Nicaragua has proved to be something of a game of two halves for us. After several days in each of its well-known cities, León and Granada, we were ready for a change. Before we left I had noticed in the British press how hotly Nicaragua was being tipped as the new ‘must-see’ tourist destination, and so far at least, it had seemed to us like the country’s tourist board and main players had expertly mapped out a standard gringo route which we’d been rolling along. We were keen to step off it a little, but were constrained time-wise by a flight out of Central America a couple of weeks hence. So looking for some fresh air, outdoor activities and more hammock time, we decided to head to Isla de Ometepe, an island in the middle of the enormous freshwater Lago de Nicaragua in the centre of the country. The lake itself used to be part of the Pacific, until volcanic activity cut it off.
Ometepe means ‘two mountains’ in the Nahuatl language, and if you see any pictures of it you’ll see why. Two volcanoes rise out of the lake, linked by an isthmus between the two. The larger peak, Volcán Concepción, is a forbidding, steep-sloped cone that rises to 1610m and remains active today. Its smaller and dormant sister, Volcán Maderas, is smaller at around 1394m and rainforest-clad, with a crater lake at its summit. The sight of both as you arrive on a boat is quite something. Apparently when the first inhabitants arrived they believed they’d found the promised land and it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to see why.
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Our journey there began in Granada at around 10am, and after an hour and a half’s wait for the Rivas-bound bus to actually leave (hey, there’s always more room for an extra 30 people in the aisle and somehow, 2 bikes) we were rolling south. On arrival at Rivas we were greeted with a scrum of taxi touts offering to take us to the port or one of several beach towns for which Rivas is the hub. We eventually got one for $4 for the 3 of us, although we did have to wait while the driver’s friend applied transfers to the window before we could head off. Essential maintenance I assume…. Down at the port of San Jorge we were informed we could wait an hour for a ferry or catch a ‘lancha’ in 30 minutes for half the price. Being keen to get to some lodgings before dark we opted for the latter. The lancha was a somewhat elderly two-storey wooden vessel that carried around 90 souls in a minimal degree of comfort across the choppy waters of the lake. But for $1.60 each no-one was complaining!
After two more comically-packed buses we arrived in the small village of Santa Cruz near the foot of Volcán Maderas and set off to walk the final few hundred metres in the hope of securing a place to rest our heads at El Zopilote , which describes itself as a ‘Finca Ecológica’ – a working organic farm and hostel. Four of us arrived from the boat, one with a tent, but we were told that there was space for the tent but just one hammock remaining. After standing around looking distinctly forlorn for several minutes in the failing evening light they phoned up to reception to check again and decided there were 3 free hammocks which we gratefully accepted. The walk up the hill to the farm from the road was one final punishment after a hectic day’s travel but we arrived at a friendly reception area as dinner was getting underway and were rewarded with some cold beers. To our delight we found that they also sold rather excellent red wine, which was somewhat necessary in order to fall asleep in a hammock in the open air!
The next day dawned early and bright, and got off to an excellent start when Rich and I found we could trade up from hammocks to a wooden cabin for the princely sum of $14 per night. This was the point we realized we might be staying a while. El Zopilote itself is a beautiful and calm spot, just what we’d been looking for. Various palm-topped buildings are spread out among plantain trees and swaying bamboo, just high enough above the lake for the breeze to cut through the heat of the day. It is Italian owned, which means that the important things are taken seriously – decent wine, homemade pasta, bread, gelato and best of all, a wood-fired pizza oven that is cranked up 3 nights a week to make the best pizza we’ve had since leaving Brixton and Franco Manca behind! The rest of the menu is made up of fresh ingredients, often grown or made on the farm; in short, this is the best we’ve eaten on the whole trip. Rich had probably his first ever vegan meal and barely winced (although after 9 days here I think he may be hankering after a burger…)
But Ometepe has much more to offer than a good spot to relax and eat, so after a couple of days R&R we were keen to tackle Volcán Maderas and work off at least a little of the pizza. With that in mind, Rich, Will and I booked a guide and set the alarm for 6am the next day. It turns out Rich may have subconsciously been a little less keen as he kicked a rock during a late-night toilet dash and slashed the end of his toe, which meant that he bagged an extra hammock day while Will and I set out for the summit. The climb began gently, out through farms and fields of plantain, yucca and avocado trees. The trail then entered the forest and we began to climb more steeply, with howler monkeys in the trees overhead. As we entered cloud cover the path grew muddier but a lot of fun as we clambered over tree roots and rocks towards the top. The mud was almost comically bad, churned up by several insane souls who had been completing an ultra-marathon up and down both volcanoes two days prior, but after 3 hours we had reached the summit and climbed down the 15 minutes or so into the crater where there lies a lagoon among the rainforest, eerily grey and misted under all the cloud. After a short lunch stop we started back down and incredibly I only fell in the mud once on the descent… I’d heartily recommend the climb – it took us 6.5 hours in total and is challenging but very enjoyable.
After another day hammock-bound resting our legs we were keen to head out again and so rented mountain bikes and set off south for some reputedly spectacular waterfalls near San Ramón about 8km round the base of Volcán Maderas. This may not sound far, but the paved road ran out after about 500m so most of the ride was spent bouncing over rocks and dust in the midday heat. When Rich’s hands blistered after 5 minutes we knew the day would be a little more challenging than anticipated. We arrived at the base of the trail to the waterfall after an hour and a half of tough riding but the incredible scenery really did soften the pain! It was then another hour and 15 minute hike up to the waterfall – apparently 3km, but the third kilometer was at least 2½ in itself, so we were close to turning back but very glad we didn’t in the end. The falls are a 260m drop down a sheer, fern-dotted rock face into a small pool below, but the water bounces down rather than plummets so that you can stand under it like a shower – and a very welcome cold one at that after the exertion to reach it! Saddle sore and blistered, the ride home was done through gritted teeth, with a beer stop on the way, but the pain again tempered by the sight of the setting sun painting the slopes of Volcán Concepción in spectacular colours in the distance.
Somehow we had whiled away nearly a week here by this point and were feeling rather at home. It sounds clichéd but time seems to take on a different quality here; the pace of life is entirely different and the island does feel like its own little world. We hired a scooter and set out to explore (the section with paved roads this time!) and agreed that of all the islands we’ve bombed around on a 50cc this was definitely the most enjoyable; the shifting views of the volcanoes always impress, the roads were frequently invaded by cattle, horses, pigs or dogs, and best of all – there is a level crossing. Not for trains, but for driving across the island’s perilously short airport runway! An incredible sight that we would have photographed but for the gun-toting security guard operating the barriers…. A short stop at Punta Jesús Maria, a long spit of dark sand that protrudes into the lake and swarms with seabirds was a picturesque stop, as was a well-earned cold Victoria beer at the edge of Playa Santo Domingo on our way back. Sat by the water’s edge you could almost believe you were by the sea, but there is something missing, which we released was the ocean salt-smell. Even when the other side is lost in the haze over the horizon you are always aware you are on a lake.
Ten days on Ometepe offered us the hideaway we were seeking despite being pretty active! Living somewhere so environmentally-focused has given me food for thought on how we could live more simply and cheaply with just a little effort, which was one of the goals for this trip. I’m not sure we’re quite ready for composting toilets and veganism the whole time, but every little helps!
Thanks for reading, a full photo set can be viewed here