Anchored by two towering volcanoes, Nicaragua’s Ometepe Island is paradise found. In just a few days, you can climb a volcano, take a trail ride on horseback, kayak through a tropical bird-filled river estuary, stroll along a beach at sunset and much, much more.
While the world abounds in gorgeous waterfront vacation spots, they usually have a serious price tag attached. Not so with the Nicaraguan island of Ometepe, located in the southwestern corner of the country on the western side of Lake Nicaragua, one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world. The lake’s indigenous Náhuatl name of Cocibolca translates as “the sweet sea,” a description that found favor with 16th century Spanish explorers and still applies today.
The name Ometepe literally means “land of two hills,” and life on the 106 square mile island still revolves around the dominating presences of the twin volcanoes of Concepcíon (5,200 feet) and Maderas (4,500 feet), which are connected by a narrow beach-filled isthmus.
Climbing the Volcanoes
The larger of the twin volcanoes is Volcán Concepción, located near either of the two ferry ports. Climbing to the very top is currently prohibited due to recent volcanic activity, but it’s still possible to ascend to nearly 4,200 feet. Once at this stunning vantage point, it’s possible to see far across Lake Nicaragua, and as far as Costa Rica. A guide is recommended, as it’s an arduous climb and the trail can be elusive. Most of the tourist kiosks by the ferry landing can provide an experienced guide, as can any of the local hotels in either Moyogalpa or Altagracia. Expect the hike to take an entire day, and don’t leave without your sun block, hat, water and hiking boots.
Volcán Maderas, situated on the smaller southern half of the island, is the more popular climb. While also grueling at times, it’s a somewhat shorter trek – six to seven hours vs. eight to nine for Concepción, and has the payoff of a beautiful crater lake at the top. Once again, a guide is a must, and make sure he is prepared with ropes and proper safety equipment for the final descent down to the lake. Unlike her taller sister to the north, which has her conical sides exposed to the elements, Maderas is primarily ensconced in a cloud forest and as result quite muddy, even in the dry season. Waterproof boots or shoes are highly recommended. Guests of the Finca Magdalena ascend for free, otherwise, there is a small trail fee to pass through their coffee plantation. In exchange, a few petroglyphs can be found early in the climb on the grounds of the plantation. The other option for an ascent leaves from the town of Merida, and guides can be arranged at the Hacienda Merida. (See Where to Stay LINK for info on both places.)
In addition to these two rather strenuous climbs, the island offers a number of less exhausting but no less inspiring treks. The waterfall at San Ramon (Cascada San Ramón), located 2.5 miles from the town of Merida, is a 183-foot drop off the southern side of Volcán Maderas. It takes around two hours to reach, much of which is a steep vertical climb. There is a $2 entry fee, payable at the nearby Ometepe Biological Station.
Finca Magdalena, a mile trek above the town of Balgüe, offers tours of its coffee plantations, as well as through the fields of pre-Columbian petroglyphs that are otherwise impossible to find without an insider’s eye.
Chico Largo, located off the paved road from Moyogalpa, is name to both a lovely hill and a chilling legend. There are various versions, but all agree that in the distant past, a very large man lived in the area and spread fear amongst the local populace, convincing them that through their bad actions, they would be transformed into cattle. Since the area is famous today for its bovine population, the legend persists. The trail begins at Posada del Chico Largo, and wends its way up the hill. From the top, you can see Charco Verde and Quiste Island, as well as the distant mainland. When climbed in the late afternoon, it offers one of the best points for watching the sunset, made more beautiful for the several liquid surfaces from which the last rays reflect their light.
Not exactly a hike, but a recent addition to the Ometepe activity lineup is a small zipline tour, available off the Playa Santo Domingo. Ask at Finca Sto. Domingo for more information.
Beaches and Water Activities
An excellent way to explore the coastline, the Istián River (Rio Istián) and several small islands is by kayak. Rentals are available at several points around the island and generally run $5/hour (favorable half-day and full-day rates are also available). The most popular excursions are the sunrise or sunset trips from Merida to Río Istián. Depending on the winds, it can be a leisurely paddle or a rigorous workout, but once inside the protected waters of the river, the flora and fauna make it all worthwhile. Dozens of tropical birds, including egrets, herons, jacanas, guardabarranco and predatory birds such as hawks, plus beautiful trees, and the occasional monkey will please even the most jaded nature-lover. For more monkeys than are usually found in one place, a shorter paddle out to Monkey Island (actually two small islands) is not to be missed. With white-faced Capuchins on one and agile Spider monkeys on the other, sightings are guaranteed – just be sure to keep well back from the shore as not all the monkeys are known to be welcoming.
Sailing is offered at Hacienda Merida, the only locale currently offering this option. Half-day tours run $20 per person, wind-permitting, and allow for glorious island views. The Hacienda also offers waterskiing and tubing, though neither is recommended for the faint of heart. There are rumors of windsurfing coming soon too.
The eastern side of the isthmus connecting the two halves of the island offers some of the best beaches in the country, and during the windy months, waves powerful enough to body surf and boogie board. Playa Santo Domingo runs the length of this strip of land and is accessible from either end, or many points in between. Home to many of the island’s finest hotels, guesthouses, and resorts, the beach is the perfect place to decompress after a day summiting Concepción or simply to relax and enjoy. Known for its black sand beaches, a steady breeze from the east keeps things cool. And few parts of the island compete for ideal sunrise-viewing spots.
For an escape within an escape, try Ojo de Agua, or the “Eye of Water.” Two inter-connected fresh water pools fed from a natural spring are nestled amongst an old-growth forest, about a half mile off the isthmus road. The owner, a local farmer and landowner, has been working on his unique retreat slowly over the years and now has a small restaurant, restrooms and even a couple rudimentary changing rooms.
Bicycling and Horseback Riding
One of the best ways to tour the island is by bicycle, but this requires both time and a certain degree of physical fitness. Bikes can be rented from Moyogalpa, Merida and from several individual hotels around the island, with both prices and quality varying considerably. Bringing your own bike is another option, especially if you plan to travel on to other destinations. The beauty of a bike it that it allows you freedom from bus schedules and permits you to see the island, its inhabitants and innumerable sights up close and personal. About one third of the island’s main roads are paved, while the remainder allow for rigorous mountain bike riding. The island is far from flat, presenting the rider with both long, slow climbs and beautiful declines, as well as short, steep ascents and descents. And if it all becomes too much, the local buses are happy to stop for weary travelers, bikes and all.
Ometepe is known for its small, strong horses, although in recent years cross-breeding has increased both the size and number of animals on the island. Horses are available for rent throughout the island at rates similar to bikes, both with and without accompanying guides. One popular ride is from Santo Domingo beach to the Ojo de Agua, where the crystal clear waters are a refreshing way to break up the trip.
Getting there: Arriving at Managua’s Sandino airport, you can take a taxi to San Jorge Port for $50, a price that applies for one passenger or several. Many drivers will try to charge more, so be sure to set the price before getting into the cab. The ride should take around 1½ – 2 hrs. A less expensive option is to take a bus from the Mercado Roberto Huembes, which takes 2 – 2½ hrs and costs $2 – $3. To get there, cross the highway in front of the airport and get a taxi for around $5. Once at the Mercado, ask for the bus to either San Jorge or Rivas. If only the latter is available, you can get another taxi to San Jorge Port from Rivas for another $2 – $3. Rental cars are also available from the airport, with rates running around $400 a week. Keep in mind that a 4×4 is recommended for the island and advance reservations are needed to take a vehicle on the ferry (about $40 round-trip).
Once you arrive at the port, follow the pier to the end where the ferries will be waiting. There are several sizes, from small launches carrying around 40 – 50 people, up to the Rei of Cocibolca (King of Lake Nicaragua) that carries 1,000. While the schedule is subject to change, the current departures are: AM: 7:45, 9, 9:30, 10:30, 11:15 PM: 12:30, 1:30, 2:30, 4:00, 5:30. (The two times in bold represent the boats that dock at San Jose rather than Moyogalpa.) Individual fares are $1.50 – $3 depending on the craft and the crossing takes around one hour.
Getting Around: Once on the island, depending on whether you arrive in the town of Moyogalpa, on the northern end of the island, or the village of San Jose, closer to the isthmus, you have several options for getting around. Bicycles, motorcycles and cars can all be rented in Moyogalpa, at prices ranging from $10/day for bikes to $25/day for motorcycles to $50/day for vehicles. Alternately, there are public buses which run several times a day, as well as tourist mini-buses that wait for each ferry. It is best to get a group together as the price (from $20 – $35 to the other half of the island) is the same regardless of number of passengers. Finally, several of the hotels and resorts throughout the island have their own transportation and will meet the ferries to collect their guests. Just be sure to prearrange when making your reservations.
When to Go: While it is possible to travel to the island year round, the best weather is generally between early December and late March, when it rarely rains and the temperatures range from the mid to upper 80’s during the day and a comfortable low 70’s at night. By April, it is increasingly hot and humid, with the rainy season starting in mid-May and lasting through November. Nevertheless, it rarely monsoons and even during the rainy period there are long stretches of clear weather.
What to Bring: If you plan to hike either volcano, lightweight hiking boots or at least sturdy sneakers are a must. Convertible pants/shorts are handy for changes in temperature, as well as horseback riding, and a packable waterproof jacket will also come in handy. Swimwear, shorts, lightweight tops and quick-drying underwear, as well as sturdy sandals should suffice for all other activities. Bug spray, sun block, a travel towel and a good hat should also not be left behind.
Safety: Ometepe has a reputation for safety, with few reported incidents against tourists. Nevertheless, keep an eye on your stuff, and don’t leave your passport lying on the bed! If you travel from Managua to San Jorge by bus, beware pickpockets and keep your money and valuables close at hand.
Language: Spanish is the national tongue, but most people working with tourists will speak at least some English. If you want to stop and chat with the locals as you pedal by, a few words of Spanish will go a long way.
Currency: The local currency is the cordóba, but the US dollar is widely accepted, particularly in smaller denominations. Be sure, however, that every bill is in excellent condition as even minute tears or marks are sufficient for a bill to be rejected. A few places accept travelers checks, usually with a 10% fee attached. Credit cards are gaining popularity and are accepted at the larger resorts and hotels. There are two ATM machines on the island, one in Moyogalpa, and one in Altagracia
Where to Stay
The island has a wide range of accommodations, depending on your budget and the level of comfort you seek. Originally catering to the backpacker crowd, the last few years have seen a steady increase in more upscale options, though prices remain very reasonable even at the chicest hotels. Not wanting to be left behind by the eco-tourism trend, Ometepe also boasts several eco-friendly options, from the hip Zopilote to the high-end Totoco. Hotels are listed in order of location, starting in Moyogalpa.
Ometepetl (website), one of the island’s original hotels, is located just a few steps from the Moyogalpa ferry dock. With reasonable rates and experienced guides to help you plan your stay on the island, this hotel is a convenient place to start. Rates from $10 – $45.
Charco Verde/Venecia/Chico Largo (website) are actually three separate resorts, side by side along the western beaches of the larger half of the island, just south of the San Jose ferry port. Charco Verde is the most developed, with individual cabins and a full restaurant, as well as kayaks, hiking, horseback riding and other activities. Prices run from $25 – $55; air conditioning is available.
One of many options along the Playa Domingo beach, the Hotel Finca Santo Domingo (Playa Domingo, isthmus, website) offers lovely cabins, a full restaurant and many activities. Rates from $20 – $46; A/C available.
An original from the early days of island tourism, Villa Paraiso (Playa Domingo, isthmus, website) remains one of the best choices, with rooms and private cabañas, A/C, internet, a restaurant and many, many activities. Rates from $30 – $55.
As you exit the isthmus and enter Santa Cruz, look to your right for the hand-carved wooden sign of El Encanto, an experimental farm, hotel, and restaurant. Clean, comfortable private rooms, a dorm, gorgeous grounds, activity coordination and a professional birding guide make this and ideal spot. Rates from $8-25.
The other end of the eco-travel spectrum, Finca Ecological Zopilote (Balgüe, Maderas, website) caters mainly to the backpacker crowd. With a comfortable dormitory as well as several private cabins, everything is done with recycling and love of mother earth in mind. They also offer courses in bread making. From $2 for a hammock to $15 for a private cabin, shared bath.
The island’s original coffee plantation, Finca Magdalena (Balgüe, Maderas, website) is now a collective offering accommodations while still growing amazing coffee and producing delicious honey. Hikes, including to the Volcán Maderas, can be arranged here, as can other activities. From dorms to private cabañas: $10 – $55.
The newest and most expensive resort on the island, Totoco (Balgüe, Maderas, website) boasts that it is entirely eco-friendly without compromising on luxury. There are several individual cabins, a gourmet restaurant and a staff ready to coordinate any activity. Dorm: $13, cabins: $80 – $130. Meal packages also available.
Also attractive to the globe-trekking set, the Hacienda Merida (Merida, Maderas, website) has a number of programs, including an English school for local children and assorted volunteer opportunities. They are an excellent source of tourist info for all activities on the southern end of the island and offer speedboat taxi services to the ferries. Rates from $6 – $28; A/C not available.
Named by its owner, a native of Omaha, Nebraska, Omaja (Merida, Maderas, website) is a little piece of heaven. Individual cabins each offer stunning views, the restaurant serves up tasty meals, high speed internet is available and they are more than happy to help you arrange your activities. Rates from $30 – $40; A/C available.
Where to Eat
All of the hotels and guest houses listed here have their own restaurants, as do nearly all hotels on the island. It is not necessary to be a guest in order to dine at the restaurant, and travelers tend to explore whatever options are nearby. Due to the influx of foreign tourists in recent years (the island has long been a popular destination for Nicaraguans), many menus now offer dishes such as curry or vegetarian options. The island is famous for its fresh fish and delicious plantains, used both green and ripe. Gallo Pinto is the national dish, generally served in the morning but available all day in local places. Comprised of red beans and rice, its flavor and quality can vary widely, but it’s always cheap and filling. For an average meal, expect to pay from $3 – $15 per person, depending on the location.
Just off the ferry, up and to the left on the main road you’ll find two little street cafes side-by-side. The first, Chela’s, serves delicious fresh fruit drinks and some simple snacks, while the second, Tyrone’s, has a full menu. If you’re pressed for time, try the tacos and an ice cold Toña beer. If you’re sticking around, head a couple blocks further up to Yogi’s Café and Bar for American food and free wifi. A few more blocks further up, as you near the church at the top, look down a cross street to your left for Chido’s pizza, renowned for its large, flavorful slices.
There are actually three resorts located very near each other: Chico Largo, Charco Verde, and La Venícia. All three have full bar and restaurant service, specializing in fresh fish and chicken, local vegetables and some North American dishes.
From one end of this long stretch of beach to the other you will find an array of hostels and hotels, all with corresponding eateries and bars. From comida tipica – traditional Nica food – to Asian fusion, it can all be found here.
At the junction on the far side of the isthmus, as you enter the southern island, you will find several restaurants, all offering basic Nica cuisine (chicken, chicken, pork, chicken). The one exception is El Encanto, up and to your right, which has a tasty, international menu including pasta, curry and salads. If you take the left fork to Balgüe, after a kilometer or so you’ll come to El Zopilote, see “Where to Stay.” On Monday, Wednesday and Friday after 1pm, they sell fresh baked bread and other baked goods, as well as honey and handmade chocolate. A bit further on you’ll arrive at Finca Magdalena, which offers a decent menu along with cups of their own shade-grown coffee.
Take a right at the junction and after about 4 miles, you’ll find Merida. Halfway through town look on the left for a sign to Caballitos; turn right down the dirt road toward the lake. At the end, you’ll find a quaint little restaurant/bar where they fry a mean lake fish and serve refreshing fruit smoothies and ice cold beer. Continue through Merida to Hacienda Merida, which serves a full breakfast and dinner buffet, plus an extensive hand-written menu. Another quarter mile takes you to the gates and steep climb up to La Omaja, for pizza, pasta, and the usual range of Nica options.