Gaze eastward from the shores of huge Lake Nicaragua, and they seem almost like a mirage: Twin volcanoes thrusting out of the water, one of them a towering cone of cinder and ash, the other jacketed in verdant jungle.
Perhaps it was the clouds that shrouded the twin peaks. Or the majestic sunset behind our ferryboat. Whatever, as we approached on a late afternoon the setting seemed primordial, a place of mystery and beauty with a dash of menace.
In fact, land girdles both volcanoes, terrestrial tutus on a pair of giant dancers. A small isthmus connects the skirts, uniting the giant peaks to form Ometepe Island, one of the Western Hemisphere's least recognised adventure destinations.
The island is just becoming known to travellers for its hidden petroglyphs, deserted beaches and eco lodges, where one can kayak and cycle, all in the shadow of the two looming volcanoes.
Surrounding the island is one of Latin America's larger inland seas. Lake Nicaragua is comparable in size to South America's Lake Titicaca. Even from atop one of Ometepe's volcanoes, it's hard to see land across the expanse of the lake.
People play in Lake Nicaragua in front of Ometepe Island. Photo: Flickr/Ibgm
Explorers have marvelled at Ometepe's beauty for centuries, including Mark Twain, who wrote in 1867 of the "two magnificent pyramids, clad in the softest and richest green, all flecked with shadow and sunshine."
Around the same time, German geologist Karl von Seebach was nearly speechless upon beholding the volcanoes: "No words, nor drawings, can ever describe this marvellous spectacle of nature."
The island gets its name from the indigenous Nahuatl language, and means the place of two mountains, referring to the Concepcion and Maderas volcanoes. Concepcion, the larger of the two, is still active. Its cone towers 1,609 metres, and wispy white gases from its vents curl above its peak.
After several days on the island, four of us decided to test our mettle and climb the smaller of the two volcanoes, Maderas, elevation 1,392 metres.
It was just 20 minutes or so into the hike, after we'd entered primary forest, when the bellow reached us from a distant ridge. It sounded deep and scary.
Not to worry, our guide said, chuckling a bit. It was just some howler monkeys. We would later see several of the monkeys resting on high branches.
After hours of rigorous hiking, much of it over fallen tree trunks, and up the increasingly steep rock-strewn trail, we reached a clearing: the halfway point.
The wind kicked up whitecaps in the lake water lashing the isthmus at Playa Santo Domingo far below. By this point, my weary daughter was delighted to turn around. We said our goodbyes, and watched our friends head up the trail, led by the other guide.
After nine hours, our friends still hadn't returned to Finca Magdalena, and we began to worry. An hour later, they sauntered down the trail, wet and bedraggled. They'd climbed to the crater rim with the guide, and attempted to descend to a lake in the crater, but cloud and mist shrouded everything. An avid jogger, our friend said the climb was harder than a half marathon she'd run months before.
It was time to explore other parts of the island. There was much to do. One can ride along the beach on horses for about $US6 ($A6.49) an hour. We chose to visit an aquatic playground, called el Ojo del Agua, or the Water's Eye. Along the isthmus between the volcanoes, the site collects clear water from springs into a crystalline swimming hole, popular with travellers.
One can arc into the water on a rope swing, or sunbathe and sip coconut milk.
The pre-Columbian past of Ometepe is rich. Stone statues, urns and ceramic vessels have been found all over the island, remnants of cultures dating to 1000 B.C. On another day, we visited El Ceibo Museum near the town of Moyogalpa, a repository of some 1,200 archaeological pieces, including big funerary vessels.
There was plenty of time to laze at our beachside hotel. One day, I chatted with one of the owners, Ramon Castillo Monge, a biologist and Ometepe native.
"Tourism really started about 20 years ago," he said, adding that 60 or 70 small hotels, restaurants and other facilities cater to tourists these days.
Castillo recited from a mental list all the things to do on Ometepe: "The island has white sand beaches, black sand beaches, water that is both serene and rough, where you can practice kite surfing. You can climb volcanoes, and explore farms. You can see petroglyphs, and look at migratory birds."
Seeking to promote tourism on Ometepe Island, which was declared a biosphere reserve by a United Nations body in 2010, the Nicaraguan government inaugurated a $US12 million airport last May.
"It is a new destination for people coming from outside the Central America region," said Javier Chamorro, the head of ProNicaragua, an export and investment promotion agency in the capital. "It is the only island in fresh water that you'll find with two volcanoes."
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: Visitors can arrive on Ometepe Island by air or by ferry from the San Jorge port near the city of Rivas. Ferries leave at least 10 times a day, although those carrying vehicles depart less frequently. La Costena, a domestic airline (lacostena.online.com.ni), flies twice a week to the island from Managua, the capital.
STAYING THERE: We stayed at the Xalli Ometepe Beach Hotel, which has seven rooms (ometepebeachhotel.com). Rooms range from roughly $US40 to $US95, depending on the season. Other recommended hotels include La Via Verde Organic Farm and B&B (viaverde.blinkweb.com), and the Totoco Eco-lodge (totoco.com.ni). Inexpensive hostels abound.