Rocking back and forth across Lake Nicaragua on the 7.45am ferry, I caught my first up close glimpse of Volcan Concepcion. I fought against the motion sickness tablets I had taken, trying to keep my eyes open to watch the perfectly cone shaped, cloud topped volcano loom closer and closer. The way my heart fluttered at the sight was the first clue that Isla de Ometepe was going to have some kind of magical hold over me.
I nearly didn’t go to Isla de Ometepe, a volcanic island in Lake Nicaragua (also called Lake Cocibolca). I had heard horror stories about the boat ride over and I wasn’t sure if it was worth it. But then I read this post by Adventurous Kate. Kate also nearly didn’t go to Ometepe, but in the end it stole her heart. Well, thank you Kate, because Isla de Ometepe stole my heart too.
The journey to Ometepe started early. I was determined to get the 7.45am ferry as there was no way I was getting one of the smaller lancha boats. Everyone I had met said they were horrifically sea sick inducing. The larger ferry still rocked from side to side but I had thought ahead and bought some Dramamine in a local pharmacy, which basically just made me doze for an hour.
My island destination was Merida; a small community in the south near the smaller of the island’s two volcanoes: Volcan Maderas. It was the best decision I ever made. It is rural, peaceful and beautiful. There are no paved roads in these parts. In fact, the “roads” are more like a pile of rubble. But it all added to the charm and beauty of the area.
With little transport on the island and the next bus hours away, I took a taxi from the ferry dock in Moyagalpa to Merida. As we drove I began to understand just how rural and beautiful the island is. We passed volcanic sand beaches and hundreds of trees, where I heard the call of howler monkeys. Soon the paved road ended and we bumped over rocks and gravel, passing little more then plants, fields and the occasional road side snack store.
I had two nights booked at the wonderful Finca Mystica (an organic farm) but my first night was spent by the water at Hacienda Merida. The initial moments were somewhat confusing. I was wiped out from the seasickness medicine and, with a sign telling me there was only one bus leaving the village at 8.30am everyday (which I’d missed), I felt a bit lost. Luckily I met two European girls who were checking out and planning to walk up the road until they could hitch a lift (a popular mode of transport in the area). They gave me a little “tour” of Merida.
Merida is a small, rural community spread out along the road, surrounded by forest and backdropped by Volcan Mederas. I never actually saw any cars driving along this road, only bicycles. The girls pointed out a cheap place to rent bikes, a friendly family who sell drinks and snacks and told me where they ate the best meal of their stay.
Returning to the hostel, I took a moment to catch my breath. Walking out onto the hostel’s private pier, I discovered the most amazing view of Volcan Concepcion. A few clouds floated around the rim, looking like the volcano was exhaling smoke and the whole island was a lush, green jungle. With the call of howler monkeys in the distance, I felt like I was in Jurrasic Park.
As my first day wore on, I began to settle into Island life and get my bearings. Following the advice of the European girls I had met earlier, I had the best lunch of my entire trip at a little house turned restaurant. There was no menu, I simply asked the friendly woman in Spanish if there was any vegetarian food. She happily made me the most delicious, fresh and piping hot meal of flavoured vegetables, rice, beans and plantain. It was so good I would returned later with a Swiss girl from my hostel.
As the afternoon wore on I decided to hire a bike for a couple of hours. Using my new found Spanish skills I negotiated a marked-down price on the day rate from a friendly, local man and headed off. I swerved by pigs, chickens, dogs and horses, all wandering wild around the bumpy roads.
The paths are bad and the hills big in this area. It is quite literally off the beaten path. I was still weak from being sick in San Juan Del Sur and found myself not enjoying the difficult ride in the beating sun. I copied the locals pushing my bike up the biggest, bumpiest hills and jumping back on to cruise down. But after a while I gave up and left my bike back outside my hostel room, then continued to walk around and explore the neighbourhood on foot.
I admired the Maderas volcano, greeted the friendly locals and found my self giving directions to European and American travellers who had somehow bumped along the road on mopeds from other parts of the island.
Soon, it was sunset time. I walked out onto the ugly concrete pier of Hacienda Merida, to join my fellow travellers admiring the perfect view of Volcan Cocepcion. The sun set as we swapped stories and exchanged tips on where to travel in Nicaragua. I found myself talking to a swiss girl, Karin, and a Nicaraguan guy, Juan, who studied in Managua but was back in Ometepe helping his family set up a hotel.
When hunger struck, I took Karin back to my favourite restaurant for more delicious, fresh food. We shared a beer, felt sorry for the hungry street dogs who cuddled up to us (there are so many dogs in the area. They are strays but so friendly, one even jumped in my hammock and tried to lick my face) and chatted until after night fall. Unlike other parts of Nicaragua, I felt quite comfortable walking round in the pitch black. Perhaps because there was literally no one else around at all. It wasn’t the last meal I’d share with Karin, I’d end up bumping into her again when I returned to Granada for a couple of nights.
The next day I woke up early, strapped on my 38 litre backpack and hiked 30 minutes up and down the bumpy roads and up a country trail, past fields of cows and yellow flowers, guided by Volcan Maderas. It was hard work in the heat but I made it to Finca Mystica. The beautiful, quiet and isolated organic farm is run by a friendly American couple. The “rooms” are actually all cute little individual buildings. There were no privates available but I had a huge bed in the clean, spacious shared room and, fortunately, end up with lovely and interesting room mates.
I spent the day wandering the farm’s private nature trail, chilling in a hammock and watching howler monkeys swinging in the trees down by the lake. It the evening I enjoyed a delicious meal with my fellow dorm mates and planned a hike to the waterfall. When we all grew tired, we used our flashlights to follow a small footpath, through the silent darkness, back to the room.
I woke at about 6am the following morning. The sun was just coming up and I could hear the howler monkeys calling out from the trees. I lay in the semi darkness listening to their spooky cries, feeling thoroughly content.
Raring to go after breakfast, the 5 of us (an American couple, a British lad from Hammersmith and an older woman from the Netherlands who had amazing travel stories) slapped on our sunscreen, filled up our water bottles and headed off for the San Ramon waterfall. It was a pretty walk by the shore of the lake to reach the trail entrance.
They say the hike up to the waterfall is 3km. I’m not so sure. It started off very gently, making me wonder why people complained about it. But by the end we were scrambling over rocks and asking locals if we had somehow missed it. Eventually we reached the fresh water and it was one of the prettiest waterfalls I’ve seen. The water trickled down the side of a mossy cliff, making rainbows as we waded into the cool, refreshing pool. It’s not deep, but it’s deep enough to revive you after a sweaty climb.
Maya, the Dutch woman and I lingered a little longer and took our time walking back. Once we got to the road by the side of the lake, the tree cover ended and we were in the full beat of the midday sun. I tried to use my sarong to shield myself but it was too hot. We were flagging , getting irritable and Maya began feeling ill. Suddenly we heard someone shout out “Joella!” and saw an older man we met at the waterfall resting at a tiny roadside refreshment stop. “Come and enjoy some amazing limonada,” he beckoned.
While we could see he mum of the house pottering about in the background, we were served by a young boy of about 8 years old. He seemed extremely proud to be in charge, taking our drinks orders (I opted for a glass bottle of diet coke as, since my sickness, I had become wary of unknown water sources), practising the little bit of English he knew and counting out our change. His younger sister sat down at the table with us, while his toddler brother played with some baby puppies.
Completely refreshed, we headed back to the Finca to wash and spend the afternoon relaxing with our books, wandering the grounds and watching howler monkeys steal fruit from the trees.
The next morning I reluctantly had to return to the mainland. I wished I could have stayed at least a few more days to visit some other parts of the island, but I needed to get back to Granada ready to fly home. My three nights on Ometepe turned out to be my favourite part of the whole trip. In fact, although I really enjoyed my time in Nicaragua, Ometepe is the one destination that made my list of places I’m desperate to return too. It well and truly stole my heart.
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What do you think of Isla de Ometepe? Would you like to stay somewhere rural like this?
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