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

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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!"

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