Travel Story 

Lake Nicaragua’s Ometepe Island: Traditional life in a changing world

Travels in Central America, Part 6

From the dock in Granada the waters of Lake Nicaragua extend to the distant horizon. More than 170 km long and about 60 km wide Lago de Nicaragua is the largest body of fresh water in Central America. On the west it is separated from the Pacific by the Isthmus of Rivas, a mere 20 km across and once a contender with Panama for the trans-isthmian canal. On the east it drains into the San Juan River which provides a navigable link to the Caribbean, a route that has brought sharks, pirates, and a thriving modern commerce into the very heart of Nicaragua.

After spending several days in Granada we set out to visit Ometepe, the largest of more than 400 islands in the Lake. A ferry provides regular service from San Jorge, on the mainland, to Mayogalpa on the island. But San Jorge is 50 km south of Granada and by the time our taxi got to the depot the bus was full. As it turned out the two-hour wait for the next bus was an unexpected bonus that allowed us to explore the adjacent market.

The sights, sounds, and smells of the sprawling local markets are among the most memorable experiences of travelling in Latin America. During our early morning prowl through the Rivas market the day’s produce was still arriving – great mounds of bananas, plantains, yuccas, and melons piled on hand carts, horse-drawn buggies and the backs of pickup trucks. The day’s commerce was already in full swing as buyers and sellers exchanged money and merchandise at umbrella-covered kiosks and baskets set out along the edge of the road. A woman with fresh chicken for sale had two unhappy birds tethered to her ankle. Another offered tamales from a basket balanced on her head. Our friend Nancy, whose pack self destructed, had it repaired by a cobbler who set up his sewing machine on the side of the road.

By the time we reached San Jorge and set sail for Ometepe a brisk on-shore breeze had whipped up a mean chop on the lake. The aging, plank-hulled boat, which reeked of tar, diesel, and musty wood, had a worrying list to starboard. She was fully loaded with standing room only among the slatted seats of the open-sided passenger deck. Our packs had disappeared into the black recesses of the bilge through a floor hatch that a crew member, whom I took to be the engineer, kept popping in and out of during our one and a half hour trip. Knowing the fate of numerous other over-loaded, Third-World ferries I was glad to arrive in Moyogalpa without having to swim.

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