The Magical Island of Ometepe
Formed by two volcanoes that rise up in the middle of Lake Nicaragua and are connected by a small strip of, Ometepe is both a mystical and magical place. I was excited to have the opportunity to experience its volcanoes, nature, lakes, and its wild terrain. Ometepe is accessible by ferry or plane. The most popular way to get there is from the ferry from the town of Rivas. There are also occasional ferries to/from Granada and San Carlos, but last time I checked those routes had been suspended due to the low water levels in Lake Nicaragua.
The day I went to Ometepe was a very clear day, and the twin volcanoes soon became visible in the horizon. The mighty Concepcion and the smaller and stouter Maderas rose prominently from the lake. Mark Twain said it best:
“Two magnificent pyramids, clad in the softest and richest green, all flecked with shadow and sunshine, whose summits pierce the billowy clouds”
Contrary to what I had though, the island of Ometepe is quite large, measuring 31 kilometers long and 5 to 10 kilometers wide. The main roads run along the circumferences of the two volcanoes, but the road is only partially paved. There are public buses on the island, but they only run sporadically and are not very reliable. Thus, it was important that I picked a place to stay in a central location.
During my time thus far in Nicaragua, I had met travelers raving about a place called “El Zopolite“, located on the Maderas portion of the island. Described as a hippie compound, I was intrigued to experience myself. When you travel for a longer period of time, hostels and various accommodations all seem to blend together, and I sometimes find myself eager to try a more unique arrangement.
It was about an hour bus ride from the main town of Moyogalpa. I hopped of the bus, sweaty and hot at the designated dropoff point and came across an old schoolbus that had been refitted as a crafts shop. There were several people hanging around outside the bus smoking, complete with dreadlocks and various tattoos. “Welcome!” One shouted to me. I smiled and gave them a wave. Another came up to me and asked me my zodiac sign. I had to think for a few seconds, before I could answer (Aquarius if anyone is curious haha). They pointed me the way to the check in building.
El Zopolite is built on hilly ground and the various buildings are scattered all over. As I followed the signs to the main building, I noticed various arts and crafts adorning the area, all made with recycled things. I was fascinated by what I had experienced thus far. I eventually found the main building and chose the hammock option (I mean, when in Rome), complete with a mosquito net, which is imperative when in the jungle. Such a steal, costing only $5/night! I was presented with a hand drawn map of the grounds which was extremely detailed, and I realized just how large this place was. El Zopilote is also a permaculture organic farm, which means that it is designed to be sustainable and self-sufficient. El Zopilote offered a wide variety of classes as well, including twice a day yoga, cooking, painting, massages, and even bee keeping! Unfortunately, my time on the island wasn’t long enough to be able to indulge in these activities, but I appreciated the various offerings.
I had read about kayaking the River Istrian, that runs through the strait that connects the two volcanoes and knew it was a “must do” for me. I relish the opportunity to kayak whenever it occurs, the last time being back in Dubrovnik last June.
Now finding a kayak to use turned out to be the difficult part. I wander over near where the mouth of the river starts, asking around at various guesthouses and restaurants, to no avail. At least it was an adventure, I told myself, as I finally found a sign that said “Kayaks for Rent”, about an hour later. The guy at the shop required a guide to accompany me in a double kayak because I was alone. For $15 USD, I considered it a pretty good deal. From the launching point into Lake Nicaragua, we had a beautiful view of Volcano Concepcion.
We paddled out to the River Istrian and slowly made our way through it. Thick vegetation grew all over the river, which reminded me of the Everglades a bit. It was very peaceful as we paddled our way through. We saw a few different types of birds, a turtle, and even a caiman stealthily hiding in the cover of some vegetation, with only its eyes and partial snout visible. Pretty soon we reached as far as the river went, and had to turn around, making it back out to the lake as the sun was setting.
To get around the island the following day, I desired to be more independent. I was able to rent a scooter not too far from El Zopilote for $20 for the day. While I would never ride a motorbike or motorcycle within the confines of a city, as I’m afraid of the cars, I love riding out in nature and feeling the wind whipping by you.
The nature reserve of Charco Verde was my first stop. They had an enclosed butterfly garden, which reminded my of my childhood trips to the Detroit Zoo, where they have their own butterfly house. I enjoyed walking through the small enclosure and seeing the brightly colored butterflies and hummingbirds-too quick to capture on camera unfortunately.
After the butterfly garden, I set off on the walking trails of Charco Verde. I have to admit that I was pretty disappointed by them. I did not see much wildlife at all, nor any great views. The highlight of the walk was a couple of unique looking trees and a swamp.
El Ojo de Agua
I had heard good things about this place and was eager to go. It is a pooled formed by natural springs (translated from Spanish as “the eye of the water”). It was a bit more commercialized then I would have liked, complete with concrete along the edges and several chairs for relaxation, but it wasn’t crowded at all.
The water was extremely refreshing and clear, perfect for the muggy Ometepe weather. There was also a coconut salesman, who would also top of your coconut with rum-boy was it good! I had a great afternoon relaxing and rejuvenating here before taking my motorbike out for a spin around the island once more.
Other things to note: Every Tuesday and Saturday night is “pizza night” at El Zopilote. They have a separate area complete with a giant clay oven. It is apparently well-known throughout the island, as other visitors show up to eat pizza and socialize. I definitely recommend going to pizza night, especially if you decide not to stay at El Zopilote.
Also, it is possible to hike both Concepcion and Maderas. Due to my tight schedule (only a couple days left before I had to return home), and the fact that it was the rainy season made the trails muddy. Clouds tended to cluster themselves at the summit of these volcanoes during this time as well, making it difficult to see anything, one of my favorite rewards after a challenging climb. If I ever make it back to Ometepe, I will definitely climb at least one of them, but for now, it was back to the mainland for a quick stop at Granada before flying home!