Disclaimer: Pardon the present tense: this entry was partially written while I was actually on vacation. I’ve been back in Leon for more than a week now.
I’m sitting in a stone enclave surrounded by leaves, my perch nestled into the slopes of the jungle encrusted volcano Maderas of Ometepe island. It’s the patio like section of El Zopilote, the ecological farm and hostel where I’m staying with Tom. To my left, Latin music entertains a group of three hippies working on elaborate artisan crafts and bracelets. Technically, I’m in a greenhouse. The mostly transparent roof is held up by twisting logs. An assortment of recycled vases and pots dangle from rustic rafters, each nurturing a plant with fertile volcanic soil.
El Zopilote first appeared in 2002, a land purchase made by two Italian expats who wanted to create an organic tropical farm without the use of even machines. The farm is situated about 500 meters up the side of Maderas, and the owners made the decision not to build a road. All supplies and food are carried up by hand. The result is a self selecting community of tourists, those who are intrigued by a confusing and cryptic hike through jungly farms clinging to the hill, with the occasional sly sign and gate letting you know that you’re probably climbing in the right direction. After fifteen minutes or so, thatched roof cottages begin to appear between the trees and flowers, and you realize that you’ve made it to the mystic, clandestine hippy community of El Zopilote. The next challenge is finding reception. Each building is separated by a narrow, winding stone path, and for much of the day the lush foliage blankets the place in a hush. Small groups of travelers gather at the peak of the “Mirador” tower, with views over the jungle canopy and the lake, playing guitars and assortments of crude handmade wind instruments.
You can see the kitchen in the back through the leaves.
You can see the kitchen in the back through the leaves.
The bus at the entrance to Zopilote- serves as a cafe, crafts shop, and home to a couple of volunteers.
The jungle comes to life on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays: True to its Italian roots, El Zopilote is famous for lively pizza nights where tourist, expats, and locals alike flock to El Zopilote after the sun has set. Long trains of headlamp lights snake up the side of Maderas and the pizza area is slowly filled with voices, clinking beer bottles, and bodies bathed under the twinkling night lights. Pizza after pizza is shelled out from the massive stone wood burning oven while music blasts from speakers perched high in the rafters of the pizza making hut.
Aside from pizza, El Zopilote’s reception house duals as a store for the farm’s produce and products; fresh vegetables and fruit are free when in season, and you can buy freshly baked whole grain bread, natural yogurt, coffee, spaghetti sauce, honey, and various natural liqueurs. The store makes up for the hostel’s lack of restaurant service, by providing the ingredients you need to cook meals for yourself in the communal kitchen. The farm is based around the idea of permiculture: Humans, plants, and animals working together to benefit all three groups. The trees that envelop the grounds and grow in the nursery are an exotic mixture including fruit trees, royal palms, bamboos, coffee trees, and cacao. A terraced garden of herbs and medicinal plants is cultivated by volunteers and WWOOFers who come to Zopilote from all over the world to learn about permiculture.
Farms like El Zopilote, including Finca Magdalena, La Brisa, and more are found all over Ometepe island. Just as I knew it would be, Ometepe is a magical place. If Vashon Island could sprout an active volcano and morph its forests into tropical jungles, I think it could be similar to Ometepe; the islands have comparable vibes. I truly feel at home on Ometepe. Unlike Leon, the sky is muddied by a dense cloud cover for much of the day. Below, the land is blanketed by a cloud forest of palms, scarlet Flor de Jamaica blossoms, and a myriad of other plant species. Volcan Concepcion, the second highest volcano in Nicaragua at 1610 meters, dominates the North island, town houses and potholed roads clinging to its slopes. While trees decorate the stately faces of Volcan Concepcion, they completely cover the smaller, dormant volcano Maderas, which lies on the South side of the island.
The island from the shore at San Jorge.
Concepcion and Maderas give Ometepe its name: Two Hills. That’s not Spanish, it’s the native language nahuatl, originally from Mexico. According to legend, prophets from the indigenous tribes of the Northern regions had visions of a paradise made of “two hills” in the South. Many tribes congregated to Ometepe, from Mexico and all the way down throughout Central America, finally settling in the manifestation of their dreams. As a result, petroglyphs, ceramics and statues from these native tribes are found throughout the island. The population is only 42,000 for an island of 106 square miles, leaving room for an impressive display of wildlife: Howler, spider, and capuchin monkeys, freshwater sharks and crocodiles, and about a million species of birds. The sharks are believed to be the only freshwater sharks in the world. Don’t be beguiled by the size of the waves surrounding Ometepe island: Its twin hills rise out of Lake Nicaragua, or Lake Cocibolca if you want to honor the original appellation. It’s not the ocean, but it is the largest lake in Central America.
I have been wanting to visit Ometepe for almost three years now, and have been thwarted several times. In June and July of 2009, I lived in tiny Apompoa, a rural town close to the city Rivas. Unless you were standing directly behind a building or a tree, Ometepe’s two hills were visible from any point of the community. Some of my favorite photographs from that summer are snapshots of Maderas and Concepcion, blue through the haze of distance, in smoky contrast to the bright fields of Apompoa in the foreground. Of course I wanted desperately that my host family take me to the magical island, but there were a couple reasons why it wasn’t a likely option. The rules of Amigos de las Americas, the organization I was volunteering for, made it hard if not impossible to go on side trips, and my host family probably couldn’t have afforded it anyway. I promised I would come back someday to visit them and the island as well.
And I did! Although my mom and I planned to stay only a night and a day on Ometepe, it was the part I was looking most forward to- and then I got sick. Unfortunately, my third attempt to finally reach the island found me sick again. I had just gotten over a sinus infection that started up at Somoto and got worse until I miraculously found a pack of upper respiratory antibiotics leftover from my never-ending cough of December. As soon as my head stopped throbbing though, my stomach started acting up. Tom and I had planned on traveling to the island as soon as his Honduran friends left, but we decided to give me a rest day instead. So we left for Ometepe on Tuesday the 13th. It was a miserable day of about 8 hours of travel, not the funnest when you’re feeling bad. Despite leaving in the morning, we didn’t arrive until the sun was about to set.
The main port is Moyogalpa; there lies the “muerra”, dock, and a bustling crowd of eager taxi drivers all ready to offer you a ride to wherever you need to go, all charging five dollars no matter the spot. Upon being hassled by several taxi drivers, Tom and I decided to find a bus for a fraction of the price. We hiked uphill passing bright houses nestled in beds of tropical flowers to reach a pulperia to ask for directions. “Buenas!” The woman announced that “ya no”- the busses have stopped coming. We could wait there for a camioneta, or catch a taxi. After a moment of discussion she somehow decided that indeed we could catch a bus at the carratera, several streets up, but it would be better to catch a taxi. Stubbornly insistent, we continued up the road until we were confronted with yet another opinion; the busses would come upon the arrival of the next boat, around six thirty. We started back down. And then- a bus! We hopped on one aimed for the direction of Altagracia, South. Our destination for the night was a campsot at La Punta de Jesus Maria, a point whittling down into a narrow sandbar halfway down the North island.
No one seemed to understand our intentions to camp on the sandbar. “There is no hotel there,” every Nica told us. “We know,” we would reply. If only I could remember the Spanish word for tent... it would help if it wasn’t a different word every time I asked. As we hopped onto the back of the bus, the bus boy expressed his concerns for our plans as well. “There are animals on the beach!” When asked to elaborate, he couldn’t name anything dangerous.
When we finally arrived at the point, we were indeed bombarded by animals- a bark happy but harmless pack of dogs. The point was busier than I had anticipated; several families seemed to live right at the end, as well as a “restaurant”, an establishment we hadn’t been sure existed or not. We had heard conflicting oppinions, confirmations and negations out of the mouth of the same Nica. Fortunately this is a phenomenon I’ve gotten used to by now. When I first arrived with my mom, I rolled my eyes as she asked the same question three or four times at every turn. “It’s just to check if they reply with the same answer every time,” she would say. “If I get the same response three or four times in a row, I can expect to trust it.” A worthwhile practice, I now see.
The bus dropped us just as darkness set at the entrance to a black tunnel leading, we hoped, to La Punta. After traveling all day (a taxi from our hostel in Leon to the terminal; a bus to Managua; a taxi from terminal to terminal in Managua; another bus to San Jorge, Rivas; a ferry to Isla de Ometepe; a bus to La Punta), I was single mindedly focused on getting to the freaking point. We wandered town the tunnel in solitary blackness aside from an occasional light at the end of the tunnel, revealing itself to be a motorcycle’s headlight blinking into existence and rolling past with a casual adios from the driver. At long last the tunnel opened up into the oval shaped beach. After being welcomed to La Punta Jesus Maria by the chorus of dogs, we took advantage of the tideless lake by erecting the tent right at the water’s edge.
Stars swirled and lightning bugs zipped past, earthbound shooting stars. We didn’t bother with the tent fly. Tom’s tent is almost 100% mesh and open to the sky. At the end of the spit the mysterious Nicaraguan winds moved the waves in two different directions, convening at the sandbar and spitting up bright foam in delicate sprays.
Without electricity to trick your mind that it’s day, it’s hard not to retire early. My stomach was still upset. I made the mistake of ordering a gigantic overly salted hamburger at a lakeside cafe minutes before we sprinted to catch the 4:00 boat. With the windy season at its peak, the waves were heaving with white capped intensity against the deep gray of the lake. We stood on the beach looking across to the floating pearl of Ometepe. As we watched, a rainbow arched to hug Concepcion’s peak.
Dock on the mainland side.
Dock on the mainland side.
At the cafe, waiting for the 4:00 boat.
The ferry ride brought on a bit of nostalgia, but was anything but the same as a smooth glide across tranquil Puget Sound. We rocked and rolled over heaving surf for an hour and a half, and my stomach did not thank me for the heavy hamburger tossing around in there. So thankfully I fell asleep fast. Unfortunately, our tent’s wind-vulnerable position, rain fly-less on the sand, did not lend itself to a peaceful night’s sleep. As soon as the wind picked up- an inevitable moment in a Nicaraguan evening- sand started blowing through the mesh and into the tent. I woke several times to ran: of course the only time I haven’t had a rain fly is the only time it rains. Tom tactfully pulled the rain fly inside the tent to cover our down bags.
The next morning I awoke wet, sweaty, and encrusted in sand to a group of tourists passing by our exposed tent to check out the point. I still felt pretty sick. We packed up our tent rather than remain lying there amid the tourists like zoo animals.
Tom was up in a beautiful arching tree above crystalline blue water, wearing a blue shirt that perfectly matched the sky and sea. I climbed up, and broke down. I finally let myself admit that this trip has been hard for me, and my frustration at getting sick. My job is an intense one, and I feel like I’m working really, really hard. I think one of the main issues for me is the distance I feel from the impact we’re making from working here. yes, we see the kids sometimes, but the nature of the work is to be the profit making machine only. It provides only a logical connection to the kids, the reason we’re all here, and lacks in emotional connection.
Our tent at the point.
Eventually we had to move on. We ate over salted chicken at the “restaurant”, which turned out to actually serve food, packed our backs, and hiked back out through the tunnel. This time we could actually see the bright foliage around us, Concepcion peeking through leaves on our left, and jungle horses grazing on our right. Once we got to the road, we started walking South; we had to get to El Zopilote. When a Southbound bus swept by we jumped on board and after paying the driver, I fell asleep, apparently leaving my wallet on the bus seat. It wasn’t until after we got off at the turnoff to Balgue (the town closest to Zopilote) and stopped at a pulperia to buy bread that I noticed my wallet was gone. Fortunately, I kept the bulk of my cash in another spot, so I had lost about 20 dollars worth of cordobas, my long expired joke of a driver’s permit, and my ATM card. The only item of importance was the ATM card, but I had enough money on me t last the next several days, and there aren’t really any ATMs on Ometepe anyway. I also knew I had an emergency bank card back at Quetzaltrekkers for exactly this sort of a situation.
We waited at the bus stop for almost 2 hours for the same bus to come back around and searched it as best we could, but it was obvious that there was no way we’d find my wallet. The bus was packed with people, backpacks, and bags of produce, leaving not a square inch of empty floor space. The driver was gracious enough to stall the bus while we poked around, but I had to let it go. Life goes on. But because of our delays, we didn’t make it to Zopilote until after dark. We set up the tent beneath the trees, had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, for dinner, and konked out. Ometepe would be there for us in the morning.