San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Ometepe: The Growing Pains of Tourism Made Plain over Holy Week

ISTHUMS OF ISTIAN – On calmafternoons, when the wind dies down andthe water smooths to glass, the setting sunhighlights the towering cone ofConcepción Volcano, and turns LakeNicaragua pink from the light reflectedoff the clouds hanging above the jungle.From the warm, clean water 100 feetoffshore, where the sandy bottom stilltouches your feet, the tree-lined slopes ofnearby Maderas Volcano – Ometepe’sother peak – are lit bright green by thesinking sun.Birds swoop close to the water’s surface,hoping to grab one of the hundredsof tiny silver fish jumping out of the lake,as your thoughts drift toward the bottle ofrum waiting on shore.OMETEPE Island, which has thegeneral topography of a misshapen bra, isknown as Nicaragua’s “oasis of peace.” Itis also a proverbial – and literal – islandof relaxation and cultural heritage.Though not yet a widely promotedtourist destination, Ometepe is quicklybecoming Nicaragua’s new hotspot foradventurous travelers and backpackers.This, despite a nascent tourism industrythat – apart from several shining exceptions– is teetering on the edge ofincompetency.Proving that no publicity is bad publicity,the recent disappearance of twoyoung hikers – a U.S. and a British citizen– on Maderas Volcano has onlyresulted in an increase of curious foreignbackpackers in the last three months,according to a local guide at HotelHacienda Mérida, from where the losthikers departed (NT, Nov 26, 2004).Tourism-industry leaders don’t haveany statistics on the number of foreigntravelers who visit the island, but one seasonedNicaraguan traveler recently notedthat the number of tourists on Ometepeseems to have doubled in the last severalyears.AS the number of island visitorsbegins to exceed the island’s bed capacity– especially during busy vacation times,such as Holy Week – many of Ometepe’shoteliers seem to be, albeit unintentionally,doing everything in their power todeter the tourism sector from reaching itsfull potential.Holy Week, one of the busiest tourismweeks of the year, was a woeful tale offorgotten room reservations (even onesthat were confirmed several times) and ageneral indifference to tourists’ complaints,demonstrating the lack of a customer-service culture on the island.Nora Gómez, the owner and generalmanager of Casa Hotel Istian, an overpriced,simple lodge facing Playa Istian,the best swimming beach on Ometepe,was unapologetic when she informed twotourists that the double room with air-conditioningthey had reserved three weeksearlier – and for which they had made abank deposit in Managua to hold it intheir name – was unavailable upon theirarrival.Instead, Gómez blamed the reservationerror on an employee and threw herhands up in the air as if to say: “I am justthe owner; I can’t do anything about it,”before shuffling off and throwing herselfinto a hammock.THIS was not an isolated incident.Hotel Hacienda Mérida, on the skirtsof Maderas Volcano, also failed to respecta three-week-old reservation for a doubleroom with air-conditioning, even thoughit, too, was confirmed twice, including aphone call to the hotel 24 hours beforearrival. The reserved room was insteadgiven to another couple who showed upoff the street several hours before thetourists with the reservation arrived. Ascompensation, the frustrated and roomlesscouple was offered a private, fan-lessroom with two bunk beds – provided theypaid for the two unoccupied beds.A German couple with reservations atthe same hotel was informed upon arrivalthat all the rooms – including “theirs” –were full, and was offered hammocks forthree nights in the general dining area.The astute receptionist – apparently anexpert in analyzing handwriting when notmisplacing reservations – later told theGerman couple they could not pay fortheir hammocks with a traveler’s checkbecause the second signature was smallerthan the first.When the owner of Hacienda Méridawas later informed via e-mail of all theproblems at his hotel, he washed hishands of the complaints, adding, ironically:“Everyone in Nicaragua tries to washtheir hands (of problems).”Conversations with numerous othertourists on the island revealed similarlymaddening experiences at other lodges, astravelers angrily boarded the ferry to leave Ometepe, in some cases sooner thanthey had expected.DESPITE the lack of a client-serviceculture, Ometepe’s tourism sector isgrowing, fueled by backpackers, naturelovers and adventure travelers.In the hills surrounding HaciendaMagdalena, an organic-coffee cooperativeand ecolodge one kilometer from thethree-horse town of Balgüe, pre-Columbian petroglyphs depict Nahuatlgods and animal forms from 3,000years ago.Other parts of the island offer waterfalls,white-sand beaches and hikingtrails. But the main attractions on theisland are the volcanoes Concepción(1,610 meters high and still active) andMaderas (1,394 meters high and inactive).ORIGINALLY settled by the Nahuatlpeople, whose pre-Columbian civilizationextended from Mexico to Nicaragua,Ometepe – a name derived from theNahuatl word for “land of two mountains”– has long intrigued travelers with its twinvolcanic peaks, which today can be seenfrom the Inter-American Highway.The island is divided into twounequally sized municipalities:Moyogalpa, the island’s main port ofentry (see separate story), and Altagracia,which is five times larger and housesOmetepe’s main tourist attractions.A traditional agricultural and fishingeconomy, Ometepe survived Nicaragua’srevolutionary and counterrevolutionarywars virtually unscathed by the violence,despite the fact that much of the islandwas part of the Somoza family’s personallandholdings.Much of the land was later confiscatedby the revolutionary Sandinista governmentand redistributed among ruralcooperatives, resulting in tricky title historiesfor much of the island.Today, whether because of complicatedland titles or lack of promotion efforts,Ometepe has a dearth of foreign investment;almost all the businesses on theisland are Nicaraguan mom-and-popestablishments.Whatever the reason for the lack offoreign investment, real-estate prices arenot a factor. A 35,000-square-meter lot oflakefront property sells for less than$25,000.The lack of tourism infrastructure,coupled with bad roads and a lackadaisicalattitude toward ensuring that tourists’stays are enjoyable, make Ometepe a rusticvacation experience, compared to themore tourist-friendly spots of Granadaand San Juan del Sur.But, ready or not, tourism is invadingOmetepe and – as most islanders seem toagree – undoubtedly will provide thefuture of the local economy.

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