When you first arrive on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, the largest in Central America and one of the largest in the world, you’re met with a dramatic skyline that makes you gawk in awe.
The lake is so big that it appears as an ocean, and rising from it are twin volcanoes – Concepción 1,610 m (5,282 ft) and Madera 1,394 m (4,573 ft) – which are bridged by the Tistian Isthmus. These conjoined volcanoes are Isla de Ometepe, a name which, in the indigenous language of Nahuatl, means two hills.
Some come to Ometepe to get away from it all. They choose to settle in a yoga commune, stay on a finca, a remote guesthouse or one of the smaller hamlets on the island.
Having the luxury of convenience stores and a choice of restaurants at our fingertips meant that we based ourselves in the island’s main town of Moyogalpa. That’s the way we roll, even if waking up in a shack on a semi-deserted volcanic beach somewhere did sound remotely romantic for a few seconds.
Casa Morena, our home in Moyogalpa, is an easy five minute walk from the centre of town. A perfect distance from the bustle, if you could even call it that, and the most perfect view of Volcán Concepción from our balcony. Especially at sunset.
Casa Morena – our home on Ometepe
For a start, this is Central America, where you’re quite literally tripping over volcanoes. That means one thing.
Both Concepción and Madera can be climbed, here on Ometepe, but the bigger of the two is the more popular. Set aside an entire day as it takes about 9 hours to reach the crater. A friend back home urged us to do it as they had done previously, but neither of us had the stamina, nor the inclination. We’d be seeing more volcanoes down the track. We’ve heard, and read that it isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Some even say it’s the most difficult trek they’ve done, so I’ll leave you with that.
Others come to Ometepe to spot wildlife in the reserves, jump on the back of a horse, kayak on estuaries that teem with birdlife or hike through beautiful wilderness to swim beneath waterfalls.
El Indio Viejo
The Cornerhouse Cafe
La Esquinita Caliente
For something that’s a little more culinary, the town of Moyagalpa, as small as it is, is by far the liveliest part of the island. It has a decent array of eateries and the majority can be found along the main drag, but if you venture down the side streets you can discover more.
Here’s a few that got our attention.
Restaurants at hostels can be a tad hit and miss, but there are many positives that comes out of El Indio Viejo at Hospedaje Central. Here you can simply sip on beer and cocktails or get stuck into breakfast, tacos, local food or sandwiches in this colourful corner restaurant and bar.
Fill up on the hefty breakfast sandwich (95) with tojadas (plantain chips) or go for the French toast (85).
We love that you can also refill your empty plastic water bottles with their own purified water – ½ litre – C$4 or 2 litres for C$10. We don’t love that anyone can light up a cancer stick and fill the room with smoke.
Another one that comes with its own accommodation is The Cornerhouse, smack on the main street in town. These guys have some very decent breakfast options (Eggs Benedict with lemon hollandaise 5.75), sandwiches, salads, cakes plus a few preserves and peanut butter to purchase. Don’t miss the excellent fresh juices.
Hit up La Esquinita Caliente for their great range of local dishes. The breaded chicken fajitas (5.5) went down a treat, as did the Fritanguita Ometepe (5.5) – pork chorizo, tortilla, local cheese and gallo pinto (rice & beans).
A stone’s throw from the port is Bar El Puerto, somewhere we didn’t actually try the food, but instead got stuck into some very icy beers and excellent mojitos.
One of the busiest places in town, well, with gringos, is Mar Dulce on the main street. Their mish-mashed menu of crêpes, Tex-Mex, grilled meats and very generous glasses of vino draw the dinner-time crowds, and the prices are decent as well. Loved their filete de res a la plancha (250) – sautéed beef with onions – piled onto tortillas with a spritz of lime.
Bar El Puerto
Moyogalpa has many rental agencies that can get you out exploring the island with one of their scooters, bikes or quads. Once you’re out of the town, the roads around the island are virtually traffic-free and an absolute breeze to drive on.
Our first stop was Punta Jesús María (last pic), a thin finger of beach that juts into the lake about 5km south of town. Walk to the end and you’re offered a fantastic view back towards the volcanos, or maybe even take a dip.
Driving around the island takes you through many villages, past farmland and to rugged beaches like Playa San Fernando. This beach forms the north shore of Tistian Isthmus and has a few guesthouses and places to stop for a bite.
Keep riding southeast past the hamlet of Santa Cruz and you can spot some ancient petroglyphs, many of which are scattered across the island. So if you’re into seeing a little pre-Colombian history, seek them out.
Playa San Fernando
The heat gets pretty fierce during the day on Ometepe, so cooling off somewhere is always at the back of your mind. The best way to remedy that is to take a dip at Ojo de Agua, one of island’s biggest draws.
Yes it’s a contrived set-up at a natural spring in the jungle with seating areas, swings, change rooms and a few tacky souvenir stands, but the truth of the matter is that crystal clear pool is beyond refreshing. Entrance is US$3.
For a good feed on local fare, drop into Comedor Mirador del Cocibolca at the bottom of Playa Primavera. Here you can sit overlooking the beach with chickens roaming about your feet looking for scraps and friendly pooches giving you some serious puppy dog eyes as you chow on your lunch. Tuck into some excellent filete de pescado (200), and I mean excellent, sip on a cold beer and listen to the soothing lapping of waves just metres away.
Ojo de Agua
Comedor Mirador del Cocibolca
We booked the Central Line bus at the Montelena Info Centre in Monteverde the day before we planned on travelling. Cost is 20,000 pesos. This bus runs from La Irma on Highway 1 through to Rivas in Nicaragua. You first must get the local bus from Monteverde to La Irma, which departs the village at 4.20am, arriving at La Irma at around 6.10am.
The Central Line bus was meant to arrive at La Irma bus stop at 7am, but it turned up at 7.40am, then arriving at Rivas at 12pm.
Crossing the border into Nicaragua with the Central Line bus is fairly straightforward. The first stop you get out to have your passport stamped on the Costa Rican side. Get back onto the bus and drive a little to the second stop to pay the $14 fee. The third stop in Nicaragua requires you to remove all your luggage and have it screened and hand in a filled-out declaration form.
Once you’re in Rivas, you can get a taxi to the port in San Jorge for $5. There are either smaller boats or the ferry that takes you to Ometepe. The smaller boat costs C$35 per person and takes an hour to get to Moyogalpa. Ferry costs C$50.