Was it 4 a.m.? I’m not sure. I just know it was too early. Too early for me to know which end was up. Maria’s alarm clock went off, and she shot out of bed, dragging me up with her. Dressed, last minute packing complete, and we’re rushing out the door. Juan is out front, waiting to load us up for our journey. It’s dark. No one wants to speak. He turns the radio on. Some sleep. I stare out at the stars. And, that’s how the first several hours of our trip ensue. Then, the sun begins to rise. Juan stops off at a beautiful vista. We make small talk then pile back into the car. Then, it gets brighter, and we start talking. Juan says, “Mangoes?” We all say, “Yes,” almost in unison. We make a few stops at roadside stands, buying mangoes, papayas, oranges. Juicy, mouth watering, tasty fruit.
We’re fueled, and off to Rivas, where we are catching a ferry to Ometepe, an island within massive Lake Nicaragua, formed by 2 neighboring volcanoes. The ferry ride is smooth. We sit on the outside deck enjoying the sun, breeze and views. As we are pulling into San Jose del Sur, greeted by the towering Volcán Concepción, the first sight we see is a handful of cattle, horses, chickens, and pigs roaming about the water’s edge, setting the stage for our visit to the island.
We are all hungry. Juan, knowing how far we will need to drive to get to our hotel, takes us to nearby Charco Verde, a nature reserve with a beach front restaurant, where you can get a decent meal and a cold Toña. I order whatever Juan is having and end up with a fried fish on my plate. Fresh, crispy, delicious. Just what I wanted to fill my stomach before the drive to the hotel.
My first few days were spent with Maria, Jamie, Joann, and Juan at La Omaja in Merida, 30 minutes down the unpaved road on the Maderas side of the island. We were all quite tired from a week of working, so we spent 2 days laying in hammocks, swimming in the pool, drinking Toñas, and watching sunsets.
We did decide to take a wander down to the shore one afternoon, just to get our legs moving…and happened upon some pigs and chickens grazing about down by the water. Oh, and some monkeys swinging about in the trees. This, at least for me, became a theme for my time in Ometepe — animals abound everywhere.
The morning my amigas left, I was eating breakfast and skyping with my ma, when I overheard a few other travelers planning to hike to the San Ramon waterfall. So, I shmoozed a late check out and hitched a ride with them, which actually turned into me tagging along, as they ended up being a super cool family of 4 and made a point to include me not only in their hike but in the picnic they prepared for lunch at the waterfall. Luckily, I had packed a mango, so I didn’t feel like a total free loader. The hike was pleasant, not too hot, not too long. Lots of lush greenery along the way. And, in the midst of dry season, the path was easily passible. The waterfall was quite pretty. And, it felt good to move my body and break a bit of a sweat. Totally worth the 45 minutes either way.
Late afternoon, I said adios to La Omaja and headed off to Via Verde just outside of Balgüe, on the other side of Volcan Madera in between Santa Cruz and Balgüe, on the paved road…not quite so isolated. I was immediately welcomed by Eileen, and joined the 3 other guests for dinner, my first experience with Cafe Campestre’s delivery, spicy chickpea and potato curry to die for (the result of the owner’s time spent in India). My remaining days in Ometepe were spent sleeping soundly in the midst of the farm with my windows open and a breeze blowing through, waking up to the wicked sounds of the baby bluebirds (seriously eery, made me sit straight up in bed the first time I heard it…devil reincarnated), eating enormous homemade breakfasts, spending hours in the hammock on my private balcony reading and writing, and exploring. Not a rough life. Not a rough life. And, once I figured out how to get a solid 2 minute hot shower, it couldn’t get much better.
Ometepe is a really beautiful and interesting spot. Not only is it the world’s largest volcanic island inside a freshwater lake, but it was recently named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve due to eco-friendly development. Spend any time here, and you will notice a fascinating balance between man and nature. This place is teeming with nature. I never stopped feeling like I was in the country. Even as I walked down the paved section of the main road towards the beach, I passed bulls, donkeys, chickens, pigs…the whole array of farm animals. Then, as you get off the road either uphill on a hike, along the beach, or onto the water in kayaks, you see just how ecologically diverse this place is. The cloud forests of Volcán Maderas and the swamps of the Rio Istián Estuary are two of the most ecologically rich areas of the island, but here in Ometepe, you don’t need to go far in any direction to be surrounded by nature. The people live in the midst of this wonderful environment, and they really care about sustaining the quality of it. Locals and expats are friendly and welcoming, and despite their differences, work towards a common goal of keeping their community and surroundings beautiful. There is a lot of momentum forward with increasing permaculture, sustainable farming, and educational advances. Currently, a NPO is helping the local schools by providing solar panels and laptops, which is invaluable to keeping their students on pace with those off island. And, seriously folks, you have to get approval before you are allowed to cut down a tree! Tourism is increasing, but for the most part remaining low impact, leaving the island with a relatively untouched feel. Ometepe is really a special spot to disconnect and find peace without all of the distractions of the fast paced modern world.
Some things that struck me about Ometepe:
1. The volcanoes. You see one of them from almost anywhere you are on the island.
Ometepe houses 2 volcanoes, which provides for beautiful vistas from almost any point on the island. The two volcanoes are very different, providing very different surroundings at either end of the island but also very different hiking opportunities. The slopes of the extinct Volcán Maderas are covered in cloud forest and scattered with lava boulders from its previous explosion, which also left a crater lagoon on its summit. Volcán Concepción, on the other hand, is very barren. It is the second highest volcano in Nicaragua and is active, apparent by the constant discharge of vapors and frequent lava flows from its perfectly shaped cone.
2. The people here are extremely friendly, expats and locals alike. As I was walking down the road towards the beach en route to the hot springs, this man came out with 2 of his children, asking for a photo. I immediately said (in spanish), “I have no money to give you.” To which he replied, “Eh, I don’t care. We can be one of your memories of the island.”
3. There seem to be animals everywhere. You can’t go far without coming across a pig or cow…or chicken grazing by the road. Horses walking down the road…or frolicking on the beach (not necessarily attended). You find monkeys swinging about in the trees. This must be a birders paradise with the number of birds around. I couldn’t even escape them in my sleep, when I awoke every morning to the deathly screeching of the baby bluebirds nearby. Amazed by the number of farm animals wandering about, I asked one of the guys at Campestre how people kept track of their animals and how they didn’t get stolen. He told me, “The island is pretty small. You know what you have, what you lose, and what others gain. It becomes pretty obvious if anything shady is going on. They are kind of like pets. You know your pets.” This never ceased to amaze me.
A few of the other places I visited:
1. El Ojo de Agua, a man made pool fed by natural thermal springs, surrounded by trees and ferns. Admission $4. 500 m walk back through a farm to the pools. But, once you get there, you are relieved…because on a hot day, there is nothing better than a swim in this wonderful pool. You can definitely kill some time here where there are plenty of beach chairs and a little restaurant where you can find basic food and drink.
2. Hiking to Jeruselum Falls with Cafe Campestre.
I spent a day hiking up through the cloud forest of Volcán Maderas to Jeruselum Falls (not at the top, oh no), stopping at a local cemetery, the historic Finca Magdalena, the coffee producing Las Cuchillas, and several petroglyphs along the way. Our guide was wonderful and informative, teaching us about everything from the historical significance of different things to the ecology of the area to the farming practices, and so on. A more thorough blog post with lots of good photos to come, but for now…
3. Kayaking to the Rio Istián with Cafe Campestre, a wonderful experience where I was able to see an enormous amount of birds and a caiman alligator while kayaking in a beautiful setting at sunset, which you can read all about here.
Accommodations, both highly recommended:
La Omaja, Merida. Very nice, clean, spacious casitas, each with a porch, up on a hill, the slope of Volcan Maderas, overlooking Lake Nicaragua and Volcan Concepcion. Jamie and his wife, the owners, are very welcoming and helpful. There is an open air restaurant and bar with infinity pool, great for cooling off in the hot mid day sun or lounging about at sunset. The food is quite good, especially the fish tacos. Wifi is quality here and credit cards are accepted. Come for lunch, and you can swim at the pool and use wifi free of charge…or so it seems. One con is that demand shower or not, the water did not seem to approach warm. Shower mid day when it’s sweltering out, or swim yourself clean, and it’s not too big of a problem. And the road out to Merida is pretty rough right now, but improvements are imminent.
Via Verde, Balgue. This B&B is located on a farm located between Santa Cruz and Balgue at the foot of Volcan Maderas. The place has 2 second story rooms each with a large comfortable bed, a small desk, and a private balcony with hammocks and rocking chairs. Two shared bathrooms each have showers with warm water. And, there is a shared space with a table, fridge stocked with refreshments and water, and a view of Volcan Concepion.
There is a small cabin up the hill as well. The place is thoughtful and quaint, and I can’t really say specifically why…it just is. Eileen and Darren, the owners, are a couple from California, who moved to Ometepe almost 15 years ago (don’t quote me) and have slowly developed their farm and B&B. They are some of the warmest and welcoming people I have met, and they go out of their way to make your visit comfortable and memorable. Breakfast is served every morning and is included. You choose 3 items from a menu including such things as pineapple and lime crepes, southwestern beans, granola and yogurt, etc. It’s served up with a plate of fruit, freshly squeezed juice, and coffee or tea. They even prepared breakfast to go for me on my morning of departure, so that I could eat it on the ferry! Everything is prepared fresh on the farm, and they focus hard on minimizing waste. Very peaceful and comfortable. The only con is the wifi; it’s available during the daytime hours, but connects through a hot spot on Eileen’s computer, leading to a pretty weak signal. I was sometimes able to check email, but if you want to get any real work done, you need to go down to Casa Hotel Istium and pay per hour.
Note: This post is very delayed. I traveled to Ometepe in February of 2013. I have no conflicting interests. Nothing was compensated. All opinions are my own.