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Beautiful Ometepe Island – Nicaragua

Conception Volcano - Ometepe IslandBeautiful Ometepe Island – Nicaragua

Ometepe is a small, unique volcanic island set in huge Lake Nicaragua (also known as Lake Cocibolca). Ometepe actually boasts two volcanoes! The island is shaped like the letter 8 or a barbell, with one volcano set smack-dab in the center of each circular area.

Conception Volcano is the most prominent and striking peak, with its nearly symmetrical conical shape and several stunning features marking its flanks. It towers over the island, with a height of 1600 M / 5280 ft and is an active volcano that most recently had a series of smoky, rumbling eruptions in 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2012.

Dormant Madera Volcano, at 1343 M / 4432 ft, is the much smaller of the two. It looks more like a simple mountain than a volcano as it’s covered completely in thick, tropical forest and features a jagged, forested top. Nestled in its small crater at top is a tiny green lake.

kayaking on Lake Nicaragua at Ometepe Island

kayaking on Lake Nicaragua at Ometepe Island

Ometepe is very much an outdoor adventure and nature-lovers destination. Visitors can climb one or both volcanoes, hike steep forest trails to160 M high San Ramon Waterfalls, ride horses, kayak in Lake Nicaragua and/or along mangrove-lined River Istian, bicycle, ride ATVs or motorbikes, visit lagoons and nature reserves, admire volcanoes from ever-changing viewpoints around the island, swim in the lake, watch stunning sunrises and sunsets over volcanoes, see ancient petroglyphs, go bird watching, admire dozens of different butterfly species and generally enjoy being surrounded by beautiful, tranquil nature.

For me, not surprisingly, Ometepe was one of the places I was most looking forward to exploring in Nicaragua. I set aside two full weeks to enjoy being immersed in nature there. After visiting Leon, Granada and Nicaragua’s little-developed Pacific beaches, the time finally came for me to explore Ometepe Island.

I caught the hourly ferry from San Jorge on the outer shores of Lake Nicaragua one fine sunny morning and at last ‘set sail’ across the vast lake to Ometepe. The ferry quickly became jam-packed with passengers, mostly Europeans and North Americans.

view of Ometepe from ferryAlthough I knew Ometepe was becoming a popular destination, the sheer number of visitors really surprised me, especially considering the ferries run every hour, every day of the week. Were all the boats this full? Or did I just happen to pick the most popular passage?

After arrival, I quickly discovered that Ometepe is now one of Nicaragua’s most popular tourist destinations, with a steady stream of international visitors from all over Europe and North America exploring the island. Everywhere I went I saw western vacationers hiking, riding horses, kayaking, swimming, driving rental ATVs, motorbikes, scooters and bicycles.

 San Ramon Waterfall - Ometepe

San Ramon Waterfall – Ometepe

Luckily, the island is big and has so many different places and activities that, despite the large number of visitors, it never felt crowded or over-populated. In fact, no matter where I stayed or the activities I did, there were always only a handful of other travelers.

I also quickly noticed that the tourist infrastructure is firmly in place. There are several major areas to stay and dozens and dozens of accommodation options, ranging from hostels to eco-resorts to BnBs to small mid-range lakeside hotels.

Many guided tours are available for the various outdoor activities. And many places rent ATVs, scooters, motorbikes, bicycles and cars for visitors to get around the island. Regular daily buses also run between most points on the island, though in some places not frequently.

Despite all that, Ometepe is still amazingly quite a primitive place to visit. For one thing, only about 1/3 of the roads on the island are paved. The remaining 2/3 are in absolutely appalling condition, to the point that they can barely be called roads! They are more like rock-fields. In 20 years of travels, I’ve only seen one road in as horrendous a condition, and that was a remote mountain road in Nepal.

Omtepe's MAIN road!

Omtepe’s MAIN road!

To illustrate, one day I rented a trail bike and set out to cycle the rim road circling the base of Madera Volcano, a distance of about 35 km / 20 miles. It’s the main road on that side of the island, but it was so rough that after 1 hour, I was completely exhausted! I realized I wasn’t having any fun at all being jolted up and down, continuously traversing rocks and stones without break, and having to push the bike up tiny hills because of the impossible conditions, that I gave up and returned the way I’d come!

Instead I stopped lakeside, near the entrance to San Ramon Waterfall, took a cool swim, laid in the sun, ate lunch and then returned to my lodgings. En route I experienced a sudden loud BANG! – an instant flat tire! All I could think was that it was a good thing I had not continued on the even more remote 20 km of road and encountered a flat tire there.

close up of Ometepe main road

close up of Ometepe main road

So I offer a warning to anyone renting a bicycle on Ometepe. If you’re heading to the Maderas Volcano side of the island, you should have experience on serious off-road cycling and be prepared for a rough and rugged journey. Anyone renting scooters or motorbikes should also be experienced and drive very carefully. ATVs are the sturdier, safer way to traverse the rugged tracks.

Most accommodations are pretty basic as well. Many primarily have shared outdoor showers, toilets and sinks. Rooms are clean but basic, generally simple cement blocks. Many places are located down long, very rough, rocky roads or up steep forest trails studded with stones and roots. Though you’ll certainly get some beautiful views and settings.

view at my accommodation in Santa Cruz

view at my accommodation in Santa Cruz

The few shops dotting the island offer only basic foodstuffs and personal items. You’ll be lucky to find yogurt, any type of meat or cheese or much selection of snacks or personal needs. Better to take what you need with you. Restaurants are primarily at the hotels and have quite high prices that are 2-4 times the normal prices found elsewhere in Nicaragua.

Locals live a near-primitive existence in small, plain cement or brick houses set in dirt plots under trees. Many have outhouses instead of modern, plumbed toilets. Domesticated animals roam freely, often wandering the roads. You’ll come across roaming horses, cows, pigs, chickens and dogs, all of which you’ll have to navigate if driving or cycling.

free-roaming horses at Ometepe

free-roaming horses at Ometepe

Ometepe’s living conditions are so primitive that it reminds me of the most primitive, remote places I’ve ever visited in 20 years of travel! It puts me in mind of Little Andaman Island, the most primitive of India’s remote Andaman Islands, or the tiny, undiscovered islands of Southern Thailand in the 1990s, before they became ‘discovered’ in the 2010s. Even at those places the roads were in considerably better condition.

So Ometepe is overwhelmingly a nature experience, where you’ll spend most of your time outdoors, including eating in open-aired restaurants, drinking in outdoor bars and even bathing in somewhat open shower stalls.

Needless to say, aside from the horrid roads, Ometepe is my kind of place! I ended up staying more than two weeks, and would have stayed longer if I didn’t have work to tend to in Granada and Masaya.

kayaks for rent at Ometepe

kayaks for rent at Ometepe

Part of the time I spent doing writing & blogging work. The remaining time I explored the island. I stayed in four different areas: Moyogalpa town & Altragracia town on the Conception side of the island and Santa Cruz & Merida on the Maderas side.

I rented a bicycle two days to explore near Moyogalpa and then to attempt cycling around Maderas Volcano. I hiked the steep trail to San Ramon Waterfall, kayaked in the lake, went swimming numerous times, spent a day at Charco Verde Nature Reserve and watched plenty of beautiful sunsets.

Visiting Charco Verde Nature Reserve near Moyogalpa was one of my best days on the island. They have a large butterfly ‘aviary’ filled with profusely-blooming flowers and bushes with 16 local species of butterflies flitting about. Rather amusingly, they play gentle mood music inside to set the ambiance for visitors. lol.

entrance to Charco Verde Nature Reserve - OmetepeThe reserve also has three short hiking trails through forests, several gorgeous vistas of both volcanoes, a small lagoon and a large open-air restaurant set on the lake shore, overlooking a small volcanic sand beach. It’s a great place to swim, relax in the shade and get a drink or meal.

Surprisingly, I did not climb either volcano, though I had certainly intended to! For one thing, guided tours are mandatory and not so cheap. Secondly, my prized pink suede boots from Mexico had recently broken (!) so I didn’t have appropriate footwear for the extremely rough trails.

Which brings me to one final point about Ometepe. It is not a cheap place for budget travelers, probably more likened to a mid-range travel destination at this point.

stunning view of Conception Volcano from Charco Verde

stunning view of Conception Volcano from Charco Verde

Meals are very expensive, as I previously noted. And many of the best activities cost a chunk of money. Guides volcano hikes cost $15-20 US; kayaking River Istian costs the same; scooters and motorbikes cost $20-25 US per day; ATVs cost a whopping $60 US per day. And most attractions have an entry fee of $3-5 US, including San Ramon Waterfalls, Charco Verde, Ojo de Agua (small lake), museums and other attractions.

None of those are super expensive individually, but they quickly add up if you want to do several activities. I’m sure it’s fine for Europeans and North Americans on quick 2-week vacations, but it’s rather costly for long-term budget travelers like me. And it’s certainly much more expensive than in many other countries I’ve explored.

So Nicaragua travel costs are definitely reaching international rates!

In any event, I had a wonderful time on Ometepe and was reluctant to leave after 16 days. Perhaps I’ll return before leaving Nicaragua. It’s definitely one of my favorite places in the country so far.

I’ll be exploring Nicaragua in depth for another two months – until late January, 2018 – so check back for more travel adventures and insights about this great Central American country!

You might also find the following posts useful:

All About Granada

All About Leon

Introduction to Nicaragua

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