Ometepe could certainly be considered one of the hidden gems of Central America, as it is very unique yet fairly untouched by tourism. It is the biggest island inside a freshwater lake in the world, and is formed of two volcanoes called Concepcion and Maderas, which can be seen at the same time if you stand at a certain point in the centre of the island. However, the main aim of my trip to Ometepe was not tourism as such, but to experience local life in Nicaragua for what it really is.
As we approached the tiny village of Puesta del Sol, where we were to be staying, it became apparent that we certainly weren’t entering an area focused on tourism. The road was graveled and there were animals, presumably pets, wandering around – including a few chickens, dogs and the odd horse. The flora included mainly fruits, which seemed to thrive in the soil composed of volcanic ash. Mangoes, bananas and coconuts were abundant, with many rotting on the floor.
The houses seemed to be designed around a community setting, with many houses situated in one courtyard, making it hard to determine what possessions belonged to each house. They all looked fairly unique, too – the family we were staying with had fairly spread out buildings, with the kitchen and dining room conjoined and our room in a separate hut with a bathroom round the back, yet some of my friends lived in a pink house with a shop in the dining room! The buildings themselves were made out of concrete with a partly-opened tin roof which made our room a lot cooler, but also encouraged a lot of insects at night when the light was on!
Our room was basic, but clean nonetheless. We were provided with towels, sheets and pillows along with mosquito nets to protect us at night. The insects didn’t worry me too much as I was inside my net – but I did have a bit of a scary moment in the bathroom when a massive bug practically landed on my head – and the geckos made me happier as I knew they would eat the insects!
The locals all seemed really friendly and obviously live in a very close-knit community, with children playing together in the streets and their parents sat watching and chatting. The children seem to play a very prominent role in the upkeep of the household too (a lot more than I see in Britain, anyway): for example hanging out clothes, washing up or helping to cook dinner. None of the locals really know English so they are quiet most of the time, but they still smiled at me and said “hola”, as did I.
Mealtimes were really interesting to be a part of, firstly for the food itself but also to observe the interactions between us and the family. The family traditionally all eat together at the table, however, I am not sure if the genders eat separately – there was no father to be seen but there was definitely another teenage son who did not sit with us. The young girl, who I think may have been around ten, was very quiet and didn’t say much at all, even in Spanish. There was a volunteer staying with them (I think she was Canadian) and as well as my room mate she could speak well in both Spanish and English, so they could translate between the mother and me. We tended to speak about education, the other locations we have visited on our trip, and my room mate asked what the family does with its extra fruit. They said they use mangoes for juice (which I tried; it was gorgeous), they dry them, eat them unripe with salt, serve them in salads and make jam.
The food in Ometepe was fantastic; the mother used lots of subtle spices and the meal definitely had a Mexican feel to it. Rice and refried beans is an obvious staple of their diet, which sounds boring but when mixed with different flavours is actually very tasty, and we were served it at both dinner and breakfast. Along with the rice we had a spiced fruit salad and chicken with potatoes in gravy, which was delicious but very filling! Breakfast was slightly more unusual to what I would eat in Britain (usually I would grab a slice of toast, or a bowl of cereal) but we had the rice and beans, a spiced mixture of scrambled egg, onion and frankfurter sausage, and fresh bread rolls which were slightly sweet. It felt like much more of a proper meal than my breakfast does at home – I don’t know if I could eat it every day though as it was pretty heavy.
Leaving was a strange feeling, as I felt as if I was abandoning my new adoptive family. I thanked the mother and she even hugged me, which I think shows that despite her not understanding my language, manners and good intention translate well regardless of whether they are in English or Spanish. If you’re looking for a slightly different experience instead of the usual tourist holiday, I would definitely recommend a home stay. You learn a lot not only about other cultures but your own, and personally it made me appreciate the simplicity of their lifestyle in comparison with Britain’s, which seems to be constantly surrounded by internet, television and social media instead of the things that matter like friends and family.
And with a haunting and beautiful backdrop like Volcano Concepcion across Lake Nicaragua, I have come to realise that the simple things are usually the most beautiful.