It was a gangly, vine-draped affair, about 20 feet high, with scraggly branches drooping moss like flabby triceps – hardly suitable for a monkey, never mind a camera-toting tourist.
But here, in the dense cloud forest at the summit of Maderas Volcano, this tree was the only thing keeping me from a panoramic view of Lake Nicaragua.
Splattered in mud, drenched in sweat and flicking mosquitoes and rogue spiders from my bare arms, I grabbed hold of a lower branch and hoisted myself up, hand over hand, then teetered at the top, gazing out at what can only be described as one of the most breathtaking and untouched views in all of Central America: in the distance, stately Concepción Volcano, belching a puff of lazy white smoke over southern Nicaragua’s Ometepe Island; all around me, azure Lake Nicaragua stretching without borders, horizon to horizon; and below, a primary cloud forest clinging to steep mountainsides.
The promise of spectacular, albeit hard to reach, views atop Maderas Volcano is among the many reasons Kyra Cruz, director of the Costa Rican Association for Communitybased Rural Tourism (ACTUAR), chose Ometepe to be the association’s first destination outside of Costa Rica, in an effort to show off the island and its unique heritage, but also to encourage sustainable tourism and promote cooperation among Central American countries,where development and commercial tourism run rampant.
“We’re thrilled to be able to introduce Costa Ricans to Nicaragua, to help break down the barriers between our two countries,” Cruz explained to our group of 15 as we pounded north in a van from San José to the Nicaraguan border.
Nicaragua, a country with a slowly blossoming tourism sector, was thrilled as well, at least according to the headlines of the countries’ largest daily, La Prensa, on the day we arrived.
“Ometepe Receives Tico Tour Group,” read the bold-print headline, and when we arrived on the island after a bumpy, hour-long ferry across the lake from the historic town of Rivas, we quickly understood the excitement.
Quiet and Untraveled
Ometepe is anything but an overcrowded, Gringo-fied tourist destination – yet. It is among the largest islands wholly inside a lake in the world, and despite this claim to fame – and the fact that its waters harbor the world’s only population of freshwater bull sharks – it has managed to stay off the world tourism radar screen until only recently.
Petroglyphs are strewn around the countryside, carved into volcanic rocks and waiting to be discovered. Everywhere you look, expansive views of the island’s two volcanoes, 1,340-meter Maderas and 1,610-meter Concepción, dominate the landscape. Locals still ride cows, not horses, to their neighbors’ farms, and the influence of television and radio is barely felt. Cars are few and far between, roads are largely unpaved and the people – most of whom managed to stay out of the Contra war that plagued most of the country in decades past – are remarkably friendly, and genuinely interested.
But Ometepe is perhaps most unique for what you don’t see, namely, roads littered with tourist trinket shops, for-sale signs strewn about like palm trees, foreign-owned condo developments or high-rise hotels infringing on lake panoramas – all common sights in countries to the north and south.
There are no fast-food chain restaurants, no lines of tourists waiting at viewpoints to take photos – heck, no official viewpoints at all, or at least few that don’t require climbing trees or long slogs through dense, sopping cloud forest or exposed, simmering-hot volcanic slopes.
According to Cruz, these things are exactly what make the destination so unique, and so attractive, particularly for groups such as Costa Rica’s ACTUAR.
The association was established in 2001, during the first Ecotourism Gathering organized by the United Nation’s Small Grants Program, which has since funded more than 50 community-based rural tourism initiatives as a way to promote sustainable development in countries across the world.
ACTUAR has 26 member organizations, including indigenous groups, women’s groups, fishermen and farmers who offer a brand of tourism that seeks to “preserve natural resources and generate sustainable lifestyles for men and women who run community-based rural tourism initiatives.”
Weekend trips are the norm, and they include such varied activities as dugout canoe trips near Puerto Viejo, on Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast, and raptor migration watches in nearby Cahuita; snorkeling Caño Island, near Corcovado National Park on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast; and, now, pioneering trips to untrammeled destinations such as Ometepe Island in Nicaragua and, soon, Panama.
Every detail of these trips is worked out beforehand by ACTUAR’s coordinators, assuring that your guide, hotel and even the food you eat along the way derive from local, sustainable businesses and communities.
Our trip, ACTUAR’s first ever outside of Costa Rica, was just as carefully planned.We stayed at a locally owned and run hotel called Charco Verde – with discreet cabins set back from Lake Nicaragua – selected because of its sustainable, ecofriendly approach to tourism. We used a local guide well versed in island traditions and folklore and even ate breakfast the morning of our hike in a local campesino’s home.
“It’s a way to generate money for rural property owners so they don’t feel like they have to sell their land,” Cruz said.
Instead of lounging in beach chairs – our schedule was jam-packed, beginning at five each morning – we spent the first evening at Mirador del Diablo, relaxing to one of the world’s most dramatic sunsets after the eight-hour trip from San José, then arose early the next morning to hike Maderas Volcano, 10 hours round-trip. On our last morning, feet sore from walking the day before, we kayaked the lake and a nearby lagoon, rife with egrets, herons and spectacular views of looming Concepción Volcano.
Our guide, Horacio Galán, was born and raised on Ometepe, in the small town of Mayogalpa, on the far north end of the island, and somehow managed to not sweat a drop the entire day of our hike.
He told us his grandfather and uncles never left the island, and explained that such insulation is still common on Ometepe, where national newspapers rarely circulate, television reception is spotty and life still largely revolves around the family and the farm – though that is beginning to change.
Many people on the island now benefit from tourism, but the hope, according to Pablo Arcia, executive director of Ometepe’s Intermunicipal Tourism Commission, is that it will remain sustainable so as not to spoil the essence of what tourists are now discovering in Ometepe: tranquility, incredible natural wonders and a disappearing way of life.
According to Arcia, a native Nicaraguan who had never heard of Ometepe until an article appeared in a national magazine 12 years ago, island officials are putting together a development plan to ensure that infrastructure remains small and conscientious of Ometepe’s natural resources and heritage.
“We’re not looking for massive development, just opportunities to grow in a sustainable manner,” he said.
A group like ACTUAR, dedicated to sustainable tourism, he said, is exactly what the island is seeking to attract.
“We’re looking for tourists who appreciate the natural world, the hiking, the lake, but who won’t seek to change it,” he said.
Change on the Way
Change, it was clear, is on the way. On an island where shark fishing was once a staple of life, and where just 50 years ago few dared even swim in the water, Galán, 28, told The Tico Times he had seen only two sharks in his lifetime, both entangled in nets.
In his hometown of Mayogalpa, seeps of foreign influence were present, too. Near the ferry terminal – the island’s closest connection with the outside world – the Atlantic City Casino, a one-story, aquamarine and purple building that sits conspicuously empty, has moved in by the docks, and the first of the inevitable trinket shops selling mostly imported goods are creeping into town.
On the last day of our group’s three-day tour, we boarded the ferry in town. Most of us sat up top, enjoying one last look at the island’s two volcanoes looming above the lush, shore-side palms.
A truck with a full load of plantains – thousands of them – came barreling after us, loosing a bundle or two along the way, and children playing beside the dock shouted above the hum of the boat’s engine.
As we pushed off, I thought about the view from the scraggly tree atop Maderas, the muddy trail with no signs, the howler monkeys roaring us awake at night and the vast lake, and hoped it would all be there when I came back.
As a member of ACTUAR, I knew I’d done my part.
For More Information
The Costa Rican Association for Community-based rural Tourism (ACTUAR) offers organized, ecofriendly, sustainable rural-tourism weekend trips on a monthly basis in Costa Rica, and now in Nicaragua and Panama. It also offers consulting services for people or groups seeking to create their own community-based rural tourism initiatives.
Its friendly, knowledgeable staff can recommend sustainable hotels in Costa Rica and customize trips for small groups, ranging in length from one to 16 days or more.