Hidden in one of the world’s poorest countries, Nicaragua’s Ometepe Island is an overlooked paradise. Less popular and cheaper than Costa Rica, the island boasts two majestic volcanoes, lush forests, incandescent waterfalls, and untouched beaches. The mostly Indian inhabitants are laid-back and gracious, which, combined with the island’s utter isolation, assures a tranquility that subdues any fears.
Ometepe is a haven for adventuresome backpackers seeking a jungle experience. Forget about air-conditioned tour buses, opulent resorts, or even paved roads. It is a land with a prehistoric feel, so secluded and unspoiled that you expect to see pterodactyls flying overhead. On this island jewel, spider and endangered capuchin monkeys are friendly enough to hand-feed, and travelers fearlessly cool off in the world’s only lake that is mysteriously inhabited by freshwater sharks.
Dramamine is a must for the hour-long ferry ride from mainland Nicaragua to Ometepe. But with one glance at the shimmering horizon, the voyage through the rough waves of Lake Nicaragua is forgotten.
Breathtaking. Two colossal volcanoes, Concepción and Maderas, hover over the pristine waters, magnificently forming Isla de Ometepe. Clouds race across the sky competing with rough ocean-like waves that crash over white sands.
Exploration is by foot, Jeep, and old yellow school bus (Nicaragua’s public transportation). Buying a map won’t help -- there are no addresses. Try the hut 400 meters north of the old mango tree or 150 meters east of the tienda. This is part of the charm and simplicity of Ometepe.
Hitchhiking with locals is necessary and safe. Eager pre-teen drivers are already waiting at Ometepe’s barren docks. They speed along the broken roads dodging wild boars, turkeys, and horses.
Buses are sardine-packed with old men carrying unsheathed machetes, women balancing fruit on their heads, and children sucking plastic bags of sugarcane juice.
The island’s most expensive hostel -- a charming, rustic bungalow –- will set you back $5 a night. Others go for $2-3, but they’re not as clean and have no mosquito nets or beach access. Witnessing serene sunrises while lounging in hammocks is unbeatable. Savor Ometepe’s fresh fish complemented by the Central American staple, gallo pinto (rice and beans). Nightlife is localized to the hostels. No bars. No clubs. Instead, travelers swap stories over drinks and chat with locals.
Finding an English-speaking guide is easy. For a few dollars, they’ll lead you on an unforgettable four-hour mountain hike through the bush to idyllic waterfalls and hidden coves. Priceless. Those pressed for time can pass up the nine-hour volcano option and hunt for ancient petroglyphs and sacred burial grounds.
Don’t miss the chance to trek across farmlands dotted with grazing cattle, clay and thatched homes, and hardworking Nicas. Be sure to ask the locals about Nicaragua’s violent Sandinista and Somoza history – they don’t mince words.
Departing Ometepe is bittersweet. Floating just beneath the clouds, the skyline of Concepción and Maderas is your last glimpse of paradise found.