Isla Ometepe comes pretty much top of everyone’s list of must-see places in Nicaragua.
For some reason, and despite countless recommendations from friends and fellow travellers whose opinions we trust implicitly, Ometepe just didn’t appeal to us, and we only went because we sort of felt like we had to, just to give it a chance.
It deserves that chance, and we now fully understand “the hype of Ometepe”, and are here today to back up everyone else who tells you you must go.
You have to go. It’s beautiful. And so unique.
We only left ourselves 36 hours to explore this volcanic island before our visa expired and we had to hot-foot it across the border to Costa Rica, but it was enough time for a mini-adventure on one of the most individual terrains we’ve experienced!
Getting to Ometepe
You need to get yourself to Rivas – the regional capital and home to one of the most intimidating bus stations in Central America. It doesn’t help that they built a market around the terminal. Or maybe the market was there first and they decided to build the bus station in it solely to mess with the tourists. When you get off a bus you’ll be bombarded by touts taking your packs and directing you towards their taxi or bus company. Just calmly take your stuff back and go to ask information from someone who looks official (failing that, the ladies that sell snacks are quite knowledgable).
From Rivas take a chicken bus (super cheap) or taxi (still pretty cheap) to San Jorge Ferry Terminal. This is where you pick up the ferry across to Ometepe. There’s only one company (so the price is fixed) and the boats run at regular intervals throughout the day – look online for up to date times and tariffs. Inside the terminal there are nice places to wait, clean bathrooms and a couple of kiosks to buy snacks – although we very strongly advise against eating before alighting.
Do this journey in reverse to get away from Ometepe. If you’re next destination is Costa Rica, it may be worth looking into the cost of a taxi straight to the border from San Jorge – it’s more expensive but will be much less hassle.
Where to stay
There seems to be much debate over where it’s best to stay on Ometepe. The island is formed by two volcanos – Concepcion and Maderas – which become your main point of navigation as you make your way around. There are various towns sprinkled around the base of each. As Concepcion is much bigger and home to the ferry port, it has better infrastructure in terms of paved roads and regular buses. Maderas is much more rustic and where you should come if you’re looking for some complete ‘time away’ from normal life. There are a handful of fincas, small hotels, hostels and one hippy community spread across the island, so you can pick your accommodation based on what kind of experience you want to have!
Most people advise against staying in Moyogalpa, the largest village and where you’ll most likely be getting the ferry to, making it sound somewhat akin to Magaluf. Now, though the town itself may be the largest, let’s not forget this is a tiny, tiny island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua: everything closes by 9pm, and there is literally one main road boasting a few bakeries, pizzerias and a supermarket. It may be the busiest, but it’s not ‘busy’ by Magaluf standards, and that comparison really needs to be laid to rest.
As we didn’t fancy adding a bus journey or hitchhiking to an already long and messy journey, we stayed in Hostal Casa Moreno, and thoroughly recommend it – a beautiful house, cheap, quiet and with wonderful staff who very much went above and beyond to make sure guests were happy.
How to get around
If you are able (which I am not, but happily I have a multi-purpose travel companion who seems to have far more practical qualities than myself) then the absolute best way to get around Ometepe is by scooter or small motorbike. A rental will cost you $15 for 12 hours – plenty of time to see a good handful of things if you’re on limited time!
Otherwise, your options are:
Walking, although you won’t be able to see as much of the island as you might like.
Buses, which run regularly and make a loop of the (only) main road. Check the times at your hostel, and bear in mind that the last buses run around 6pm.
Hitch-hiking, obviously taking all of the necessary precautions, is pretty easy on Ometepe and can be a whole other adventure in itself – although it can be less reliable than bus travel.
What to do
If you arrive in the afternoon then you’re in perfect time to dump your bags and make your way to Punta Jesús María to catch the sunset. The punta is a long slick of beach that protrudes from the land into the lake, and gives the impression that you can walk all the way to the centre. It’s truly beautiful in the early evening.
Heading back into town, stop for a cheap dinner in a comedor – we recommend a place called ‘Asados Nubia’ for their great chicken marinade, one-item menu and no-fuss service. Stop and ask anyone for directions.
The next morning, get up early to make the most of your only full day! The Cornerhouse Cafe in Moyogolpa is a good option for breakfast – pricey but huge portions, great homemade peanut butter and delicious coffee. We spent about $5.50 per person for coffee, (a lot of) toast, jam/peanut butter and a huge bowl of fresh fruit.
On your way out of town you’ll cross over an air field, keep going until you reach Ojo de Agua – a natural swimming pool which is perfect for a morning dip! The entry is $3, don’t bother with the food. Once you’ve had your fill of clear waters and diving in from the rope swing, dry off and get back on the road towards Maderas Volcano.
You’ll pass through the tiny towns of Santa Cruz and Belgüe, where you can stop to browse small handicraft shops and marvel at the immense banana plantations in between towns!
Along this stretch of road you’ll come across a small comedor called ‘Café Isabel’. Make a pit stop here for a classic lunch of rice, beans, meat or fish, cabbage salad and fried plantains, with free entertainment from the very sassy parrot who roams the outdoor patio. Lunch and a show for the bargain price of 100 cordobas – $3.30.
Continue your tour with a stop off at Altagracia – the most important indigenous town on Ometepe. Around Easter and the town is decked out with purple banners ready for Semana Santa, and the whole place has a very local, festive feel.
Get off the bike and stretch your legs for the rest of the afternoon at Charco Verde – literally ‘Green Puddle’ – a laguna off of Lake Nicaragua. Entry to the park costs $5 and gives you access to the butterfly house, a beach and a short hiking trail full of capuchin monkeys – this was recommended to us by friends as their favourite place on Ometepe, and we 100% agreed with them that it was very special!
While we spent a very brief time on Ometepe, we’ve met people who’ve stayed for as long as 5 months just enjoying the pace of life and taking in everything on offer. Stay as long or as little as you like, but be sure to make the time in your travel schedule to see such a beautiful part of Nicaragua – we can’t believe we almost didn’t!