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Lake Nicaragua’s Ometepe Island: Traditional life in a changing world

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Travels in Central America, Part 6

From the dock in Granada the waters of Lake Nicaragua extend to the distant horizon. More than 170 km long and about 60 km wide Lago de Nicaragua is the largest body of fresh water in Central America. On the west it is separated from the Pacific by the Isthmus of Rivas, a mere 20 km across and once a contender with Panama for the trans-isthmian canal. On the east it drains into the San Juan River which provides a navigable link to the Caribbean, a route that has brought sharks, pirates, and a thriving modern commerce into the very heart of Nicaragua.

After spending several days in Granada we set out to visit Ometepe, the largest of more than 400 islands in the Lake. A ferry provides regular service from San Jorge, on the mainland, to Mayogalpa on the island. But San Jorge is 50 km south of Granada and by the time our taxi got to the depot the bus was full. As it turned out the two-hour wait for the next bus was an unexpected bonus that allowed us to explore the adjacent market.

The sights, sounds, and smells of the sprawling local markets are among the most memorable experiences of travelling in Latin America. During our early morning prowl through the Rivas market the day’s produce was still arriving – great mounds of bananas, plantains, yuccas, and melons piled on hand carts, horse-drawn buggies and the backs of pickup trucks. The day’s commerce was already in full swing as buyers and sellers exchanged money and merchandise at umbrella-covered kiosks and baskets set out along the edge of the road. A woman with fresh chicken for sale had two unhappy birds tethered to her ankle. Another offered tamales from a basket balanced on her head. Our friend Nancy, whose pack self destructed, had it repaired by a cobbler who set up his sewing machine on the side of the road.

By the time we reached San Jorge and set sail for Ometepe a brisk on-shore breeze had whipped up a mean chop on the lake. The aging, plank-hulled boat, which reeked of tar, diesel, and musty wood, had a worrying list to starboard. She was fully loaded with standing room only among the slatted seats of the open-sided passenger deck. Our packs had disappeared into the black recesses of the bilge through a floor hatch that a crew member, whom I took to be the engineer, kept popping in and out of during our one and a half hour trip. Knowing the fate of numerous other over-loaded, Third-World ferries I was glad to arrive in Moyogalpa without having to swim.

The island of Ometepe is formed by two large volcanoes, Volcan Concepcion, which is still active, and Volcan Madera, whose dormant crater is now occupied by a summit lake. Lava flows from the two volcanoes have merged to form a narrow isthmus joining them into a single island with the shape of a lopsided dumbbell. Although Ometepe has a population of 35,000 it is relatively undeveloped and has limited, but good, tourist accommodation. Most of the people live in small coastal fishing settlements, or on farms and ranches in the interior. But much of Ometepe is still covered by primary jungle where green parrots, howler monkeys, and a host of other tropical creatures live in harmony with the human population.

After considerable bargaining Martin agrees on a price for our taxi from the dock at Moyogalpa to the Villa Paraiso, midway between the two volcanoes. The Villa is a self contained resort with detached cabanas and an open-sided, thatched dining patio overlooking Santo Domingo beach. Set among palms and tropical hardwoods our cabana has a commanding view of Vulcan Concepcion whose perfectly symmetrical cone rises 1,600 metres above the lake. A walkway leads down to the lake shore. The water is warm and lures us in for a swim after lunch.

Most of the islands in Lake Nicaragua have a long history of human habitation but, despite extensive archeological research, little is known about the origin or ultimate disappearance of the first settlers. They left behind a rich assortment of petroglyphs – unique rock carvings depicting zoomorphic images of people and animals that differ from those of either Mayan and Aztec cultures. We got directions to one of the sites on the lower slopes of Vulcan Madera and set out to find it.

Following a maze of narrow dirt roads and trails we hiked past clusters of tiny thatched houses, fields of resting cattle, and through swampy wetlands with flocks of white egrets. We didn’t locate the petroglyphs until the next day but our hike that first afternoon was a memorable introduction to Ometepe – particularly the late evening walk back. By the time we turned around Vulcan Concepcion was silhouetted against a brilliant sunset and the red of the sky gleamed back from the still water of the wetlands. Families, gathered around fires in front of their houses, waved and greeted us with Hola. And when the sunset had passed thousands of fireflies turned the grass and shrubs into a sparkling wonderland of tiny lights.

The next morning I was wakened by a raucous conversation between a parrot and a bunch of kids in the next cabana. The bilingual bird, which was perched on the very top of a tall tree, responded to either Hola or Hello with barely a trace of avian accent. Farther down the line a woman, obviously from Germany, joined the conversation with Guten Morgen. After a pause, the parrot took a crack at it. Encouraged, the woman, who had a great singing voice, offered a few bars from Wagner. A longer pause, and the bird flew off with a furious burst of parrot talk which I interpreted to mean – "O.K. smart-ass, I'm outta here!"

I walked down to the beach for an early swim but a herd of Brahma cattle beat me to it. One of the local farmers had brought his herd down for a drink and the soft-skinned, floppy-eared bovines were enjoying an early morning wade-about where we had swum the previous day. The farmer waved as he and his dog coaxed the cattle back out of the water but the thought of swimming there made me head for a shower.

Although Ometepe offers little in the way of formal activities for tourists the island is laced with hiking trails and dirt-track roads that lead to tiny villages and secluded jungle farms. The terrain is rough and many trails simply peter out in dense jungle. For the longer hikes, and certainly for climbs up the volcanoes, it is advisable to hire a local guide.

Part of our group set out early for an all-day ascent of Vulcan Madera and were rewarded with a dip in the summit lake and breathtaking views past Vulcan Concepcion, across Lake Nicaragua to the mainland. Others roamed closer to home, exploring the rural villages and fertile farms on the lowlands between the volcanoes. Alan and I elected to join Martin and his friend Jorge on a five-hour jungle hike to a waterfall high on the flanks of Vulcan Madera.

Jorge is a 55-year-old local farmer who supplements his subsistence income by occasionally working as a guide. We picked him up at his home, little more than a one room shelter with an attached lean-to for cooking. Watching smoke wafting from a hole in the thatch I recalled my conversation with a doctor from Helps International who was setting up an eye clinic in a remote village of Guatemala. According to him the constant exposure to smoke from the traditional chimney-less hearths causes chronic eye damage that can lead to blindness. His group is trying to promote the use of inexpensive stoves with chimneys – a simple technology that could reduce debilitating eye damage among the rural population.

We began our hike from San Roman, a small village on the southern shore of Vulcan Madera. Initially the trail leads through freshly cleared fields where bush beans and plantains have taken root among the charred remnants of the original forest. I asked Jorge about the long-term effect of slash and burn farming but he missed my point and simply explained how it was done. The beans, he pointed out, were doing particularly well.

Higher up, above the clearings, the forest canopy offers some relief from the scorching sun. The waterfall, which plunges over a 35 metre cliff of lava, almost disappears in a cloud of vapour before reaching the plunge-pool at its base. But the down-draft of cool, moist air is a welcome relief from the energy-sapping heat and humidity of the jungle.

With Martin as interpreter we sat and talked for a long time. Jorge told me the names and uses of the trees and plants. He talked a little about his life on Ometepe – enough to reveal that this small island in Lake Nicaragua encompasses his entire world.