Monthly Archives: February 2011

Unlearning to Ski

After finding myself face down in the snow for the second time that morning, with my skis several metres behind me back up the slope, I began to realise I’d managed that rather impressive feat of actually unlearning to ski.

Wengen, Switzerland

Wengen from the mountain railway

It all started pretty well. I’ve been skiing a couple of times before, and while I’m clearly no expert I could get down most red runs without too much difficulty (if a little bit more slowly, and considerably less stylishly, than my friends) and had even tackled the odd black run on my previous trip in 2009. But I was acutely aware that my technique maybe left a something to be desired, so after a day of practising I decided to invest in a private lesson to sharpen my skills up a tad and hopefully move closer to my dream of one day being like the locals who effortlessly fly past you, looking elegant, entirely in control…and I would say cool, except for the fact that most of them still seem to be wearing hideous neon-coloured all-in-one ski suits left over from the 80s.

Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau


The lesson began OK – after showing off my skiing on a nice easy slope, my instructor told me I wasn’t bad, but thought there were a few pointers he could give me. Unfortunately after that it went downhill pretty quickly – to the point, after about half an hour, where he suddenly stopped and asked me if I’d ever had any lessons at all. I was obviously mortally offended but could perhaps concede he had a point, seeing as he’d managed to point out I was doing pretty much everything wrong.
Moonrise over the alps

Moonrise over the Männlichen ridge

But, like a patient teacher dealing with a particularly stupid child, he gradually managed to get me skiing at a level which he seemed to find satisfactory (although it was hard to tell towards the end, as he was getting increasingly bored with my stubborn inability to get it quite right, and spent more time chatting to friends than he did watching me. In fact most of the time he was chatting to me was spent pointing out how bad most of the other skiers were, which was probably fair enough, although I’d rather he’d have just focused on me). In fact, by the end of the lesson I was feeling increasingly confident I’d made the right move having the lesson, and even though I was going more slowly than before, I was doing it better – and speed would surely come in time.

Sadly, finishing the lesson was the high point of the week skiing wise for me. By the time I hit the slopes on the third morning, I swiftly realised that I was mostly very confused. My head was full of new ideas about the right way to do things. Unfortunately my legs had an entirely different idea and clearly resented the intrusion of my brain and decided to do their own thing. I attempted to reassert control of my own limbs with predictable results, and ended up with my skis crossed on a particularly icy patch on my very first run of the morning and went flying, landing rather painfully on my right shoulder. After picking myself and clipping my skis back on, I carried on only for the same thing to happen not five minutes later.

After that I pretty much lost my confidence entirely and found myself getting slower and slower over the rest of the week, as I attempted to effectively relearn to ski. It didn’t go entirely well, and by the third afternoon even the novice skier in our group was overtaking me with alarming regularity. It didn’t help that the resort had had no new snow for well over a week, a situation that was made worse by the glorious weather – there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and it was particularly warm, leading to some slopes turning slushy, patches of mud appearing – and worst of all big icy patches where the overnight cold had frozen the melting slush.

birds on a tipi with blue sky

Even the birds were enjoying the sunshine

It wasn’t all bad though: Wengen is a beautiful resort, consisting of a pretty little village (much nicer looking than the ugly purpose-built resorts in France that I’ve skied in before) and even better all of the main runs are dominated by a stunning view of the Eiger. Plenty of the runs twist and turn through the trees, and the glorious sunshine meant that lunchtime in the mountain restaurants was lovely.

There was plenty more too to enjoy in the area (more on which in my next posts) and I didn’t come away to disheartened – despite my falls I enjoy skiing too much to let it get me down too much, and I shall be back on the slopes next year. Probably with a fair bit more time in ski school though, I think.

You can see all the photos from my ski trip to Wengen here.

Gallery

Nicaragua in Pictures: Gorgeous Granada

A photo post about my backpacking trip to the beautiful colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua. Stunning churches, colourful buildings, crumbling ruins all overlooked by the dramatic silhouette of the Mombacho volcano. Continue reading

How to get up Volcanoes the easy way

Always fancied seeing a volcano up close but don’t fancy the sound of a strenuous two-day hike? Or scared of risking injury by having to slide back down on a plank of wood? Well don’t worry – Nicaragua have a volcano to suit every taste…

Volcan Masaya

Hiking in tropical temperatures with a huge backpack to see an active crater isn’t for everyone – so handily enough the Nicaraguans have built a road that goes all the way up to the crater of Volcan Masaya, with a car park right on the rim. Never mind the fact that the last eruption destroyed a few cars and injured one person, the chances of it happening while you’re there are probably pretty small. The active crater is nearly as impressive as the one at Telica (although admittedly not half as satisfying knowing you’ve sort of cheated)…although there was no lava on show while we were there.

Volcan Masaya Crater Nicaragua

Not guaranteed to be the safest place in the world to park your car


Masaya does have one relatively rare feature that can be explored – lava tubes. These are “natural conduits through which lava used to travel beneath the surface of a lava flow, expelled by a volcano during an eruption. When the lava flow ceased, the rock cooled and left a long, cave-like channel.” What this means in practice is a very long, narrow cave. Adrian & I got wander down with a guide (and torches, obviously) for several hundred metres, disturbing big groups of bats along the way. When we turned all the lights out, it was completely pitch black – with no light at all your eyes don’t adjust, with just the eery sounds of bats to deal with. Spooky.
Inside a lava tube at Volcan Masaya Nicaragua

Deep inside the lava tube


On the way back down we stopped off in the colonial town of Masaya, famous for having the best markets in the country. I have to say the main tourist market was rather disappointing, despite being in a beautiful old building – it’s very much run for tourists, and feels very sanitised compared to other Latin American markets I’ve been to. Much better was the chaotic and huge new market – which sells a similar range of goods (as well as pretty much everything else, including kitchen sinks no doubt) but is busier with locals and far more atmospheric. It’s a shame we didn’t get to spend more time in the city itself (our guide was in a rush to get back – if you go on a tour from Granada it’s worth insisting on spending a bit of time exploring the city, as it looked rather charming in a slightly run-down sort of way).

Volcan Mombacho

Scared of the dark? Worried about the risk of an eruption? Then perhaps Mombacho might be up your street. The volcano dominates the horizon of nearby Granada, and like Masaya there’s no need to hike – instead, from the entrance to the park, a great big trucks drives you up the very steep slopes to the top, from where you can go on a nice, gentle walk around the extinct crater. Being extinct, it’s a very different proposition to the other three we’d visited, as the whole volcano is very lushly forested, with a wide variety of beautiful orchids growing amongst the trees. Allegedly monkeys hang out there too – but unfortunately we didn’t get to see one (much to the disappointment of Adrian who hadn’t seen one in the wild before). You also get great views over the city, and across Lake Nicaragua (one of the largest in the world).

Ziplining on Volcan Mombacho

Upside down zip-lining - only mildly terrifying


The real highlight of Mombacho though is on the way back down – where we had the chance to have a go at the “canopy tour”, which is a posh way of saying a series of ziplines flying through the trees way above the ground. Over the course of 16 lines I think we must have managed pretty much every way of travelling – forward, backawards, upside down, flying superman-style amongst others – and it was absolutely fantastic.

Laguna de Apoyo

Laguna de Apoyo

Fancy a swim in a volcanic crater?


If even any kind of walking (or ziplining for that matter) sound a bit too much like hard work, then the Nicaraguans have one more volcano up their sleeve with would perfect for even the most lazy. Another short drive from Granada is the seven kilometre wide Laguna de Apoyo, which is a crystal clear lake in the massive crater off another extinct volcano. We were lucky enough to be staying in the lovely Hostal Oasis in Granada on the day their sister hostel by the lagoon, Paradiso, opened – and they provide a handy shuttle service to take you there. The Paradiso has a few rooms, a little restaurant, and best of all a lovely black-sand beach. We had a wonderfully relaxing day there, chilling out on loungers by the water’s edge, swimming in the lovely warm water, and even exerting ourselves a little with a gentle paddle out into the crater on the free kayaks they provide. It was the perfect way to end a fantastic two weeks in Nicaragua.
Kayaking on Laguna de Apoyo

A much more relaxing way to enjoy a volcano than hiking


You can see all of my photos of Masaya & Apoyo here

Little Corn Island

I may have been slightly disappointed by the volcano boarding on Cerro Negro, but as it turned out there’s a far better (and cheaper) way to get a huge adrenaline kick in Nicaragua – by visiting Little Corn Island, a tiny little island just off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast.

The flight over from Managua takes just over an hour, but drops you on neighbouring Big Corn Island, meaning that to complete our journey we’d need to take a boat. Which is when the fun started – for it turns out that November is one of the windiest months of the year in the Corn Islands. The journey began pretty smoothly as we headed out of the harbour, but as soon as we hit the open water it became clear that we were going to be in for a hell of a bumpy ride. The waves were pretty huge and of course we were riding into them head on. The result was the most fun boat trip I’ve been on – it’s a pretty small boat, and the bow kept being lifted right up out of the water by the waves before smacking hard back into them, showering the inside of the boat with water every time. It was like being in the log flume at a theme park – but more dramatic and a hell of a lot more fun. All the locals had cleverly nabbed the few relatively dry spots in the middle, meaning that by the time we arrived in Little Corn half an hour later all the tourists were soaked to the skin. Definitely one of the surprise highlights of the trip (although I am very glad indeed our backpacks were safely locked away from the water inside the boat.

It turns out we were very lucky indeed to even get there though – apparently the previous few days the weather had been so bad the boat was unable to make the run, meaning we’d have been stuck on Big Corn, which wasn’t quite as appealing. The bad weather had a few further impacts on our visit – unfortunately the most interesting dive sites are on the windward side of the island, and the waves were so big we had to stick to the leeward side, which has less interesting dive sites. When I went out it was OK – a pretty standard coral and fish type site, but it felt more disappointing as I knew on the other side of the island there are some amazing shark-filled caves and underwater canyons you can swim through, as well as another side where you can see Hammerhead sharks, which would’ve been cool. Still, it was nice to be diving again, my first time since Bohol in the Philippines back in February last year.

At least my experience was nice and relaxing – whereas while I was out diving, Adrian went out fishing with Tyler & Cassidy, the American couple we’d met while hiking on Volcan Telica – and in his infinite wisdom the local fisherman took them out on the windy side of the island, with the result that most of the boat got pretty seasick. I’m quite glad I stuck to being under the water rather than on top of it.

Luckily the bad weather mostly just meant wind, waves and the odd cloud – and not the rain that we’d feared. So we had plenty of time to chill out – and Little Corn was the perfect place to do it.

Little Corn Island

The island is pretty tiny – it’s just over one square mile in size, and only has around 1,000 inhabitants, meaning it’s the perfect place to relax. Other than diving or fishing, there’s little to do but lounge around on the beautiful, empty beaches, which is what we did. We stayed in the lovely Casa Iguana – a collection of little wooden cabins right on the edge of the beach on the eastern side of the island. It was fantastic being able to get up in the morning and wander out onto the balcony with a view over the Caribbean. The other thing I loved about the place was the collection of dogs that lived there. The whole island is more or less their playground, and one dog in particular decided to adopt us – he slept outside our cabin, and then when we got up he’d follow us round the island, often sitting under the table when we stopped for a drink somewhere (and then barking if he wasn’t getting enough attention – he was quite a needy dog), before leading us home again in the dark.

Corn Island Dog

The island is definitely not the place to go if you’re inpatient – life moves at a glacially slow pace there, meaning you normally have to wait a loooong time for food to arrive in restaurants, but it’s all worth it if you’re trying the local speciality. Other than tourism, the main industry on the island is lobster fishing – and that means Lobster is ridiculously cheap. On our last night we ate at Miss Bridget’s, a tiny (and easily missed – it looks more like a house from the outside) restaurant that we’d been told was the best on the island, and for $8 I had an amazingly fresh Lobster (we saw the chef’s husband bringing in the lobster he’d just caught on our way into the restaurant) grilled with a fantastic garlic sauce. In retrospect we should have just eaten there every night, it was so good (and so cheap) I could have eaten it again and again.

There was one exception to the normally laid back pace of life: because Saturday night on the island is party night. After watching yet another incredible sunset from our table in Cafe Tranquilo, the social hub of the island, the energy picked up with a pub quiz (which we won – and were rewarded with a free bottle of Flor de Caña, the absolutely delicious Nicaraguan rum) and then headed into the interior of the island to the one nightclub on the island. I can’t remember the name of it, but it was packed with locals and tourists dancing away to reggae (the former obviously doing it much better than the latter, a point I was painfully reminded of when two of the local girls tried to dance with Adrian & me. It was rather embarrassing. But luckily not all tourists turned out to be that bad – Cassidy’s dance moves were more than enough to put the locals in their place). After all that dancing we headed outside, where we were surprised to all be given a free plate of noodles. Maybe they’re worried that after all that dancing you’ll have worked up quite an appetite. Whatever the reason it’s not something I’ve ever seen before (and I think it was more appreciated by the dog, who helped us finish off all the leftovers).

Little Corn Island Caribbean sunset

We were only there for three days but I really fell in love with the place, and I’d love to go back some time, not least to experience the diving I missed out on.