Ometepe is an island on Lago de Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. As i board a small ferry boat made of wood, I can already see the shape of this land, made of two volcanos. Little did I know, the crossing to Ometepe is often quite rough. Winds rush over this part of the country, most often East to West, and that means commuting to the island is a fight against fierce bursts of wind. I take a seat on the upper deck, naive enough to have brought a plate of rice and chicken, though lucky enough to have chosen to sit up there. I befriend a young woman from the island, and as we depart she explains that on the upper deck we will only be drenched a little. Soon enough, we are forcing our way against the strong winds, the water quickly becomes rough, to say the least. Waves hit us at close intervals, shuffling the little boat around at almost horizontal angles. I cannot help but feel that perhaps the boat is little small for such waves. My new friend finds my worrying amusing and she points out that, unlike metal, a wooden boat cannot sink, shall we capsize for a reason or another. Waves hit us ever so harder, and as we are offered a free shower of Lake Nicaragua water, I ponder the weight of her argument, that we would float anyway. In my head, two words blink in neon red light more and more intensely: “BULL SHARKS!” I put pieces of my broken Spanish together in order to voice my shark argument but she does not believe there could be sharks in freshwater, and from where? The truth is, there are bull sharks in Lake Nicaragua, they make for the anxious thrills of most foreigners paying a visit to the island. Frankly, I find it surprising that she wouldn’t know.
Concretely, there are few sharks left in Lago de Nicaragua and I am told they are mainly in the North East part of the lake. Bull sharks are one of three marine species known to survive in both salt and fresh water. They have been known to travel up major rivers, including the Mississippi and the Ganges, where they make a feast of the dead who are thrown in the river (remember Varanasi?). This species of shark has been found to reach insanely far distances into the Amazon forest, and is also suspected to have caused a series of death at the beginning of the last century when they supposedly swam upstream into New Jersey. It makes sense indeed, they are one of the three most aggressive sharks. They are known to be very territorial and are the sharks that are most likely to come in close encounters with humans. They like shallow, murky waters, and please do try to find a better description for the shores of Ometepe. I will not be taking my chances, thank you.
Stories tell of a time where the people of the island would not set a foot in the water, and let me give you a hint: they did not worry about the caiman! This being said though, it is true that the sharks have become quite rare in the lake, thanks to Ecological Disaster Policy of Nicaragua number one. In the seventies, the government allowed a Japanese company to open a factory on the Rio San Juan, which carries water from the lake, East across the jungle part of the country. It was found that the sharks reach Lago de Nicaragua through the Rio San Juan river, crossing rapids in the same way salmon is famous for. One can make a simple equation here: Japanese company plus shark fins crossing a somewhat narrow body of water…
Ecological Disaster Policy of Nicaragua number two is currently taking place, and this time it involves China. A Chinese -though Hong Kong based- company has been granted a lease to build and operate a canal across Nicaragua for a duration of fifty years, after which they can claim another fifty years in split-ownership with the country. The canal is a project that has been negotiated and dropped by the USA and the UK before. The canal would be the longest, largest, deepest in the world. It would cross through the country, by way of Lago de Nicaragua, and allow the super-tankers that are too big to cross the Panama canal to make a quick trip from an ocean to the next. Arguments have been raised about the political implications of a Chinese-operated canal in Central America, and they were rejected by the Nicaraguan government. The existence of such a big Chinese company with zero tie to the government is obviously more than questionable, and yet there are even more stressing issues. For instance, Lago de Nicaragua’s depth comes short of about two meters for the canal, and it would need to be dug in parts, at the risk of charging the water with sediment. The canal would also require the creation of a huge artificial lake on the Eastern part of the country, to serve for leveling of the water. Besides, the official route of the canal cuts through national parks and protected areas, as well as indigenous land. Speaking of indigenous, it has emerged that the government gave a green light to the company without the agreement of the indigenous populations who own said land. The project all together is significantly unpopular among the population, and the benefits for the people that the government advertise are arguable at best. Yet it seems that the project will go on, constructions are expected to start in the first half of the new year, and one can allegedly guess at a few pockets that are swelling alright.
I am sure of one thing: I should enjoy the views of the lake before it turns into a super-tanker highway. The one-hour crossing we were sold has turned into two hours by the time we reach Ometepe. I set a dizzy foot on land near Volcan Concepción. Ometepe is a eight-shaped island with two different sides. The least populated side of the island includes a few small villages along the bumpy track that surrounds Volcan Maderas. The other side is more ‘developed’, with a few small towns along the paved road that surrounds Concepción. In between is a stretch of forest and the Santo Domingo beach where most tourist hotspots happen to be. One can either hike a difficult four-hour track up the high and steep Concepción, or a difficult three-hour track up the more densely vegetated Maderas. Unfortunately, I still feel too tired from the commute to Nicaragua to undertake either, especially after reaching the guesthouse and being warned that the hikes are for somewhat experienced hikers. I am confident there is plenty to do on the island anyway.
The nice guesthouse is located in Altagracia, on the Concepción part of the island. It stands in the shade of trees that keep dropping fruits onto the roof, and the garden is populated with hammocks. On my first day of visit, I manage to grab a bus to the Ojo de Agua, or Eye of Water, which is a pool of natural water where people gather to have a swim. Not locals, though, and I soon understand why. The place has been turned into a commercial spot where you pay an entrance fee, walk by the restaurant, and come across waiters who sell drinks around a pool of natural water which is somewhat shaped with concrete. I take a seat anyway, read a little, and take a nice swim in the freshwater. I take the opportunity to observe the crowd and realize that the tourism is fairly different here. It has a strong American vibe, and as much as I cared for the famous surfing vibe of Nicaragua, I can never be ready for the loud ‘dudes’ who throw beer cans to each other over Ojo de Agua in a desperate cry for attention. Splash splash, I am out of here. Refreshed by the nice water of the ‘natural’ pool, I head back to the guesthouse and meet a few nice people I had met the night before. Notably, a lovely couple enjoying their retirement in the warm winters of Central America, an interesting man on a break from his NGO job, and a medicine student on holiday.
The following day, NGO guy has left the island but the rest of the crew and I decide to pay a visit to the Ceibo museum. The private museum has a great collection of indigenous objects, and we learn a great deal on the different influences of Northern and Southern cultures. Notably, archeologues have recovered gold from tribes emigrated from Colombia, as well as jade from Guatemala. Ometepe is also known for two other things: Petroglifos and pottery objects. Petroglifos are mystic stone carvings that are supposedly not for the human eye, and hence are found hidden amongst the dense vegetation of the Madera volcano. Concepción, on the other hand, is active. Green is found at its foot only. On this side of the island, mudslides expose burial object, and notably pottery, fairly often. The museum is small but well organized and documented. After a quick lunch, the medicine student and I walk a fair bit, to Charco Verde. The park offers a nice walk through the typical vegetation of the island, all the way to a nice beach where monkeys play in trees that have roots in the volcanic sand of Ometepe. We arrive in Charco Verde, and before venturing onto the track, we pay a quick visit to the butterfly sanctuary where we learn about the four species of the island.
On my last day, and despite the scarce options for transportation, I decide to venture on the Maderas side of the island. I take a bus to Santa Cruz, the little town at the entrance point of the Maderas side. From there, I walk a little and manage to catch a ride from a couple who has driven from Managua with a pickup car full of fruits and vegetables. On the roof, a speak announces the arrival of the merchants on a loop, and we stop at a few houses. When the pair decides to stop for lunch, I finish on foot and quickly reach Mérida. I walk around the village from a while, and reach the beach, from where I observe locals who wash clothes in the lake. Concepción is in the background. For a while, I wonder if, like me, they might be shark conscious. After a while, I decide to retreat for I am not sure to catch a ride for the long way back. Indeed, cars seldom travel the bumpy track on this side of the island, and I find myself walking more than I had anticipated. I walk for a good while, and take the opportunity I have to observe the nature of the island. Nicaragua has already struck me as one of the richest country I have gone to, when it comes to animals. I pass domesticated horses and bulls, while recalling the butterflies and monkeys I have seen at Charco Verde. I walk and walk and encounter countless types of birds, notably the very striking emblem of the island: a bird wearing light blue feathers, as well as a crown.
Finally, I manage to catch a ride at the back of a pickup truck, and soon enough I reach the guesthouse. Time to pack, and off I will be tomorrow. After such a long walk though, I decide to treat myself to a beer, and I sit at the table where a conversation has been struck. Two young women have come to the island for the “Agua y Fuego” competition. They explain how a group of sports enthusiasts have come to the island for a few days and will try to climb up and down the two volcanoes in less than thirty-six hours. Agua y Fuego indeed: Maderas would be water for the lake that is found at its top, active Concepción would be fire!