Soon behemoth supertankers will be cutting through the natural beauty of Lago de Nicaragua, Central America's largest lake. A Chinese businessman has signed a controversial deal with the Nicaraguan Government to build and manage a waterway three times the length of the Panama Canal. Construction is due to begin at the end of 2014, so enjoy the tranquillity of the lake and its unspoilt islands while you can.
The proposed Nicaragua Grand Canal, or the Interoceanic Canal of Nicaragua, will be an estimated 278km long and 64m wide, spanning the country from east to west, Pacific to Atlantic, including a 105km stretch through the lake. And it’s not just a waterway; the project will also include two locks, an artificial lake, several large-scale resorts, a free trade zone, cement plants and new roads. It’s set to generate hundreds of thousands of jobs and turn Nicaragua from one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere to one of the richest in Central America. The trade-off is wreaking environmental havoc, with the destruction of a massive swathe of pristine rainforest and wetlands, and the depletion of the country’s primary source of fresh water.
Isla de Ometepe
The twin-coned volcanic island of Ometepe rises sublimely out of Lago de Nicaragua, a body of water so enormous that the Spanish conquistadors mistook it for the sea, until they saw their horses drinking from it and christened it La Mar Dulce, or the sweet sea. The world’s largest freshwater island was once home to the Nahuatl people – Ometepe means ‘two hills’ in their language – who fled the Aztecs in Mexico, and you can still find ancient petroglyphs dotted around the island. Today, there are two main settlements on either side of Volcán Concepción: Moyogalpa and the smaller and more alluring Altagracia, as well as several natural reserves, such as Chaco Verde. The island’s friendly inhabitants survive on fishing and farming, planting rice, corn and coffee, among other crops, on the volcanoes fertile slopes. They’re also turning their hand to ecotourism and staying at a family-run guesthouse is the perfect way to experience the island. You can get active, hiking, biking and kayaking. Climb still-grumbling Volcán Concepción, with a steep, perfect cone rising to 1,610m, and the easier and muddier Volcán Maderas, whose slopes are lined with misty jungle and home to vociferous howler monkeys. Then kick back in a hammock or lounge on a lakeshore beach with a local beer or two, and watch the clouds wreath around the volcanoes’ peaks.
Get there: There are several daily boats to Ometepe from San Jorge in Rivas province, as well as a twice-weekly ferry from Granada.
Archipiélago de Solentiname
Of the 36 verdant volcanic islands that make up this isolated archipelago in the south-eastern corner of Lage de Nicaragua, only four are inhabited – San Fernando, Mancarrón, La Venada and Mancarroncita – and all are without roads, electricity and running water. The draw is their beauty and tranquillity, and the art – many of the islands’ 900 or so inhabitants combine farming and fishing with painting and woodcarving. Almost 50 years ago, they began to produce primitive art inspired by their daily struggle and the islands’ lush landscape with the help of a politician, poet and priest, Ernesto Cardenal. It’s a family affair. Visit them in their homes and you’ll find three or more generations living and working together, creating brightly coloured balsa-wood animals and paintings. But it hasn’t always been so tranquil; during the revolution that brought the Sandinistas to power in 1979, it was a hotbed of political activity. On Mancarrón, you can visit Cardenal’s cabin and church, with its pre-Colombian style altar and whitewashed walls decorated with the locals’ paintings, as well as a monument dedicated to five young men who died in the uprising. Don’t miss a trip to Refugio de Vida Silvestre Los Guatuzos, a maze of waterways flanked by tropical forest teeming with wildlife, such as sloth and elusive jaguars, as well as almost 400 species of bird. Climb the vertigo-inducing steps to the aerial walkway for a monkey’s-eye view of the forest.
Get there: La Costeña operates two small flights daily from Managua to San Carlos, from where you can take a panga, or motorised canoe. There are also irregular boat buses between the islands and San Carlos.
The 360 or so diminutive islands scattered around the lake about 20 kilometres south of colonial Granada, were created around 20,000 years ago, when Volcán Mombacho spectacularly erupted, spewing boulders, ash and molten lava into the lake. The isletas come in all shapes and sizes, with a small community of fishermen living in ramshackle wooden houses, while an increasing number are being snapped up by wealthy Nicaraguans and foreign investors to house extravagant summer mansions or eco-friendly lodges. Many are home to nothing more than swaying palm trees and inquisitive capuchin monkeys. On land, you can explore the small, 18th-century Fortin de San Pablo, built by the Spanish conquistadors to protect Granada against marauding buccaneers. You can take a boat tour from Granada but the best way to explore the shallow channels around the isletas is by kayak. As you serenely glide through the calm water, you’ll be able to spy on the resident birds, such as cormorants, herons, parrots, hawks and vultures, as well as locals going about their daily lives, little changed for generations. It will give you a sense of the size of Lago de Nicaragua, along with picture-perfect views of the – now dormant – Volcán Mombacho at every turn.
Get there: Boat and kayak tours depart from Puerto Asese and Cabañas Amarillo, both a short taxi ride from central Granada.
Read more: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/nicaragua/travel-tips-and-articles/a-guide-to-lake-nicaraguas-islands#ixzz3H0ivAGJG