Day 26—Adios and Quetzaltrekkers


At the top of Volcán Tajumulco outside of Xela, Guatemala, with Quetzaltrekkers Guatemala.

I’m writing this last entry some six years after this trip happened. The final day in Nicaragua wasn’t particularly eventful. It was a standard early travel day. We caught a four-hour shuttle back to Managua from Granada, and flew back to the San Francisco Bay Area.

I have many strong memories of this trip still, all recalled in these entries—of the spark-fast formation of international community at Rancho Esperanza, and then how it just as quickly unraveled and disbursed, leaving a bright spot in my belief that moments of social magic exist. I remember the hole punched through the sky by the setting sun and rising full moon while evening kayaking in Estero Padre Ramos. I remember the combined fear and elation of climbing and descending Momotombo, and how I scraped away the back end of my new travel pants by sliding down on my bottom to get to the bottom on the lava grit of that steep sulfur-stinky steam-venting volcano. This led me to think again about the what a great organization Quekzaltrekkers Nicaragua is: exposing travelers to Nicaragua’s rough and not so gentle nature, while helping homeless kids and kids at risk of homelessness.

We first encountered Quetzaltrekkers in Guatemala‘s second largest city, Quetzaltanengo, also known as Xela, a few years before our Nicaragua trip. This is where the organization was founded, thus the name. We went with them to climb Volcán Tajumulco, the highest point in Central American at 4222 meters. Both our Nica and Xela outings were no frills—rugged and a little rag tag—but the basics are covered, and the attitude was great. The guides are responsible, organized, friendly, and prepared. They’re all volunteers, from all over the world, and they took us places it would be tough if not impossible to go on our own. And we were giving back to the communities we were visiting, to some of the most vulnerable individuals: kids. We saw quite a bit of poverty and groups of homeless youth during our travels. It’s always refreshing to find organizations in the tourist industry that are doing the right thing and providing a good service.

In addition to the original Quelzaltrekkers out of Xela and its sister organization in Nicaragua, Quelzaltrekkers León, there are three additional sister touring organizations: Condortrekkers Bolivia, Emu Trekkers Australia, and Cúrtrekkers Ireland. Each one is a nonprofit that raises funds to help underprivileged people in their local communities.

And now, to next adventures.



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Day 25—Pizza and Travel Friends


Street art found along our explorations throughout Granada.

On the agenda for the last full day in Nicaragua was relaxing, packing for an early morning departure the next day, exploring more of Granada, and going to the outdoor market for a few items. I had fixated on the frilly aprons the ladies in the marketplace wear and decided that’d be my gift to myself for this trip. I chose a heavily pleated blue number with white lace trim.

To cap off the day, we took a cuisine left turn and decided on pizza. Nicaragua has good food, but we’d had a lot of it, and it hadn’t varied much. The last pizza we’d had was on our first night in Ometepe. At that restaurant, we were the only people there, until one other couple came in. Then it was just the four of us. When we sat down in the much more crowded Granada pizzeria, who should we see but the same couple. We quickly got to chatting and it was soon evident that we must join tables. We sat and talked with Charlie and Peter for a few hours. Charlie is Irish and a travel writer and Peter is American and a photographer, and they were living in Ireland. We’d have never imagined then that we’d be living in Ireland a few years later. And they’ve since moved to America. I know this because we’ve been social media friends ever since, and while we’ve been close to crossing paths again but haven’t quite made it, I know we will. They’re two of the enduring friendships we’ve established while exploring the world. These connections don’t always stick, but sometimes they do, and those that do tend to form fast and feel more substantial somehow; they’re more concentrated and familiar or comfortable than daily encounters of similar duration, or even longer.

I wouldn’t typically think to share a hotel room with another couple we’d just met a couple days previous if we’d met them through day-to-day living, but we’ve done that on the road. No question. We met two best friends in Thailand and have stayed with them each, in Brussels and New York, and they stayed with us in Ireland. When in Helsinki, I make a point to see my Finnish friend I met at the top of a small peak called Doi Suthep, also in Thailand. You never know where you or people you meet may end up, or choose to go because there’s that travel friend connection. It’s a bonus benefit to getting out and experiencing the world: it’s a joy to have bright spots out there.

Saying goodbye to a new country experience and sparking new travel friendships: a satisfying trip end.

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Day 24—Viewing Granada from Above, and Eggs


View over Granada to Mombacho.

The highlight of this day in Granada was getting to the top of the bell tower of Iglesia de la Merced, the church of mercy, which was originally built in the 1500s but then updated or rebuilt throughout the centuries as time and destructive forces have dictated. The views from the top of the tower are amazing, especially on a clear day like we were lucky enough to have. I’ll take any opportunity to view those iconic volcanoes, and take a beat to think about how something as seemingly fixed, solid, permanent as a mountain could be significantly altered if forces from below chose now as the time for change. Mombacho is the volcano view from Granada.

The upstairs vantage point provides the opportunity to get a different take on goings-on much closer and dynamic, too, like people watching directly below. I have a ewwww—hummm relationship with observing other humans who likely have no idea you’re paying attention to what they’re doing. It feels a little stalkery but also kind of peaceful, being at such a removed position, taking “me” so completely out of the interaction.


Family resting at the cross in front of the church.


Snowcone vendors viewed from the church tower.

Non sequitur here, I want to say something about the eggs in Granada. I mentioned on Day 16 that we had cooking facilities where we were staying at Backpackers, so we cooked, and eggs was on our menu. We bought our unrefrigerated eggs at the local market, a typical unfussy, nonboutiquey set-up. Back in the kitchen, pan in one hand, I give one of the dozen eggs a firm smack on the cast iron edge. Nothing. Nothing? Not a dent, not even a chip from that shell. I try again, a little firmer. Nope. Finally I grab a butter knife and give it a really hard whack! There we go, and what was revealed was the dense and bright orange yolk I had ever seen. The taste paralleled the appearance: flavorful and rich. Nicaraguan eggs set a new standard.

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Day 23—Masaya’s Steaming Crater


The steaming crater of Masaya, with its toxic fumes.

Our last volcano adventure was to the visibly active sight of Masaya. We traveled the 16 kilometers between there and Granada by bus. It’s an easy, well traveled route.

When I say the volcano is active, I mean it’s continuously venting a noxious gas from a huge gaping hole in the ground. It’s dangerous enough that authorities have decided you’re required to wear a hard hat once the bus drops you off near the crater’s mouth . . . because a hard hat will certainly save your life if this mountain decides that now’s the time to hiccough huge masses of fire dirt from the core of the earth.  It’s something, I suppose. And given that safety regulations in Central America generally appear to be nonexistent, a hard hat is a good indication that, yes, we all recognize this volcano is particularly dangerous.

Risk acknowledged, it’s impossible not to want to lean over the barrier that prevents visitors from falling to a hot, smelly death and see as far into the gassy crater as you possibly can. Can you see red bubbling lava? If you did actually witness something shoot out—well, something that didn’t land on you, or if it did land on you and it was small and hit you on your hard hat—now that’d be brilliant. Getting that close to the direct connection between you and the power and heat of the very center of our planet—that’s enticing stuff. 

But when that doesn’t happen, and you’re just standing there looking at a cloudy stink hole, it’s soon time to move on, and there is more to move on to. Because a bus carries you up the mountain, there’s no foot travel involved to get to the crater, but there’s a good amount of hiking around you can do once you’re up there. The views are amazing if you’re fortunate to have clear skies, and was a nearby dormant crater we walked around nearby.

It’s the rare opportunity to get so close to a landscape that’s so dynamic, and know that it could, without any warning, shift dramatically at any moment. While most of the time Masaya just continues its slow burn, it serves as a grand reminder that we are not the ones in charge.


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Day 22—Return to Granada and Looking Back

We made our way to the ferry and back to Granada with no particular agenda. The next day we’d be headed to our last volcano, in nearby Masaya. As our Nicaragua experience was reaching its final days, this felt like a good time to look back on some photo-captured memories.


The very steep pitch to the peak at Momotombo. We were all thankful for the hiking sticks.


Getting to the top of Momotombo felt well earned.


Strange and beautiful sulfur crystals growing around the vents at the top of Momotombo.


Views from Momotombo’s summit were huge.


High tide in Estero Padre Ramos looks very different than . . .


. . . low tide in Estero Padre Ramos.


New year’s eve in La Garnacha: a lot of young people with a lot of exploding and sparking entertainment. No one got hurt. Everyone had fun.


Coffee in the wild: it grows on steep slopes and is all picked by hand. The red ones are ripe.


Processing coffee in La Reyna. The “waste” from the beans is either composed or fermented to be used as cooking fuel.


Coffee beans drying. View on the way up to Mombacho.



Looking into a crater at Volcán Mombacho. The flora diversity is astonishing.


Looking up to Mombacho from the bus station.


Horse in Granada, taking a moment alone to eat the cargo.

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Day 21—Hiking Volcán Concepción


Maderas, Ometepe’s other volcano, seen from Santo Domingo; on a clear day, it’s visible from Concepción.

We were up long before the sun (but not before the heat: it was easily warm enough to wear shorts as soon as we awoke), 4:30 to put a number to it, to catch the first bus—with our guide, Kenneth—to the trailhead for the mighty Volcán Concepción, which we hoped to summit. I say hoped because getting to the top of this climb is not a sure bet: it’s fogged in much of the time, so thickly often that it’s easy to get disoriented, and this can be a dangerous climb on the clearest of days, so foggy weather means no getting to the top.

We started hiking in the dark, greeted by the prehistoric hollering of howler monkeys. It’s one of my most favorite sounds. Within a short forty-five minutes on a gently up-sloping fire road, the terrain began to go up, steeply, into a densely forested area. It continued like that for roughly an hour, with some massive step-ups, dictated by tree roots, which is what mostly holds this trail together, and made all the more challenging by slippery mud; this is not a well maintained trail, which was sad to see because it’s a beautiful hike, and a big draw for tourists (which equals financial opportunities for locals like Kenneth; he charged a cool US$25 per person for this trip, which is no small amount of money in Nicaragua). If nothing is done soon, this trail will likely be unhikable in the next few years; in the least, it won’t be much fun.

When we arrived at the 1,000 meters to go mark, which is just above the treeline, the entire peak was predictably soupy with fog; it was also starting to get windy. Knowing that there was a chance the fog would clear out (it was only 8:30), we requested the opportunity to wait for a bit to see if things would clear up, but Kenneth was firm, throwing in a few stories about recent deaths because of people pushing the weather limits on this hike, and soon we were headed down the mountain, admittedly a bit disappointed. The return route was over a wide open cow pasture, a relatively steep but consistently sloped downhill. Toward the bottom, back under the trees, we walked along through a runoff area, which, along with water, also washed down copious garbage from the uphill homes and farms.

Back to the road, we caught the bus back to town, said our goodbyes to Kenneth, and then contemplated what to do for the rest of the day: it was only 10! Naps, a long walk to explore the area, and another really enjoyable group dinner at SOMA filled our time. Then it was another early bedtime as we’d be up early again to catch the ferry back to the mainland.

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Day 20—Motorscootering around Ometepe

Pink chicks at Punta Jesus Maria

Pink chicks at Punta Jesus Maria

The scooter we’d arranged to rent for the day (at $25 per day) showed up as scheduled, and after a quick check to make sure we would likely be able remain upright, we were free to motor. Map and list of stops in hand, provided by one of the helpful SOMA staff, we were soon on our way.

Our first destination was Punta Jesus Maria, the turnoff for which is about 4 kilometers (roughly 2.5 miles) away from Moyogalpa (it’s about another 1.5km to the water down a mildly bumpy dirt road), which gave us enough time to get comfortable with our new-to-us machine. While this destination affords some beautiful views of the lake, it otherwise doesn’t have much to offer other than a (at least when we were there) closed down bar/restaurant and a sand spit that extends a bit into the water. There was also a tied up Capuchin that just made me sad and free roaming baby chicks dyed pink that made me wonder (why?).

Monkey at Chaco Verde lagoon

Monkey at Chaco Verde lagoon

Back to the bike, we headed off for the Museo el Ceibo, just a few kilometers down the road; a quick peek around offered nothing that looked particularly intriguing to us, so we skipped the $4/$6 entry fee (price was dependent on how much you wanted to have access to) and cruised on down the road another short distance to Charco Verde lagoon, which served up plenty to our particular interests: hiking trails through beautiful treed areas full of birds and even a few monkeys, and fantastic lake views.

Next on the list was lunch, which we got at the peaceful lakeside vegetarian restaurant (appropriately named) Natural Restautante Vegetariano in the town of Playa Santo Domingo, the turnaround point of our excursion. Post meal, we took a walk along the all but empty beach before returning to the motorbike and starting our return trip to Moyogalpa, which included a stop at Ojo de Agua. The southerly entrance (there is also a more popular northern entrance) for this, what we soon learned, popular attraction is a modest dirt parking area off of which there’s a gate where you pay your $3 per person to the awaiting attendant. Then it’s a short walk along a path through a horse and cow pasture before you arrival at this well-established, and quite large, mineral-infused swimming pool, which was abundant with tourists and locals alike. The water was clean and temperate under cooling tree cover, and there’s even a small vendor there serving up beverages, making this a highlight of the day’s travels, refreshing, rejuvenating, and relaxing.

Upon returning to Moyogalpa, the remainder of the day consisted of cleaning up, relaxing, and eating a nice dinner at SOMA. Then it was quick to bed: we’d be up before the sun the next day to climb Volcán Concepción, one of the two volcanos that make up Ometepe.

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Day 19—On to Ometepe

The ferry arriving to Ometepe

The ferry arriving to Ometepe

The following day we caught the bus to the transportation-hub town of Rivas, from which we would travel to the town of San Jorge, from which we would take the ferry to the Lake Nicaragua island of Ometepe. We had considered taking the much longer (overnight) ferry from Granada directly to Ometepe, but we’d been warned of two possible holdups that could likely occur: sometimes the ferry has so much cargo, it won’t take passengers, or if the weather is bad, the trip might not even take place. The ferry from Rivas didn’t offer up the same sorts of challenges (and was much shorter), so we went for the more reliable option.

Upon arrival in Rivas, we and some other travelers we’d met on the bus, who were headed to the same location, grabbed a cab, after the requisite bit of price haggling, to the ferry dock in San Jorge. There, we were immediately (and aggressively) approached by a man who presented himself as a tourist helper of sorts, complete with official T-shirt, so we mistakenly trusted him when he told us that the ferry we wanted (ferries from here go to San José del Sur and Moyogalpa; we were after the latter) was leaving later than we believed, so we should go have a meal while we waited. And he then oh so helpfully escorted us to the recommended restaurant where we should have this meal. So we ate and waited and then boarded the ferry we were told to board. About halfway into our trip, we realized we were indeed headed to the wrong town; the ferry headed to Moyogalpa had left shortly after we’d arrived at the docks, as we had thought. While we were mighty frustrated by the fact that we’d been scammed by the “tourist helper” (our dis-ease was only further aided by the unfortunate youngster who proceeded to vomit multiple times on the ferry floor), we had no other choice than to figure out a way from San José to Moyogalpa (roughly 10 km, or 6 miles). Fate turned in our favor when a bus headed to our destination arrived just ten minutes after we did (buses on Ometepe are limited, so this was really fortunate).

Back on track, we arrived at our already reserved hostel, the highly recommended sweet bargain of SOMA, where we were greeted and shown to a generously sized room. The set-up of SOMA also encouraged mingling among the guest—group breakfasts and dinners were available at large, centrally located tables—which was a feature we’d grown to really enjoy as it proved a great way to meet other travelers.

After getting settled, we arranged to rent a motorbike the following day; Ometepe’s roads are quite—you’re as likely to encounter a stray dog as a car—making it the perfect place for not-so-experienced motorbike drivers. We were also given a detailed menu of the high points to hit on the following day’s trip. More makings for more memorable adventures.

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Day 18—Kicking around Granada

The colorful buildings of Granada

The colorful buildings of Granada

Having been on the move day after day, it was time for a little less movement; additionally, a herniated disc in my lower back was threatening to lay me out, so it was prudent to have a down day. So, we kicked around Granada, which proved to be completely enjoyable.

We had a delicious breakfast in the peaceful courtyard of the Garden Café and then spent some time exploring, visiting the old and ruggedly beautiful Guadelupe Church, not far from the center of town; finding the La Colonia grocery store even a bit further outside the tourist area (we needed to stock up on food for the following day of travel), which took us through a pleasant neighborhood; enjoying the colorfully painted buildings scattered throughout the city; stopping for coffee and sweets at Lilly’s Café, just across from the city center, where we also ran into a friend we’d made at Backpackers; and doing a little shopping at the vendor stalls in the city center. Once it was time for happy hour, we returned to our nightly spot on the Calzada for a beer and people watching, followed by a homemade dinner at Backpackers (the kitchen is open to guests) and more conversation in the courtyard—another nightly enjoyment.

Coffee and sweets at Lilly's Café

Coffee and sweets at Lilly’s Café

While initial impressions of Granada had been suspect, we’d grown to really appreciate the comfort and beauty the city has to offer, not to mention good food and coffee, and great places to hang out and take in the atmosphere. And though we’d be leaving the following day to the island of Ometepe, we’d decided we’d return to Granada afterward; we liked it, and there was more to explore.

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Day 17—Volcán Mombacho and Two Pueblos Blancos

From the top of Volcán Mombacho, you can see the isletas that used to be the top of the volcano.

From the top of Volcán Mombacho, you can see the isletas that used to be the top of the volcano.

We began this day of exploring the area outside of Granada on the bus: our destination, the end of the road leading to Volcán Mombacho; from there, we walked the one-and-a-half kilometers (roughly one mile) to the ranger station, where we had intended to catch the bus to the top: we’d been advised not to hike the volcano because of the steep terrain. Our enthusiasm for this plan, however, began to dwindle as we learned that the trip would cost (not the $9 quoted in the guide book but) $12 per person for the bus and an additional $3 per person to enter the park—a relatively high price in this part of the world. It had also started to rain and the top of the volcano was hidden in a thick fog. So, over our bag of black beans (a convenient travel food we’d found at the grocery store) spread over tortillas and topped with processed cheese, we contemplated our next move. Then a busload of tourists arrived, got out, lit up cigarettes, smoked them down, and proceeded to hike away. We immediately looked at each other thinking, if a bunch of smokers can hike this mountain, so can we. And off we went.

The slope was indeed very steep, albeit paved with paver stones (an amazing feat) all the way, which was both good and not so good: it made for smooth ground, and our feet didn’t get muddy, but being in a continually wet area, a lot of the pavers were covered in moss, which got really slippery, and in the particularly steep areas—according to the guide book, the road pitches up forty degrees at some spots; it was certainly the steepest paved road either one of had ever encountered—this made for some very careful stepping.

The trails at the top of Mombacho were fantastically well constructed.

The trails at the top of Mombacho were fantastically well constructed.

But it was gorgeous! And hiking it gave us the time to really enjoy the superlush surroundings. About two kilometers up, there was a coffee plantation, which can make for a nice rest area (we decided to just keep going), and at the top, there’s a nice lodge where you can refill your water bottle for free, grab some food, and use the bathrooms. From here, there are a couple of hikes that take you around the top of the volcano, and there are guides available for hire if you want a bit more information. We opted for the shorter of the two hikes (1.5 km; the alternative is 4 km), and to do it sans guide. The trails were surprisingly well constructed and there were informative plaques along the way that spoke about the flora (which was incredibly abundant) and fauna (which we’d encounter on our way down the mountain) of the area, as well as the history. And lucky for us, the fog dissipated, and we were provided with  incredible views of Granada and Lake Nicaragua, in which we could see the isletas that had once been the top of this mountain, having been blown off in an eruption many thousands of years before.

Howler monkey spotted on the way down the mountain.

Howler monkey spotted on the way down the mountain.

On our walk down (which featured many tenuous moments of slipping), we were treated to seeing howler monkeys (just overhead!) and a capuchin, as well as numerous colorful butterflies and birds.

Back to the main road, we caught a tuk tuk to the first of the two publos blancos we’d decided to visit, Diría. After checking out the small town center (where there is a colorful and somewhat wacky playground), we walked the easy two kilometers to the lookout over Lake Apoyo; another gorgeous sight, which can be enjoyed from any of the numerous restaurants there.

Next up, a short walk to the neighboring pueblo blanco of Dirilomo, where we checked out the church in the central square and found a store close-by selling the local candy, cajetas. We choose the leche flavor (each day, an array of new flavors is available), which tasted like cookie dough; delicious!

We finished off the day with a bus ride back to Granada, dinner at El Camello—which was excellent—and, back at Backpackers, a nice chat in the courtyard with some of the other guests. Then it was off to a well-earned sleep.

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