I have been staying on an island for the past few days. Peaceful and idyllic, you may think. The perfect place for tranquil reflection and relaxation. Not a chance. Because Ometepe is an island with a difference. Several, in fact….
Not content with regular tropical island status, Isla Ometepe holds a number of admirable accolades. Firstly, it is the the world’s largest volcanic island to be found upon a freshwater lake. Then, Lake Nicaragua, in which it sits, is the largest lake in Central America. Also, and rather greedily, Ometepe boasts not one but two volcanoes. And if that weren’t enough, Volcan Concepcion, largest and only active one of the two, is so volatile that the matter spewed out by it’s numerous eruptions have increased it’s height over the years to crown it with the lofty superlative ‘highest lake island on the planet’. Impressive.
With a billing like that, I don’t know what made me think I could get away with a simple morning stroll followed by a gentle paddle in the lake – I should have known better.
It had absolutely nothing to do with the volcanoes. Long ago on this trip I came to the conclusion that climbing those hulking great things was not for me. Hiking is to my liking; but upwards? For hours at time, only to end up surrounded by cloud, black dust and absolutely no view? No thanks. I’d rather admire them puff out pink clouds at sunset, beer in one hand, camera in the other. A bit like this:
Volcan Concepcion, Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua.
To be fair, things with this walk had been unconventional right from the start. I was practically summoned to my feet by the unmistakable grunts and growls of howler monkeys a little to the right of my ramshackle bedroom window. My curiosity piqued, I followed my ears to the trees surrounding the little brown-sand beach on the lake shore, where I was rewarded by a whole troupe of these grumpy looking fellas. Not the least bit perturbed by my presence, their breakfast continued noisily in the treetops around me as I tiptoed around below. Apparently, these hard-to-digest leaves form the majority of their diet, which may just be what all the complaining was about. Or maybe they didn’t appreciate early morning interruptions.
Mantled Howler Monkey (male, quite obviously!)
My morning continued with a splash across the lake to Monkey Island, home to an altogether different type of monkey; the Capuchin. These guys were very playful – scurrying along to the very tips of branches to access the sweetest new leaves possible. I spent a happy half an hour paddling in close and watching them swing between the trees that overhung the lake-waters below. It was only while I was busy performing gymnastic feats of my own, holding the oar between my feet, teeth gripping dry-bag, hands retrieving camera from within and simultaneously balancing the kayak (a double, with single occupant, as it happened) , that I noticed the perilousness of my predicament. Being a windy kind of a lake, I had drifted further than anticipated underneath the canopy of the trees and the fluffy-faced subject framed by my lens was now eyeing up the free seat on my kayak with a cross between glee and indignation. Enough monkey business – time for some serious back-paddling!
Hey you! Away from my leaves! White-faced Capuchin, Monkey Island, Ometepe.
Unfortunately, such was my eagerness to beat a hasty retreat from the capuchins that I wasn’t really looking at where I was going. Before long, the wind was whipping up white-tops on the lake and merrily carrying both kayak and self off to the opposite shore and the Isthmus of Rivas. It was only after a superhuman battle with the elements involving 40 minutes of paddling flat out against extreme winds and the most uncooperative currents I’ve ever encountered on a kayak, that I found my way back to the sheltered lea of the land.
The all-too-distracting lakeside landscapes – it’s calm shore-side but wait ’til you hit the open water!
Aching and a relieved after my adventurous outing, I abandoned the kayak back on the beach and headed for home. A path over the rocks along the coast caught my eye and I wandered along it, heading vaguely for the road that would lead back to the guesthouse. I passed children and streams of washing, chickens and men in hammocks. A break in the trees gave a great view of Monkey Island.
It was all very pretty and I was well on my way to being charmed all over again, when the path headed inland and I became aware of mushiness underfoot. A swamp? A muddy bog? Quicksand? What else was this bountiful island going to throw in my direction? A closer inspection revealed the answer; mangoes! Well, I’d worked up quite an appetite what with all the paddling and such. The tree was on common land and there was no evidence people were trying to harvest them; quite the contrary, they were rotting on the ground! The volcanoes make the soil here so fertile that there is no need for fertiliser and everything is organic. I was just perusing the potential candidates for ripe specimens when a chorus of thuds all around caused me to look up in momentary confusion. It was that wind again, sending mangoes splatting to the ground with unforeseen velocity and vehemence. Grabbing the nearest fruit I could find I pocketed it and made a beeline for open ground before becoming mango mush myself!
Not until I was safely ensconced back at my hostel did I relax into the sanctity of a hammock to dine on my treasured organic mango. I was happily relating the trials of the day to the Nica boys who owned the place when I took my first bite – and they all fell about laughing when I told them all about the perils of their paradise; monkeys, mangoes, and, as it turned out seconds later when an unwelcome white head appeared from a hole inside the fruit – maggots!