La Palma: A Passionate Community and a New Year we will never forget.

Concrete Church and school building with grass betweenLa Palma is a small settlement about 40 minutes north of Puerto Jimenez. Another public bus got us there – we are like old hands now!  We were met at the bus stop outside the Panaderia and taken to the church where we were welcomed by “El Pastor” and a host of other members of the community. Our accommodation was so much better than we had expected – well, we hadn’t really known what to expect as communication on the phone had been so difficult! In fact, we had been all ready to camp for a week and cook on our trangias. In the end we had the use of a kitchen with pots, pans, plates etc and the girls slept in the school room albeit on a concrete floor, but it was relatively cool.  Howie and I, on the other hand, had to sleep in our tents! The hard baked grass was just as hard as the concrete and we had no shade so the heat was almost unbearable!

Inside the Sunday School building, bedrolls on the floor with mosquito nets hung from ropesNobody in the community really spoke any English so it was great for me to practise my Spanish but that also meant that it took away some of the ownership from the girls. However, they tried hard and certainly improved their Spanish as the week went on. We were a little surprised at first when we had a meeting with “El Pastor” (he remained “El Pastor” as we never found out his real name – everyone in the community calls him “Pastor” even his family!) and the ladies who were the organisers of the community. They asked us what we wanted to do! We said that we were here to do whatever they wanted. They were very keen to take us places, meet the rest of the community, join in with community events and share their culture. It didn’t seem to leave a lot of room for working! We stressed that we felt our first priority was to complete the work they wanted us to do but we were also very happy to join in with community events.

two girls preparing food in a kitchen.It was ridiculously hot in La Palma – it doesn’t have the protection of the jungle around it like Puerto Jimenez and it is dead flat so the sun burns down and there is little in the way of shade.  At 4pm in the afternoon it was starting to cool down but it was still over 30C.  The pattern of the days was set – rise early, start work at 7am, work until midday and then rest until 4pm before doing another couple of hours. Except that New Year’s Day was a public holiday so it was suggested we didn’t work at all, and Sunday was a day of rest so definitely no work!  In the event we did work New Year’s Day because we were awake and had nothing else to do! It was definitely too hot to stay in the tents and the girls were hungry so they emerged at 6am despite being up late the night before.  Work started at 7am the sun was too hot to work in by 9am so we left the walls that were in full sun and went back to them later!

girls painting a buildingNew Year’s Eve – our first day of work.  Our aim was to paint the Sunday School Classroom outside and inside. It was a concrete building with metal bars on the upper half and metal sliding doors.  We had anti-corrosive paint for the metal parts, sealant for the walls and then coloured paint to go over the top.  The plan was to do two coats of sealant and anti-corrosive paint and then two coats of colour. It was a big building so it was no mean feat.  We also had four picnic tables to assemble and paint.  However, there were 13 of us.  The girls had decided to have two people each day on kitchen duty who would focus on planning and cooking meals and then clearing up afterwards.  They also needed to go shopping for extra supplies.  So eleven people working for 7 hours a day = 77 man (or girl) hours per day times by 4 and that is a lot of time.  It didn’t take long for the first coat to be done – about three hours!  Dio girls are fast and efficient workers!  And they did a good job too.  Fortunately, the paint was water based so it was relatively easy to paint with and easy to clean the brushes too after each session.

girls lying underneath tables painting the underside of themGirls cleaning paintbrushes at a stone outside sink that drains directly onto the grass.We had been invited to the New Year’s Eve festivities in the church.  It was to be a sharing of gifts and “El Pastor” asked us if we would like to share something with the community.  Of course we would!  Kick off at 7pm – seemed a little early but we were cleaned up and ready by the appointed time.  All day there had been music blaring out of the boom boxes in the church and a host of teenagers had been in and out of the church practising something!  We hoped that our chapel songs, waiata and the national anthem, would be okay!

The Pastor reading from the bi bile in church and girl to the right reading the same chapter  in EnglishNew Year’s Eve in La Palma is an evening we will not forget in a long time!  I don’t think I have seen such passion to such an extent before.  “El Pastor” is a showman, but he is clearly well-loved and respected in the community.  The congregation responded enthusiastically to his cries of “Who welcomes The Lord into their hearts?”, “Say yes if you welcome the Lord!”.  He spoke directly to individuals, making everyone feel special.  It reminded me of the American evangelists we used to see on the TV back in the 80s.  After that warm up, there were prayers and a bible reading.  He had asked if one of our girls would like to read and Charlotte was keen.  She did really well reading from her very small pocket bible in English as he read the equivalent in Spanish especially since he had chosen a reading that had some quite complicated names of biblical places!

Flower display in the church, banana leaves and flower and other red flowersThen he picked up his electric guitar and the singing commenced.  The happiest, clappiest songs you have ever heard.  Everyone danced, clapped and sang along with gusto.  The whole church was alive to “Halleluias”, you just couldn’t help but get pulled along with the joy and celebration.  It has been widely suggested that singing and especially singing in a group leads to the release of serotonin and dopamine which are associated with pleasure and satisfaction.   The joy that we witnessed in that little church in La Palma was surely evidence of that.  The singing and the praying and the dancing went on.  One after another members of the congregation came up to pray or to read.  The ladies of the community sang, the men sang, the young people sang.  They also performed some interpretive dance – enacting the temptations the devil puts in the way of us to keep us from God but how God’s love is strong enough to withstand and keep us strong.  All very powerful stuff!  One of the things the girls reflected on later was that nobody seemed embarrassed about their faith as they might be in New Zealand.  All were happy to express their beliefs and celebrate with each other.  Then  it was our turn.  We had prepared 8 songs, we had no accompaniment, just 12 females singing so for a few minutes the noise level came right down.   We felt very nervous but once we started singing we were fine.  We started with the National Anthem for which everyone stood then we sang a few of the girls’ favourite songs from chapel at school.  There was some recognition when we started Amazing Grace and on the more upbeat songs they clapped along with us.  It was but a small offering in the five hours we were in the church that evening but it was well-received and we felt that we had done our bit.

White single storey church with grass in front and a large tree to the leftDespite the passion we did start to flag – we had been up since 5am and there were more than a few of us fighting to keep our eyes open!  At 11pm, El Pastor started counting down – prayer by prayer!  He started on a prayer of thanks that went on for 25 minutes and included pretty much everything he could possibly think of to give thanks for including practically all parts of his body!  Members of the community were invited again to come up and pray.  Finally in the last five minutes family groups came together and held hands, we stood together as a family that we had become over the last 3 weeks and more thanks were given for families and the events of 2014 and a blessing for 2015.  At midnight fireworks rang out all around and everyone embraced.  We were warmly included in the hugs and best wishes.

group photo in the church at 12.05am 2015

Nature Watch in the Jungle

large red flower with white marbled petals.  Tightly closed in the centre with petals opening towards the outer edgesIt is 5am on Christmas Day and I have been awoken, partly because I need to go to the loo, but the sky is lightening and the birds are singing.  The Howler monkeys are not so loud here as they were in Puerto Jimenez but maybe they are just drowned out by the medley of birdsong.  I have tried to record it on my phone but the result doesn’t really do justice to the beauty and clarity of the sounds that are all around me.  Apparently more than 100 birds have been recorded in this small peninsula in Costa Rica and judging by the myriad calls I am listening to I think they are all singing now!

wooden lodge in jungleI am staying in a tent hung in a wooden platform which I hope is snake proof but suspect is not.  Snakes are my only real fear.  Insects are a nuisance especially in the evening as the sun goes down but apart from reacting to the bites with large red weals as I do, they are mostly harmless.  The mosquitos here do not carry malaria and we have seen little sign of any anyway.  Javier told us that Costa Rica has only just recently been declared malaria free.  There are bats in the toilet behind my sleeping quarters which fly hurriedly out of the window when I unzip the door. I have to wipe the guano from the toilet seat before sitting down (TMI, sorry!)

red flower which is oval shaped and has separate petals pointing upwards. orange bird of paradise flower looking upwards through star shaped red spotted leaves.I am looking out immediately onto shrubs and with brightly coloured leaves and flowers in what seems to be a well planted garden surrounded by the tall trees of the jungle. A hint of steam rising from the tops of the trees gives an ethereal feel and, at this time of day, the temperature is deliciously cool.  As the birds awake a new song joins the throng and others fade away.  Few birds can be seen but every now and then tiny little yellow and green birds flit across my vision, then a flash of brilliant red and high up I see the silhouette of macaws accompanied by their raucous screech. A pair of brilliant red, green and b;lack birds have just flown noisily across right in front of me and landed in a tree opposite, and then a pair of black with almost fluorescent red wings birds whizzed by too!

Christmas Day is the hump day on our trip – the exact midpoint and it could be a difficult one for some who are more than a little homesick.  However, they are pulling together and supporting each other and all very excited for Secret Santa and the prospects of the day.

Today’s walk gave us the opportunity to look around us and enjoy the scenery and learn about the plants and animals we could see.  It was a 10km circular walk around the lodge, just a day pack, some snacks and water.  This evening I tried to write down as much as I could remember of what Randall told us but couldn’t get all of it.  So, for our reflection I asked the girls to all tell us something that they learned today.  What a wondrous thing crowdsourcing memories is! Here are the facts in no particular order.  This website gives some additional information.

The Ceiba tree (pronounced sayba) is sacred to the Mayans and has sharp spikes all the way up the trunkThe Ceiba Tree – this is a sacred tree to the Mayans who believe that the Gods live high up in the branches and the long vines that hang down to the ground are the connection to the underworld.  The roots are deep and give life to the tree and to the people.   The sharp spines that cover the trunk help protect the tree from the Strangulator trees as do the colonies of fire ants that seemed to be hosted by the tree that we saw.  They can grow up to 200ft tall and are often the only trees to be spared when a forest is cut down.  The canopy of the tree is home to epiphytes which also provide space for myriad animals, insects and other plants to exist.

tall, smooth barked tree, with foliage high up.The Surá Tree – this tree is tall and has very smooth bark.  Randall told us that it is a special tree for the Mayans and mythology says that in the beginning there was only land.  When the tree grew too tall the monkeys chewed the trunk until it fell over.  It created such a large space in the forest that the ocean formed in the space it created.  I can find no literature about this on the internet but it is clear that many civilisations believe that trees are the givers of life and connect heaven and earth or the spirits and the people.

strangulator tree, vines come down from above and form trees around a treeStrangulator Tree (Higueron) – this actually starts life out as an epiphyte and is a member of the fig family.  The seeds are dropped by birds in the tops of trees and the vines that grow from them reach down to the ground where they take root and thicken. As they thicken the light is taken away from the host tree and it gradually dies.

The “Naked Indian” Tree –  this tree obviously has a botanical name but because of its red peeling bark Ticos call it the Naked Indian tree.  Randall told us that the it is the bark where photosynthesis occurs in this tree.  The blog to which I have linked the name of this tree also describes the multiplicity of uses this tree has.

walking tree the roots are all splayed outwards and "walk" in search of lightThe Walking Tree – so the story goes that the mini trunks that look like splayed roots on these trees actually “walk” in search of light to help the tree grow. But this could easily be a popular story that guides tell trekkers just because…well, they can! Who knows?

Waramu tree - the guide to the right is pointing at the rings on a tree which has a slim straight trunkWaramu Tree – well, I can’t find this tree on the internet using this name so maybe I misunderstood the name.  Anyway, there is a photo so someone may recognise it. He said that this is a tree that the sloths like as the leaves are tasty.  It is hollow and so when the trees are young they were young they were used by the Mayans to make pipes. It also has a symbiosis with ants – they live in the hollow part and if the tree is attacked they swarm out and defend the tree.

white milky sap from the vaco treeVaco Tree – this tree is called the milk tree or the cow tree and produces a white milk like sap that seems to be high in iron.  It is used in medicines to treat anaemia. Randall also told us that the wood is used for building and so many of these trees were cut down by the Conquistadors.

large leafy shrub which has many properties useful to manA plant the name of which I can’t remember but which Randall called the jungle man’s friend.  Just like the New Zealand Bushman’s friend, this large soft leaf can be used when you are caught short in the jungle.  But its uses don’t stop there; it can also be used as sun shade if draped over your head, folded over the back of your neck it has cooling properties, if you break the stem and chew on it, it will numb your mouth so it has been used as an anaelgesic and crushed and rubbed onto the skin it acts as an insect repellent.

Havillo – this tree can grow tall like the Ceiba but when small it has sharp thorns all over it.  These were used by the Mayans as poison darts; once they took them off the tree they would stick them in poison dart frog to get the poison. The sap of the tree is also poisonous.

golden orb spider in its web. the male which is much smaller is to the leftGolden Orb Spider – the female is much larger than the male which is to the left in the image.  They are not harmful to humans and the webs are so strong that research is going on to see if scientists can reproduce the silk to use to make bullet proof vests.

Ant Facts

  • If you kick an anthill, the warrior ants come out to protect the queen.
  • Big ants were used by Mayans as sutures on wounds.
  • Leaf cutter ants release an acid that kills the vegetation in their path to clear the way.

white butterfly with clear black markings and red stain down the inner edge of the wingsbrown butterfly with white vertical stripe down the middle of each wing, smalle white dots on outer edge of wings and red spots on lower inner edge of wingsButterflies – we saw so many beautiful butterflies while we were in Costa Rica.  The beautiful Blue Morpho flashed by often, rarely settling long enough to get a photo, brilliant green and gold and red butterflies and the stunning Owl Butterfly.

Coast to Coast: Puerto Jimenez to Carate

trekking map of a section of the Osa Peninsulatrekking map of the southern part of the Osa Peninsula Costa RicaOur trek was to take us from Puerto Jimenez on one side of the Peninsula del Osa  to Carate on the other.  42km in 4 days.  Doesn’t sound too bad, eh? Add in temperatures at around 30C and humidity of 90% and “Costa Rican flat” (aka up and down – just look at the contour lines!) through jungle and rivers and you start to get an idea.  Oh! And we were carrying tents, stoves, safety gear and food for 5 days for 13 people.  This was meant to be a challenge and a challenge it was.  For me, it wasn’t so much the walking with a pack.  I have done that plenty of times and for much further.  It was the heat and the humidity that I found hard.  Constantly sweating, constantly having to replace fluid and trying to keep cool.  The many river crossings were, in fact, a blessing as it gave us a chance to cool our feet down and splash our faces with water.  Although we had wet feet for 5 days which wasn’t so great.

But I wouldn’t swap the experience for anything.  The wildlife we saw, the shared challenges, the sense of fulfilment and just being in such amazing surroundings – the sights, the smells, the sounds.

trekkers crossing a shallow river.  Low lying vegetation around the river with the edeg of the jungle in the back ground.  Sunny day with blue skyDay one was our entrance walk, mainly on 4WD track from Puerto Jimenez and crossing the Rio Nuevo several times, we walked 13.5km into a lodge situated at the confluence of two rivers at the edge of the jungle.  Someone, I think, had had the bright idea a few years ago, probably a few years too early for the tourist boom, to build a “jungle paradise” with a central cabin with a wood stove and space to hang out, and a range of cabins that sleep between 2 and 6 people on wooden bunks.  It never really took off but the cabins remain, a little dilapidated but still functional and a warden still manages the site and keeps the place maintained.  For us it was a haven.  The river provided us with a great swimming spot to cool off and we didn’t have to get out our tents or trangias.  Having a fire to cook on was a luxury.

old battered sign that reads "Welcome to the perfect tropical adventure"The high note of the day was seeing squirrel monkeys in the trees.  These were our 4th species of monkey this trip. They are very cute and surprisingly happy to sit as we took photos.  We also met our first (of many)  leaf cutter ants which are everywhere!  These amazing ants carry more than their body weight in leaf to their colonies where it moulds and then is broken down as food. The acid that the deposit as they walk kills all other vegetation and leaves empty brown pathways that, according to Randal, can get so big that trekkers follow them thinking they are trails!

squirrel monkeys playing high up in the treesleaf cutter ants carrying cut leaves into their ant hillChristmas Day saw Secret Santa visit and we excitedly opened the presents we had been given and watched as the presents we had bought were opened.  It was a time of reflection and I know there had been a few tears shed in the privacy of dorm rooms as the girls thought about what their families were doing.  But it was also a time of excitement of what was to come.  We had an easy day ahead of us; a 10km circular walk without our huge packs to explore the immediate environs of the lodge. Randal is a biologist and today was a real treat as we had time to stop and appreciate the world around us.  He told us all about the different trees, animals and insects as we climbed to a high point where we could see across the jungle canopy.  In one direction was the gulf and in the other the peak we would climb the next day to get across to the Pacific Ocean.  (see next blog for details of the wildlife)

the author swimming against the current in a short rapid in a small river

Day 3 was our big day; only a short 10km walk but the steepest climb and as we headed deeper into the jungle the terrain was more unforgiving.  The “hill” was advertised as being “hard”.  It was only just over 400m high but one group had allegedly taken 12 hours to complete the 10km with 3 hours spent climbing the hill!  Randall was confident that we were better than that and could do it in around 8 hours but we still had an early start at 6am – just in case!  Challenge on!  There was lots of “Costa Rican flat” which meant “up, up, down, up, down, down, up…….” We ended up doing the big hill in half an hour!  Result!

very tall tree in the jungleLunch was at a small waterfall and getting there after the hill seemed like forever as we made our way over the seemingly never-ending, undulating “Costa Rican flat”.  I think we had been so hyped up for the hill and after making it to the top with relative ease we thought it was all over and were a little low on moral and energy!  Never mind, only 2 hours after lunch and we were at the goldminers’ camp in the Quebrada Piedras Blancas. All in we had made it in seven and a half hours.  Not bad at all!

Goldminers' wooden lodge in the background with our tents and a washing line in the foregroundDay 4 was supposed to be an easy one.  A 7.30am start and we would be at the beach by lunchtime.  It was not to be. We had a medical crisis to start off with:  Randal had fallen into a low blood sugar unconsciousness in the early morning.  We had thought he was just asleep and then that he was fooling around pretending to be asleep and that when the girls were all ready to go and that he would just jump up.  Leidy, the assistant guide had seen him up and about at 5am so thought the same thing.  At 7.30am he was still snoring, we got all the girls to shout from below the balcony to wake him but there was no response.  We then called his name and shook him but there was still no response.

Nor did he respond to pain.

Something was wrong.

Leidy suddenly realised what it was and went to get some sugar sweets from his bag.  I had been going through the possibilities of why a seemingly very fit and healthy man would be unresponsive and was just coming to the conclusion that diabetes might be the problem.   Leidy reaching for sweets confirmed that.  However, she said that he wasn’t diabetic he was just susceptible to low blood sugar.  Same thing, I thought, but he didn’t have insulin.  To cut a long story short, we started trying to get sugar into his system and after about half an hour he started to respond, we could open his mouth and his swallow reflex returned.  It took another hour before we could have any sort of intelligible conversation with him and it was clear that he was not going to be able to lead us out of the jungle. Interestingly, the first words he said were in English and so I had to translate for Leidy!  He said afterwards that as soon as he came round he felt that he had full brain functionality, recognised that Leidy and I were treating him and knew exactly what he wanted to say but just couldn’t make his mouth work!

After consultation with Javier, the trekking company owner, Roy, one of the goldminers who was also an experienced trekker and knew the way out well, was to lead us out and Javier would send in some more trekking guides to meet us, assist us on a steep downhill section and then help Randall out.  In the meantime, Lisbet, Roy’s wife stayed and continued to feed Randall carbohydrate and sugar until he stabilised.

early morning mist rising in the trees.  A bareback horse walking in front of the trees across the meadowIt was 9.30am before we set off.  The girls had been extremely patient and understanding as we had kept them informed with what was going on.  Howie had also contacted the World Challenge Ops room.  The first part of the trek was along the river, criss-crossing as we went.

basic shelter of upright tree pole and black plastic tarpaulin set beside the river in the jungleThe goldminers’ basic shelters of wooden poles and a tarpaulin were dotted along the river where they had cleared the bank of vegetation and flattened out the ground.  The river beds too had been modified to encourage the flow of water and the washing down of the gold deposits after the rainy season.  Goldmining was a booming trade of Costa Rica (the name means “Rich Coast”) but nowadays the gold is pretty much all gone and there are only a few Oreros (Goldminers) grinding out a living.  They are there, according to Randall and Javier, because their families have always been there and they don’t really know anything else.  Mining in the Corcovado National Park is illegal but these guys roam the rivers just outside the Park and if they do venture just inside they are more or less ignored.  Their eco-footprint is small compared to ours; they may alter the river bed and leave some waste behind by burying or burning plastic, tin cans and bottles but they live a very simple life – no electricity, wood fires, travel by horse, kill the meat they need and use edible plants from the forest to supplement the monthly trips to “civilisation” for basic supplies.

There was some suggestion that the oreros were to be feared or at least people of whom we should be wary.  People who live their lives away from the civilised norms of society, in the past criminals and people on the wrong side of the law would make their way to remote areas to seek their fortunes.  Often the men stay in the jungle for weeks on end whilst the women live in the villages so the camps do not have the calming influence of females.  However, Randal and Javier have a good relationship with the oreros at the camp/village where we stayed and certainly Roy and Lisbet who we met were very friendly and the half dozen other men we saw panning for gold in the shallow rivers waved hello and smiled in response to our greetings.

Roy cleared away the overhanging branches so we could walk under the fallen trees that balanced precariously across the river and cut back the undergrowth to reveal the path beneath.  We had crossed into the Corcovado National Park and this was rainforest as you imagine it to be.  Lush, green, thickly overgrown. The path had clearly not been walked for a while; it was very overgrown, fallen trees and vines and deep mud made the going slow and awkward.  Roy cut footholds in the fallen tree trunks slippery with moss with his machete as we headed upwards.  It seems that Lava Tours are the only group that do this trek and it is one specially designed for World Challenge Groups so it really was a path less travelled. Leidy took up Randal’s calls of “watch out for snakes” as we went.  Snakes were the one thing that Randal feared in the jungle and since he was an experienced jungle man we could only respect his fear and advice to watch where we put our feet and be careful about what we grabbed hold of!

trekkers climbing over fallen trees in the jungleOnce we left the river we climbed quite steeply until we reached the highest point of our trek at 510m.  We paused for a few minutes to catch our breath and peer through the thick trees at the view.  More trees!  We could just make out that we were on a summit, we could see other ridge lines and there was a sense that we were high up but the vegetation was so dense and the steam rising from the ground as the rain fell steadily made visibility poor.   There was a stillness in the air and when the rain started and the mist rose it was all quite ethereal with the vines draped over the trees and the calls of the birds seemed to echo through the stillness.  Even the happy chatter of the girls had fallen silent. Anticipating our trek back in NZ I had worried about being wet the whole time in a rain forest and how I would cope with that.   It had rained in the evenings and during the night but this was the first rain that we had come across whilst walking.  It was actually quite refreshing although I am sure that we might not have thought so if it had rained the whole time!

On a more open stretch walking along a ridge we heard a commotion high above us in the trees and a huge branch came falling onto the path right in front of us.  Looking up at the noise we could see cappuccino monkeys having a rare old time.  “Angry monkeys”, said Roy, “keep walking fast”. Apparently when the monkeys are angry they are very violent and will break off branches and throw them down as well as throwing pooh and sticks and fruit!  Maybe it was the rain and the wind that was disturbing them or maybe it was us but they certainly seemed agitated bouncing on the branches and screeching and running and swinging between the trees.

Suddenly there was a cry of “Randal’s here!”. And sure enough, there he was as right as rain!  He came through the group to greet Leidy who was delighted to see him.  He gave us both a big hug and said thank you for saving his life.  There were an emotional few minutes, the girls too were delighted to see him and spirits rose considerably.  We had just been joined from the other end by another of the trekking guides and soon after Javier arrived with another.  So we had ample assistance as we made our way down the quite treacherous downhill section that was a slippery web of roots, thick mud and steep steps.

waterfallLunch was at another waterfall but this one was amazing.  Only short but a fearful force dropping into a pool about waist deep.  Perfect for pounding sore shoulders.  We were all happy by this stage to just stand under the water fully clothed to cool ourselves down knowing that a) it wasn’t far now to the end and b) it was so hot that clothes dried quickly and wet clothes helped to keep us cool.

trekkers walking down a river.  It is shallow and has a rocky bed much of which is exposed.  The river is bounded by trees and low cliffs on the right and trees on the leftThe last section was beautiful.  We came out of the jungle and into the steep sided gorge of the Rio Carate with tumbling waters and mini rapids.  None more than knee deep so we picked our way down the river, hopping over the stone strewn river bed or wading through the water.  All too soon we arrived at Carate and the Pacific Ocean.  Final group photos and (tearful) goodbyes.  It had been an emotional day, we were all tired and there had been some low moments when it had been hard to keep spirits up as we plodded through mud and slipped on roots and clambered over huge tree trunks, trudged uphill and negotiated the downs. However, there was a huge sense of achievement and huge relief at making it all together with Randal with us at the end.

Our guides on the beach at Carate.

Waterfalls and Mineral Pools

view of mountain through trees and vegetation. Porridge with honey and fresh fruit for breakfast to set us up for another long climb – this time up the flanks of Maderas to a waterfall.  The road around the island (78km circuit) is paved between Moyogalpa and Altagracia but the rest is metalled and very variable in quality so we had a bumpy ride!  At one point the road crosses the airstrip which is rather odd.

cart being pulled by oxen on a road in Ometepe Island, NicaraguaWe passed through several settlements of varying sizes and our driver seemed to know everyone as he waved to them all and tooted at every vehicle! Life seems very simple here, in some ways very modern – technology such as mobile phones, internet cafes and free wifi in every cafe and hotel, and every home has a large television in the living rooms which have dirt or concrete floors and uncovered walls. However, we also saw women washing clothes by hand in the lake and streams and men mending fishing nets and laying them out to dry.

yellow and white church at the top of a hill in Moyogalpa, OmetepeHorses seem a common mode of transport especially for herding cattle.  In fact, horses, carts and cattle share the road quite happily and congruously with scooters, 4WDs, quad bikes and cars.  There are dogs and cats EVERYWHERE!  Some are clearly cared for others are clearly strays but they all seem docile enough. House and churches seemed, at first, to be half built but then we realised that windows are often half unglazed in large buildings and troofs are elevated above the walls, presumably to let the air flow through and keep them cool. Looking into some houses from the street, doors are open so it is difficult not to, many of them have no flooring or wall coverings, plastic chairs and tables and, at this time of year Christmas decorations, and a large television that the family would be sitting watching. People seem to watch a lot of TV; in all the houses I could see in to two or three people would would be sitting watching television, they may also have been preparing food or sewing. In the hotels we have stayed in TVs have also been a constant; the girls have delighted in finding music channels and the hotel staff, often an elderly member of the family, will be sitting watching TV all day.

interior of church with wooden pews and white drapesThe church in Moyogalpa is impressively positioned at the top of the hill as you walk up the street from the port. It is painted the same deep yellow that reflects the sun so beautifully as the cathedral in Granada.  It has no windows but has white drapes that hang from floor to ceiling in all the alcoves.  It made me think of a whole row of giant four poster beds, but it is quite beautiful.

waterfall with the water being blown by the wind so that it falls in a wide arc.But back to our walk. It was uphill, steep, exceedingly hot, 3km that seemd like 30km, but on terrain that was variable enough to ease the monotony of the “uphillness”. We started in full sun on an open track which was unremitting but turned into a more shaded track in the forest after about one and a half kms and then into a dry river bed with huge overhanging cliff – a real gorge.  Although the river was dry we could hear water and only needed to climb a little more along a narrow track to emerge at the waterfall. Reminiscent of Bridal Veils Falls but a wider span that seemed to spray out more. We guessed that in winter there would be a much heavier fall but it was very refreshing to stand underneath and cool down.

a group of girls playing in the pool at the base of a waterfallThe girls had started the day quietly.  They seemed rather down and struggled to motivate themselves after the big walk yesterday.  the heat and the climb had not helped and a few struggled.  The water was a godsend.  After a happy half hour splashing in the knee deep pool at the base of the waterfall and standing underneath the spray they were rejuvenated.  Going down was a cinch and they all but flew down, pausing only to look at the spider monkeys in the trees.

Our next stop was the “Ojos de Agua” which the Lonely Planet guide says is a short walk through banana groves to natural mineral pools formed by underground springs. Well, either there is more than one place called Ojos de Agua or, since the guide was written, what sounded like a quiet natural beauty spot has been highly commercialised!  Never mind, we had a blast there; the girls were quite happy about being driven directly to the pools which have been “captured” with a concrete wall to create a sort of swimming pool. We spent a happy hour swinging off the rope swing, teetering on the tight rope and generally gaining the benefits of the minerals which, according to the guy at the entrance taking our money, would make me look 40 years younger and cure all my arthritis and rheumatism!woman swinging into natural mineral pool on rope swing.

Concepcion: Volcano Climbing

early morning cloud over volcano
Our goal “Volcan Concepcion”

A 5am start in what can only be described as a brisk, overcast and windy day by the standards of these climes.  Our aim 1,200m up the active volcano of Concepcion.  The summit was highly unlikely; even if the weather conditions had been favourable, I think it would have been foolhardy to attempt the last 400m of exposed, loose volcanic rock to the summit with a group of inexperienced walkers. We had been talked out of Maderas which we had hoped we could summit on the basis that it was not so high and did not have an exposed top.  However, Eduardo, our local contact, told us it was a muddy, uninspiring walk with not so many views, fewer possibilities of seeing wildlife and that the summit was in the trees so there was no real view from the top or sense of being on a summit. We felt a little “bulldozed” by him but in reality we have no option but to trust local knowledge especially when we are responsible for a group of teenagers.

Howler monkey in tree
Howler monkey

We were thankful of the cool breeze as we walked up the steep hill.  The first part on the flat was hard work because of the deep layer of volcanic sand we were walking on but the girls set a good pace.  Once the ascent started we were in the forest and the terrain was hard going because of the roots and the uneven ground and the pace slowed.  We were excited to hear the calls of Howler Monkeys and even more excited to see them high up in the branches of the trees.  They seemed quite alarmed at the wind and howled even more as the branches shook as the gusts blew stronger.  We could also hear the calls of the Uracca – the national bird of Nicaragua.  It has bright blue and white tail feathers like the flag and we saw them darting between the trees but they were just too difficult to photograph.

trekkers resting in the branched of a tree buried by volcanic ash
Sitting high up in the branches!

We stopped for a break at a large tree the low branches of which made great perches for us.  Moses, our guide, explained that we were sitting in the upper branches of a tree that had been buried by ash from an eruption of Concepcion.  All the other trees around were new and had grown in the new layer of ash.

large tree half buried by volcanic ash

We saw more Zanate birds and some smaller green birds in the trees and large birds of prey rode the thermals and the wind high overhead. One of the girls spotted a shy little Capucin monkey scampering along a branch; he sat still for a moment but not long enough to take a photo before he darted away again.  Very exciting to see animals we have only before seen in zoos!

view of Lake Nicaragua from halfway up Volcan Concepcion.  clouds in blue sky
View of Lake Nicaragua from Concepcion

As we slowly ascended the tortuous path, placing our feet carefully between and on the network of tree roots, butterflies of all coulours fluttered around.  A beautiful black and green one landed on a twig, closed its wings and immediately blended into the environment and looked just like a browning leaf.  We also saw brilliant blue ones, red, orange and pale yellow as well as the impressive “Owl” butterfly.

cloud line on Volcan Concepcion.  trekkers battling against the wind.
Reaching the cloud line

The wind seemed to be getting stringer as we climbed and the sky became more overcast.  The base air temperature was still warm though and we were glad of the cooling effect of the wind.

As we climbed the forest changed; amongst the coffee trees there were bananas and then the trees were smaller untilo we reached an area of quite compact shrubs.  The sense that we were close to our end point was strong and as we walked aloing the tunnels between the shrubs, we started to be able to see over them at the view beyond.  Not far from the bush line, but still in trees we came to an abrupt halt.  At the back we didn’t know why but the message was passed back that a large white bull was blocking the path.  Even Moses the guide was scared when it put its head down and started to charge! There was a stand off for a few minutes then Moses valiantly cut into the forest to get above it and chase it downwards to where the rest of its group were waiting.

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White bull in the forest.
Little White Bull!

Small pink, white and purple flowers poked their heads out of the long grass as we emerged from the scrub and in to the open grassy slope.  The wind was really strong now and it almost blew us off our feet.  We almost had to crawl to keep ourselves from being knocked over by the gusts.  There was already a group sitting in the lee of a tree from where we could hyave had a view down into a funnel.  We decided that caution was the better part of valour and stayed where we were, crouched on the slope all together for safety. It was an exhilarating yet scary time all at once.  Some of the girls were genuinely afraid of getting blown down the hill and when we moved, linked arms to make themselves a bigger entity to knock down! After taking photos, marvelling at the view and the stupidity of two Americans who seemed hell bent on becomiung Darwin Award contenders by climbing to the top, we retreated to the shelter of the forest to have our lunch.

soft spiky pale pink flowers on the treeline of Volcan Concepcion trekking group having lunch in the shelter of the trees.

Going down tested some of those who had seemed like mountain goats on the way up and gave others new found confidence in themselves as they picked their way agilely over the roots and stones.

We were back at the hotel by 1pm – sore legs, hot and tired but buzzing with a sense of achievement.

Day 7: Public Buses and a Ferry ride in Nicaragua

20141216_072848 red and white public service bus in Granada,  Nicaragua An early start carrying our packs through Granada’s busy market – even at 7am it is bustling.  The bus station is at the bottom end of the market and as we approached a man came out asking if we were going to Rivas and guided us to the bus. We were excited to see that we would travel on one of the old rickety, 1950s old style school buses which have so much character.  We watched carefully as our bags were loaded on the roof and tied on tight and then climbed on board.  It was lucky we had arrived early to get a seat as the bus soon filled up with people and chickens! The man who had guided us to the bus turned out to be some sort of public announcement system; he stayed with us the whole way calling out the names of each stop and loading and unloading deliveries in different places.  During the two hour journey, more and more people piled on, squashed down the aisle, people selling plantain chips and nuts also climbed on, pushed through the crush of people and exited out the back.  It would certainly be a mission to get off at a stop so we were glad that we were going to a terminus station.

Yellow bus at Rivas bus stationRivas bus station was manic and some of the girls found it totally overwhelming and scary.  As soon as the bus pulled in, in fact, even before it stopped, people were jumping on offering taxis to San Jorge.  We had been told that “Eduardo” would be there to meet us so sat tight as the bus emptied.  Then a man tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at the bus in front and said “San Jorge autobus” I started to say “No, gracias” when he said “Estais con Eduardo?” I said yes and he said that Eduardo had called him to meet us and make sure we got on the right bus.  I was unsure – my instinct now is to be circumspect but he assured me that he was telling the truth and since the bus was clearly marked and we would probably have got it anyway we climbed aboard and accepted his help.

travellers boarding a small car ferry. The weather is fine with blue sky. The travelers are carrying heavy back packs. Ten minutes later and apart from the splendid view of Ometepe’s two volcanoes in the distance we could have been at any short ferry terminal any where in the world. We could see Concepcion standing tall wearing it’s cap of cloud and it was difficult to believe that this was a lake and not a sea especially since the wind was causing quite big waves to lap the sides of the boat.l The crossing was was very pleasant – I love going on ferries especially when it is warm and I can sit as high up as possible and watch my destination getting closer – the promise of what is to come is delicious!

Two volcanoes seen across a lake. The one to the left taller than that to the right.

Moyogalpa is essentially a one street town but it is the biggest on the island and actually bigger than we had expected.  It is a bustling port with everything that goes with that; industry mixed with tourism and as soon as we landed the hawks descended.  They offered taxis, tours, accommodation but we had our accommodation sorted and only needed to walk a short way up the hill to the Hotelito Aly.

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What a strange little place! And it gets stranger the longer we stay here and interact with the owners who seem to own a fair chunk of the commercial outlets in the town!  As I already mentioned, we had expected Ometepe to be a small island with a couple of settlements, a few hostels and some food outlets.  So a bustling little town full of tourism was a bit of a surprise.  Ometepe was formed by the two volcanoes – Concepcion at 1600m is still active and vents every few years, Maderas at 1300m is inactive so the vegetation on  the two halves of the island is quite different.a view from a hotel balcony in Moyogalpa, Ometepe.  Tin roofs of buildings in the foreground lead to the majestic Volcan Concepcion with a cap of cloud on its summit in an otherwise blue sky

Anyway back to the hotel which has definitely seen better days, its cleanliness is of dubious quality, but it is a roof over our heads and a space to meet and I do have a fairly spectacular view from my balcony! Unusually for a Hispanic country everything shuts up shop at 5pm which makes shopping for supplies difficult when we go out early and are not back before 5pm.

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This evening we finally met up the elusive “Everywhere and nowhere man” Eduardo.  We are sure that he must be involved in some sort of covert operation under the guise of being the man who knows everyone and has a finger in every pie. It is clear that he has an agenda and that despite there being some element of choice for our trek on our World Challenge information sheets, in reality we were going to do what suited Eduardo! After some heated debate and it was “agreed” that we would climb Concepcion the following day.