The secret volcanic island of Ometepe is a secret haven of Latin American culture and nature, ringed by a shark-infested lake and tucked away in the heart of Nicaragua
Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America and while it lags behind neighbouring Costa Rica and Honduras in the tourism stakes, Ometepe does give a rare opportunity to ‘get back to basics’. The adventure starts before you even arrive – as the two volcanoes that dominate each end of the island rise into view. The name Ometepe originates from Ome Tepeti – the place of two hills.
The main route to the island is on the ferries from San Jorge on the mainland to the town of Moyogalpa or, less frequent, on a boat from Granada to Altagracia on the north of the island. The boat ride is an eye-opener, as hundreds of passengers jostle aboard, squeezing through narrow gaps between the lorries on deck. It’s not immediately obvious why the locals stay below deck in the stuffy interior with the television on full blast – but realisation soon dawns that this is where the life jackets are stored. Tourists head for the rooftops – easier to jump and take your chance with the sharks if the rickety ferry chooses that day to join the fishes.
The lake – Lago de Nicaragua – is the tenth largest freshwater lake in the world and one of its inhabitants is the bull shark, which shares its time between the lake and ocean. One way to take your mind off the choppy and somewhat haphazard journey is to keep your eye on the horizon as the volcanoes come into view.
The natural beauty of the island is dominated by Volcan Concepcion, the country’s second highest volcano at 1610m and Volcan Maderas at 1394m. Their summits are often covered by low cloud, which can unnervingly be mistaken for plumes of smoke and imminent eruption. But Maderas is extinct and Conception fairly sleepy – not having erupted since 1957.
Having finally docked on Ometepe and caught a bumpy ride in a bus or jeep to your hostel or hotel, the first challenge is to conquer the smouldering beasts. It’s a hot and leg-aching climb to the summit of Volcan Maderas, but well worth the effort for the spectacular views and a glimpse into the crater, where you can even take a chilly swim. It’s advisable to climb with a guide who can lead a path through the cloud forests and point out the howler monkeys and native flora and fauna covering the slopes. The round trip takes about seven hours. Volcan Concepcion is an eight-hour climb and descent, but in a much more barren and steep landscape. This is also best undertaken with the local guides, which all the hotels and hostels can recommend.
The physical exertion over, it’s worth spending time exploring the island, either on horseback, bicycle, tractor, bus or even ox and cart! Nicaragua is the least developed state in Central America and half its residents live below the poverty line. This is more evident in Ometepe, where many of the predominantly Spanish-speaking residents live in small houses made of wood or concrete. Even for ‘wealthier’ residents, the plumbing extends to a hosepipe in the wall.
Much of the focus is on agriculture, with farmers growing coffee, watermelons, bananas and oranges, and the community works together to make the most of island life. One example is Ometepe’s only road – built by hand over several years as a community project. The road extends to Playa Santo Domingo, a kilometre of beach where it’s safe to swim and a little paradise of lush wildlife and a slothful pace of life. The water here is perhaps not the clear-blue crystal of the Caribbean, but at more than 170 kilometres long the lake does a passable impression of the sea – complete with crashing waves.
Horse-riding along the shoreline is a favourite, but be warned - this is no middle England riding stables with ponies walking dutifully in line. Riding hats are not standard issue and when the horses reach the beach they like to gallop. If this sounds too fast and furious, then a safer bet is to hire a bicycle and work the thighs along the beaches or dirt tracks. And if there’s any life left in your legs, then a night of merengue and salsa in Moyogalpa completes the unmissable Latin American experience of Ometepe.