It’s difficult to explain why Isla de Ometepe is so phenomenal. Like many travelers, I can unequivocally say that it was my favorite place I visited in Nicaragua, if not all of Central America. And yet I’ve had an incredibly difficult time writing this blog post because no specific story or picture or experience can possibly embody the reality of Ometepe.
The truth of the matter is that simply being on Ometepe is a mind-blowing experience. The secret ingredient that makes Ometepe amazing isn’t a particular beautiful sight or cultural phenomenon; the place itself is simply indescribably magical.
Try to imagine it: Ometepe is a volcanic island in Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. The island consists of two menacing, skyline dominating volcanoes connected by a thin strip of land. The larger volcano, Volcan Concepción, is still active and coated in bare volcanic rock. The other volcano, Volcan Maderas, has not been active for thousands of years. Its sides are covered in lush tropical cloud forests. The cloud-skimming silhouettes of the two volcanoes can be seen on the horizon for miles in every direction.
The volcanoes are ringed by a two lane figure eight road that connects a handful of small towns and villages. The island has roughly 30,000 inhabitants who live there full time. Though their villages are separated by miles of paradisaical space, the people of Ometepe share a pride and friendliness befitting a classic small town.
The feel of Ometepe is part laid-back beach vibes, part indigenous tradition, and part tropical rainforest. The sun beats down daily on beaches, mountains, forests, and volcanic rock. Howler monkeys swing through every sizable patch of trees and the bizarrely stunning blue magpie jays flit frequently across your line of vision. The flowers and plants bloom in enormous colorful excess, bolstered by a small human population and rich volcanic soil. Traffic jams come and go as a result of herds of cattle or unattended horses or school children blocking the island’s only road.
Everything is brighter, bigger, and more colorful on Ometepe; half the time I was there I felt like I was wandering through a fantastical fever dream. And all this idyllic beauty is constantly backed by the stunning, towering, vaguely threatening silhouettes of Volcan Concepción and Volcan Maderas.
It truly is unbelievable.
Puesta del Sol
My brother and I spent four nights and three days on Ometepe and every moment was incredible. Given unlimited time I think I could have spent weeks on the island.
One of the best parts of our visit was our homestay at Puesta del Sol. Puesta del Sol is a tourism cooperative in La Paloma, a village on the Concepción side of the mountain. Each household accepts guests for short term homestays and pays a small amount of the fee to the organization as a whole. The organization uses the funds to create community-wide tourism infrastructure: a main office, a cybercafe with WiFi, and bike and kayak rentals.
Puesta del Sol was a fascinating insight into the local lifestyle on Ometepe. Our homestay family was incredibly welcoming and patient with our Spanish. The father, Luis, works primarily in mechanics and agriculture; the mother Brener keeps a garden for fresh food and runs the homestay. Though they are only an hour ferry ride from the mainland, they don’t leave the island more than once a year. Like many of the islanders they live a highly self-sufficient lifestyle and seem to feel a stronger allegiance to Ometepe than to Nicaragua as a whole.
We ate several meals with the family and they were all incredibly fresh and delicious. My personal favorite was whole lake tilapia with fresh tomatoes, plantains, and rice. When I asked where the fish came from they laughed; it came from the fish man! He comes to the neighborhood every day by row boat and delivers the tilapia he caught that morning.
It simply does not get better than that!
Our first day on the island we visited Charco Verde, a protected natural area between the two volcanoes. Our first stop in the reserve was the butterfly sanctuary, a large greenhouse full of glistening butterflies and tropical plants.
The sanctuary was dotted with informational signs and advice that opened our eyes to one of the more hilarious trends on Ometepe: excruciatingly bad English translations. Take this one, for example:
After we finished laughing at the signs and chasing butterflies around, we moved on to the outdoor trails of Charco Verde. During this walk we got our first site of the island’s infamous howler monkeys!
I had heard the hideously loud wail of howler monkeys many times while I lived in Belize. Full grown howler monkey calls sound like the cries of an enormous dying animal: low pitched, grating howls that echo for miles. Being woken in the middle of the night by howler monkeys outside your window is like a scene out of a horror film.
I was shocked to see how cute they were! Those crazy sounds echo from the mouths of these adorable black fuzzy tree swingers? It was hard to believe.
After we took a thousand photos of the little guy, we continued walking and soon found that we had filled up our phone memory too soon: Charco Verde in the evening is positively crawling with howler monkeys. We followed a family of three around for a little while, watching the baby leap from branch to branch to avoid its mother.
The next day was one of the most amazing days in my memory. On a whim, we decided to rent a scooter to explore the island. As it turns out, this is hands down the best way to see Ometepe. Due to limited infrastructure and rough roads, buses around the island are excruciatingly slow and taxis are expensive. The vast majority of locals and tourists alike drive scooters or motorcycles, so riding one around the island feels like being part of a massive bike gang.
Renting a scooter also gives you the freedom to explore all the hidden nooks and crannies of the island. Zipping down Ometepe’s main road guarantees surprise after stunning surprise. Everywhere you turn there’s another cute village with a classic Spanish church, or an incredible vista to view the volcanoes, or an idyllic beach dotted with horses.
Ojo de Agua and Playa Santo Domingo
After a few stops at random little villages and roadside stands, we arrived at our first official scooter destination of the day: Ojo de Agua.
In theory, the natural freshwater swimming holes of Ojo de Agua sound amazing. Sadly, they were a little disappointing. They have been made thoroughly touristy, the pools paved and walled to resemble swimming pools. It all comes complete with lounge chairs, a cocktail bar, and an expensive entrance fee. It was a nice swim and if we had all day to hang out it may have been worth the fee, but it wasn’t exactly the quick natural dip we were expecting.
We were, however, treated to my single favorite bad English translation of all time. Waste it!
We were much happier with Playa Santo Domingo, our afternoon aquatic destination. Playa Santo Domingo is a long stretch of beach on the strip of land that connects the two volcanoes. We bought a few beers, waded into the shallows of Lake Nicaragua, and watched the sun begin to set between the volcanoes.
Punta Jesus Maria
Our last stop of our day was Punta Jesus Maria, a long strip of sand that juts out from the southern edge of Ometepe into the lake. We had heard that Punta Jesus Maria was the best place to watch the sunset on the island and we were not disappointed. The view of the sun setting over Lake Nicaragua from a long thin sand runway leading up to Volcan Concepción is a sight I will never forget.
San Ramon Waterfall
Our last day on Ometepe we decided to rent a scooter again, this time with a specific purpose in mind: reaching the hike to San Ramon Waterfall.
The San Ramon waterfall is located partway up Volcan Maderas and is accessible from the exact opposite side of the island as Puesta del Sol. Regrettably we were missing a key fact when we made our plans for the day: the last five miles of the trip were on unfinished roads that were completely unsuitable for a scooter.
It was quite the adventure. I rattled around on the back while Sam skid, stalled, and cursed his way to San Ramon, local children staring and laughing at us the whole time. It was a gasping relief to finally step off the bike and start the hike.
Unfortunately the hike up did nothing to improve Sam’s mood. The man at the entrance told us the hike was 3 kilometers long, and we were happy at first to see distance markers along the trail. But after the second kilometer the markers disappeared. What was supposed to be one kilometer more stretched into nearly two hours of steep uphill hiking–how the hell did these people measure this distance?
Two hours later we were gasping for air, dying of thirst, and cursing the misleading man at the bottom. And then the waterfall appeared out of nowhere, a towering cliff rising out of the forest.
We visited during the dry season, so the waterfall was more of a trickle than a thundering stream. Still, its sudden, breathtaking appearance alone was worth the difficult trek.
We spent quite some time trying to figure out how to get me and the entire waterfall in one picture, during which we learned an important lesson: humans are not meant to be panorama’d. The horrifying results of our experiments are here for your viewing pleasure.
Eventually we started the long trip down again, which featured a beautiful sunset and several howler monkey sightings. I reflected on how generally a terrifying scooter experience and an unexpectedly difficult hike might ruin my day. Instead, the difficulties just added to my overwhelming love for the island and all its quirks.
I was very sad to leave the island the next day; there was plenty more to see and do. If you’re planning a trip to Nicaragua, I cannot recommend Ometepe enough. I will most definitely return some day–and next time, I’m going to hike Concepción!
The cover photo for this post was taken by my wonderful brother Sam. Read about more of our sibling travel shenanigans here!