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 most 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.

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.

After one hour, the ferry docks in Moyogalpa, on the island’s north-western shore, which is Ometepe’s primary port and commercial centre. Moyogalpa, in the native language, means ‘place of mosquitos‘. 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). 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.

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 is Ometepe’s second largest town and former site of the island’s indigenous capital. It’s original name was Astagalpa, meaning ‘house of the herons’, in Nahuatl. Altagracia is also known for its fiestas patronales dedicated to San Diego de Alcala, the town’s patron saint, from 12th November until 17th November. 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 winds across the isthmus to Volcan Maderas, which makes up the south-eastern half of the island.
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 stylised 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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