We exited Costa Rica on a high, having experienced one of our favourite countries of our travels so far. We knew that the next countries would be a little more challenging as they are less developed for tourism and more rough around the edges in terms of services and infrastructure. Despite this we were looking forward to Nicaragua and what it has to offer. As our first stop we chose to explore Ometepe island and its famed volcanic landscape.
Isla Ometepe is a secluded fairytale island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. The lake was formed tectonically and the island is actually 2 volcanoes, one active (Concepcion), one dormant (Maderas) gently rising from the waters where freshwater sharks are still supposed to swim (not easy to find we were told though, due to overfishing by a Japanese company). The slopes of the volcanoes are coated with lush, animal rich cloud forest and their summits are often mysteriously shrouded in clouds. What more could you wish for in a destination!
Getting to Ometepe is fairly straightforward. We were crossing from Liberia in Costa Rica so we first stopped for a night in the Pacific backpackery and surf town of San Juan del Sur. As we like to think of ourselves as travellers and not backpackers (too old for that sh!t!) and we are certainly not surfers, we only spent one night, however it’s a nice enough lively town with stunning sunsets.
From San Juan del Sur you can get a bus, shuttle or taxi the small port of San Jorge where ferries and lanchas (smaller sized boats) depart for Ometepe. We opted for the ferry as it would be a smoother ride with more opportunity to wander around and view the island rising up from the silvery lake. And what a ferry it was! The chicken bus of ferries that made the Navimag in the Chilean Fjords look like a five-star cruise ship (it all adds to the charm!). If already in Nicaragua you are likely to arrive from colonial Granada, just an hour’s journey by car.
Ometepe is certainly not the most developed of tourist destinations but is firmly on the travelling circuit. It seems likely that development may begin in earnest though as there is now an airstrip (currently used as an ordinary road!) and we heard some Americans on the ferry discussing what land they owned and what plans they had for hotels…but to be honest they may have been drunk and trying to blow their own trumpets.
Where to stay
We opted to stay on the outskirts of the main town of Moyogalpa where the ferry docks, in a sort of home stay with a local family. We had our own private room and bathroom, but we were basically part of the family home and had the option of eating meals there. The room was very basic and we were pretty much on a farm (on one morning they started giving cows their vaccinations in the field next door and it was quite chaotic!), but it felt very community based, friendly, relaxed and authentic. There was also a most talkative parrot called Lolita on the premises who would not miss an opportunity to say hola, shout her name or holler utter nonsense…especially when you are trying to sleep! Moyogalpa town has a few restaurants and facilities, but it is quite limited, we wished that we had eaten at home more! Unfortunately Lolita wasn’t on the menu…
How to get around
Traveling around Ometepe is best done with a motorcycle or scooter. Our hosts helped us to rent the latter and it served us well other than not coping very well with speed bumps! (Jess had to get off the back each time so that we could get over them!). If we did it again we would ask for a motorbike with a better clearance. Tip: One thing to note is that you have to be strategic about refuelling at the few gas stations, or get an empty drinks bottle filled up so that you have an emergency stash.
What to do
You can hike both volcanoes but they are both long and physically demanding, especially during the rainy season. There are certainly other activities that can undertaken independently and here is what we chose to do.
Driving through villages
Part of the fun of Ometepe is driving through the small villages shadowed by the volcanoes, some of which are very basic, centred around a tiny church and with people still living in mud packed floor shacks. It’s a bit like stepping back in time as you come through villages thick with wood smoke and have to dodge chickens, pigs, cows and you name it on the roads!
Punta Jesus Maria
Punta Jesus Maria is a sand bar formed by currents in the lake. It’s a sweeping long black finger of sand which goes for at least a kilometre into the water. There are superb views of the mainland and also excellent photo opportunities for the twin volcanoes when looking back towards the island. It was fun to paddle in both sides (swimming is also safe, it looks dirty but it is just lake sediment) and notice how one side is rough and warm and the other is calm and cool. Also, once you get to the end the sand slowly submerges and you get to pretend to be Jesus walking on water. Hence the name of the place we guess?!
There is also some bird life to observe and we saw lots of little camouflaged frogs and a terrapin.
Charco Verde Reserve
This small reserve is based around a lagoon which we didn’t go near because it was infested with mosquitoes. Instead we walked the path through the pretty garden with butterflies and the forest to the beach with perfectly still waters. From here we had a superb view of the dormant volcano Maderas. We also spent some time watching a small troop of howler monkeys in the trees who were trying their best to wee on us, luckily we managed to outwit them.
Santo Domingo beach area
Altagracia is the second largest town on Ometepe. It’s not extraordinary but it does have a few pre-Colombian zoomorphic monoliths in the church yard that haven’t been carted off to museums on the mainland. Its proximity to the Santo Domingo beach and the Ojo de Agua freshwater pool makes it worth a quick visit.
Santo Domingo is a wide stretch of beach with a few hotels and restaurants. It was a bit choppy due to the wind when we arrived so we decided to swim in the nearby freshwater pools of Ojo de Agua instead. They seemed to be quite popular with tourists and locals alike but were certainly quite bracingly cold! Of course, when we got back to the beach for lunch at a good veggie restaurant the lake waters were still and tranquil. The weather conditions can change quite quickly.
We did a short hike around the base of volcano Maderas to see a good range of the pre-Colombian petroglyphs which are still in situ. To get to this trail you need to navigate to Finca Magdalena, a large farm with accommodation for hikers. Getting there with a scooter was a real challenge; clearly someone is looking over us as we managed to reach the farm unscathed.
The trail was quite muddy and also there were a confusing amount of paths and an almost complete lack of reliable signs, but we did manage to find the petroglyphs and see a few animals along the way.
We greatly enjoyed the off the beaten track feel of Ometepe but it seems likely that it is much more touristy during the high season. Because we had entered the rainy season we struggled with the weather and got rained in for a couple of mornings and also stuck in a restaurant for a couple of hours one night (a drawback of only having a scooter for transport!).
We also found Ometepe, and indeed Nicaragua, to be wonderfully cheap, especially in comparison to the more tourist-developed Costa Rica. Examples are the ferry ticket which was £2.50 return each and entrance to parks/trails which seemed to average only a couple of pounds.
As mentioned before, it’s possible that Ometepe might experience a boom in tourism in the coming years. We certainly hope that this can be achieved sympathetically and to the benefit of those who live there. There is also a controversial plan for transoceanic canal that would surpass the Panama Canal in size. The Nicaraguan government has granted a Hong Kong company a 50 year concession but it is still not clear whether it will go ahead, especially as the water levels are at a historic low due to drought. It definitely one of those places to visit sooner rather than later, just in case!