Ometepe Island is composed of two volcanoes, Concepción which is an active volcano and Maderas which is extinct. Ometepe is surrounded by the vast waters of Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. We boarded the Ferry from San Jorge and began the 1 hr 20 min journey to Ometepe. The lake has larger waves than you might expect, so the ferry crossing was a little bumpy. Beware if you choose to sit at the front – there is a lot of splashing, even on the upper decks!
The volcanoes rising high from the water are visible from the mainland, and the view of Ometepe from the ferry makes for some pretty photos, with curious circular cloud formations often hanging around the tip of Concepción.
We had booked to stay on Ometepe for 3 nights, so without wanting to waste any time we had arranged for a driver to meet us upon arrival at the port at Ometepe to take us to the Istian Wetlands for a kayaking trip. En route we stopped for a quick lunch at Hotel Villa Paraiso which has a restaurant with a waterside view, located in Santo Domingo. The menu is large with many different options including local fish, pasta, kebabs and salads; the prices are in line with other hotels in the area and the food is average, being aimed at tourists rather than locals. This seems to be a popular place for drivers and guides to drop tourists for lunch.
Things to do
Our kayaking trip was booked with Caballito’s Mar, a hotel & restaurant located on the beach, close to the Istian Wetlands.
Kayaking costs $25 per person and includes a life jacket and a boat to take you across the lake to the wetlands (saving both time and your biceps). Our guide was in one kayak and we followed behind sharing a tandem kayak. The pace was gentle as the focus was looking for wildlife. We kayaked around the beautiful channels of the wetlands for around 1 and half hours and spotted many different animals including a turtle, various water birds, howler monkeys and caiman. We returned to the boat, which took us back to Caballito’s Mar, taking around 20 mins. Whilst it is possible to rent the kayaks yourself on an hourly basis, I am glad that we had a guide as we probably wouldn’t have seen the monkeys or the turtle if he wasn’t there to point them out. Kayaking is dependent on water levels and usually only possible between July and February.
San Ramon Waterfall
Described in the Lonely Planet as a relatively flat easy hike, we decided to don our swimmers and walk to the waterfall for a relaxing dip. Whoever wrote that piece in the LP has never, ever been there! This was a sweaty tough hike of over an hour with tricky loose rocks and at times scrambling up boulders on the path. By the time we arrived at the 120m waterfall – breathless, dusty and drenched, I couldn’t wait to strip off and cool down. The edge of the pool was a bit muddy and also covered in stones, not the nicest to walk on, but once in the refreshing water all of that was forgotten! We took towels with us but to be honest we probably could have done without, as we dried very quickly in the sunshine. During the steep walk back down, we encountered some visitors on horseback who were on their way to the waterfall, their guide explained that the horses could only go half way up as then the terrain becomes too difficult for them (no kidding!), so they leave “park” the horses, leaving them to rest and travel the remainder of the path on foot. I am glad that we went as the waterfall is beautiful; I just wish we had been more prepared for the hike.
Ojo de Agua
This natural spring pool is filled with crystal clear water that comes from underneath volcano Maderas. There are two separate swimming areas, chairs and tables for visitors, bathroom facilities and also a bar and restaurant. You are permitted to bring your own drinks and food should you wish. Entrance is $3.
We visited on a public holiday and it was full to the rafters, but I can imagine on a weekday it’s probably quite serene.
Rock carvings and stone statues
There are rock carvings (petroglyphs) and stone statues found all over Ometepe Island. These were carved by indigenous Nahuatl Indians who considered the Ometepe as their promised land. To them Maderas was known as the sacred place of the sun and Concepción was the brother of the moon. Some of the oldest rock carvings on Ometepe date back to around 1,000 BC. Many of the carvings are highly intricate and consist of spirals, lizards, turtles, caiman and frogs.
We saw some basalt statues in Altagracia next to the Catholic church; almost as tall as me, these were created in the 19th Century and were to represent human figures and their alter egos, mainly the eagle and jaguar. Other places to see rock carvings on Ometepe are San José de San Marcos, La Primavera farm and Corazal.
Canopy Zip Line
Chico Largo zip line tour is a popular activity; it consists of 2.5km of lines spread across 16 platforms. I’m told there is quite a steep hike to get to the first platform. Cost is $25 per person.
It is possible to hike both Concepción and Maderas. To visit the crater of Concepción is a challenging hike; it will usually take between 9 and 11 hours for a round trip. A high level of fitness is required. Hiking to Maderas crater lagoon will take around 7 to 9 hours roundtrip and requires a moderate level of fitness. It is possible to see monkeys and birds in the forest during the hike.
You will need to take your own food, snacks and water for both hikes; there are no facilities or shops available.
We stayed at Totoco Ecolodge, located high on the slopes of Maderas volcano. The road that leads to the lodge is extremely steep and very bumpy, but it’s worth it once you have made it to the top! The lodge is situated in 15 hectares, 6 of which are organic farmland, with absolutely stunning views of the island. There are 8 rooms of varying sizes, a communal restaurant and bar area with free WIFI and a swimming pool.
The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and provides self-service filtered drinking water. This helps with reducing waste as you can reuse water bottles by filling them up before you venture out. The food is delicious with a varied breakfast menu including hot food cooked to order and homemade bread. Lunch and dinner menus change each day with a choice of two or three options, including at least one vegetarian. The staff are excellent and the bar is well stocked with premium spirits, a good wine list and made to order cocktails available. The view from the restaurant of Concepción volcano is beautiful, a great place to watch sunset and indulge in a few drinks.
We stayed in one of the standard lodges, which consists of one queen size bed and a sofa with an outdoor private bathroom attached with a hot water solar powered shower. As this is an eco lodge, there is no air conditioning but there are fans and the rooms are designed to receive a breeze through them. I was never too hot inside the room and it was comfortable to sleep well. All of the toilets in the lodge are composting, in practical terms that means they don’t use water, so once you have used the toilet instead of flushing you throw some sawdust down with the scoop provided. Each toilet has a lid which you replace when the toilet is not in use. We never experienced any unpleasant smells from the toilets and it means that they can use the waste for fertilizer on the farm. As the bathroom is outdoors (it does have a roof but it still open to the elements) we did have quite a few insect visitors, but nothing too scary. By keeping the door from the bedroom to the bathroom closed, none of them ever found their way into our room.
One of the best things about the lodge was our private porch complete with chairs and a hammock. Sitting outside watching the birds, listening to the howler monkeys and feeling part of the tropical jungle was wonderful. We had a roadside hawk land right in front of us and carry on as if we weren’t there. Each of the lodges are far enough apart from each other to be completely private, so you don’t see or hear anyone else…which was bliss.
There are seasonal variations in room prices – all rooms include breakfast. Standard lodges are from $99 per night, Value Lodge from $85pn, Family Lodge (sleeps up to 5) from $120pn and the House (sleeps 6) from $140pn. It is possible to book half board to included your dinners, which is useful if you don’t have your own transport as there isn’t anywhere within walking distance to visit for dinner. Alternatively you can let them know each day before 2pm if you want to have dinner. Dinner is around $22pp for 3 courses.
I thoroughly recommend Totoco Eco Lodge, it is a beautiful place to stay and I would definitely stay there again, I loved hearing the howler monkeys calling at dawn and dusk. Although there are benefits to staying in Moyogalpa or Merida where there are a variety of cafes and restaurants around, in my opinion that is outweighed by the peace, tranquillity and privacy of Totoco.
The Ferry costs 60 Cordobas (£1.60) one way and tickets can be purchased either on arrival at the port or on board.
There are smaller, cheaper boats but they do not have a good safety record so the official ferry is the recommended option.
There is an airport on Ometepe, flights with https://lacostena.online.com.ni from Managua take 20 mins but only fly on Thursdays and Sundays ($50 each way).
Transport on the Island
It is possible to hire your own transportation – car ($100pd), motorbike ($35pd), scooter ($25pd), bicycle ($5pd). It is also possible to travel by bus – your accommodation should be able to help you with timetables. You can also ask them to arrange private taxis for you.
The island is shaped like a figure of eight and the main road follows this shape. This road is paved, but some of the roads off the main road are not paved and you will need a 4WD or off road motorbike to travel on them.
All our ground arrangements were arranged in advance by Careli Tours, who provide drivers & excellent guides, I recommend them highly.
Fish is the main staple of protein on the island and most meals are served with rice and beans (gallo pinto) and plantain. As the island is volcanic, the soil is extremely fertile and much of the produce served on the island is grown there. The plantains (type of banana) that grown on Ometepe are said to be some of the best in Central America; we saw a truck that had driven from Honduras on the ferry that was coming to collect plantain to take back to sell 500km away.
We spent a fantastic 4 days on Ometepe and could quite happily have stayed a few more days. The atmosphere was relaxed, the scenery was stunning, the food was tasty and I just loved listening to (and seeing) the monkeys. Compared to the mainland of Nicaragua, some things are slightly more expensive, possibly because many items have to be transported over but I still found Ometepe to be very good value compared to prices in Europe. The island is pretty windy constantly, so I didn’t have any good hair days but that was the only possible complaint about the weather. We experienced beautifully sunny days with a pleasant temperature and no rain (travelled in month of January). I would definitely go back to Ometepe if I was visiting Nicaragua again, next time I would try out the canopy zip lines and I would like to visit the Istian Wetlands again.
• The currency used is Nicaraguan Córdoba – at the time of writing approx. 28 to $1US / 37 to £1.
• The language spoken in Nicaragua is Spanish. English is spoken at some tourist spots and hotels but is not universal, so it pays to have a phrase book and learn a little before you travel.
• Nicaragua is 6 hrs behind GMT and does not observe daylight saving hours.
• Vehicles drive on the right hand side.
• Nicaragua is one of the safest countries in Central America.
• The dry season is November to May. Expect tropical rains from June to October.
• It is not recommended to drink the tap water.
• Managua is the main international airport in Nicaragua and is served by United Airlines, Delta Airlines, American Airlines, AeroMexico and Avianca. Domestic flights are operated by Air Costneña.
• Concepción had some small eruptions between 2007 and 2009 where minimal ash was spurted out from the volcano intermittently often many months apart. There have been no eruptions since then. The last serious eruption where some people nearby were evacuated was in 1985.