OMETEPE TRAVEL GUIDE
At 276 km2 Ometepe is the largest volcano lake island in the world. Island population is estimated at over 35,000 inhabitants. There are two principle villages on the island, Moyogalpa and Altagracia, both lake ports that serve routes from Granada, San Carlos and San Jorge. The island’s name is derived from its pre-Columbian, Mesoamerican lingua-franca original name in Náhuatl, derived from ōme 'two' y tepētl 'peaks' and with reason, since the island consists of twin peaks (volcanoes) Volcán Concepción and Volcán Maderas rising out of Lake Nicaragua and connected by a sandy isthmus.
The dominant mountain on the island is the perfect cone of Volcán Concepción (1610 m above sea level, 36.5 km in diameter). It is active and last spit out a good quantity of ash in 2012, but is always having minor eruptions, last in Oct of 2018. Its last major lava flow poured out of the north side of the cone in 1957. The volcano was inactive for many years before it erupted back to life from 1883-1887, with frequent, lava filled eruptions. Concepción erupted 1908-1910, 1921 and 1948-1972. The volcano is currently a nature reserve protecting 5,400 acres of forest flora and fauna.
Volcán Maderas (1394 m above sea level, 24.5 km in diameter) last eruption according to local tradition was 800 years ago, scientists think it was much earlier, all agree that the cone is now extinct, though highly prone to mudslides. The mountain is wrapped in lush forest and is the site of only one of two cloud forests in the Pacific basin of Nicaragua. The summit holds a foggy and cold-water lake in its crater, Laguna de Maderas. The lake is 400m x 150m. On the western face of the cone there is a thin cascade called San Ramón. Maderas also is a nature reserve that protects 10,000 acres of tropical forest flora and fauna.
The early history of Ometepe Island remains a mystery, but what is sure that organized settlements date to at least 1,500 BC. Though exist differing opinions as to the origin of the ancient inhabitants of the island, there is no doubt that in the last two thousand years waves of migrations from both the north and the south took advantage of the island’s fertile soils and left thousands of petroglyphs and elegant basalt statues that celebrate the inseparable co-existence of man and nature. Many precious ceramic pieces have been recovered from the pre-Conquest years, some of which can be seen in island museums. The island was brought under Spanish rule a century later than the rest of Nicaragua’s Pacific, and unlike the mainland, which was subjugated by the cross and sword, the island was conquered only by the cross, with the evangelization performed by Franciscan monks in the 1600’s.
Pirate attacks were not unusual during the 1700’s and in the 1800’s William Walker’s mercenary troops found refuge on Ometepe after fleeing from Granada - before being sacked and thrown out by the island population. Despite several indigenous uprisings triggered by land grabs of community property by mainlanders in the 1900’s, Ometepe avoided Nicaragua’s infamous 20th century conflicts. Sandino’s war against the US Marines (1927-1933), the Somoza period insurrections (1978-79) and the Contra War (1981-1990) were all fought exclusively on the mainland and subsequently Isla de Ometepe is known today as the Oasis of Peace.
After more than three millenniums of sustenance agriculture, the 20th century saw the introduction of commercial planting with tobacco and coffee plantations being established. Today most of these have been replaced by plantain groves, making Ometepe one of Nicaragua’s largest banana producers, with buyers coming from as far away as El Salvador and Honduras to load up trucks with plantains. Tourism is growing on Ometepe annually and is now competes with plantains as the principal island income producer.
The port of entry for arrivals from San Jorge, it is the closest thing to a bustling town of commerce on the island. Moyogalpa has many sleeping options and cars can also be rented here for exploring the island. Buses wait for the boats and run to the principle town on the eastern side of the island, Altagracia, 24 km over a paved road. From Altagracia the visitor can continue to Santo Domingo on the isthmus and Balgues and San Ramón on the Maderas side. The patron saint festival is for Santa Ana. Processions begin on July 23 in the La Paloma barrio and continue for several days. On the 25th there is a beautiful dance with girls dressed in indigenous costume and on the 26th a giant party with bloodless bullfights.
A small and quiet village, with a relaxed and friendly populace, this historic village predates the arrival of the Spanish. The Spanish renamed the village upon arrival, but as with the most he population remains predominately indigenous. The big attraction for the visitor is the sculpture-park under shade trees next to Altagracia’s church. The park houses some of the most beautiful pre-Columbian statues in Nicaragua. These thousand-year-old sculptures represent human forms, morphing with animal heads. West of the plaza is the little Museo de Ometepe, which has more pre-Columbian treasures. Altagracia has inexpensive lodging and good access to the preferred ascent of Concepción that starts south of the town entrance. Altagracia’s sleepy port is in San Antonio, located 2 km north of the village; rustic transportation meets the arrival of the red-eye ferryboat that runs twice weekly between Granada and San Carlos.
This sandy stretch is one of the finest fresh water beaches in Nicaragua. Located in the shadow of both the forest covered Volcán Maderas and mighty Volcán Concepción, it is truly an exotic lake beach. The lake’s water is warm, its waves gentle and the shelf gradual, making it an ideal swimming beach for all ages. Santo Domingo is located on the trade wind side of the island and since it is between the two cones, winds blow nearly year-round, keeping the heat down and somewhat mitigating the island insect population. The beach’s width depends on the time of year, with the end of the dry season revealing a broad swath of sand, and inversely at the end of the rainy season a narrow strip of sand remains between the forest and water lines.
Though it boasts 3,000 inhabitants, the village is best known for the modern summer homes built by wealthy Managua businessmen and foreigners who take advantage of calm lake waters to land their private yachts. The easiest trail to reach the cascade of the same name is also located here.
A tiny village built where the Eastern slope of the Maderas Volcano reaches the lake shore, Balgüe has a slight hippie feel that has grown from its place on the international backpacking route. This distinction is thanks to the Finca Magdalena, an organic coffee cooperative and youth hostel set above Balgüe and right at the base of the mountains most popular hiking trail to the summit.
A picturesque village spread out beneath towering palms and mango trees, this village affords access to the Río Istián, great for kayaking during the wet season and an excellent birding site. There is a basic lodge just south of the village built behind the old Somoza dock (where coffee used to be shipped to the mainland in the 1970’s) that offers kayaks and mountain bikes for visitors.
Urbaite and Las Pilas
These two towns are the heart of the island’s seven-village Comunidad indígena, and its ancient political structure that has survived a half-millennium of occupation. The indigenous community offers lodging in family homes to visitors and hikes through their forest reserve and lookout points. Though indigenous dress and language are no longer used, these communities hold regular elections for indigenous leaders and the community is the last bastion of and oral history that dates to more than 3,000 years. Community members also have an intimate understanding of the active Concepción Volcano, its mud and lava flow routes, efficiently compiled in the collective memory of the community via centuries of verbal records.
For those who love adventure and sports Ometepe is even closer to heaven. With two lovely volcanoes to climb, one active, the other with a misty crake lake at its summit, what draws most adventure lovers are the climbs. Although they are non-technical in nature, they are challenging, Maderas for the steep muddy trails through dense forest and Concepción for steep terrain that also includes loose footing and normally strong winds near the summit. That said, you don’t need to go vertical to enjoy sports on the island. Mountain biking is made doubly pleasant by the numerous dirt tracks and friendly locales and though water sports have yet to become fully developed, lake water is warm and clean, great for swimming, kayaking and windsurfing.
For one advanced Mesoamerican pre-Conquest cultures, Ometepe Island represented nothing less than the Promised Land. In combination with Lake Nicaragua it was the inspiration of biblical style exodus of people leaving violent central Mexico in search of peace, tranquility and justice. Some things have not changed much. Today’s travelers seeking a kindler, simpler place are not disappointed, but should also be aware of the rich culture and history of the island, elements for which the island natives are justly proud. Though the island culture is visually common Pacific mestizo at first glance, in reality Ometepe is unique. Whereas most Nicaraguan’s equate indigenous history and native Nicaragua culture with backwardness the Ometepinos know the truth to be quite the opposite and are uniquely proud of their heritage. This rich legacy can be seen in the archeological remains on the island, many unique oral histories and legends, the mental and material independence of the islanders and really comes to life during the annual festival in honor of San Diego in November of each year.
San Diego Festival
Altagracia and the festival in honor of a Franciscan saint is famous countrywide for a unique folkloric dance that originates here. Known as Baile del Zompopo (dance of the leaf-cutter ant), the dance can be seen during celebrations for the town’s patron saint, San Diego de Alcalá which hits stride on November 12 and climaxes on November 17. The dance comes from a pre-Christian tradition. The indigenous population of the area used to celebrate their harvest God, every November. Legend has it that one year the harvest was being annihilated by leaf-cutter ants and the local religious leaders instructed the people to pay tribute to the ants, to win them over and draw the ants away from critical, year-end corn plantations. The dance imitates leaf-cutter ant lines, with dancers holding a single branch over their heads. The original dance was no doubt a success and a unique tradition born. When the Franciscans arrived in 1613 they brought with an image of the saint of San Diego whose celebration days coincided with that of the annual celebration for the harvest God. Gradually, by careful design, San Diego usurped the native God and thanks to this historical theological morphing, today’s visitors can experience a thousand-year-old island dance.
El Ceibo Museo
Located 11 km from Moyogalpa on the road to Altagracia is the island’s finest museum. Though originally started as a monetary museum with very complete examples of Nicaragua’s monetary history, the museum also has the finest pre-Columbian collection on display on Ometepe, with more than 1,000 pieces in the collection. The exhibits are open daily from 8:00 to 17:30.
Archaeological Museum of Altagracia
Located just 50 meters west of central park in Altagracia, this is Ometepe’s oldest museum. This community museum is worth a visit for its diverse displays of everything from geology to natural history to culture and archaeology. There are also bigger basalt pieces in the back patio of the museum. The exhibits are open from 9:00 17:00 daily.
Nicaragua is extremely rich in pre-Columbian rock art called petroglyphs, the epicenter of this wealth in the Island of Ometepe with more than 73 different sites and over 1,700 panels recorded to date. While some have been sent to museums or entered into private collections, many are still in their original locale. Two of the most popular sites for visitors are the Finca El Porvenir located west of Santa Cruz and Finca Magdalena on the east slope of Maderas, just above Balgüe.
Ometepe Island has a vibrant nature that can best be experienced on the slopes of one of its two volcanoes, where hikers can pass from tropical dry forest to cloud forest and view numerous endangered species of flora and fauna. Other attractions are based on remaining low land forest, inland fresh water and coastal wildlife.
The base of the mountain is covered in tropical dry forest, however above 1,200 meters the eastern slope enjoys superior humidity and orchids and bromeliads are more common. The cone is home to howler monkeys and White tailed deer which share this semi-sulfurous environment, with numerous birds and reptiles. Closer to the summit gases emitted from the interior of the crater are more prominent making the upper reaches of the mountain a harsh landscape, ample evidence of the earth’s inner fury.
This is the premier ecological attraction on the island with some of the finest forest on Nicaragua’s Pacific and great lakes area, with great diversity and endemic species. Though the upper part of the summit climb is a mud bath, the middle sections are great for nature lovers with howler and white-faced monkeys, numerous species of birds and reptiles and old growth forest. Instead of racing to the top, ecotourists should bring a naturalist guide to really enjoy this gem.
Although degraded by the owners who have deforested lands above the body of water to seed cattle pasture, this tranquil coastal lagoon is still worth a visit. Home to the island’s most legendary ghost and a fresh water Atlantis, Charco Verde or Green Lagoon attracts some beautiful wading birds and mangrove trees that hide turtles and boas; while forest around the lagoon is home to many fruit trees and howler monkeys.
Ojo De Agua
The most robust fresh water spring on the island is also a favorite swimming hole for visitors and locals alike. Though significantly altered from its natural state, this shady spot is great for cooling off in pristine subterranean waters that rise to the surface here. Located just inland from Santo Domingo Beach, the spring has a cover charge and feeds one of the few rivers on the island, known as Rio Buen Suceso.
San Ramón Cascade
The biggest cascade on the island is a one-hour hike from the private farm that sits at its trail head. Though damaged by farming pressures on its water output, this is a big attraction for many visitors looking for shorter mountain hikes than the summit trail and it affords a glimpse at some beautiful flora and lake views. On clear days Costa Rica’s northwestern Volcanoes are visible from the upper trail head.
La Peña Inculta Trail
A pleasant, if rocky, 1.5 km hike through the best preserved lowland forest on Ometepe. The Peña trail cuts through volcanic rock fields trapped in tropical dry forest and is home to some of the islands oldest trees. This forest is home to thousands of nesting parakeets and parrots like the endangered Yellow-napped Amazon Parrot, while howler and white-faced monkeys are also prevalent.
One of the best bird watching sites on the island, this river that cuts into then isthmus that connects the islands’ two great volcanoes in accessible from Mérida. Many choose to explore the river in kayak or row boat rented from locales. Views of Concepción are impressive and birding and wildlife watching are rewarding.