The Washington Post
February 18, 2001 Sunday
SECTION: TRAVEL; Pg. E01

Josh and the Volcano

Our original plan did not include Nicaragua. We would, in fact, merely endure Nicaragua. We'd get on a bus and blow through the land of Contra vs. Sandinista on our way to Costa Rica, land of peace and fun.

That changed when a German backpacker, drinking on the rooftop of a Guatemalan hotel, pointed to a map of Nicaragua and told us the following facts about the massive lake at its center:

1. Lake Nicaragua is freshwater. Yet it holds sharks.

2. The sharks, the only freshwater-lake-inhabiting sharks in the world, can grow to nine feet, weigh as much as 150 pounds and are among the planet's most aggressive.

3. No one knows for sure how they got there, although many scientists say Lake Nicaragua was once a bay of the Pacific. After an earthquake, the bay became a separate inland lake, thereby trapping the sharks.

The German, with the glint of obsession in his eyes, said he was heading to volcano-packed Ometepe, Lake Nicaragua's largest island and, presumably, the best place for an encounter with the sharks.

As a longtime shark-o-phile, I was hooked. I envisioned us watching a dorsal fin split the waters of Lake Nicaragua. I saw us sitting with a gap-toothed old man, listening to tales of the Shark Attack of 1934. I saw the "Freshwater Jaws" screenplay.

Costa Rica could wait. We were Nicaragua-bound.

After arriving in Ometepe's main town of Moyogalpa, following a stomach-churning ride on a leaky banana boat, my friend Scott and I learned something that took our minds right off the sharks. A river of hot molten lava could come roaring through town at any moment.

Ometepe means "Land of Two Volcanoes," and Moyogalpa is perched precariously on the flank of the 5,282-foot Vulcan Concepcion, one of the hemisphere's most active volcanoes. On the other side of the island is 4,573-foot Vulcan Madera. Though the volcanoes look like evil twins, they're not. Madera is inactive; its last explosion was 10,000 years ago. But Concepcion is, indeed, as dangerous as it looks, having exploded more than 20 times in the past century.

Some residents of Moyogalpa, understandably, fear their volatile neighbor. Most gringo backpackers in Ometepe, though, in defiance of ancient wisdom, seem to like their volcanoes with a hint of explosive possibility. Before long, most attempt to summit Concepcion. It's not easy: None of the several trails that climb the volcano is marked. Detailed maps are unavailable. The upper reaches of Concepcion, near the crater, are loaded with volcanic ash, making it an especially treacherous scramble. Even independent-minded trekkers are strongly advised to hire a guide.

Our guide, a former boxer in the Nicaraguan army who was as modest as a young Muhammad Ali, said he could sprint down Concepcion's crater to its base in 45 minutes. This, of course, led to a more alarming revelation: The volcano had rumbled in the past month, forcing the time trial.

Even without a volcanic sprint, the hike was unforgettable. For one, the volcano has unpredictable weather. Our guide told us we had to start the eight-hour loop early, to avoid the worst of the tropical heat. Made sense. But he also told us to bring extra shirts and outerwear. Didn't make sense. Sure enough, after meandering through tropical lowlands on a cloudless, 80-degree-plus morning, the trail ascended sharply. Slowly, the climate changed.

Two hours into our climb, we were crawling up a muddy trail in a blanket of mist. An hour from the summit, we were on an exposed ridge, getting lashed by rain and wind gusts in what could have been the Scottish Highlands. Alas, we were forced to turn back.

Still, even without a crater view, hiking up Concepcion is an eco-adventurer's dream. The volcano is covered by thick forest that's seething with tropical birds and wildlife. And it's virtually unpeopled. After passing by one machete-toting man early in our climb (machetes are standard gear on Ometepe), we were on our own, save for some gorgeous birds and the ubiquitous black howler monkeys. We became nearly blase about the latter's presence, after our guide showed us how to call the animals, which bark viciously from treetops. And while we failed to spot an agouti, an uber-rodent the size of a small dog, a boa constrictor slithered across our path as a consolation.

If you don't want to worry about how quickly you can sprint down a volcano, skip Concepcion and climb Madera, which offers similar isolation, wildlife encounters and a less grueling hike. While the view from the top isn't as awe-inspiring -- it's obscured by lusher foliage -- the hike does treat athletic climbers to a bone-chilling swim in a "Gorillas in the Mist"-like fog. Plus, after reaching the crater's rim, you can climb down a short ladder and descend into a surprisingly cold laguna.

There is, unfortunately, a downside to the Madera climb -- getting there. At 150 square miles, Ometepe is more than twice the size of the District and is the world's largest island within a freshwater lake. Thus, the bus ride from Moyogalpa to Madera's trail head takes four hours. A very long four hours.

The bus is a retired American school bus, circa 1960, which seemingly does not have shocks. Also important: The bus departs at 4 a.m. If for some crazy reason you miss the bus (which we did), you could try hitching (which we didn't, opting to spend our suddenly free day exploring the island).

Ometepe is safe and the natives are friendly, but automobiles are few. When you do spot one, it's invariably a truck loaded with bananas, pineapples or coffee beans. There's not much of tourist value in tiny Moyogalpa, but the town has a raffish, sleepy charm.

In the language of early Indian inhabitants, the name Moyogalpa means "Place of Mosquitoes." The name still fits. But Moyogalpa could have just as appropriately been named "Place of Small Lizards." Geckos skitter through walls, on ceilings, sometimes over limbs.

Mosquito Town has a few restaurants, a few bars, a pool hall. If that's not enough excitement, check out a cockfight in the nearby village of Los Angeles. Many tourists find themselves lazily sipping rum, drinking beers and swapping volcano-climbing stories at the pool hut, where six billiard tables sit under a thatched palm roof. But most folks who've climbed the volcanoes eventually turn their attention out-island again.

Though volcanoes dominate Ometepe, the island also offers softer beauties. One spot is the Isla de Quiste. After a short rowboat ride from Ometepe, we were basking in the serenity of a tiny, uninhabited tropical islet. The island is a gem for bird-watching and a great place for a pick-up game of "Survivor."

Another paradisiacal spot is a long strip of white-sand beach called Santo Domingo, on the isthmus that bridges the volcanoes. Alongside the beach, carved out of a grove of coconut palms and papaya trees, is the tiny Finca Hotel. I spent a post-volcano day at the Finca's little patch of beach staring out at the lake, bobbing in the surf, swaying gently in a hammock. Mindless pleasure. After a parrot flew by, I half-expected Ricardo Montalban to serve me a daiquiri. But being a shark-curious tourist, it's hard to sit indolently on the beach when there are other hazards to flirt with, such as ghosts.

You can't spend much time in town before a native tells you the Ghost Story. It's called the "Legend of Charco Verde," and I counted three versions of the story. Charco Verde is a swamp a few miles past Los Angeles, where islanders say a community of magical creatures live. According to one telling of the legend, if anyone dares swim in the water, they will be turned into a fish and will remain that way forever. On my visit, there were no signs of ghost activity at Charco Verde.

But not far from Charco Verde, there is a much more tangible mystery, Ometepe's own Stonehenge. Hundreds of cryptic stone carvings of circular and spiral shapes, and crude stone statues that look vaguely like people and animals, have been found on the Madera side of the island. Many of these petroglyphs still sit, unmarked, covered by overgrowth, deep in the forest between the villages of Santa Cruz and La Palma.

Ometepe's petroglyphs make up one of the largest concentrations of pre-Columbian stonework in Central America; some say the stonework means the island was a holy spot for ancient inhabitants. But archaeologists, who have dated the work between the 11th and 13th centuries, aren't sure what it means.

To see firsthand one of the most unusual of these carvings, head to the property of the Hacienda Magdalena, an organic-coffee-growing cooperative near Madera. About a quarter-mile hike from the farm, you'll come across a string of basalt boulders. Some of the rocks are carved with an unintelligible, almost childlike scrawl. But one in the bunch is unmistakable: "It looks like a kangaroo," observed my friend, a wildlife biologist. Kangaroos, of course, haven't been spotted within 7,000 miles of Ometepe.

But after several days here, you won't be fazed by such incongruities. This is, after all, the Island of Two Volcanoes, home of the Place of Mosquitoes, haunted swamps, dog-size rats. And not far from the kangaroo scrawl, mounted on a restaurant's wall, is a set of shark jaws. Freshwater shark jaws.

Oh, yes. About the sharks. We tried to see them, we really did. But ask any native about them and they will tell you flatly, "The sharks are virtually gone."

But we didn't mind. That shark-talking German may have been wrong about the sharks, but he certainly wasn't wrong in steering us to Ometepe, a fascinating, weird, unforgettably beautiful detour on our journey to Costa Rica.

Josh Schonwald last wrote for Travel about Montevideo, Uruguay.


DETAILS Ometepe Island

SECTION: TRAVEL; Pg. E05

LENGTH: 330 words

GETTING THERE: Continental, Northwest, American and Grupo Taca offer connecting service from Washington to Managua, Nicaragua's capital, through Houston or Miami. Round-trip fares start at $ 670. From Managua, the fastest way to Ometepe is to take a one-hour bus to Granada and a one-hour hydrofoil ferry to the town of Alta Gracia. Slower ferries (four hours) are also available from Granada. The most frequently used route, though, is from Managua to Rivas (two hours by bus), then a short cab ride to San Jorge, where frequent 45-minute ferries travel to Moyogalpa.

GETTING AROUND: Bus travel is cheap and reliable, but infrequent. You can rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle in Ometepe at the Hotel Ometepetl (see below) in Moyogalpa for $ 34.50 for 12 hours. Because signage is virtually nonexistent on the island, tour guides are a must for volcano climbing and petroglyph viewing. Inexpensive local guides will often solicit newly arrived visitors at the dock in Moyogalpa; a more expensive guide service ($ 25 a day) can be obtained at the Hotel Ometepetl.

WHERE TO STAY: I stayed at the no-frills Hotel Ometepetl (telephone 011-505-45- 94276), where single rooms with a private bath are $ 7 per night, or $ 20 with air conditioning. Moyogalpa has several ultra-low-budget hotels for under $ 5 a night. The most beautiful spot on the island, though, is Santo Domingo, two hours from Moyogalpa. Two hotels, Finca Santo Domingo (telephone 011-505-55- 28751), a converted farm house, and Villa Paraiso (telephone 011-505-45- 34675), offer rooms for under $ 10 per person per night.

WHEN TO GO: Avoiding tourists is not a concern in relatively undiscovered Nicaragua. Climate is the primary concern. December to mid-April is the dry season, and the best time to visit.

INFORMATION: Lonely Planet's "Central America on a Shoestring" guide provides general information about where to stay and eat. Nicaragua Embassy: 202-939-6570, www.consuladodenicaragua.com -- Josh Schonwald