Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ometepe Adventures

With our time in Costa Rica quickly coming to a close we have had to get serious about checking some things off of our to do list. One of those to dos was to travel to Nicaragua. It just so happened that Chris had stumbled across information for the 2012 Fuego y Agua Ultramarathon last year and so plans for a trip were in the making. We had heard wonderful things about Isla Ometepe from friends and the lure of running another volcano race was too great to pass up. And so, Chris signed up to run the 100 kilometer race and I jumped on board signing up to volunteer for the event.

Our Ometepe adventure began on Valentine's Day - not anything that we ever celebrate, but our host mom pointed out that we would get to celebrate in the city. We enjoyed a day in San Jose complete with a dance performance at Teatro Nacional. It was a lovely surprise as we had only planned on getting a schedule of events to see if there was anything we could recommend to Sarah (Chris' sister) when she comes to visit later in the month. Instead we settled in for a lunchtime show at a budget friendly $2 a person. The rest of our day was filled with cheap and delicious pizza, downtime at the hostel and later Subway subs, plantain chips and apple pie over Seinfeld reruns. It was a great way to start our vacation.

The next morning we caught an early bus to Nicaragua. The trip was very different from that to Panama. We didn't stop until we got to the border (as opposed to stopping every three to four hours on the way to Panama). There we had a little bit of a dispute about border crossing fees. We had been told we needed to pay 8000 colones ($16); that was fine until we heard other people being charged $13. After much conversation we were finally told that it was because conversion rates were different at the border - or perhaps money is being made - and so we dug out some dollars that we had pulled out to pay for our hotel in Nicaragua and used that to save ourselves $6. After that was taken care of we were anxious to just get to our end destination, Isla Ometepe.

View of Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua from the ferry

About 20 minutes after leaving the border we arrived in Rivas, where we would take a taxi to San Jorge and board the ferry to the island. First we had to find an ATM, get some cordobas (the local currency) and find a legit taxi driver. We did the first two just fine, we didn't use a legit taxi but we got a good price and had a great conversation with our driver. We passed a funeral procession on the way to the docks and were saddened by the sight of friends and family carrying the coffin of their loved one down the street. We did enjoy other sights though, those of bicitaxis (bikes with a carriage attached to the front to carry passengers), mototaxis (motorcycles with carriages attached) and horse drawn carriages. I must say they all looked like delightful forms of transportation! We also enjoyed the sight of mangos confites (small, super sweet mangoes) at the docks and bought a couple to take to the island with us.

We had a nice ferry ride. The volcanoes of Isla Ometepe loomed before us and Chris had his first glimpse of what the race might hold for him. We quickly forgot any worries though when a nice couple sat down next to me and started talking about their lives on the island. Ingelina was everything that Peace Corps had told us a host mom might be when we first arrived in country. She kept her hand on my leg most of the time, rested her head on my shoulder and frequently patted my hand as we talked. I relished the experience as it was one that I never did have with a host mom. When we landed in Moyogalpa, one of the main towns on the island, her husband Zuan carried my bag for me until we reached the main road where we parted ways. 

A welcome from The Landing

Once on tierra firma again, Chris and I checked into our hotel, The Landing, and set out to explore and find some dinner. Our walk through town was nice, most homes had a pig wandering around in the front yard, horses wandered about, we spotted a panaderia (bakery), and one little girl whooped and swung a soda bottle over her head as we passed by. Then we found what we had been looking for, delicious fish, rice, beans and cold drinks. With a long day of travel behind us it felt good to fill our bellies and then call it an early night.

We woke early the next day and walked to the panaderia. We talked to the owner for quite a while about the race and then walked away with fresh whole grain bread and a chunk of smoked cheese. We added our mangoes from the day before to the mix and had a breakfast of champions. We followed breakfast with a trash clean up put on by Josue and Paula, the race directors. We met other runners and volunteers and we able to see a little more of Moyogalpa before looking for some lunch. Lunch was delicious fish tacos (fish fresh from the lake) and batidos (milkshakes - we chose banana). We ate too much and then relaxed in hammocks until I had my volunteer orientation and pizza dinner at the race office.

On Friday we decided to go on a new adventure - a canopy tour! I popped into a "free tourist information" stand and talked to a guide about activities that wouldn't tire out Chris' legs before the race. What we came up with was a canopy tour (zip lining). I went back and talked to Chris since we try to travel on a small budget, but he told me that he wanted the trip to be about more than the race, so we went for it. It was well worth it! 


Between zip line sections
The crew at Chico Largo Adventures was great. The company is owned and operated by Nicaraguans which made it even better. The staff joked with us and made sure that we had a good time. The tour consisted of about ten zip lines (the final one has you reach speeds of approximately 110k/h), a Tarzan swing, a suspension bridge and two free falls. We flew like Superman and even went together on one of the lines. There were shouts of joy, surprise and shock. We had great views of the lake, local lagoons and of course Volcan Concepcion and Volcan Maderas. We finished our tour in time to meet the taxi that we had made arrangements with for transport back to the hotel. We stopped in at the Cornerhouse where we split a hummus sandwich and carrot cake for lunch. Then we spent more time in hammocks until we went to the pre-race dinner at Charco Verde.

At Charco Verde we had a nice pasta dinner, watched a beautiful sunset, met some amazing people and got squared away on the final race details. The meal was followed up by some baile tipico (traditional dance) and then a bus ride back to the hotel. 

Sunset at Charco Verde

Baile Tipico

Morning came quickly as the 100k started at 4:00am. Chris left the hotel shortly after 3 and I followed to meet up with him before the starting gun went off. The runners were anxiously wandering at the starting line, ready for their big island adventure. (More to come on the race with a blog from Chris).

Chris (red hat) and Ben (blue shirt & eventual winner of 100k) at the start line
I hung out at the race office until my volunteer crew showed up and then we went out to set up an aid station that would serve the 25k runners before and after they climbed Volcan Concepcion and the 100k runners at about 81 kilometers in. We had water, Powerade, Honey Stingers, peanut butter sandwiches, pizza and more. Runners (and volunteers!) were well nourished throughout the day. It was a lot of fun to see the runners come through and to encourage them to keep on going. 

View of Volcan Concepcion from La Flor aid station

The hardest part of the day was when I would receive information on 100k runners that had dropped from the race. Knowing the Chris had gone into the race coming off of an injury (he could hardly walk without pain the week before) I kept worrying that his number would be next. But then he came into my aid station at about 14 hours. He was ready to call it quits, having tired legs and a 1200 meter climb ahead of him. He sat down and got some food into him and then decided to keep going. I couldn't have been more proud (even if I was very worried - did I mention it was dark?) . After that it was a long wait. I got word that he reached the top and from there there were not any more aid stations to report his whereabouts. 

Chris made it to La Flor! 81k and 14:10, ready for a 1200 meter climb.

At about 12:21am, 20 hours and 21 minutes after he left the morning before Chris crossed the finish line. After descending Concepcion he had twisted his ankle, lost the course and was tracked by dogs. He had a rough final 6 kilometers but made it. The purpose of our vacation had been achieved. There was a crew of about 20 people still waiting at the finish line when he crossed, including fellow Peace Corps Costa Rica volunteers, Theresa and Jessica. There were even some Peace Corps Nicagagua volunteers there! A great end to a long day.

100k - check!

Sunday morning came far too quickly. I had volunteered to run with kids in the Calzado 5k (OK, so it was really more like a 3k). I hung out at the office waiting for my ride to the start line and picked up one of the kids that was running while I was there. I turned out that his community didn't show up for the run, so I became his partner. We lined up together at the start line and when the run started kids went crazy. They went from being in two lines to spreading out over all of the exposed land. They ran as fast as they could, looking for someplace where they could establish their own pace. Eventually my little guy and I found our pace and he ran all the way to the end. When other kids hitched rides in the backs of passing trucks, he kept on running. When other kids stopped to walk, he kept on running. He told me that he wants to run the ultramarathon one day. At the finish I made sure he got his participants t-shirt and finisher's medal. I may have been tired, but I got my own little race in and had a great time!

Church, Isla Ometepe

The rest of the day was pretty relaxing. We got cold drinks and went to clean up. Lunch was back at Charco Verde, all of the runners and volunteers were recognized for all of their hard work. We were able to talk to other runners and volunteers. The whole event was really amazing. The people and the places were just great. After lunch we returned to the hotel for some more hammock time and then wrapped the day with fabulous pizza. We were joined by other runners, Matt and Christian, and we spent the evening chatting about life. It was an excellent way to end our time on the island.

The next morning we hopped on a ferry at 6am and started our long journey home. We met some more great people during our travels and ate some delicious anise seed rolls. The journey was long and filled with bad movies. We arrived in San Jose at 5:30 and the last bus that would get us home was at 6. We went on the craziest taxi ride of our lives; the driver had to have broken every rule in the book. But, we made it there on time and alive. We got into Puerto Viejo with enough time to grab some empanadas before the final bus to our community. Our driver dropped us off at our door and we couldn't have been happier to be home.

Lanchas for the trip across the lake (we took a larger ferry)

It was a quick trip and we look forward to the day when we can return to the island. There is so much more to see and do (though we will probably try to go back for the race again...). It was an amazing adventure.

Remember to check back soon for a race recap from Chris!

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