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

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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.

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