Standing on the shore of the mainland staring out over the water, there they were. Like two extraordinary monuments rising from the waters of Lake Nicaragua, light clouds hovering gently over their peaks, the two volcanoes of Isla de Ometepe.
During our first visit to Nicaragua back in 2015, everyone we spoke to preached that for no reason should we miss visiting this magical island. Heeding this advice, we stopped in for a quick visit and ended up staying for a week – crushed when the time came to finally leave. Without question, Ometepe is one of our absolute favourite destinations in Central America, and if I’m being completely honest – the world.
With the relaxed atmosphere and laid back way of life, and just the right amount of activities to break up the hammock sessions; returning to this island paradise was highly anticipated.
While passing through Nicaragua, it’s highly unlikely you’ll miss venturing to Ometepe, and although lazing the days away soaking up the sun listening to the deep roar of the howler monkeys – be sure to take in some of the great activities the island has to offer!
Kayak the Rio Istián
This is probably our favourite activity on Ometepe. Renting kayaks and taking a guided tour along the shoreline and into the Rio Istián is a fantastic way to see the island from an entirely different perspective. Paddling through dense mangroves, you’ll encounter strange birds, insects, turtles and possibly even caimans.
Some have suggested that this isn’t worth doing in the dry season between December and April due to low water levels; however both of our visits were in March and water levels were more than adequate.
Head down to El Caballito del Mar, near Mérida. A 3-4 hour tour will cost $20 per person. As a bonus, they have a fantastic restaurant for when you’re done!
Explore the Island by Bike
Preferably one with an engine.
Ometepe is deceivingly large, and the roads past Santa Cruz heading towards Mérida are not only unpaved, but in horrific condition – we did Mérida to Santa Cruz on pedal bikes and ended up hitching back, rather than riding back on the awful road. We’ve done both bicycles and motorbikes around the island and while the pedal variety can be great for short distances, motorbikes will get you much further. Also, zipping along the winding roads while the wind whips at your face is a feeling that can’t be beat!
Typically bicycles will cost around $5 a day, and motos between $20 and $30, available at most hostels.
*Just be sure to take photos of the bikes prior to renting, we’ve heard stories of owners claiming pre-existing damages as new, and keeping deposits.
Hike to San Ramón Waterfall
Way down on the side of Volcano Maderas is a nice walk through dense monkey-filled jungle up to a refreshing natural shower in the form of San Ramón Waterfall! The hike itself takes around 3-4 hours round trip with the first portion of it fairly uncovered – so wear plenty of sunblock.
To get there simply make your way down roughly 10 km from Santa Cruz (heading West) and look for the signs for either the waterfall itself or the Field Station entrance. The admission fee is only a few dollars.
Cool Down at Ojo de Agua
Often translated to “Eye of the Water”, it’s literal meaning in this case is simply “Waterhole.”
The mineral-rich water flows from underground volcanic springs and fills the two pools shaded by the cool jungle. Located right in the middle of the island, on the isthmus connecting the two volcanoes, it’s easily accessible wherever you choose to stay.
Although it has a bit of a resort feel, it’s a great spot to enjoy some food and some cool drinks, while taking refuge from the hot midday sun. As well, after a day of hiking or kayaking, the mineral-rich water is great for soothing that fresh sunburn.
Bonus tip: Take the short hike through the banana plantation above the pools. The trail is well marked and has some fantastic views of Volcan Concepcion. The full walk takes about 30 minutes.
Entry to the park at time of writing is $5 per person.
Sample Locally Made Chocolate
Head down to El Pital, the combination accommodation/artisan chocolate shop and taste some of their outstanding products – all produced on site. With a beautiful secluded beach and attached restaurant, you could stay on site for the afternoon or a few days if that’s your style.
Take the East road towards Balgue at the Santa Cruz intersection check for the El Pital sign roughly 1.5 km on your left.
Swim in Lago de Nicaragua
This one goes without saying, but I’m throwing it on the list anyway.
With nearly all accommodation options either having waterfront or being within a short walking distance of the shore, you’ll never be far from a quick afternoon dip. However, one of the best spots to spend a few hours in the afternoon is on the long strip of beautiful beach running between Santo Domingo and Santa Cruz.
Fill Up at Cafe Compastre
Just so we’re clear, we’re in no way affiliated with this incredible spot – it just happens to be our favourite restaurant on the island. It was our top pick back in 2015 and upon returning this year, it’s just as good as we remember (dare I say even better?).
With nearly everything on the menu locally sourced from farms on the island, fresh pasta made in-house and amazingly reasonable prices, this is the place to eat.
In Balgue, just a little further down the road from El Pital.
Enjoy the Breathtaking Sunsets
Although I’m sure the sunrises are equally as beautiful, we’ve only ever stayed on the west side of the island and have been treated with some absolutely stunning sunsets. It’s hard to imagine a better way to watch the disappear over the horizon than while floating in the warm waters of Lake Nicaragua.
Climb a Volcano or Two
Look, I’m not going to lie, sometimes (often) we’re a little lazy when it comes to physical activity. Both of Ometepe’s volcanoes are climbable and we know people who have tackled both of them. However, we don’t feel it would be right to recommend it without having actually done it ourselves. If taking on such a feat yourself, once reaching the island you’ll be able to find all of the information you’ll need. If you do it, let us know how it was!
Getting to Ometepe
Getting to the island itself is relatively simple. The ferries leave regularly throughout the day from the docks at San Jorge, just east of Rivas. I won’t get into the details of reaching Rivas, as there are too many to mention, but once you get to Rivas, simply hire a taxi or hop on the local bus to San Jorge. In our most recent trip, due to being in a rush to meet some friends, we paid the immediate asking price of $5, which was clearly a rip-off. It should be around $1-2 per person – max. Alternatively, from León, Managua, Granada or San Juan del Sur, you can catch a direct shuttle straight to the docks in San Jorge.
There are two types of ferry, one large, one small. We’ve only ever taken the larger option, but have been told the smaller boat is not only more expensive but can also be quite uncomfortable in the choppy open waters. Seeing as the larger option is only 50 cords, it’s the best option in our minds – just understand that you may be spending the hour-long ride on the top deck, without shade.
Getting Around the Island
Most likely, the furthest you’ll be travelling would be Mérida, on the west side of Volcan Maderas. Taxis should cost around $30-35 or around $7 per person in a shared van. Another option, depending on your skill and baggage situation would be to rent a motorbike from Myogalpa for your entire stay. We met a few people who chose this option and although it costs a little more overall, the convenience seems absolutely worth it.
There is also a semi-regular bus schedule that you can find here, which isn’t the most convenient, but will be considerably cheaper than the taxi option. Just be aware that while waiting at bus stops, people may approach you informing you that the busses aren’t running a the moment, and you’ll need to rent a motorbike instead. Of course, big surprise, they just happen to have one for rent.
Finally, another option is hitchhiking. Although with hitching anywhere, there are risks involved, but we were able to catch a ride several times without issue. It doesn’t seem to be overly common, so without a set standard, costs ranged from free to a couple dollars a head.
Have a Blast!
As mentioned at the start of this article, Ometepe is one of our favourite destinations. So go have a great time, enjoy some of the awesome activities available to you and eat some amazing food. Just be sure to give plenty of attention to that hammock.
Have you ever been to Ometepe? What did you think?