grabbed a worker and came over to get me back into my room.

They basically broke back into my room using a machete. They use machetes for everything in Nicaragua. They are the do-it-all tool for farming, for everything from cutting down trees, to clearing ground layer vegetation, harvesting fruit, even testing soil conditions. I have seen a guy on the side of the road fixing a motorcycle with a machete, and in this case it apparently makes a great tool to pry open a window frame.

As the work was commencing I discussed with the manager how we wanted to hike up to the top of Maderas that day. He ask if we had a guide.  A guide is mandatory due to safety, and cause, you know they, understandably, want to suck money out of tourists. Cesar had explained it as a courtesy since they didn't want any more tourists dying on the mountains (lost hikers had died on both Conception and Maderas on Ometepe in the past decade). Anyway, I was under the impression you just connect with one at the trail head. This was not the case. As it turns out the worker there tearing into my hotel room was also a guide. So I got damned lucky that I got locked out of my room, otherwise we may have found out too late that we didn't have the guide we needed, and there would be no volcano hike for us. Our guides name was Roberto... It sounded strange to me the way he said it at first, it took me a while to figure out that it was just the hard-core Spanish pronunciation, not the anglicized version we are used to hearing in the US, his name is pronounced "Rrrow-vuerto".

I'm sure this was fortuitous for Roberto as well. We payed him $25 to be our guide for the day, I suspect this is 2-3 times what he gets payed for a day of work around the hotel/hostel.

We finally got to hiking around 8 or 8:30. The first thing he showed us was an boulder carved with an ancient petroglyph. I think Roberto told us that it was some kind of ancient calender, if I understood him correctly, but I couldn't see how it was divided up, it wasn't obvious a lunar or solar calendar.

We paid our ~$1.20 to enter the park that is the upper slopes of the mountain, and started hiking up. I took quite a few photos, but I will restrict the ones in this blog to those that give you an idea of what the hike was like. I will spare you the numerous plant photos, so you won't have to look at the super bright blue, and hairy, berries, the textured leaves folded like a Chinese paper fan, or the super hair leaves who's base, Roberto pointed out to me, look just like a vagina. I know most of you all don't find that stuff very interesting... but it fascinates me.

 A group of howler monkeys on the lower slopes. The locals call them 'bongos'.

The lower slopes of the volcano had massive rocks, this was the easy part of the trail.

The first rest stop on the trail actually had benches, we hardly felt we needed a rest break at this point.

The lower slopes of Volcan Maderas were dry topical forest, mostly second growth.

But before long our hike took us into the clouds.

The trail split here at this coffee plantation. From here on up there were no signs of cultivation.

And the trail started to get muddy.

 Valerie is just over 5' tall, so these leaves have a solid 4' blade, almost 6' from stem to tip.

Tree fern!

The trail got crazy steep in places. It was all mud, sometimes just a slick surface, sometimes 6" deep, and a mix of roots or rocks or both.

 And yet just 2 days earlier there was the Fuego y Agua ultramarathon on these slopes. The 100k running race actually ran up to the top of Volcan Conception (5,200ft), then back down to lake level (100 ft), ran along the beach for several miles to Volcan Maderas (4,500 ft) back down again, then across the island again to the start. Muy Loco! I am told they mostly walked/hiked on the steep mountain slopes since it was too difficult to run. But still, loco. This area was called the Elf Forest BTW, I think cause the trees were relatively short.

Finally we descended the even steeper trail into the caldera of the dormant volcano. Scrambled down really. Where we had lunch by the shore of the lagoon. The clouds whipped past above us and swirled in the strong winds, forming as the slope of the mountain pushed the moist air up to cooler elevations where they would condense into clouds. Our lunch break was about 30 minutes long. There aren't many better places for a lunch break.

 Took a photo up there of a horizontal tree branch with just a few epiphytic plants growing on it. I had been shooting with my good camera up to this point, but the trail was so difficult I decided to stash it away in my backpack for the hike back down. This turned out to be a very good decision, but I don't have as many photos from the rest of the hike

 Fortunately for us, they had installed some posts with ropes between them on the trail into/out of the caldera. These were great aids on the climb back up. It may not have been possible without them.

The hike up the mountain wasn't really that hard. I got a cramp in one calf, but I was able to suck it up and get up there anyway. The hike down on the other hand, was, probably the most difficult hiking I have ever done. It was very, very slippery, and rough with the rocks and the roots, and very steep. That and I was wearing my Vibram Five Finger "toe shoes". Whiles these offer a lot of toe flexibility, they have virtually no padding and also almost no tread depth. So I was sliding all over the place on the way back down. I had to grab from tree to tree to support myself, and every big step down pounded into the bottom of my soft gringo feet.

Had to take a couple breaks on the way down, my legs were quivering with fatigue. The third rest stop we did down at the coffee plantation. Where we spotted some white-headed capuchin monkeys in the distance, so I pulled my good camera out of my bag and got some pretty good shots. But for the life of me I can't remember what the locals called the capuchins.

Here a couple other hikers stumbled down the mountain behind us. Both seemed like dirty hippy backpackers. The first spoke Spanish, but very little English, the guy with him spoke very little Spanish though which was odd, instead being a native English speaker. Also, he did the hike barefoot, which he reported was miserable. No doubt.
Our last rest stop was at the first view point, and got some good photos on this unusually clear day.

In the end, I have to say this ~10 mile hike was the most difficult one I have ever done. I heard from more than one local that it was only 8km (~5 miles) round-trip, but measuring it out on the map its pretty clear it was around 10 miles total.

Still, the relatively short distance belies the intensity of the experience: I have hiked to the top of a couple 12,000 ft, 13,000 foot, and even a 14,000 foot mountain. I've hiked the Grand Canyon from rim to rim in a day; 26 miles and a mile down followed by a mile up. The hike up Maderas was notably more difficult than that any of these. My legs and feet have never been so completely 'destroyed' after a hike, my legs have never felt that tired in my life. I could hardly walk uphill/stairs or downhill/stairs for 3 days, and I can still feel the soreness from the hike 6 days later, particularly in my calf where I got the cramp. With that said, its the middle of winter for me so I'm probably not at peak fitness (there were two young Chilean sisters who seemed to fly both up and down the mountain without effort, which didn't make me feel any better about my conditioning).

My choice of footwear was poor (though they were great for everything else we did on this trip) and I'm sure this contributed significantly to my difficulty in descending... good hiking boots would have gotten some grip in the mud and provided cushioning for my feet, in all they might have halved the effort of the descent. Still, I didn't have the worse shoes on the mountain that day:

The Swiss girl these shoes belonged to told me that though they were old shoes, they started the hike in one piece, without any duct tape on them.

In any event, we were all happy to be back at the Hotel/Hostel Santa Cruz. We took icy cold showers and scrubbed as much of the tenacious clay mud off us that we could, which is to say we got about half of it off of us. Val and I ate an early dinner and went to bed by 8 or 8:30.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Rambling about Isla Ometepe

Full Disclosure: My traveling is faster than my blogging. I am now back at home in cold, cold Wisconsin. I have processed the 1500+ photos I took during the trip down to about 645 "keepers". This will be particularly helpful for these next two blog posts, since there are a bunch of photos of birds and monkeys that I took with my 'good camera' that wouldn't have been available on my iPhone while blogging 'from the trail'. So without further delay... Ometepe: We were awoken again bright and early by a rooster. This was his turf, and he wanted everyone to know it.

Our bikes drew some interest from a fellow hostel guest as well as a guy who later we found out who was the brother of the manager girl (and I say girl because I think the chica running the place was 14). Anyway, this guy who's name I never caught, had the nicest bike I'd seen in Nicaragua, outside of Cesar's bikes.

His bike was a Nashbar road frame from the early 90's, looked pretty good, even made in Japan. I tried to explain that I had a bike of similar vintage also made in Japan back at home. I think he got it. He was fascinated with my touring bike, so I let him ride it. I rode his. We swapped back to our respective bike and he offered to lead us out of town. And we followed til the edge of town, where I had to figure out how to explain to him that we needed breakfast (bear in mind that this is all happening in my very broken Spanish). He seemed disappointed, but lead us to a place just a block back. This was probably the most authentic Nica breakfast we had the whole trip.

Red Nashbar bike guy hung out for a few minutes and we tried to chat, but eventually he took off, not sure if he was planning on coming back after we ate, but we didn't see him as we rolled out of town. We took it pretty slow, and enjoyed the sights on the island.

Stopped for an early lunch at a Natural Vegetarian Restaurant on the beach. Nice view.

We rode across the wind-blasted road paralleling the beach along the narrow part of the island and just across the other side of the isthmus we arrived at the village of Santa Cruz, and got ourselves a couple of rooms at the Hotel/Hostel Santa Cruz. I got a single room for $15 and Valerie's was $25 a night with private bath! It was a pretty nice place too, the room fee and meals all went on a tab that we paid at the end of our two night stay there. We got our things together and rode off down the road towards the kayak rental place just about 2 miles away. It was a very rough road though, and I had to give Valerie an impromptu mountain biking lesson.

When we got there, this little girl couldn't be bothered with us, she was too busy hanging in her hammock watching Dora the Explorer. The Spanish version is the opposite of the US version, Dora mostly speaks in Spanish and throws out the occasional word or phrase in English.

We got ourselves a double kayak for the extra paddle power, as we were facing a mighty headwind coming from the direction of our goal, the Rio Istian. We hugged the shore the whole way and pushed with mighty paddle strokes into the gale. A small storm blew over us along the way, it was so freaking windy that the rain mostly blew over our head as it was blocked by shoreline vegetation. Finally we paddled through the shallow water of the Rio Istian delta getting stuck in the mud a bit, and into the river proper where we saw lots and lots of birds.

It was pretty awesome. We got back in time to ride down the bumpy road back to the hotel/hostel in the fading light. In fact, we had to walk the last 1/4th of a mile or so since biking on a rough road in the dark is a bad idea.