The Volcán Maderas Side

Balgüe is a tiny, chilled little place which is exactly what we wanted it to be. We found a local comedor (eatery) selling Nicaraguan food, plus there are tourist restaurants should you fancy a splurge. The pulperías, convenience stores, are tiny and don’t stock much but as long as we can get egg, bread and noods we’re good. It’s just an excuse to eat out more whilst muttering something about supporting the local economy as the waitstaff bring you your third Flor de Caña rum.

One of the C$50 boats between San Jorge and Ometepe.

On account of my insistence that we start travel days obnoxiously early we arrived in Balgüe at a very reasonable hour but fuck my life, nearly two hours on a chicken bus does unspeakable things to your coccyx. I’m not sure my entire arse is going to survive Central America. We hobbled to our accommodation and checked in before heading out in search of food. Hot tip: Head for Cafe Comedor Isabel for a fuck off great big feed of rice, beans, tostones, and whatever manner of protein you’ve chosen for C$150. You’re looking at C$250 for a meal in the other places, up to C$300 at the outstanding and very much worth the money Café Campestre.


Day one and we decided to just stay a bit local. Finca Magdalena was just around the corner so we figured we might as well go look for some ancient petroglyphs and be all cultured and shit. We paid our entrance fee and off we fucked up the trail. I have no idea what made us think that flip flops would be appropriate footwear, and they’re technically fine on account of it being dry, but my feet did feel really rather vulnerable after Tarrant spotted a snake in the abundant leaf litter. It disappeared as soon as she saw it so I couldn’t get a photo but it was red and black. Red and black means venomous, right? If I were venomous I’d definitely go down the red and black route.

This is a white throated magpie jay, they’re everywhere. I love them. You can’t really see it properly but it’s got a little curly crest on its head.

We were much less blasé about shuffling around after that, choosing our steps way more carefully. I feel like having all of your blood turn to jelly because you wore flip flops on a Central American trail and a snake bit your foot is prime Darwin Award candidacy. We did eventually find our first petroglyph which was a big bastard up a little side trail. There are many side trails and very little signage so it was more luck than judgement that we found one that led to some really old rock art and not some manner of organ harvesting operation.

This is the best petroglyph that we found at Finca Magdalena.

They’ve cleaned the rock around the design which I guess makes it easier to see but would that not compromise the artifact? There’s been very little done to preserve anything and you’ve no real idea what you’re looking at which is a shame. Are they just not considered important enough for study? Would it cost too much money? No fucking clue. We found several more up the trail in a clearing by following wooden arrows nailed to trees. That’s the extent of your signage really. They were cool and I’m glad we saw them though.

Finca Magdalena also has a “natural swimming pool” though by “natural” they just mean naturally fed. There’s nothing natural about the concrete they’ve built it with but it’s ultra refreshing when you’ve been sweating your way around a trail in search of pretty rocks. It was overcast today which somehow made it even fucking muggier, like the air was wrapping you in wool. I swear I’ve sweated out more than I’ve drank, I don’t know how I’m not a withered husk of human jerky.

Probably not worth the money unless you’re intending to spend a few hours here but it’s not the most comfortable place to chill.

Anyway. When we arrived our guesthouse owner recommended a kayaking tour down Rio Istian which I’d researched but the Internet told me that the river disappears in the dry season, and as we’re right at the very end of that bad boy we’d written it off as impossible. Fuck it then, if the river wasn’t an unnavigable pit of sludge we’d have a bash. You can do it on your own, you can just rent a kayak, but then you’d have to get down to Playa Mango or somewhere else to hire a big, plastic floaty thing. The tour included transport to and from Playa Mango which arrived in the form of two lads on motorbikes. At least it was two bikes. I’m looking at you, Cebu! They even provided helmets and they were careful riders.

Casually kayaking around a lake at the foot of a couple of volcanos.

Once we were there we met our guide, Gabriel, and paddled along Lago Cocibolca to the mouth of the river which was being guarded by all manner of heron. Big white heron, big blue heron which is actually grey and not blue at all. Green herons are a thing that exist, as are tiger herons apparently which we heard but didn’t see. They sound like velociraptors.

Big white heron.
Big blue heron. Not very blue though is it.

This tour was such a good idea! The river itself is just so peaceful and beautiful, Gabriel knew so much shit and he was an expert caiman spotter which is ideal given that it’s his literal job. We saw four or five of the bitey buggers. They’re not huge and you could usually only see their eyes and nose poking out through the plants. We’d never have seen them if we didn’t have someone pointing them out to us.

One of the caimans we saw.
I think this is a green heron?

We paddled into some trees which served as the end of the river at this time of year. In the rainy season the river is loads higher and you can go further but right now you’d just get stuck which doesn’t feature high on my list of things to do in a caiman infested swamp. He pointed out a row of little lumps on a tree and told us they were tiny bats. Fuck off they’re tiny bats, they’re in a perfect row and… oh shit! Yeah, tiny bats! How cool is that? I can’t get the photo to look like anything other than tree lumps but with enough staring in real life you could make out their little wings.

Tree lumps! Actually they’re tiny bats all in a row.

We paddled back to Playa Mango where we hung out and had a couple of beers. The reason it’s called Playa Mango is on account of the huge Mango trees lining the beach. We sat at a table as, quite regularly, mangos would fall onto the sand with a disconcerting whump, or onto the roof of the bar with a startling crash. We examined the branches above us. Yeeaahhh… might want to move. Tarrant shuffled her chair around and mere minutes later a mango hit our table. We’d intended to loiter until sunset but to be fair there wouldn’t be much of one even though the weather had improved. The guys took us back to the hostel. Oh, and we told Gabriel about the snake we saw too and yeah, he said it was a coral snake, apparently really quite venomous so that’s fun. Glad that didn’t see fit to wrap its chops around our extremities.

Huge bastard turtle.
Not a hideous view from Playa Mango if you can avoid bring brained by falling fruit.

After an entire, glorious day of doing exactly fuck all but eat we figured we should spend our last day on this side of the island bouncing around Volcán Maderas on a scooter so we rented one. I do mean bouncing too, the majority of the road running around the foot of the volcano is unsealed and the side roads are rough as fuck. I have a full motorcycle licence but I rarely ride so I don’t have the confidence to go with it so poor Tarrant had to get off and walk from the main road to the various places we stopped. What very much didn’t help was the guy who brought me to and from Playa Mango the other day pointing out where people had lost control of their various two wheeled vehicles and died. Thanks, mate.

We started with El Pital for a lakeside iced coffee with coconut milk which was an excellent way to jump start our brains. Then we figured we might as well go an put more petroglyphs in our eyeholes. Finca El Porvenir has three sites you can see before you even get to the car park. We didn’t even make it to the car park, the road was way too stressful so we parked up and just walked the rest of the way which actually worked out better for seeing the rock art. These are cool but if you look closely they look like they’ve been rescratched recently. Like, they could easily have been done last week by a bloke called Dave with a chisel. I trust that they’re genuine though and I’m dying to know more about the culture that made these but information isn’t forthcoming.

It’s cool, but does anyone know what it means?

We walked past the finca and along a trail which led to a left turn and my favourite petroglyph of them all; Massive Bollock Man. Obviously I’ve no idea if it’s actually meant to be a man with a single giant testicle because there’s no expert on hand to chastise me for my immaturity and tell me it represents fertility or something, so until I’m told otherwise it’s a bloke with a swollen gonad. Might want to get that looked at, mate. Looks nasty.

Massive Bollock Man.

We did wander a bit further along the trail as the map said there was a mirador but we saw it in the distance and it was a rickety tower and quite frankly fuck that shit, so we walked back to the scooter and meandered around the road until we found a comedor staffed entirely by children it seemed but they had lakeside seating and fresh fruit smooties so we hung out there for a while. A very small child brought the first drink out, clutching it in both hands, and the second followed not long afterwards with his older sister as I resisted that British urge to ask where their parents were.

A view with your smoothie.

A bit further along the road Tarrant spotted monkeys so we stopped and watched them for a while. I’m never not going to stop to watch monkeys, they’re incredible aren’t they? You get to say things like, “They’re so human-like!” whilst pointing into the trees. Then they’ll hang from a twig by their tail, probably muttering something like, “Human-like? Yeah right, let’s see you fuckers do this!” before sprinting into the branches with a baby on its back.

Mum and baby.
Ometepe traffic jam. You’ve got to be so careful to dodge chickens, dogs, pigs and horses if you’re scooting around the island.

We rode for a while longer just taking in the views. The day had started off with the kind of overcast that threatens rain but it had cleared up and you could even see the tops of the volcanos. If you’re not planning on visiting San Ramon waterfall (and we weren’t because it’s the dry season so we didn’t think the damage it would do to Tarrant’s ankles would be worth it) there’s not a huge amount to do on the Maderas side. We scooted almost around the whole volcano before turning around to head to a comedor we’d seen in San Ramon to shovel chicken, rice and beans into our chops. I’m fucking loving this meal right now but I’ve got a feeling that by the time we get to the end of our Central American trip if you showed me a plate of rice and beans I’d fucking throw it at you.

Can we just take a moment to appreciate this very spiky tree?

What now then? We’d been to a lot of beaches recently and I’d be quite happy to avoid sand for a while so that ruled out any lake related frolicking but I’m fine to gawp at the sand whilst applying beverages to my facehole. We meandered to Playa Santa Cruz, dodging dogs, pigs, horses and chickens as we went. No one drives like a maniac here though and my confidence was improving throughout the day. Tiki Bar offers some nice beach views so we just hung out there. Tarrant had a beer, I had a juice because don’t drink and drive, kids, then we figured we might as well head back and hand the scooter in because I quite fancied a motor impairment beverage of my very own.

Tiki Bar. Have a beer, have a juice, stare at a lake.
I’m not saying I have a favourite Ometepe volcano… actually yes I am. Put a bit of Volcán Concepción in your eyeholes.

That was a cracking day though, really nice and chilled. We’re going to head to the other side of the island tomorrow, Volcán Concepción, which is the big, pointy, active murder mountain, and we’ll spend a couple of nights there.

Jump to “Useful shit to know…”

Ometepe, Rivas Department, Nicaragua

Stayed at: Hostal El Güis, Balgüe

Hostal El Güis. Absolutely lovely. More of a homestay than a hostel. Loads of hammocks for chilling, mosquito nets in the room, two fans to cool the room and our room was cleaned daily. She’ll sort out any tours you want to do and she’ll arrange your scooter rental too. The kitchen is quite small but we only really made breakfast there. The WiFi worked really well.

Useful shit to know…

How To Get From San Juan Del Sur To Balgüe, Ometepe, By Bus And Ferry

  • We got a way earlier start then necessary. There’s a Transjucas bus leaving at 5.45am for Rivas and we were on that one. Sorry, Tarrant.
  • Chicken buses leave throughout the day from 6am I was told.
  • It took 45 minutes and cost C$30 each.
  • Read this blog for advice on the scams at Rivas bus terminal. I think we arrived too early for the guys at the Rotunda who get on and try and convince you this is the last stop for Ometepe and you definitely need a taxi.
  • You can get off there, the bus for San Jorge does go down there, but we went to the terminal.
  • We were offered a colectivo for C$70 each which sounded a bit too much so we declined which made him a bit angry. Obviously he told us there were no buses, only taxis or colectivos. There actually isn’t a bus from the terminal proper.
  • We went to the road that runs south of the terminal to wait and stood outside the petrol station next to a watermelon vendor.
  • We told ourselves we’d wait until 7.30am before giving up and looking for a colectivo. After we’d been there a while the watermelon vendor asked us if we were going to San Jorge and when we said we were we made the universal sign for “just wait here” which assured us that the buses did exist.
  • The buses have the destinations written on the front. At about 7.15am the San Jorge bus came by. It was a smaller bus.
  • It cost C$10 each and took about half an hour but we did stop to fill up with diesel.
  • You get off at the port. Head to the ticket office at the gate to pay your tax, US$1 or C$36 for foreigners.
  • You buy your ferry tickets from a different building. We took the 8.30am ferry which left on time.
  • It cost C$50 and took an hour.
  • Some ferries cost less but I’m not about to wait around for four hours to save C$15.
  • It looks like if you’re cutting it fine you can just get straight on the boat and pay the ticket collecter when he comes around. A few people paid on the boat.
  • Research told me that bus schedules on Ometepe were more bus suggestions. They’re also infrequent. If you scroll down this website from Selvista Experience it has some helpful links including bus schedules.
  • There’s meant to be a direct bus to Balgüe leaving at 10.30am. We found it easily enough on the corner around coordinates 11.540214, -85.700711.
  • It actually leaves at 10.20am (this time is painted on the side of the bus), cost C$40 and took an hour and fifty minutes.
  • Total cost including port tax: C$166 (US$4.54) each.
  • Total time including long waits between transport: Six hours and 25 minutes.
I robbed this off the Selvista website. It’s not 100% accurate but it’ll give you a vague idea. Buses don’t run on Sundays or public holidays.
This timetable is painted on the side of the direct bus between Balgüe and Moyogalpa. It does go through Altagracia too.

  • You have to pay at Finca Magdalena to go and see the petroglyphs. It cost C$100 each.
  • The swimming pool costs C$50 each but I only had C$500 note or C$80 in change so they accepted the change.
  • We went to Rio Istian with Playa Mango. You can book directly with them or we just booked through our hostel.
  • It cost US$25/C$900 each and this included transport to and from our hostel.
  • They were happy for us to hang out for a while before they brought us back.
  • You can rent kayaks from Playa Mango and go yourself. It’s US$5 per hour.
  • The scooter cost C$720 and she let us choose when to return it.
  • We just booked it through the hostel.
  • The majority of main roads on this side of the island are unsealed but in mostly good condition with a few lumpy parts.
  • The side roads are hideous and you’ll need to be confident on a scooter to navigate them.
  • We didn’t find any proper gas stations on this side but there’s a pulpería in Balgüe which sells petrol from plastic bottles at coordinates 11.4911774, -85.5130881. Just go inside and ask them, there’s no signage advertising petrol.

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