Smack dab in the middle of giant Lake Nicaragua lies Ometepe Island. An island formed from two volcanoes; the massive and active Concepcion Volcano, and the smaller and dormant Maderas. To get there you must take a ferry across Lake Nicaragua. A freshwater lake, the largest in Central America, and home to bull sharks!
Once on Ometepe Island, one paved road circles Concepcion Volcano connecting the two main cities, Moyogalpa and Altagracia. The paved road goes about halfway around Maderas Volcano before turning to dirt and rock. It is a truly isolated place, full of natural and untouched beauty. Volcanoes, farms, beaches and friendly people make Ometepe Island worth traveling to.
Ometepe Island is a spot on the backpacker trail, but tourism isn’t quite booming….yet. Things are definitely growing on this island. If plans end up going through for a Nicaragua Canal, the route would be right near Ometepe Island. I can only imagine how that will change life on this island. Get there sooner rather than later!
I spent two weeks here. Five of those days I couldn’t get on or off the island because of Semana Santa festivities! They were two of my absolute favorite weeks of my backpacking trip through Central America. My days were filled with food, relaxation, adventure and exploration! If you make it to Ometepe Island, here are ten things to do:
Rent a Scooter and explore the island
The island is made of two volcanoes, Conception and Maderas, and there is only one road that circles it. You can’t get lost. In Moyogalpa (the main port town) scooter rentals are everywhere and cost between $20-$30 for the whole day. No skill or training is necessary to rent these scooters! You can also rent motorcycle for a bit more, but you kind of need to know how to work one. There is almost no traffic on the smooth cobblestone road, besides the passing cows and horses, and it is awesome to crank the speed (all 40 mph of it) and cruise on the open road! Renting a scooter can get you to almost all of the places on this list! Remember to bring your drivers license, we learned the hard way after getting pulled over that you need one!
Hike a Volcano
You have two options for hiking Volcanoes on Ometepe: Concepcion (1600m) is much bigger, active (last eruption in 1986), and an overall harder hike. The paved road goes right to the trail of Concepcion and once you hit it, you immediately start going up. It is a difficult hike that involves climbing boulders and will take between 7-10 hours to go up and down.
Maderas is smaller (1300m), less steep, and dormant, but trickier to get to. The road doesn’t go to the base of the volcano so you will need to trek to the start of the hike. It should take about 8 hours to hike up and down Maderas. If you ask around in town, you will be able to find some people who will guide you on these hikes. One guy we met was just starting (April 2014) a tour company where you ride horses part of the way up Concepcion, making it a bit more accessible.
Visit Ojo de Agua
Ojo de Agua means Eye of the Water and was once a natural pool with fresh water filled from a natural spring. Now, it is essentially a community swimming pool. However, it is beautiful, and so refreshing on a hot Nicaragua day. It is still filled by the natural spring water, it has just been quite developed with patios, a restaurant, and lots of people. The natural pools are said to be full of minerals and have many beneficial health benefits if you swim in it. The gate attendant said that we would feel like new people after swimming. This was debatable, but it was definitely refreshing. Admission is $3 and lasts for the whole day. So you can come and go as you please! Ojo de Agua is about 2 kilometers after the turn toward Maderas Volcano.
Punta Jesus Santa Maria
About 5km from Moyogalpa is a small beach that is excellent for swimming. The punta, or point, juts out almost a kilometer into the lake! On one side of the sandbar the water is completely still, while the other side is constantly changing direction. Pretty cool! The water is shallow for awhile, and quite muddy at the bottom, but once you get out about 20 meters, it gets deeper and is great for swimming. There are a couple of stands there with food and drinks, so a whole day can be spent at this beach. We walked from Moyogalpa in about an hour, made it in twenty minutes on bikes, and about 5 minutes on a scooter.
Watch the Sunset from the docks of Moyogalpa
This was my favorite thing to do in Ometepe. Every night we grabbed a couple of beers and walked down to the docks to watch the sunset. The Moyogalpa docks face west, making it the perfect place to watch the sun dip below the horizon. The sunsets were some of my favorites in all of Central America. It was gorgeous to watch the sun set below the Lake Nicaragua and the mainland in the distance. All while horses roamed the beach and people fished.
San Ramon Waterfall
A 50m waterfall that cascades down Maderas Volcano is a top sight on Ometepe Island. It is a two hour walk from the village of San Ramon. Getting to San Ramon is a bit tricky because the road is not paved after Balgue, so it takes about 3 hours on the bus to get there. You can hire a tour guide in Moyogalpa who will bring you to the waterfall on a motorbike, making the trip much quicker, and not necessary to stay overnight. We did not hike to this waterfall because we were there in the dry season and were told that it was not worth it. So take note, if you are visiting from February-April, the waterfall might not be in the cards for you.
Walk/Swim through Charco Verde
Charco Verde is a nature reserve with easy hiking and black sand beaches. Nature paths take you through a couple of farms and up a hill to the Mirador del Diablo (View of the devil). Then down and around a big, green lagoon(not for swimming!) and to the beach. There were many animals along the trails including a big pack of goats! The beach was pretty crowded, but was quite beautiful. Nicely shaded and with big waves! It cost $2 to enter the reserve.
Playa de Santa Domingo
On the southern part of the island, about 4km past Ojo de Agua, is Playa Santa Domingo. This is the most popular tourist destination on the island and is a very large beach with close access to Maderas Volcano and Rio Istian. Its the only beach on the island with white sand. We enjoyed drinking smoothies at the beachside huts and watched horses cool off in the lake. Many people choose to find a hotel here and spend their whole time on Ometepe, but for me, it was perfect for a day trip.
Kayak on Rio Istian
This river goes inbetween the land that connects Maderas and Concepcion Volcanoes. It is a lot of paddling, about an hours worth when leaving from Merida, but once you get there it is worth it. You will kayak through an estuary and see many birds and monkeys. If you don’t want to kayak all the way there, some places will tow your kayak out to the river and tow you back.
Some of my favorite days on Ometepe were the days I spent just relaxing. This is the perfect place to fill your days with adventures, but also the place to relax and get away from it all! We even had time to discover that there was a circus in town! Swinging in a hammock at the hostel, enjoying meals in town, and dipping my toes in Lake Nicaragua are my favorite memories of this island.
Have you been to Ometepe Island? What things would you recommend adding to this list?