Isla de Ometepe: Our bus struggles north from San José, winding up on the two-lane PanAmerican Highway, past the coffee plantations that are the real ‘rica’ in Costa Rica now that most of the gold has gone. We get another chance to look at the Arenal volcano, but it is shrouded as before in cloud.
An hour later than scheduled, the bus splutters to a stop at the Peñas Blancas border post and we emerge into the usual swarm of money-changers and touts. Border formalities, negotiations and Nicaraguan entry ‘taxes’ take us the best part of 2 hours and so we fork out for a taxi to the port at San Jorge de Rivas, worried we’ll miss our ferry across Lake Nicaragua to the island. The Che Guevara is about to leave as we jump aboard, but it’s relatively empty and we get seats for what we’ve been warned will be a rough ride.
Waves slap the sides, but our revolutionary ferry is a smooth rider and the views of our nearing island drag us to the deck. Ometepe Island is impossibly pretty. Two volcanoes, including the perfectly cone-shaped – and active – Concepcíon, are linked by a narrow peninsula, which rise out of the lake as if dreamt up by a painter.
Our lodgings are on the other side from the ferry port, so we take a minivan on a 2-hour bone-shaking ride along a road that makes a ploughed field seem smooth. One by one, warning lights and alarming noises are emitted from the struggling van, the sun dies leaving the shy glow of our one poor headlight to illuminate the canyons and rocks on our route. I begin cheerful smalltalk with our driver, hoping to raise my spirits at least for what looks to be a long night of breakdowns.
I tell him we’ve just arrived from Costa Rica. “They are bad people,” he responds.
A beautiful country, I persevere. “If you like that sort of thing,” he says, with an expression indicating that he certainly doesn’t. “Nicaragua is a much more beautiful country.”
We fall back into silence. Every country hates their neighbour – in fact, one of the best and fastest ways of ingratiating yourself with the locals is to tell them how much lovelier their food, culture, language etc is compared to their neighbour’s – but the Nica v. Tica antagonism is particularly bad at the moment. The countries are fighting over the San Juan border river, which runs from the lake to the Caribbean. A 19th century treaty gives the entire river to Nicaragua, (unusual for a border river), but it is a little more ambiguous over Calero Island at the river’s mouth. The main portion is given to Costa Rica, but the oceanic northern tip is disputed, with both nations mounting border forces.
Stoking the fire, is Nicaragua’s plans for a canal to compete with Panama’s. It’s now stepped up dredging of the San Juan (at great risk to the environment, Costa Rica claims with some justice), and says its Pacific-Atlantic canal will be complete within 12 months. As the Panamanians discovered, building a canal is no easy feat, so who knows if this long-hoped for canal will ever be finished. If it is, it will bring much needed cash to this country so devastated by years of criminal US manipulations (including the US-backed Contras war) and the usual corrupt governments that the developing world habitually endures.
Despite my expectations, we arrive at our destination with frayed nerves but otherwise in one piece. And what a destination! A beautiful hacienda with the best food I’ve had in Latin America, including an entire dinner buffet of fresh vegetables and salads. We’ll stay here a few days, I think.