Nicaraguans have developed a taste for the world’s fastest lizard, and one traveller goes on the hunt to find out why.
Story and Photos by Lena Desmond
“Do you think the dogs will kill it?” Mara asked as we walked.
“Do you think Jorge will stab it through the head?” I asked back.
“Maybe Juan will ping it with his slingshot.”
“Do you think we’ll have to eat it?”
“Someone said it tastes like fish.”
“I heard it tastes like chicken.”
“If they ask you to kill it, will you?”
“I don’t know. Will you?”
Mara and I, two cheating vegetarians, pondered the iguana’s fate and reconciled our own guilt as little Juan skipped merrily ahead, his slingshot laced around his neck for safekeeping. Jorge waved his machete in the air, cutting down weeds that didn’t need cutting, and Fran walked beside Anderson, who sipped water from a Javex bottle that was bigger than his head.
Old man Humberto forged the path, moving faster than all six of us younger ones. He wore a gummy smile and crow’s feet that ran some 70-odd years deep. Here we were not salmon fishing in Yemen, but iguana hunting on Nicaragua’s Ometepe Island. My pledge to ahimsa would have to wait.
If you’d asked me two months earlier if I’d be found on the side of a volcano in the beating sun, I’d have said surely. But that, and contemplating an iguana’s imminent demise at my prospective hand? Surely not.
When Mara arrived from Canada for a visit, I’d venture to say he’d felt the same. But here we were. Iguana hunting was never part of our itinerary but as I watched four little boys crowd around Humberto as he circled the outline of an iguana’s tracks in the dirt, the head of Volcan Concepción illuminated behind him, I was struck by the innocent ingenuity of these people and the majesty of the view.
Ometepe Island sits in the centre of the great Lake Nicaragua. Nestled in the southwest corner of the country, close to the Costa Rican border, Lake Nicaragua is Central America’s largest lake and has outlets that run so far they touch the Caribbean Sea. The lake’s fresh water might be a passage way, but for me it was more like a time machine—when Ometepe came into view upon my first crossing, I was thrust back to a sight described by Mark Twain in 1866:
“Out of the midst of the beautiful Lake Nicaragua spring two magnificent pyramids, clad in the softest and richest green, all flecked with shadow and sunshine, whose summits pierce the billowy clouds. They look so isolated from the world and its turmoil—so tranquil, so dreamy, so steeped in slumber and eternal repose. What a home one might make among their shady forests, their sunny slopes, their breezy dells, after he had grown weary of the toil, anxiety and unrest of the bustling, driving world.”
Indeed, the hourglass-shaped island is oblivious to time. It’s been more than a century since Twain documented his first sight of Ometepe, but today his observations hold true. From almost anywhere on the island, I could see at least one of its pyramids in full view. Volcan Concepción and Volcan Maderas—the two volcanoes that actually form the island—remain clad with green, one active and dry, the other dead and wet, respectively.
Looking out from the shore, past the women doing laundry in the shallows and horses rolling in the surf, I could only just make out the wind turbines. While they loomed so large on the mainland, from the island they are dwarfed by the sea, minified by the distance and reminiscent of nothing more than the tiny mechanics inside a pocket watch. The rest of Nicaragua, with its wellness resorts, abundant surf and bustling cities, was but a mirage mired in haze, forgot to the island’s isolation and its two inescapable peaks.
Like Twain before me, my new friend Alejandro, a retired lawyer from Honduras, found solace in Ometepe’s eternal repose. The day before our endeavour, Mara and I were sitting on my front porch when Alejandro declared, “My assistants will take you iguana hunting tomorrow.”
We laughed; a communication error no doubt. But Alejandro didn’t laugh.
“Seven o’clock. You are to be ready.”
I was lucky to befriend Alejandro. While Ometepe is called home by approximately 30,000 people, an expat community is virtually nonexistent but for a few which have found refuge in the island’s slow, lapping pace. Alejandro made Ometepe his home some two years earlier but he didn’t meet the boys who took me on my adventure until he bought a fridge.
Every morning he’d wake up, open the door, and there they were; the neighbourhood boys, standing in single file, cups ready for a sip of cold water. Alejandro, with his greying hair and kind eyes, calls them his assistants, but says “If they are my assistants, why do I always serve them?”
On some level, it’s because Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in all of Latin America (Central and South America) and the Caribbean after Haiti; according to the World Bank, an astonishing 76 percent of the population lives on less than $2 USD a day. The boys were no exception. While he had previously hinted at their economic situation, Alejandro shrugged and shook his head with a smile and a paternal eye roll: “I don’t know.”
The day of the hunt, at 7 a.m. on the dot, we arrived at Alejandro’s house tucked in the Ometepe countryside under the shadow of Concepción, a bubbling plume of smoke emanating from its head like a thought bubble, or perhaps a warning.
The boys lined up. Alejandro made the introductions. Jorge, Anderson, Juan and Fran (note: all local names have been changed). Unlikely heroes but each a likely iguana hunter, if I’d ever seen one. A dog was at Fran’s feet, her pup taking a sip of milk from her teat. Would this sweet momma rip an iguana apart? We started walking, little momma in tow, when Humberto appeared from nowhere, a sage without a beard, joining our gaggle with a giggle from his two-toothed mouth.
This wasn’t a hostel tour or guided hike. It was very apparent very quickly to me that we were accompanying the boys and Humberto—who is an adhoc small-scale subsistence hunter—in a pursuit where a local buyer was involved. For Humberto, it meant money. For the boys, food. This was business; and business was good.
Despite the fact that iguana is illegal to hunt from January to April during the reptile’s breeding time, it’s difficult to suppress a hungry population’s desire for protein-rich meat.
A drought ravaged the region in 2014 and the Nicaraguan government encouraged the consumption of iguana meat to replace the estimated 2,500 cattle that were lost, among other crops and resources.
That said, the demand for the reptile and Humberto’s services reaches far beyond the drought. Sometimes called “the chicken of the trees,” Nicaraguans have developed tastebuds tickled for black iguana meat and their eggs. This is especially true during lent when Nicaraguans avoid red meat to observe the Catholic fast. No beef? Iguana meat is the best substitute.
It’s also steeped in old wives’ recipes like levanta muerto, a soup that “raises the dead.” A swampy mix of black spiny iguana tails, eggs, brains and bull testicles, it’s supposed to boost energy, brain power and virility. While aphrodisiacs abound in culinary mysticism, the iguana is believed by locals to have healing properties. In its various forms, iguana meat is said to cure everything from sore throats and arthritis to cancer and diabetes. While I looked for supporting medical research, it seems there is none.
Culinary mysticism aside, the income made from this day trip—a whole $15—would be Humberto’s income for the week. Thinking of him, I sort of hoped we wouldn’t hinder his hunting efforts. Thinking of the iguana, I sort of hoped we would.
In my mind, we were headed around a corner to a small, level patch of jungle where iguanas live and where we’d sit in silence waiting to take our pick, camouflaged by bush. Wrong again, my tired legs told me three hours in and we stood only some 1,000 metres from the 5,280-metre peak.
Humberto chose then to disclose that the black iguana prefers a habitat of rocks and trees, where sunlight hits and predators hide. The only trace of an iguana we’d seen, or should I say Humberto saw, was the telltale print of a tail dragging in the sand and four tiny foot prints.
“The iguanas are fast,” Humberto said, eyes trained to the sand. And in fact, the black iguana that roams the volcano’s slopes holds the title of the world’s fastest lizard. Also known as the spiny-tailed iguana, it can scurry up to 25 kilometres an hour, or more.
“The dogs will have to be fast today,” he adds, then looked at me as I attempted to stifle a thundering exhale. “We will have to be quiet.”
We trudged on, grabbing vines for support until iguana caverns appeared in the slope right before the long grass ended and just after we entered the clouds. The dogs barked and we held still with bated breath, despite being out of breath. The cold kiss of the wet wind was welcomed on my dripping face as we took our first break and I watched the dogs’ tails tick and tock over the long grass. The barking ceased. The pups returned. Juan shot a rock from his slingshot into the misty abyss.
False alarm. Nada. Zilch. Humberto lead us on. Fertile dirt turned to barren silt and I struggled to catch a stride while he hadn’t even broken a sweat; perhaps it was due to a lifetime spent scaling Concepción—or maybe it was the levanta muerto. I’m not sure.
As Humberto pushed higher up the volcano’s face, I wondered if urbanization or, more accurately, humanization had driven the iguanas up so high. As a whole, Nicaragua is in the midst of a transformation. Ecotourism has found a new home along both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Despite widespread opposition, construction has started on the Nicaragua Canal, a longstanding political dream, which will position the country as a global shipping passageway.
Ometepe, however, remains relatively uninfluenced, and a lack of basic resources persist. Its customs, like consumption of iguana, are still self-serving and uncompromised, illegal or not.
As we maneuvered down a rocky slope, we triggered a landslide. I clung to a jungle vine and Jorge held my wrist as the ground slipped out from under us. Mara reached the end of his water. The boys offered him a sip of theirs and he took the Javex bottle to his lips. He chugged. My stomach turned from watching. I hoped his wouldn’t do the same.
From the landslide and into a gorge, we climbed rocks as large as refrigerators and Juan chopped at spiked reeds. Lying on a stone in the scaling sun, Mara found a python skeleton the size of Anderson, a whole four feet long. The dogs, I thought, I hope they know how to kill snakes too.
Out of water and almost out of steam, we climbed a fence into a farmer’s field, where Jorge scaled a palm tree but no coconuts fell. As Humberto shook his head and took off his shoes, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The 70-year-old man glided up the tree like my grandmother butters bread; slow, even and easy as a habit. He chopped down eight coconuts and Jorge cut them open as Humberto shimmied back down.
In one last ditch effort, we walked up a small hill. At last the dogs started barking and my nerves started firing and calls of “iguana!, iguana!” came from the boys. They stood pointing up from the base of a tree. Jorge climbed and shook a branch to no avail. The dogs lost interest and Humberto conceded.
The iguana that got away. Together, we went back to Humberto’s home through the midday sun, pooped as they come, while I wondered if there are any rules left to break.
• • •
Three days later, Mara, Alejandro and I found ourselves back on Humberto’s porch. The early morning sun lit a fire of green on the base of the volcano while the clouds nibbled away at its head. He may have come home empty-handed the day we fumbled among the slopes, but Humberto would see his efforts through. The day before, he caught not one iguana but two. Of course his success was found through a hunt by him and him alone.
“How did he get it?” I asked as I stared down at my lap. A plate with a bog of saucy meat that looked like pulled pork but smelled like curry stared back up at me.
“When they find an iguana, the boys hit it with their slingshots,” said Alejandro. “Or Humberto hits it with his knife. This time the dogs shook it dead.”
My stomach turned as I looked at the pup asleep at my feet. I took a bite of gallo pinto first, a Nicaraguan breakfast staple of rice and beans. Then I tucked a patch of meat onto my fork. The boys and Humberto sat around me, their plates already licked clean, watching my hand as intently as they watched my face.
I put the bite in my mouth, staring into nowhere as I swallowed. A hit of coconut. A splash of salt. The meat took a moment to register. It didn’t taste like chicken. It didn’t taste like rabbit. I thought it tasted more like fish.
Juan clapped Humberto on the shoulder and they laughed as I took another bite. I closed my eyes and waited. But nothing came. I didn’t feel energized and I didn’t feel smarter. Maybe the effects are delayed?
“So,” Mara said. “Are you feeling any more alive?” He jabbed at my side with his elbow.
I shook my head and looked to him as he studied his own plate. Watching him as carefully as the boys watched me, as he lifted the fork to his mouth and chewed his first bite, I waited for his reaction.
“So?” I said, as he set his fork back down, shrugging his shoulders.
“Not too bad.”
“Are you feeling any more…um…potent?”
He looked back down at his plate as a fly circled the murky meat. He swatted it before reaching for his bottle of water. Then, in the very best Austin Powers’ accent he could muster, Mara replied, “Oh yeah baby, yeahhh!”
He smiled cheek to cheek with iguana meat caught between his teeth. We crumpled into fits of laughter. While the iguana’s powers were lost on us, Humberto, on the other hand, jumped to his feet.
“Where’s he going?” I asked as Humberto grabbed his Javex bottle, his energy all renewed.
“Back to the top,” Alejandro said, pointing at Concepción through the trees. “He walks the slopes sometimes. Just because he can.”
Bidding us adieu, Humberto tipped his machete like a top hat to the sky, vanishing from my life as quick as he had appeared. He walked down the trail back to his volcano and the boys followed. No slingshots in hand, and no dogs either.
As I watched them leave toward the foot of the island’s greatest peak, I thought back to Mark Twain and the end of his marked passage: “What a home one might make among their shady forests.”
Indeed, what a home Humberto had.
- Lena Desmond is contributor to Outpost Travel Media. This story first appeared in Outpost magazine and has been adapted.