We arrived on Ometepe Island like most travelers: pretty unaware of the range of eco, outdoor and food adventures that have been quietly developing on this spot in the middle of 3,000 square mile (8,264 square km) formerly bull-shark-infested Lake Nicaragua. Sure we were expecting the island, which is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, to have plenty of nature and island-y quirks. What we got was Adventure Island.
Lake Nicaragua (aka Lake Cocibolca) is the largest lake in Central America and home to Ometepe Island, whose name in the Nahuatl language means two hills. Those two hills are actually two volcanoes: the very active 5,100 foot (1,544 meter) Concepción Volcano and dormant 4,573 foot (1,394 meter) Maderas Volcano. Both can be climbed. Neither is easy.
Getting to Ometepe Island
While the rest of Nicaragua slowly gets its act together in terms of tourism and tourist activities things on Ometepe have been moving right along. They even have a brand new international airport, though no one seems able to say when it will open to flights–if ever. Welcome to Nicaragua.
Never mind. You can still get to Ometepe Island the old-fashioned way: by ferry. Passenger ferries leave from a large dock in the town of San Jorge just a few miles from Rivas. A number of ferries travel between the dock and the island. We chose to travel on the newer, bigger Rey del Cocibolca ferry because it also takes vehicles (US$16 for one driver and the vehicle; US$3.50 per passenger).
The ferry was clean and only moderately crowded (though the vehicle deck can get packed so make a reservation by calling 8833-4773 or 86913669 if you have a vehicle with you). Our one hour crossing was pretty smooth, though locals will tell you that the lake can sometimes get whipped up to white caps due to high winds.
Getting around Ometepe Island
The roads on Ometepe were notoriously bad but a recent frenzy of repaving with interlocking pre-fab paving stones is slowly changing that. When we were on the island the road connecting the main port town of Moyogalpa and the village of Balgue was in perfect condition and crews and supplies were in place to continue extending the repaving.
The island is big–19 miles (31 kms) long and up to six miles (10 kms) wide–and the things you’re gonna want to do, see and eat are spread out. If you don’t have a vehicle you can use the public buses or rent a motorcycle from many shops and vendors in Moyogalpa. Check in with Gary and Laura, owners of the Cornerhouse B&B, Restaurant and Coffee Shop, for a recommendation about the most reputable renters and for the best eggs Benedict (and more) in Nicaragua. Cornerhouse also has four stylishly stark rooms for US$30 double.
Eating and sleeping on Ometepe Island
As you enter Balgue look for the school bus on your right. This is El Zopilote, an artisenal shop selling handmade jewelry, bread, chocolate, soap, granola (you get the picture). That all happens in the bus. A short hike up the hill takes you to the El Zopilote Hostel, a lofty, free-form hangout where they also bake a mean pizza and offer yoga.
Finca Magdalena also has budget accommodation and one of the best cups of coffee we had in all of Nicaragua made with beans grown on their property on the slopes of Maderas Volcano above the village of Balgue.
Your complete adventure guide to Ometepe Island
By the time our week on the island was up we were so excited about the place that we wrote a feature about Ometepe Island for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune focusing on the latest and greatest adventures on the island.
Check it out for even more about eating, sleeping and adventuring on Nicaragua’s adventure island, including Totoco Eco-lodge, the swishest digs on the island, nighttime kayaking, becoming a permaculture volunteer at Project Bona Fide, some of the best horseback riding in Nicaragua, a blissful swimming hole, a private museum full of artifacts you won’t see anywhere else in Nicaragua and Chef Ben Slow’s fabulous farm to fork food at Cafe Campestre.
Read more about travel in Nicaragua