As the “Che Guevara” ferry lurched with determination across Lake Nicaragua, inching toward Isla de Ometepe, it was difficult to decide where to train your eye. On one end of the island is Volcán Concepción, an active stratovolcano whose frequent eruptions leave in their wake neat streams of ash that, when the wind is right, resemble the detritus of a giant smokestack. On the other is Volcán Maderas, Concepción’s smaller, lusher cousin.
Regardless of where your gaze rests, the $3 ferry ticket (prices are often quoted in dollars in Nicaragua) is a bargain, considering the staggering view: a span of deep blue water bookended by two formidable summits, shrouded in swirling mist.
Once you make landfall, the views go from dazzling to engrossing. The countryside at the foot of the volcanoes is blanketed by generous thickets of bougainvillea, poinsettia and hibiscus, palms and banana trees. The volcanoes dominate the roughly 100-square-mile island, though 30,000 mostly agrarian residents who settled there and a perpetual parade of tourists wedge their way in. Islanders ride horseback across grassy fields or herd goats, and young northern European tourists whiz by on mopeds.
This pastiche of natural and exotic wonder feels a world away from the bustle of mainland Nicaragua. Ometepe sits amid the largest freshwater lake in Central America, and that is one reason agua (water) is part of the country’s name. The region has been pivotal to Nicaragua, first drawing Spanish settlers, then pirates and then the attention of the British, who sought it as a strategic point in an ultimately unsuccessful military campaign to wrest control from Spain. Mark Twain swooned over Ometepe’s volcanic peaks in his “Travels With Mr. Brown.” Before all this, though, the native Náhuatl who lived around the lake anointed it Cocibolca, or “sweet sea.”
In the intervening centuries, Ometepe and Lake Nicaragua have remained a respite from occasional political and military flare-ups. In the civil war that ended 25 years ago, the region saw virtually no combat, since islanders went to the Honduran border or elsewhere on the mainland to fight. The beauty of Ometepe and the vast waters of Lake Nicaragua are two immutable constants that Nicaraguans can rely on.
That is bound to change if Wang Jing, a Chinese billionaire, has his way. A consortium he led won approval last year from the Nicaraguan government to build a canal across the country. The plan, which would connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific and shave about 500 miles off the shipping route from New York to Los Angeles, is the realization of a centuries-old dream that has outlasted the construction of the Panama Canal, about 450 miles south of the proposed route.
In late December, workers began building access roads for the $50 billion canal. It represented enough of a step forward that it sparked protests. But the future of the project remains in question, not the least because of Lake Nicaragua itself.
If the canal is completed, 55 miles of it would cut across the freshwater lake, transforming its bed and local rivers, but could also make this main source of the country’s drinking water no longer potable. This magnificent body of water could very well be both the inspiration that first led explorers dating back to Napoleon to dream up the canal and an obstacle that stands in the way of its construction.
I visited Nicaragua in January and went to see Ometepe and the lake, where a good portion of the million-plus international tourists who visit the country every year go. The island is an essential element of a burgeoning eco-tourism industry, one whose selling point is the fact that Nicaragua has 0.01 percent of the world’s land mass but 7 percent of its biodiversity.
The Nicaraguan government has yet to commission an environmental impact assessment on the canal plans. The company behind the canal, HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company, or HKND, paid a private British firm, ERM, to do so.
Manuel Coronel Kautz, president of Nicaragua’s canal authority, said the country’s leaders have confidence in the reports that have been done. “Both HKND and ERM are very serious and careful, and the Nicaraguan government has no concerns about the project,” he told me.
“As to the Nicaraguan government conducting a feasibility assessment, which would include cultural, social and environmental impacts, our country does not have the money for this, ” he added, noting that the ERM feasibility study would be released by the end of April.
With all of this in mind, I wanted to make my own assessment, as a tourist, of what stands to be lost to travelers.
Like most visitors, I first saw Lake Nicaragua while traveling through the picturesque, vibrant colonial town of Granada, which sits on its northwest shore. After a jarring ride from Managua on the proverbial chicken bus — packed to the gills with passengers and crates of crowing roosters — I walked to the lakeshore, where gentle waves lapped at the wooden docks and the breeze brushed my face.
I continued on to the desolate Centro Turistico, a lakefront park, and was gradually accompanied by Santo, a wizened and toothless man on a bike who offered to rent me a kayak as he ushered me along to a shop at the end of the park’s main road. There, I was introduced to Lorenzo, a young man from Las Isletas, an archipelago of more than 300 tiny tropical islands scattered about the northwest edge of the lake.
After settling into our kayaks on the beach, we maneuvered across the choppy lake, finally reaching the quiet channels and lagoons of Las Isletas. Lorenzo teased me about bullsharks lurking in the depths — “four meters long!” he warned — though I had read they were practically extinct since 1969, when the Somoza dynasty, which ruled the country for 40 years, built a shark-processing plant in Granada.
As we glided through Las Isletas, Lorenzo pointed out kingfishers and warblers swooping into the waters, swallows perched on lily pads and egrets gingerly traversing marshes. He grew excited at the yellow-chested oropendolas, with their ball-shaped nests dangling from tree branches, and then, barely visible in another tree, an iguana glaring down at us. At one point, he silently led me beneath a gargantuan mangrove and pointed with his oar under a limb before dozens of bats set off toward us.
Women scrubbed and beat clothes against rocks and along the muddy banks, and children dived from high earthen ledges. We paddled around one island with a well-manicured manor house draped in vines and surrounded by waterside gardens and a metal fence. Lorenzo told me it was the vacation home of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, Nicaragua’s president from 1990 until 1996.
As we headed back to Granada, Lorenzo asked me if I knew about the canal. I nodded.
“If it’s built,” he said, “the waters will go up and they will go down. But either way, we don’t know if we will be able to fish here like we do now.”
The canal project threatens not only Las Isletas’ residents, but also several of Nicaragua’s indigenous communities such as the Rama, Garifuna, Mayanga, Miskitu and Ulwa. The government maintains that the canal would provide an economic boost to a country sorely in need of one, where many earn $1 a day. The canal is expected to provide 25,000 jobs for Nicaraguans, HKND has said, and the Nicaraguan government projects that revenues could lift 400,000 people out of poverty in the next three years.
The canal would, of course, also help line the pockets of interests beyond Nicaragua by providing a cheaper route that accommodates the increasingly large ships used to transport goods from the eastern United States to the West Coast, and from Latin America to Asia.
The cost, however, is “staggering environmental devastation,” according to Axel Meyer, a professor of zoology and evolutionary biology at the University of Konstanz in Germany who has conducted ecological research in Nicaragua for 30 years. In a commentary written for the journal Nature last year, he and a colleague pointed out that the canal plans include rights to build and operate industrial centers, airports, oil pipelines and a rail system.
Not only would the lake and its immense surrounding habitats be threatened by the required dredging, but the canal’s accompanying development could imperil tropical rain forests, including two reserves (the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve and the Cerro Silva Natural Reserve), Mr. Meyer said.
That no independent environmental review of the project has been performed, Mr. Meyer told me, is not only suspect to those concerned with its potential effect but also troublesome for the builders themselves.
“To have an international, independent review will be important if the Chinese hope for World Bank support, or any other type of international money,” he said.
One of the habitats standing to lose much is Ometepe, which relies on the lake for irrigation and is home, Mr. Meyer said, to its own unique flora and fauna, including a lungless salamander first discovered and described in just 2008, and Tomocichla tuba, a relatively rare cichlid fish.
My guide on Ometepe was Enoc, who first took me to the coffee plantation at Finca Magdalena, leading me later on a hike among the coffee trees that cover the higher slopes of Volcán Maderas. Descending the trail, I could hear shrieking. “Monkeys,” Enoc said when he saw my puzzled face. “But if you want to see them, we’ll have to go off trail.”
I followed him through the brush and under barbed-wire fences until we reached a shaded grove, where Enoc motioned for me to be still as he pointed upward at a family of white-faced Capuchin monkeys — some with babies on their backs — clinging to the highest branches, their tails leisurely unfurling downward.
Afterward, Enoc drove me to a former tobacco and cotton farm now home to the Museo El Ceibo, which I had read exhibits mostly Nicaraguan coins and historical bills. I was initially unenthusiastic, not having much interest in numismatics, but quickly saw how the museum curators had cleverly used the córdoba, Nicaragua’s national currency, to illustrate the dramatic rise and fall of the country’s regimes, in part because every four years, the president gets to redesign it. The exhibit also highlighted the upheaval of wartime inflation, “when everyone got to be a millionaire,” Enoc said with an arched brow.
From the museum, we drove to the Reserva Charco Verde, where we took the short hiking trail around the lagoon and watched butterflies swerve about, then we headed to the park hotel’s veranda for a late lunch. As we sat at the water’s edge, I asked Enoc about his family, and he told me of his wife and young daughter, and explained that he was building huts on nearby forestland, which he hopes to rent to tourists. It would take some time, he said, as he continued to work as a tour guide.
A few days before visiting Ometepe, I flew from Managua in a single-engine Cessna typically used to transport FedEx parcels to the area that would be the potential starting point of the canal. My plan had been to visit Pearl Lagoon, on the Caribbean coast, but as we landed, sheets of rain and heavy wind tossed the plane, and I knew the boat ride there was out of the question. My more immediate problem, however, was reaching Casa Rosa, a fishing lodge outside Bluefields where I had a reservation. A fellow passenger on the plane warned me that the road leading to it swells and floods during such a deluge, and he offered to arrange a jeep to get me out there. En route, we passed shanties and dilapidated Victorian homes enclosed by broad porches, echoes of this once-prosperous Dutch settlement, and also the graceful white and stained-glass Moravian church built by German missionaries in 1849.
Rosa met us at the end of the road leading to her sprawling hacienda. Her American husband, Randy, was out at sea, and as she prepared a shrimp lunch for me, I listened to her tales of fishing trips she and Randy had taken around the Caribbean, as she pointed out trophies for prize catches and framed, sun-blotched photos of jumbo tarpon. I was the only guest that evening, and later, after showing me to my modest room, she led me to another down the hall. It was spacious, with a sweeping view of the bay. This is where President Daniel Ortega stays overnight, before heading out on fishing expeditions with Randy, Rosa told me with a wry smile.
I woke early to sunny skies and headed for the harbor to board a panga, an outboard-powered fishing boat, for the Pearl Lagoon, but ended up having to wait, inexplicably, two hours before we shoved off. Weighted down with far too many passengers, and mounds of frayed baggage and ice chests packed with beer and food, we zipped through canals and sluices for an hour before I could see a kaleidoscope of thatched-roof bungalows on the shore.
Rosa had told me to ask for Casa Ulrich at Pearl Lagoon, and after a local at the harbor pointed me in the right direction, I found the proprietor, Fred, dozing on a hammock. After his wife woke him, and I introduced myself and asked about tours of the area, he looked at his watch and then said that he had bad news for me: The last boat back to Bluefields would be in a few hours, allowing too little time to visit the Pearl Cays, as I’d hoped. But there was the lagoon, Fred told me, and he’d lend me his kayak. After pushing out, I dodged divebombing albatrosses and watched fishing boats and pangas ply the bayous. When I returned to Fred’s pier, he offered me garlic-sautéed lobster, chuckling that he hoped he could compensate for the slippery logistics of visiting Pearl Lagoon.
As I ate and Fred sipped beer, he pointed across the water at half-constructed stilt huts in anticipation of more tourists. Among the half-dozen canal routes drawn up through the years, he then told me, at least two would have touched the Caribbean just south of here, which could potentially mean more visitors.
If you want to imagine what the canal could bring, look no further than Panama, where its canal’s locks are being expanded to increase capacity. Panama City, with its glistening skyscrapers, is a towering reminder of the canal’s significance to world trade. The creation of the Panama Canal predates what we think of as ecotourism, but now that such a thing exists, Panama is known for its biodiversity in some parts. Its Caribbean coast offers surprisingly vibrant sights for scuba divers, and the country is home to 17 national parks. But it isn’t Costa Rica. Its residents didn’t forfeit a massive freshwater lake in exchange for a bustling economy either.
Regardless, the prospect of Nicaragua’s canal perhaps provides the best reason to visit the country now, adding drama to what might otherwise be a pretty postcard tour of the tropics. I think of this when I recall my lunch with Enoc on Ometepe, when he pointed to the lake and at the Isla de Quiste, and beyond, two ferries shuttling between the island and the mainland. I took a long moment to absorb the dreamlike view, noticing the particularly tranquil waters stretching toward the horizon.