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Nicaragua. Ometepe Island. Between ancient legends and biodiversity.

Formed by two green volcanoes; sanctuary of flora and fauna species. Ometepe is the largest fresh water lake island in the world. The tranquil atmosphere and pre-Columbian mystique continue to make it one of the interesting places in the Americas.

From the top deck of the old ferry coming from San Jorge (Rivas) on the western shores of Lake Nicaragua, there are splendid views of the perfectly shaped cones of the Concepcion and Maderas volcanoes, on the Ometepe Island.
Archaeological evidence suggests that humans may have inhabited Ometepe for at least 3,500 years. Little is known about these early cultures, but according to one popular Nahuati legend, people fleeing the domineering Aztecs in central Mexico were guided by a vision of two volcanoes in the middle of a large lake. When they glimpsed twin volcanic cones rising out of Lake Nicaragua, they knew that they had reached their new home, which they called in Nahuat Ome (two) Tepeti (mountains), meaning ‘Place with two mountains or volcanoes’.

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Another group of nomads coming from Guatemala also settled on nearby Isla Zapatera and along the lake’s western shoreline, giving rise to a creation myth reminiscent of the tale of Romeo and Juliet. According to a legend, long ago there was no Lago de Nicaragua or Isla de Ometepe, only a lush valley of the gods named Valle de Coapolca.
Several tribes who were hostile to each other lived around the valley and would visit it often to gather fruit and hunt game. One day, a young warrior named Nagrando met and fell in love with Ometepetl, a beautiful maiden from an enemy tribe. They tried to keep their romance a secret, but eventually Ometepetl’s father learned of the affair and vowed to kill Nagrando. The young lovers fled and hid in the forest, where they decided that the only way they could be together was by committing suicide. The pair slit their wrists and died in each other’s arms. As Ometepetl fell backwards, the sky darkened and rains flooded the valley, forming Lake Nicaragua. Ometepetl’s breasts then grew into the twin peaks of Vulcan Concepcion and Vulcan Maderas, and Nagrando’s body became Isla Zapatera.

Moyogalpa, the main entrance to the Island.

Lake Nicaragua goes by its indigenous name, Cocibolca, which means ‘sweet sea’. It is the largest lake in Central America, about 276 kilometres. The population is around 40,000 residents. The waters surrounding Ometepe teem with fish, and the island’s rich volcanic soil yields a variety of fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Cacao was traditionally the most important crop for the island’s indigenous peoples, but today the main cash crops are coffee, tobacco, plantains, and bananas.

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Untold numbers of giant bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) – known locally as Nicaragua sharks – once inhabited the lake and were apparently worshipped by Ometepe’s indigenous peoples. The bull sharks initially swam up the Rio San Juan from the Caribbean Sea and managed to adapt to fresh water. Sadly, the sharks have been decimated by over-fishing and are seldom seen today. High demand in Asia for shark-fin soup led to the construction of a shark-processing plant in the city of Granada during the late 1960s, under the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. According to reports, as many as 20,000 freshwater sharks were butchered at the plant every year.

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After one hour, the ferry docks in Moyogalpa, on the island’s north-western shore,  Ometepe’s primary port and commercial centre. Moyogalpa, in the native language it means ‘place of mosquitos’, is since colonial times settled on a former indigenous settlement. It is the biggest town in the Island, and hosts around five thousand residents.
It is a bustling and friendly community rubbing shoulders with an emerald-green wall of tropical vegetation surrounding the base of Volcan Concepcion (1,610 metres high). This active volcano went through a long period of dormancy but then erupted numerous times during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Its last eruption occured in 2010.
From Moyogalpa, Ometepe’s main road curves its way around the eastern slopes of Volcan Concepcion, through verdant countryside peppered with small farms and flower gardens, to the town of Altagracia on the far side of the island. Much of Isla de Ometepe’s primary forests are still intact, and the island harbours a variety of wildlife. Along the road to Altagracia lies the Charco Verde Ecological Reserve, a large private nature reserve that covers 20 hectares. This reserve is home to parakeets, scolding blue jays, known as hurracas, armadillos, and monkeys. All this is a possible thanks to the tropical dry forest around the wildlife reserve.

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According to legend, Charco Verde’s plants and animals are watched over by the ghost of Chico Largo, a descendent of one of Ometepe’s most powerful indigenous chiefs who was reputed to have been buried along with his golden throne beside the reserve’s peaceful lagoon. Another version of this myth claims that Chico Largo’s ghost appears to people at night and persuades them to sell their souls in exchange for wealth and prosperity. When these greedy bargain-seekers die, Chico Largo supposedly changes their souls into the cows that graze the island’s fields.
Ometepe’s forests also shelter populations of white-faced capuchin monkeys, sloths, and deer, along with numerous other mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Over 80 species of native and migratory birds have also been identified on the island.

Altagracia, a natural history display

Altagracia is Ometepe’s second largest town and former site of the island’s indigenous capital. Its original name was Astagalpa, meaning ‘house of the herons’, in Nahuatl. It’s a quiet place with an attractive old church and a tree-shaded square. Fronting the church is a park containing pre-Columbian anthropomorphic sculptures depicting human figures bent under the weight of animal guardians such as eagles and jaguars. These haunting stone idols have hollow, downcast eyes and sullen expressions on their faces. More archaeological artefacts, natural history displays, and local handicrafts are housed in the small Museo de Ometepe, located a short stroll from the main plaza, where various examples of pre-Columbian ceramics, statues, and petroglyphs are displayed, all found on the island.

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Altagracia is also known for its fiestas patronales dedicated to San Diego de Alcala, the town’s patron saint (from November 12th until November 17th). This festival’s Baile de Zompopo or ‘dance of the leaf-cutter ant’, in which participants hold tree branches up to their heads and imitate the insects, is said to have originated in pre-Columbian times. Legend has it that after ants destroyed the harvest one year, shamans told people to perform this dance in order to solicit help from their harvest god Xilotol so that the tragedy wouldn’t happen again. The precaution apparently worked, and the dance evolved into an annual tradition.
At some point in the distant past, a massive lava flow filled the gap between the island’s volcanoes. This narrow strip of land is now a fertile isthmus edged by windswept beaches. A potholed dirt road wends across the isthmus to Volcan Maderas, which makes up the south-eastern half of the island.

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Volcan Maderas hasn’t erupted for about 800 years, and it is thought to be either dormant or extinct. Rising over 1,394 metres above sea level, Maderas is slightly smaller and more accessible than its twin, making it a popular destination for hikers. The slopes of Maderas are covered in coffee and tobacco plantations plus an extensive rain forest that has been set aside as a nature reserve. A misty cloud forest blankets the summit of Volcan Maderas, and its crater encloses a turquoise lagoon.
Ometepe is also known as ‘the island of circles and spirals’, because of countless ancient petroglyphs dotting the slopes of Volcan Maderas. Giant boulders covered in spirals, humanlike figures, and stylized animals can be found on land now occupied by haciendas and coffee plantations. Archaeologists have yet to determine which of Ometepe’s early tribes created these enigmatic rock carvings and what their exact significance was. Some appear to mark territory or sources of fresh water, but they may have been created solely for aesthetic or religious reasons. Archaeologists have so far mapped 73 archaeological sites in the vicinity of Volcan Maderas and identified some 1,400 carved boulders with 1,700 petroglyph panels. Pre-Columbian pottery sherds also abound on the island, and almost 30,000 polychrome sherds have been found at the Cruz archaeological site on the north- eastern part of Ometepe. During recent years, ecotourism has become one of the island’s mainstays.

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Ometepe’s tranquil atmosphere, abundant flora and fauna, and pre-Columbian mystique continue to make it one of the interesting places in the Americas. In October 1995, the  Nicaraguan government designated the entire island a Natural Reserve and Cultural Heritage of the Nation, to recognize both its value to the Nicaraguan people and the vulnerability of its diverse ecosystems. In 2010, Ometepe was designed as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.

Patricia Mendieta

 

 

 

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