A sleepy, isolated island community in Nicaragua, nestled at the foot of one of Central America’s most active volcanoes, faces an uncertain future. But the danger doesn’t come from the perpetual risk of geological disaster. The threat is man-made.
Over the past decade, tourism to ISLA OMETEPE, has grown as word of its “Eden-like” natural beauty has spread. But this dual-volcano island, in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, often dubbed a “MINI AMAZON”, recently found itself at the centre of a controversial mega-engineering project : a Chinese-run, inter-oceanic tunnel that will be deeper and longer than the Panamas ——- ideal for giant cargo ships.
The proposed 278 km route, connecting the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, will cut through Lake Nicaragua, potentially displacing the surrounding rainforest and threatening indigenous communities. The route will also bring the super tankers right past OMETEPE’S EDEN.
Work on the canal officially began in December 2014, sparking a wave of protests from those who are worried about losing their homes and the damage the canal might cause to the environment. Doubts have also been raised over whether there will be enough funding to complete the canal within the allotted five-year-plan.
Isla, home to a population of just under 30,000, receives about 40,000 visitors a year. But the rough ferry ride over and the bone-shaking roads, it is understandable that visitor numbers are still relatively low, even with the ISLA’S “incredible beauty”.
Alvaro Molina, owner of HACIENDA MERIDA ( a lodge) was one of the first to bring tourism to the island, when he opened the lodge in 2001. A jetty from the lodge offered uninterrupted views of CONCEPTION, the 1,610 tall, very active volcano that towered over Lake Nicaragua. OMETEPE’S extinct volcano —–MADERAS, with its jagged rainforest-covered peak, formed the lodge’s backdrop. Trekking, swimming, kayaking, cycling and horse riding are all popular activities here.
RIO ISTIAM is a river and swamp that cuts the island through the middle of the “hour-glass-shaped” island. Locals used to stay out of the water, because it was once infested with “bull-sharks”. By the 1980s, over-fishing and shark fin trade wiped out the population, but some say a few still lurk under the surface.
Lake Nicaragua will need to be dredged in order to build a canal that’s deep enough for giant cargo ships. The local people, most of who are subsistence farmers and rely on fishing, do not have the skills required for the jobs the canal will create. Some of them have never been to school, so there is no opportunity for them.
On the other hand, Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the world. Officials expect the canal will bring in an investment of more than 1 trillion cordoba, which would more than triple the size of the current economy. ———The wetland is home to an abundance of birdlife ——- egrets, herons, jacanas and blue jays. CONCEPTION and the cloud surrounding its peak creates a perfect reflection on the lake’s “glass-like” surface.
Many travellers climb OMETEPE’s volcanoes, but weather conditions often turn the hike into a “walk in the clouds”. SAN RAMON is the island’s 50m-high waterfall, it’s cold mist is refreshing after the drenching humidity of the jungle.
The influx of workers who will move to the island for canal jobs, is a matter of concern. Molina says that the island already struggles with waste disposal from the minimal tourism it currently gets. For the time being, Molina has collected disused plastic and turned it into building material, using it to construct a school next to the lodge where guests are able to volunteer.