Negro’s hooves clattered rhythmically across the sand. As we traversed the curving beach, the emerald greens and deep blues of an earthly paradise sped past my eyes at a furious speed. Volcán Maderas slipped from my peripheral vision. Its eternal neighbour, the perfectly-conical Volcán Concepción, appeared and cast its ancient shadow upon the waves of Lake Nicaragua.
Reachable by boat or bi-weekly ferry, Isla de Ometepe is renowned for its twin volcanoes. (The name Ometepe is derived from two Nahuatl words meaning two mountains.) Ancient Indian inhabitants believed the hourglass-shaped island to be sacred. Petroglyphs are lingering tattoos of that epoch. Renting horses for $10 an hour in such a fabled setting seemed like a combination made in travel heaven: a tranquilo canter, I assumed, across the island’s sumptuous beaches. Yet tranquilo would not be the afternoon’s defining adjective.
I’d never ridden a horse in my life. After a gentle trot from the corral, my horse, Negro, the largest steed I saw on the island, burst into the aforementioned gallop as soon as he felt the warm sand beneath his hooves. I gripped the reins and crop as one cluster. My arm muscles were as tense as suspension cables. Over fifty metres we’d outpaced my friends. Just as I began to unclamp my teeth, my left foot fell out of its stirrup. That unsheathed foot jumped through the air, upsetting clouds of midges. My tongue dived down my throat. It was hard to appreciate the abounding beauty of Ometepe while dangling precariously over Negro’s flank.
Our rangy fourteen-year-old guide, Esmeraldo, drew us to a halt. He’d been enjoying my predicament; his wide grin was testament. He began mumbling in Spanish about my equilibrio. My toes friends caught up with us. “You have to pull the reins,” said my friend Daniel, almost doubled over from laughter.
After resetting my foot in the stirrup, he firmly slapped Negro’s hind and sent horse and floundering rider back along the beach, quickly reaching our previous wild speed. Esmeraldo’s laughter was swallowed by the sound of our renewed motion: hooves like muffled thunder, a wind tunnel blast and my careening heartbeat.
With my foot firmly re-set and the beginner’s panic over, I adjusted to Negro’s ferocious gallop and rhythm. I relaxed, and focused on maintaining my equilibrium. I tested the reins with gentle tugs, and sure enough, with each pull I realised a semblance of control over the horse. Steadily, I began to enjoy my surroundings.
We’d passed groups of Nicaraguan children playing football, volleyball and running in and out of the lake’s icy waters. Volcano Concepción was an indomitable shaded presence against the cloudless sky. The white and navy surf was watched by vigilant egrets. And the base-like intonation of Negro’s hooves was the rolling soundtrack.
After moving through a wooded passage, we reached the third and final beach. Esmeraldo led us across a slender ledge of sand linking the shoreline to a tiny tree-covered island. We dismounted and led our horses into the island’s dappled shade for half-way pit stop.
The friction of our bare shins against the saddles had carved deep welts into our skin; we washed them in the glacial waters. Our backsides pulsed from the impact with the saddles. Bugs were glued to the sweat sheen of our sun-pricked faces. Yet the mood was rapturous. We could read it on one another’s faces: the wide-eyed, toothy smiles that come with an intense adrenaline rush. While travelling across the beach my heart had felt like a rubber ball released into my chest cavity by a slingshot. Now it was puttering downward into a strong, stable beat, hard and enlivening.
Esmeraldo had led us to an incredible spot. The setting sun, momentarily suspended on the shoulder of Concepción, transformed the lake into a sparkling sheet. It looked as though all the stars had fallen from Ometepe’s pollution-less night sky onto the water. Everything was green and golden and navy-coral blue.
From the moment the ferry leaves colonial Granada, Ometepe disconnects a road-weary traveller from the maddening modern world. It’s easy to appreciate the beliefs of its ancient population. I hope the plans for an airport fall through. Otherwise it could be the familiar story of a paradise lost.
We rested for a few minutes before mounting our horses.
“Your horse just wants to run,” said my friend Linda. Now feeling like a capable cowboy, so did I.
Almost instantaneously, Negro began his extraordinary gallop across the beach. Utilising all his latent power, we barrelled back toward the small knit of civilisation through the sensory procession of paradisiacal Ometepe.