Isla de Ometepe is truly a place like no other.
Formed by twin volcanoes dramatically rising up out of Lake Nicaragua, each new twist and turn along the 19 km-long stretch of island offers up spectacular views of the rugged landscape. Add deserted beaches, unpaved roads, friendly locals and world-class hiking, and it’s no wonder why a visit to Isla de Ometepe is the highlight of Nicaragua for many (ourselves included!)
Just an hour ferry ride from the port town of Rivas, most travelers arrive to Isla de Ometepe at Moyogalpa. It’s here in the teeny-tiny town that you’ll find a sprinkling of guesthouses and restaurants, but the real magic occurs outside of Moyogalpa and in the natural beauty of the island. We opted to stay at the Xalli Ometepe Beach Hotel, one of the best guesthouses on the island that is located directly on a sandy strip of beach in Santo Domingo—and smack-dab in the center of all Isla de Ometepe has to offer.
The best way to get to know the island is via your own two wheels, either those of a bike or a scooter. We took an entire day to circumnavigate the island, and would recommend it to everyone who visits. The journey took us past small villages, wild pigs, and muddy, pot-holed roads. It also allowed us glimpses of quiet stretches of shoreline, traditional island life and smiling Nicaraguans. Of course, a breathtaking view of one of the towering volcanoes was never far behind. Though the setting was quiet different, the experience greatly reminded us of cycling Vietnam.
Part of Isla de Ometepe’s charm is that it still feels like an off-the-beaten-track secret. Though we passed plenty of other backpackers with the same idea as us, there remains a raw authenticity to the island and the people who call it home.
Besides driving around the island, the primary activities on Isla de Ometepe include kayaking, horseback riding, volcano trekking and swimming. Here are a few recommended spots:
Ojo de Agua
This cool and inviting natural cold water spring makes the perfect place to go for a dip after a long day of hiking. The pool is surrounded by jungle; the sounds of howler monkeys served as the backdrop for our afternoon outing. Grab a coco loco from one of the venders and relax in the crystal-clear water. Or go for a jump from the rope swing that dangles a few feet above. Entrance fee is $3.00 USD.
Charco Verde Lagoon
This protected reserve consists of simple hiking and, as the name would suggest, a lovely green lagoon. Legend has it that Chico Largo, an evil devil, resides at the bottom of the lagoon; he is sometimes visible on dark and empty roads of the island. Luckily, there is nothing sinister about a visit to Charco Verde. While the hiking doesn’t compare to what you’ll experience trekking up one of the volcanoes, it makes for a pleasant afternoon outdoors. There’s a beach you can stop at and kayaks you can take out on Lake Nicaragua, as well as stunning views of Concepcion Volcano throughout.
We wouldn’t recommend eating at the restaurant of the adjacent Charco Verde Inn, though it is a lovely location for a quick coffee. Entrance fee for the lagoon and hiking trails is around $2.00 USD.
San Ramon Waterfall
If you’re visiting during rainy season, don’t miss the steep 3km hike to the San Ramon waterfall. Though not particularly big, the falls are very high, and you can relax beneath the refreshing showers. Alternatively, opt to tackle the trail with bikes or horses.
Kayak Istian River
This was high on our bucket-list during our time in Ometepe, but unfortunately the water levels were too low for any successful kayaking adventure. However, if the conditions are right, we would recommend exploring the intricate river and swamp system of the island. A guided, round-trip kayak tour from Merida lasts about four hours. Prices start at $25 USD.
photo by Megan via Flickr CC
Due to its long, pre-Colombian history, you’ll find ancient petroglyphs and stone statues throughout the island. If this is of particular interest, then your best chances of sighting the petroglyphs are at Finca Magdalena or the private Museo El Ceibo.
Hike One Of The Volcanoes
Both Concepcion and Maderas Volcanoes have hiking trails that lead to the summit. A local guide is necessary for these 8-10 hour hikes, but can be found easily through your hotel. We recommend hiking Maderas as the view looking back over the island toward Concepcion is absolutely stunning. You can read a detailed account of Dan’s ascent of the Maderas Volcano here.
Where To Stay and Eat
As mentioned above, we stayed at Xalli Beach Hotel for our three nights in Isla de Ometepe. Our primary attraction to the small guesthouse was its idyllic location right on the beach, as well as being just a stone’s throw away from most of the island’s primary attractions. From here we were easily able to rent bicycles and hop off to Ojo de Agua, as well as access many of the above attractions and activities.
The rooms at Xalli Beach Hotel are simple but elegant, and there are a wide variety of room options available to meet all budgets and travelers. We stayed in a Deluxe Room, which came well equipped with a luxury King-sized bed (seriously comfortable and such a relief when I came down with a 24-hour stomach bug) as well as a private porch, air conditioning, SKY cable television, and solar heated water.
Speaking of being sick, I must say a giant thank you to the entire staff of Xalli Beach Hotel for taking such good care of me during my stomach bug. They went out of their way to make sure that I had all of my needs met, including delivering freshly-made ginger tea to the room on a near constant basis. I was pretty bummed to miss out on hiking Maderas Volcano, but laying in that luxury bed made it a bit easier.
We arranged all of our activities and rentals directly from Xalli Beach Hotel, which was not only extremely convenient, but also helped ensure us that we were supporting great local tour guides. Xalli Beach Hotel is committed to working with the local community so that their success also equates to the community’s success—a mission that was apparent in every way Xalli Beach Hotel conducts itself.
Besides the lovely accommodation and staff, it’s worth staying at Xalli Beach Hotel for the restaurant alone. It’s ranked number three on TripAdvisor for a reason, namely that it is absolutely delicious. We ate almost all of our meals at the restaurant, and the few times we ventured out, we honestly wished we had just stayed in. Expect great vegetarian options, delicious salads, fresh fish and other delectable goodies.
If you’re traveling to Granada or San Juan del Sur, don’t miss a stop at Isla de Ometepe. This magical piece of land in the middle of one of the world’s largest lakes is truly a unique travel experience. And whether it’s hiking, biking, kayaking or just relaxing on the beach, you’re bound to fall in love with this stunning world wonder.
Have you traveled to Isla de Ometepe before? What did you think?
We were guests of Xalli Beach Hotel, but as always, all thoughts and opinions are our own.