When the Nahuatl fled México long ago their shaman received a vision of a sacred island. He told of two connected volcanoes surrounded by agua dulce, fresh water. So the Nahuatl trekked hundreds of miles across the isthmus of the Americas until they sighted the dark peaks of Isla Ometepe rising from Lago Cocibolca. Then they knew they were home.
Though not in search of the sacred, I was moved by my time on the island. From the ferry, the approach is dramatic—the wind on the waves and expanse of water make it feel like the sea. The deep green volcanoes slope steeply up from shore, and are often ringed by lenticular clouds, the peaks high enough to create their own weather.
While I’ve experienced more rain here in months than in years in New Mexico, I still soaked up Ometepe’s holy water: rain, river, lake.
My first day I dipped in the lake after sunset, water and sky silvery grey in the twilight. My friends and I floated in the sweet water, dusk birds transitioning to bats overhead.
We slowed our pace to appreciate the changing light across the water, comfy hammocks, views of clouds rolling over Volcan Maderas, long walks over rough road to get anywhere.
Twice we explored in kayaks, one day landing on a little beach with kids playing and swimming in their underwear. Nearly every beach had its own stand of stacked, flat whitewashed rocks where the women wash clothes and everyone bathes.
The second kayak trip we explored the Río Istiam, a snaking waterway covered in bright green water “lettuce” and populated with crocodiles, caimans, and many, many herons. We spotted five heron species–Great Blues, white great egrets, night herons, green herons, and little blue herons. No doubt there were more, as they were everywhere, fishing and roosting and flying.
We paddled through the clear, coffee-colored water in search of crocodiles, but only our guide Willie spotted one, sunning itself on top of the water lettuce, then submerging before we could catch a glimpse. We floated under the arch of a tree with tiny brown bats clinging to its trunk, perfectly camouflaged against the mottled bark. Meanwhile, flocks of parrots chattered by and ospreys circled high above.
The people of Ometepe take their living from the lake, fishing, washing, and playing in it. They use it to irrigate their fields in the dry season and they bring their cows and horses down for a drink or a wash.
Traditionally the men fish from dugout canoes, made from a single massive tree trunk. The kids make their own dugouts. On two days, at different spots, I watched little boys tow their boats through the water as their mothers washed clothes in the lake.