To catch first glimpse of the twin volcanoes of Ometepe Island, we left our cabins in the Costa Rican cloud forests of Monteverde at the crack of dawn, travelled down bumpy mountain roads back to the Panamerican Highway, negotiated the border crossing into Nicaragua and piled into taxis to San Jorge, the ferry port for the island.
With our bags sitting among tonnes of bananas, our ferry rocked gently in the wind and I began to explain to my group that Lake Nicaragua was the world's tenth largest freshwater lake, the largest in Central America, and the only one home to three different types of shark, who swam in from the Caribbean sea down the San Juan river.
Ometepe is the largest of around 400 islands in the lake, and was originally settled by Chorotega and Nahuatl peoples. Having been overpowered in Mexico by warring Olmec tribes, these people had consulted their oracle, who told them of a place where they would be able to settle near a freshwater sea. There they would see an island with two high mountains. When their exodus led them to Lake Nicaragua, and they saw two peaks looming up out of the water, they knew had discovered the promised land the oracle had spoken of. This island was named Ometepe, meaning 'between two hills' in Nahuatl.
The volcanoes, Concepción and Maderas, rose up impressively before us as we crossed towards Moyogalpa, the island's largest village and main ferry port. A small wisp of ash billowed from the top of Concepción, one of Nicaragua's six active volcanoes, while dormant Maderas, the smaller of the two and covered in foliage, was nestled in clouds.
We were to stay in cabins overlooking the Santo Domingo beach, on the island's isthmus. Years ago, lava from the two volcanoes had created this landmass, thus uniting Ometepe Island.
Upon arrival in Moyogalpa, we piled ourselves and our bags into a couple of minibuses, and drove across the island towards Santo Domingo. A herd of cows, then a puncture delayed one of the buses, but as the new tyre was being fitted a family of howler monkeys appeared in some trees above us, making a tremendous noise, and we saw some beautiful iridescent blue morpho butterflies whose gilded wings shone in the sun.
We stopped in Valle Verde, a pristine volcanic sand beach with a marvellous view of the Maderas volcano, still shrouded in cloud. As we fought amongst ourselves over the hammocks and sipped our first Nicaraguan beers, we spotted some green parrots in the palm trees and became aware that striking urracas (white throated jays with long blue tails) where everywhere, scavenging the crumbs of our sandwiches. Those who didn't drink beer drank from coconuts or sampled Flor de Caña, Nicaragua's delicious rum.
Leaving Valle Verde, I decided to pass by Altragracia, the second largest village on the island. We were fortunate enough to be arriving on the day of patron saint Diego, and religious processions blocked access to the main square.
We walked past the candles and the incense, almost tripping over pigs and chickens which roamed freely in the streets, and went into the large yellow church. Outside were several imposing stone idols, the gods of the pre-Hispanic peoples. In nearby fields, petroglyphs left behind by the indigenous tribes lay abandoned, cows grazing around them.
Before going to the hotel, I had a surprise in store for my group. I had arranged to take a small private boat across from the Concepción side of the island to the Maderas side while the sun was setting towards the Pacific coast and the two volcanoes loomed behind us. As we set off, small clouds closed in on Concepción, blending with the ash, but Maderas was now completely clear and green. A few fisherman caught guapote, the lake trout, in the bay. As the orange sun began to disappear, the sky turned a ridiculously bright red then faded as night set in. Behind us the volcanoes were a constant presence.
As we arrived in the small village of San Ramón, fisherman were returning with the day's catch, and I asked a friend Alberto if he could prepare some dinner for us. We walked up through his garden as glow worms flickered around us, and had a few more beers and Flor de Cañas as he prepared some guapote. We ate outside under the stars, and the trout, with fried plantain, rice, and red beans, was absolutely delicious.
Driving up in the dark towards the cabins on Santo Domingo beach, we could see little more than the bumpy dirt track in front of us, but we felt the looming presence of the islands' twin volcanoes.
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