Updated: Mar 24, 2019
By Josh Noel
Much of the daily tourist flow, arriving on ferries from the mainland town of San Jorge, comes for both the adventure and the relaxation: Canadians, Dutch, Belgians, Israelis, Germans...
“Our trek began innocently enough, one foot in front of the other in a jungle as thick as any I'd seen while the howler monkeys issued their hoary roar from the branches above. I asked Abel how many times he had climbed the volcano."About 600," he said..”
Picking out the visitors who have labored their way to the top of one of the two volcanoes on this tiny island in Lake Nicaragua is not difficult. Just look for the people relaxing as aggressively as possible.
That was me on a Friday afternoon, reveling in Ometepe's essentials: a hammock strung between mango trees, a glass of Nicaraguan rum and an 80-degree island breeze. When that version of luxury grew tired, I strolled down to the beach to bask in the bath water-warm waters of Lake Nicaragua, where the mainland existed only on the hazy horizon. My massage — at a very Nicaraguan price of $25 an hour — would come soon. Both literally and figuratively, it was a sorely needed day of peace.
Twenty-four hours earlier, I had been climbing one of those Ometepe volcanoes: Volcan Maderas, which traces a winding path through the wet Nicaraguan jungle to a misty cloud forest and then to a dormant 4,570-foot-high crater. I spent a grueling 10 hours climbing and descending the mountain, each step an adventure in not slipping, or, more accurately, slipping as undisastrously as possible amid the rocks and mud. I was told I would fall on this hike. I didn't believe it. I fell, repeatedly, and always with the hope that I wouldn't come face to slithery little face with one of the island's poisonous snakes. It was such a slog that by the time we finally saw a howler monkey, I was too throbbing and exhausted to be impressed.
So, yes, hammock, rum, breeze, lake — all gravely needed. And in that way, Ometepe strikes an ideal balance: where extreme rustic adventure meets extreme tropical relaxation. It's an island that couldn't be designed more perfectly, curving through the lake like a figure 8, with each half home to its own volcanic peak. Between sits the River Istian (ideal for seeing wildlife by kayak), a couple of museums and just enough beachfront restaurants and bars to seem lively without being overcrowded. Home to about 40,000 people across its 107 square miles, Ometepe allows a visitor to be as ambitious or unambitious as desired.
Much of the daily tourist flow, arriving on ferries from the mainland town of San Jorge, comes for both the adventure and the relaxation: Canadians, Dutch, Belgians, Israelis, Germans and more than a few American lefties who began coming to Nicaragua during the 1980s to support the Sandinistas.
The visitors also come not to be in Costa Rica. Attracting about one-sixth of the tourists, Nicaragua is miles behind its neighbor to the south in terms of development. Whether it will ever rival Costa Rica is a subject of great discussion at the moment. Growth has been swift during the last 10 years as expats have opened hotels and built houses, but it is still in its infancy.
"Everyone says it's what Costa Rica was 25 years ago, which I guess is a good comparison," said Roslyn Winstanley, an Australian who built the seven-room Xalli beach hotel with her Dutch husband after the pair previously opened an eco hotel on the island. "But in the eight years we've been here, we've already seen enormous change."
But for now, Ometepe remains wonderfully slow and unspoiled, with few, if any, stoplights or buildings taller than a palm tree. It's not odd to see cows walking down the main road or three people riding by on a single bicycle. Power outages aren't uncommon, but it's hard to get too worked up about such inconveniences when you walk into your hotel room to find a corked glass bottle filled with "filtered volcanic spring water" that comes from the volcano down the road.
Though hiking one of the volcanoes is not the sole reason to visit Ometepe, it is undoubtedly a quintessential island experience. And so it was that after checking in at Xalli and having a couple of sips of volcano water, I made my plan for the next morning: meeting my guide, a lean 26-year-old local named Abel, at 7:30 a.m. to journey to the Maderas crater and back. At dinner that night, a father and son named Michael and Gabriel from New York's Hudson Valley asked if they could join the climb. Of course they could.
Our trek began innocently enough, one foot in front of the other in a jungle as thick as any I'd seen while the howler monkeys issued their hoary roar from the branches above. I asked Abel how many times he had climbed the volcano.
"About 600," he said.
It soon became the adventure that catches many tourists off guard, as we slipped and scrambled along a terminally muddy incline. Two-thirds of the way up, Michael, the father in the father-son duo, said he was stopping and would find his way down with another group. He did.
Abel, Gabriel and I pressed on to the crater, arriving in 51/2 hours. Gabriel and I were breathless and caked in mud. Abel was spotless in his red-and-white polo shirt and rolled up jeans. We all grabbed a seat to marvel at the crater: 360 degrees of thick, green growth in what once spewed smoke and lava. "I'm eating this chicken sandwich in a volcano crater!" turned out to be a wonderful lunchtime thought.
And then we headed down, Abel again somehow remaining clean as I fought slips and falls to the point that my feet and knees grew hot with pain. I might or might not have yelled to no one in particular, "This is the worst hike ever!" (OK, fine, I did, but I didn't mean it.) After one fall, Gabriel briefly thought he had broken his wrist. But we finally made it back to the hotel in the dark, and, after a dinner of jalapeno chicken — chicken smothered in a creamy jalapeno sauce, very popular in Nicaragua — I lumbered off for 10 hours of well-earned sleep.
The next day was reserved for Ometepe's calmer joys. Down at the beach behind Xalli, I waded into the wonderfully warm, shallow lake and walked 50 or so yards offshore; it was still only 4 feet deep.
The next day, my last on the island, I found what might be Ometepe's greatest joy: Ojo de Agua, a natural spring about the size of an Olympic pool with a rock-and-silt floor and stone walls. At the pool's edge, a vendor chopped the tops off coconuts and poured in rum to create a boozy, milky drink in the shell.
The pool was just cool enough to be refreshing, and the water was wonderfully bright and clear with its high mineral content and supposed healing powers. Hugged by thick, leafy trees, Ojo de Agua was a serene little oasis of splashing and relaxing worth a day unto itself. It made me wish I were spending a few more days on the island.
And who knows? Had I stayed, I might have attempted that other volcano, Concepcion, though it remains active. Topping out at 5,280 feet, its steep trail traverses slippery volcanic rock. The entire way, I would have been fueled by my all-important, recently learned secret: No matter how miserable the slog, the rest of Ometepe — the hammocks, the beaches, the lake, the natural spring, the rum — awaited.
If you go
Getting there and around: Most visitors arrive via an hourlong ferry ride from the town of San Jorge (about $3). Bringing a rental car is possible, but I favored a combination of taxis (car, van or the back of a motorcycle), bicycles, public buses and walking. A ferry to Granada also is possible, but it is a long ride, and the lake can get rocky. The island also is home to a new airport that gets flights two days a week to and from Managua. If you're flying, the way into the country is through Managua's Augusto C. Sandino International Airport. San Jorge is a little more than 90 minutes by car (I paid $80 for a taxi ride) or much longer and cheaper by bus.
Do: Hiking an Ometepe volcano is an essential (and exhausting) experience. You can book guides through your hotel. Other activities include kayaking Rio Istian, hiking to the 164-foot San Ramon Waterfall and lounging on Playa Santo Domingo. Don't miss the natural spring Ojo de Agua or Museum El Ceibo, in the town of Moyogalpa.