Isla de Ometepe
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Isla de Ometepe's name is derived from the Nahuatl words ome (two) and tepetl (mountain), meaning two mountains. An island in Lake Nicaragua in the country of Nicaragua, Ometepe is one of the country's must-see places. This island composed of twin volcanoes provides a remote escape in the middle of Lago de Nicaragua - a touristic slogan often found on T-shirts for the island is "oasis of peace". There are two towns (Moyogalpa and Altagracia) along with a few smaller settlements on the island, along with a number of small coffee plantations.
- 1 Moyogalpa. This harbor village is the main point of arrival of ferries around Volcano Concepcion.
- 2 Altagracia. The second biggest town on the eastern side of the island around Volcano Concepcion, and administrative capital of the Maderas side.
- Merida. The southeastern coast of the island around Volcano Maderas.
- 3 Balgue. The southwestern coast of the island Around Volcano Maderas.
- San Ramón. Sleepy little town on the water with a couple hospedajes/comedores. Nice view of the lake and starting place for hiking to the waterfall.
- Reserva Charco Verde, a nature reserve with abundant wildlife on the southern part of the island, where you can swim, hike and kayak.
- Santo Domingo Beach, the only sand beach easily accessible on the eastern side of the island. During the rainy season, the lake rises and the beach can disappear for several months.
- San Ramon Waterfall, natural fresh waterfall inland that is easily accessible by trail via a 3-hour hike. Best viewed during the rainy season; ask before you go if there is water.
- El Ceibo museum, a privately owned collection of pre-Columbian artifacts discovered on an old tobacco plantation on the island. The museum includes the country's largest currency collection as of 2012.
- Punta Jesus Maria a beach on the Concepcion side of the island best accessed by bike. In the dry season, a long sandy headland stretches out into the lake. During the rainy season, it is mostly covered with water. Popular with locals as well
- Ojo de Agua
- 1 Playa Santo Domingo.
One of its volcanoes active (Concepcion) one of them dormant (Maderas) Ometepe is a sight to behold already when coming in by ferry. Inhabitants like to call the island "oasis of peace" as it has been left largely unscathed by the violent conflicts of Nicaragua's younger history and lying at one of the black volcanic beaches or listening to howler monkeys during the strenuous ascent up one of the two volcanoes you might very well feel peaceful and forget whatever may exist outside this oasis. While it is definitely not a party destination there is hardly anything else you can't do on the island and even though it is not the well kept secret it once was the tourists quickly spread out over the island once you leave the ferry leaving the island mostly to you and your plans.
You can get to the islands main port (Moyogalpa; 1 Moyogalpa dock), or a smaller new port at San Jose del Sur (2 San Jose del Sur dock) by boat or ferry from San Jorge near Rivas for about US$2-3. There are two ferries - one that carries cars, costs C$70 (Feb 2014), is quite comfortable and leaves on a set schedule, and another ferry that is smaller, cheaper, and appears to leave when full. There is also a tourist tax of C$35/USD$1 to pay on departure. (Mar 2021) There are plenty of hotels and restaurants within walking distance of the ferry. Buses pick you up and drop you off at terminal. Taxis are also present.
The boat connection between San Carlos and Granada via Ometepe has been subject to cancellations. As of early 2017, the latest information was that it was cancelled "temporarily" due to low water levels in the lake during the dry season. This would mean that during the rainy season, which roughly corresponds to the Northern Hemisphere summer the service might be up and running again, but don't count on it. It is important to understand that the boat that used to be a vital link to the Rio San Juan region in times when the Juigalpa-San Carlos road was little more than a strip of dirt and buses would take the better part of a day to get to Managua and there was no airport on Ometepe is now one of several transport options and for getting from San Carlos to Granada it is neither the fastest nor the cheapest. It has entirely lost its use for connecting San Carlos and Managua, as the bus now does the trip in six hours that would take more than double that by bus and boat. Similarly, the introduction of flights between San Carlos, San Juan del Norte and Ometepe has decreased the demand of tourists to take the boat. However, in the past the boat also carried freight from Ometepe to the Rio San Juan region, so the boat may be kept running for that reason alone. The Nicaraguan port authority meanwhile continues to list the boat and its prices as if nothing ever happened
(**As of 3/2021 the ferry from Granada to Altagrecia is not running**) On Monday and Thursday, a ferry leaves Granada around 2 pm and arrives to the port of Altagracia (3 Puerto de Gracias) (4 hours) for C$104 (first class) second class (Nicaraguan nationals only): C$46. On Tuesday and Friday there is a ferry coming from San Carlos stopping in San Miguelito and Morrito to the Island (12 hr ride) for C$161(first class) second class (Nicaraguan nationals only): C$63. For more see the national port administration's website. Your bags will be searched and you have to present your passport to buy a ticket, so be at the port well before departure. If you arrive from San Carlos it will be after sundown and the port is about 2 km out of town. Take a taxi or arrange transport with your hotel.
The crossing is not always smooth: the ferry can get thrown around quite a lot. If you sit indoors on the boat, be aware that water splashes in through the windows, even when they are closed so you may get a little wet if sitting by the window
A small airport (4 Moyogalpa Airport) has been opened in 2014 just outside of Moyogalpa, with flights to/from Managua, San Juan del Norte and San Carlos twice a week. For more details check with the domestic airline's website.
Whichever mode of transportation you plan to use, it is helpful to understand the island's road configuration. As the island has the shape of a figure 8, so does its road network; it consists of the following main parts:
- A loop around Volcán Concepción, connecting the island's main towns (Moyogalpa, San José del Sur, El Quinto, Altagracia, La Flor. It is known officially as National Highway 64; as of 2016, about 3/4 of it is paved, the unpaved section being in the north (Altagracia to La Flor)
- A loop around Volcán Maderas, connecting Santa Cruz, Balgue, Tichana, San Ramon, and Merida. The only paved section is about 3 km long, in the loop's NW part, from Santa Cruz to Balgue; the rest is a dirt road, much of it in very rough condition, with big stones here and there. This is known as provincial road N226.
- The connector between the two loop, from El Quinto (on the Concepción loop, south of Altagracia), along Santo Domingo Beach, to Santa Cruz (on the Maderas loop). It is paved, and is officially part of N226.
- Short connector roads, usually unpaved, from the Concepción loop to various lakeside villages and beaches.
The above means that by now most of the island's hotels and hostels are near a paved road, with the exception of those on the Maderas' west side (in Mérida and San Ramon). (The south-eastern half of Maderas, between Balgues and San Ramon, has no tourist accommodations, perhaps exactly due to the difficult road access).
The unpaved roads may have very short (20-50 m) paved sections at the steepest grades.
As of early 2016, the map at the Hacienda Merida's site is still up-to-date as to the location of paved roads.
Very slow local buses run to most villages on the island. Service is relatively frequent between Moyogalpa and Altagracia (roughly every hour), less so to Balgue and Merida (three or four per day).
You can easily flag down a passing bus for a ride; however, the infrequent schedule might make this impractical.
Taxis meet all the ferries (in fact, the drivers want you to use their services almost immediately once you step of the boat) but apart from that, it is hard to find one. They also tend to be more expensive than on the mainland.
For travelers with a more liberal budget, renting a motorcycle can be a fun and liberating way to explore the island on your own. There are a few rental outfits in Moyagalpa, and one small operation along the road through Santo Domingo. The best motorbikes and service on the island likely come from an operation run by a guy named Robinson (☏ [email protected]) He speaks perfect English and is very easy to work with. US$25 for a motorbike rented out of Moyagalpa and returned to their shop by 18:00 that day. US$40 for 24 hours. Also, Robinson will deliver a motorbike as far away as Little Morgan's, outside of Santa Cruz, then come and pick the bike up by 18:00 the same evening. US$40 for a bike delivered to your hostel. Or, you can ask him to bring bungee cords with the bike, then tie your bags down at the end of the day and drive yourself back to Moyagalpa for the ferry the next morning. A superb way to get around on a transportationally challenged island.
Word of caution when dealing with Robinson, he has been known to refuse to give back your full deposit or charge you an exorbitant cost to fix a seemingly minute repair ($5 for a scrape on a bicycle sticker, $65 for perforated tire). There are now dozens of other motorcycle rental locations in Moyogalpa who are far more reasonable business owners.
There are plenty of bicycle rental shops on the island that rent by the hour (C$20), day (US$5-7, as of 2016) or week. It is a good way to get to many of the beaches and places like Ojo de Agua, which are too far to walk to and impractical to reach (and get back from) by bus.
See the "Road Network" section above for the conditions of the roads. Most of the road around Volcan Maderas is in very rough shape. It's not recommended to try to cycle around it, although you could ride a motorcycle reasonably easily.
If you have your own bicycle, it is possible to bring it over on a ferry for a nominal fee (as of 2016, around C$10 paid to enter the dock at San Jorge, plus C$20 fee paid on the ferry). Since bicycles are commonly used as a means of transportation by the islanders (despite the awful quality of the roads in the Maderas half of the island!), small bicycle repair shops exist in several towns. Bicycle spare parts (tires, inner tubes, etc.) are available in some general store in several towns as well.
While it may seem like a great idea when looking at a map and the towns on the island are definitely walkable, outside of the towns almost everything is too far to walk for all but the most dedicated. That being said, if you can cope with the heat and the distances (bring plenty of water) you can walk some places.
Views of the volcanoes as well as sunsets are worth taking a picture or three dozen.
- There's an island museum in Altagracia with texts mostly in Spanish; good option to kill time waiting for the ferry if nothing else
Options on the island include:
- Hike to the top of Volcan Concepcion (~ 8 hours return, strenuous, guide mandatory)
- Hike to the 1000m look-out point of Volcan Concepcion (~ 6 hours return, moderate, guide mandatory)
- Hike to the top of Volcan Maderas to a crater lake (~ 6 hours return, less strenuous)
- Hike to 80-m San Ramon waterfall on the south side of Maderas (several hours return from Merida)
- See petroglyphs at the village of Finca El Porvenir
- Go horseback riding
- Rent a bicycle and explore the island on your own (actually one of the fastest and most comfortable ways around the island as most things out of cities are not walkable for anybody but Marathon runners, and buses and taxis are slow and seldom to be found)
- Rent a motorbike and explore the island on your own
- Go fishing
- Hike the trails from the park entrance center on the road from Altagracia (just before you enter Santa Cruz)
- Hire a kayak and explore the lake and one or two of the rivers. Be aware of the strong western wind (trade wind) and concomitant waves, which are likely to be encountered everywhere outside of the sheltered areas (such as the western side of Maderas, around Mérida, sheltered by the volcano's cone).
- Go swimming in the fresh water
- Trails are generally unmarked and the terrain is rough. Local guides are inexpensive, good.
- If off hiking on your own be aware that many trails are actually being used by locals as a means to work their bean fields,The same beans that are served in the local staple of beans and rice, These beans are of a low growing variety and are barely visibly so please stay on trails so as not to damage their crops.
- The island is very large and to go by bicycle around one volcano in one day is very challenging but possible, getting around both volcanoes by motorbike in one day is a little easier but still difficult.
- [dead link] Little Morgan's, Between Santa Cruz & Balgue (300 m towards Balgue from Santa Cruz junction), ☏ . Accommodation, bar and restaurant serving great food that gives a nice break from the typical rice and beans. Daily menu includes bacon and eggs, pancakes, cake, and sandwiches, and then nightly dinner specials including lasagna, curry, pasta and stir-fry. Food ranges from US$2-6.
- Hostal Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz (on the Merida side of the fork in the road between Merida and Belgue). Hostal Santa Cruz has an extensive menu of both Western and local food. A busier (but still quiet) hostel, there's always other folks to meet, and occasionally a game on TV. Vegetarian options available, and lots of alcohol - but know that the 1L beers here are nearly double the price than at the bar along the beach. US$4-8.
- Restaurante Pescaditos, Merida (on the main road by the entrance to Hacienda Mérida and Rancho Mérida). Pescaditos is a small, family run affair serving local food. They serve breakfast, have an extensive lunch/dinner menu, with numerous vegetarian options (including soy meat when available!). Usually very empty, but the food is excellent. A great alternative to the limited options at Hacienda Merida. The sign at the restaurant also mention bicycle rental and hospedaje (accommodation) US$3-5.
Outside of Moyogalpa and Altagracia, most of the island's villages only have tiny grocery stores (more like kiosks), often selling fairly strange assortments of things (e.g. shoes and bananas). While the locals grow all kinds of produce for their own needs, only a small fraction of it is offered for sale at shops and kiosks, as most families have their own produce and don't need to buy it for cash.
Two local products that you can enjoy with your picnic lunch are plantains (platanos; bigger and tastier than regular bananas; ripe when yellow) and passion fruit (which are more commonly known in Nicaragua as calala, rather than maracuya; great by themselves, or with ice cream). Platanos are also eaten deep fried while still green. In that case their taste is similar to fries. Some other fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and oranges, are also commonly available. Tasty mangoes are grown in the island too (e.g., Mérida's main street is lined with majestic mango trees; you can see residents obtaining some fruit by hurling stones at them), but are rarely sold; the same is the case with the star fruit (carambola). Small tasty lemons and tamarind fruits can often be found scattered under the trees on your hotel or campground property.
Grocery stores usually have fairly fresh bread of several kinds (apparently shipped by truck on a ferry from the mainland daily), cookies, as well as cheese (queso or cuajada), which resembles rather oversalted feta cheese. (While there is often a fridge in the store, most shoppers would not have a fridge at home, and salt serves as a preservative). Cheese that is more akin to North American or European variants is known as "queso amarillo" (yellow cheese) and surprisingly hard to get on the island.
- [dead link] Little Morgan´s, Santa Cruz (300 m towards Balgue past Santa Cruz junction), ☏ . The only place around with a pool table and cable TV. Beautiful surroundings with fun atmosphere at night. Beer, wine and spirits available from US$2-3.
- Margarita´s, Merida (about 3 minutes past Hacienda Merida on the main road as you walk out of town). A small bar with a similarly small drink list, Margarita's does have a TV and pool table, and fills the rum-vacuum that Hacienda Merida's restaurant fails to fill.
- Hostal Ibesa Owned and operated by a friendly and helpful local family, shared room US$3 per person, your own private room US$4, there is also a dorm room which may be even cheaper, very clean and comfortable (prices in 2008), laundry service.
- 1 Finca Ecologica El Zopilote (In Santa Cruz, 2 km before Balgue.). Check-out: 11:00. Finca El Zopilote is a farm/hostel run by an Italian family from Tuscany from 2002 located in Isla de Ometepe in Nicaragua. Finca el zopilote offers to the visitors different types of accommodation such as camping, hammocks, dormitory and private cabins, spread over a large garden. Located on a hillside, the site requires a fairly strenuous 200- to 300-m walk up a rocky path to access. (If you have come by car, it can be parked for a nominal fee at a roadside business). A flashlight (available for purchase at the reception) is helpful to navigate the property after dark.
Similar to other hostels in the arera, there is no kitchen access for the visitors, but a restaurant is available on site; it is also possible to buy freshly baked bread (C$50, i.e. around US$2) at the reception. Three nights a week pizza is cooked in a traditional wood oven. There are compost toilets, and greywater from the showers and the kitchen is cleaned through an onsite processing system. The land is completely planted with trees and plants of every kind, there is a nursery and a vegetable garden and are present many works to limit erosion and water harvesting earth work. Have been used and ferro-cement techniques for the construction of water tanks.There are working possibilities for people interested in permaculture and helping in running the farm/hostel. Is possible to visit the farm including the litthe leather /handycraft shop and observe the view from a look out tower.
The hostel is a convenient starting point for a Volcan Maderas ascent (US$8 per person guided hike).
As of 2016, the owners of El Zopilote are also running an adjacent property, La Brisa, on similar terms as the main El Zopilote site; accessing La Brisa requires an additional uphill walk from El Zopilote. Cabins US$12-16, dorm US$8, hammock US$4.
- Playa Volcan (Near Merida). cheap
- Hospedaje Charco Verde. US$5-18 per room.
- 2 Hacienda Merida. Created by a rich Nicaraguan family from the Esteli, on the grounds of a former coffee plantation owned by the Somoza family, Hacienda Merida provides some social programs for the local area, but definitely has a feel of keeping tourists away from the real Merida. Nicely landscaped grounds, a travel library, good (even if somewhat pricey) restaurant, kayak rental, and an interesting conversation with the opinionated owner. (He earned a national prize in 2009 for a public environmental education campaign; posters created by him can be seen all over the island, and Hacienda Merida, is, naturally, an epicenter of their concentration; he continues to carry out a number of environmental and educational programs, such as using plastic garbage as a construction material, and running the Ometepe Bilingual School on site)..
A tiny "monkey island" off Point Congo (some 500 m away; 1 Monkey Island) can be visited by kayak. According the hacienda's owners, the monkeys had been taken from people elsewhere in Nicaragua who had been keeping them as "pets" (chained), and placed to the island by the hacienda's staff. As posters warn, the reatures can be vicious, and should not be approached.
A number of smaller, locally owned hotels are located in the vicinity; they are typically cheaper than Hacienda Merida, but lack its publicity and somewhat unique atmosphere. Dorms for US$8, rooms from $25.
- Rancho Merida (Adjacent to Hacienda Merida). Next door to Hacienda Merida; cheaper, but lacks the atmosphere. Sometimes it's almost empty while Hacienda Merida is crowded rooms US$15.
- Puesta del sol. The community association invites you to come share the rural lifestyle of 16 families in the community of la Paloma, 1.5 km away from Moyogalpa. You will be able to practice Spanish and if you want to, protect environment and help them in their projects.
- Hotel Bahia, Primary a restaurant, it also has two rooms in the back after the open fire kitchen. Private with a bathroom with a shower, no sink and a toilet with cushioned seat for US$7.
- [dead link] Finca del Sol, Santa Cruz (Ometepe), ☏ . An ecological farm offering 3 private cabins, with private bath for rent. Very private, overlooking Volcano Concepcion and Lake Nicaragua. The Cabins are fully screened, with mosquito netting, purified water, TV and DVD - over 100 movies in English, Spanish and Italian to choose from. We are 100% solar powered and have a composting toilet system. Located a 10 min walk from the trailhead to Volcano Madaras and a few minutes from the best beach on the island, we are a great choice for the adventurer wishing for a little more comfort. On the farm we raise tropical sheep, grow rice, fruits and veggies.Mid price range - We have a maximum occupancy of 10 guests, so reservations are highly recommended. Visit our website for more info
- [dead link] Little Morgan´s, Santa Cruz (300m towards Balgue from Santa Cruz junction), ☏ . Beautiful accommodation, bar and restaurant. Owned by Morgan (the fun Irish guy) and run by a lovely Australian couple. All types of accommodation catered for with hammocks, dorms and private casitas. It is set amongst tropical trees feeling like a real paradise, and is on the lake, so is perfect for a swim and then relax by the bar or in a hammock. The bar has a pool table and is the most happening place at night. The dorms are far enough away though that you can sleep if you need to. Great food and great people. They offer everything from horseback riding to remedial massage. A wonderful pace to stay, see www.littlemorgans.com for pictures and more information. US$3-30.
- Hospedaje San Fernando, Communidad San Fernando, ☏ . The nice hostal called Hospedaje San Fernando is found at the beach called Santo Domingo. Only 800 m from the hotel Villa Paraiso. The place is very central to the most common activities (inside 4 km) in Ometepe: swimming at 'Ojo de Agua', the beach with the white sand called Santo Domingo, the good old Finca Magdalena, the 'Humedal de Istian' and the forest 'Nebliselva' of the vulcano Maderas which to walk on is the major activity for visitors. The privileged position near the road between the two volcanoes allows you to get around by feed or by public transport. Rooms in several nice small private houses. Price range: US$4-12. Breakfast included. Internet included. Very fast for the island (~800 MBit). Access to the beach, Rancho, Hammocks.
- The trails are not marked so if you don't know the island, it is best to hire a guide. They are usually cheap and can give you so much help. Many people have gotten lost climbing the volcanoes and the trails are small. There are no services and help is hard to come by when climbing one of the mountains, so bring what you need before hand.
- Thanks to the fact that it's an island which is kind of easy to check traffic of persons it is, in comparison to the rest of Nicaragua, pretty safe.
- Minor annoyance such as kids begging for money may happen, but in a day, many locals will greet you and are happy to help you.
- As in much of rural Central America, semi-feral dogs (or, if you wish, "free-range dogs") hang out around most tourist establishments. The property owners would neither kill them nor take charge of them in the European sense of the word (as in, keeping them indoors, in a fenced area, or on a chain). They rarely attack adult guests, and don't even bark much during the day; but if you eat outdoors, the dogs will congregate around you and watch you eat. Hotel owners advise guests not to feed these dogs; if you are camping, make sure to put your food supplies at a location not accessible to dogs (e.g., in a bag hanging from a tree).
- Some locals report that there is some danger when climbing the top of Concepcion because of the activity that exist in the top. It is important to take a guide and make sure that if you notice anything suspicious, get away.
- Climbing Concepcion without a guide is illegal. Make sure to bring plenty of water (more than 2 liters) if you climb it. Good shoes go without saying.
- San Jorge, Rivas and southwestern Nicaragua.
- San Carlos with the twice weekly ferry from Altagracia; from there you can go on exploring the Rio San Juan.
- San Juan del Sur, a surfing paradise, easily accessible by bus
- Granada, a colonial city on the lake. Take the ferry to San Jorge, get on a Managua express bus (C$70) and ask to be left at the "Empalme para Granada" (intersection of road to Granada) to catch the Granada bus (C$20).
- San José (Costa_Rica) - the capital is a bus ride away from Rivas. During the border crossing, it is common for a bus driver to collect all passengers passports and handle immigration for you. This can be a little alarming to those unfamiliar with the border crossing.