Ometepe diary: conquering a volcano and other notes from an island adventure

Journalist Matt Levin makes the most of his visa-renewal border run from Costa Rica by spending 72 hours on Nicaragua’s Ometepe Island

OMETEPE ISLAND—Getting to the docks was easy enough. After crossing the border into Nicaragua at Peñas Blancas, a taxi driver squeezed me into his car alongside a rotund mother, her baby, and her tiny husband. Another man sat in the front passenger seat. The taxi driver transported us all to Rivas for $3. From there, I took another collective taxi to the San Jorge docks for about 15 cents.

Ferries and smaller lanchas whisk visitors from San Jorge to Moyogalpa about twice an hour. The ticket price depends on the boat, but costs between $1 and $2. The ferry also carries vehicles over to the island at an additional cost.


Approaching the island by boat (photo/ Tim Rogers)

I decided to take the lancha over to the island. If you’re prone to seasickness, don’t do that. The lanchas roll back and forth gushing water up onto the deck and sending passengers spewing breakfast over the side of the vessel.

However, if you’re not steadying yourself on the boat’s rails, the view is gorgeous. As the boat pulls closer to the island, two palatial mountains come into view.

Indigenous peoples first congregated on the 276-square-kilometer island a couple millennia ago. The name Ometepe comes from a Nahuatl word meaning “the land of two hills.” Some 40,000 people inhabit the island now. Each visitor gets to experience at some point, for the first time, that awe-inspiring sight of seeing those dual volcanoes rise from the middle of Lake Nicaragua.

Day 1, Thursday, 5 p.m. – Moyogalpa

The landing site in Moyogalpa has a few treats to offer. If it’s later in the day, grab a fancy drink and watch the sunset from the deck of The Landing Hotel (Dorms: $6, Rooms $15-$40) and pick out one of the local lodgings.

For the most part it’s recommended to move on to another side of the island. Buses and minibuses to Altagracia will carry you around the larger half of the island where the Concepción Volcano rests. Moyogalpa does have one of the few ATMs on the island. It’s not guaranteed to work.

I took a minibus to San José de Sur, where I wandered into a place called Hotel Finca Venecia. The lodging has several colorful cottage houses on the shore, starting at $25. I paid $7 for a grungy dorm room, dined on some fresh-caught corvina and passed out.

Day 2, Friday, 8 a.m. –Charco Verde Nature Reserve

The Venecia is located next to the Charco Verde Nature Reserve. The reserve, located next to the Hotel Charco Verde, charges an entry fee of about $1. I walked on a trail along the beach. Lucent green lizards darted across my path and a snowy egret honked around the shore.

Mangrove forests surround the lake aptly named Charco Verde (“Green Puddle”) as it is a deep shape of jade – although much larger than a puddle.

A couple legends about the lake that you might enjoy: 1) Apparently indigenous tribes believed that ancient Gods, likely after drinking too much Flor de Caña, used the lake to pee. 2) Rumor has it a monster named Chico Largo (“Large Boy”) haunts the lagoon area.

I found out first-hand where, I assume, both of these legends originated – howler monkeys.

The monkeys hang out around the Charco Verde. I moved close enough to a troupe to take some photographs when I felt the misting of a light rain. Then, a clod of monkey feces hit my left leg, and I realized what was happening. A howler monkey had been peeing on me.

Friday, noon—Hitchhiking/Biking/Kayaking through Ometepe

The majority of the island’s sights are on the Maderas Volcano side of the island. To reach that part requires finding transportation, unless you brought your own on the ferry.


Ojo de Agua swimming hole (photo/ Tim Rogers)

Taxis are, by far, the most efficient method of travel around the island, which is in the shape of figure-8 looping around the two volcanoes. Taxis—around $20-30 to cross the island, can be expensive for the frugal traveler. Buses cost less than a buck, but the schedule, especially on Sundays, can be wonky.

I eventually caught a bus to El Quimo, located at the center of the island. Here lies the isthmus that divides the island in half. I was trying to get to Balgüe, a popular village on the northern edge of the Maderas half of the island.

The walk supposedly takes about an hour and a half. But there’s faster ways for getting around. Many places rent bikes for $1 or $2 an hour. Motorcycle rentals also are available.


The view from Finca Magdalena (photo/ Tim Rogers)

On the way to Balgüe you’ll pass Playa Santo Domingo, considered the best beach on the island. The hotels along this area promote kayaking and horseback tours. Also, on the path between El Quimo and Balgüe, is Ojo de Agua. There is a $3 dollar entrance fee to get into the popular swimming hole, known for its brisk, clear waters.

I chose hitchhiking. After hopping off the bus to El Quimo, I met a Nicaraguan in his mid-30s named Douglas Monguia, who happened to be wearing a hat of a football team I like. We started talking and he helped me hitch a ride to Balgüe.

Monguia told me he works for a hotel in Santo Domingo called Playas Villas ($30 – $80), where he gives volcano tours. Monguia estimated he’s climbed Maderas some 2,000 times. I told him I didn’t think I wanted to climb Maderas even one time because I am feeble.

We got to Balgüe in about 15 minutes, during which time he talked me into hiking the volcano. Monguia headed off to meet his son, and I went looking for the well-known hostel known as Finca Magdalena. As we parted at the foot of Maderas Volcano, we agreed to meet at 6 a.m. the following morning to hike the mountain.

Friday, 5 p.m. –Finca Magdalena

This farming cooperative is a backpackers’ paradise. Dorm rooms cost $3. The meals are equally cheap, and cooked with locally produced ingredients. For those looking for a more glamorous lodging, the Totoco Eco-Lodge (rooms starting at $60), is also found in Balgüe.

Day 3, Saturday, 6 a.m.—Hiking Maderas Volcano

Some people are not meant to climb volcanoes. I am one of them. I am thin (or, perhaps gangly) and appear healthy. But I lack coordination—an essential tool for hiking up and down a gigantic chunk of earth.

Monguia arrived at 6 a.m. to take me up Maderas. I ordered an egg sandwich from Finca Magdalena and he grabbed a ham sandwich and a cup of coffee. The hike cost $20. In groups, the trip can run from $10 to $15 per person.

Supposedly Concepción Volcano is a tougher hike in the dry season. But in the rainy season, Maderas Volcano is the bigger challenge. After an hour of hiking up steps, the pathway erodes and the clay trail turns to mud. You take two paces and then slide back down one step. Clumsy climbers take two steps and then tumble down one step. That is mostly what I did.


Down but not defeated (entirely): Matt Levin

But trust me, if I could do it—and it seems I did—then you probably can too. Most people finish the climb much faster than I did. Four super-fit volunteers from Totoco scaled the volcano in a couple hours and were back home in time for lunch. But the average time needed to hike the volcano can be between 6 to 8 hours. I took me more than 10 hours.

At the top of Maderas, unfortunately, there’s not much of a view, unless you want to see what it looks like inside a cloud. In that case, the view is excellent. At the volcano’s pea-foggy crater, you can also swim in a lagoon if you’re not concerned by issues such as hypothermia. I preferred to relax on a bench, taking photos of myself looking miserable. That way I could later show my friends and say, “Look how miserable I looked.” Part of my worry was the horrid thought I would soon have to climb down the same mountain that tried to kill me on the way up.

Some people say going down a volcano is harder than climbing up. Some people say going down a volcano is easier because it’s less of a strain on your legs. Anyone who says that anything is “easy” about climbing a volcano is a liar or a super-fit volunteer from Totoco.

Volcano Maderas, however, won’t let you give up—even when you try. Every time you stop on the mountain, fat horseflies bite your ankles. I stubbed my toes on numerous stones and trees—and crashed repeatedly into the mud—as I tried to escape the horseflies.

Monguia kept trying to prod me along, saying if we didn’t move faster the rains would come and then it would become even more difficult to get down. Monguia took us down a different trail from where we came up. We shuffled down toward the pueblo of Santa Cruz. Suddenly, the forest cleared and the clouds waned. My legs shook as I sat on a bench. We had reached the mirador, and this lookout point was stunning.

I told myself this view made the whole hike worth it. I also thought we should’ve just started the hike at this trail, walked to the lookout point and turned back around.

After a few minutes, we stood up. We still had an hour to go to reach the bottom. My legs no longer worked. Monguia offered me his walking stick in addition to the one I already had. I pushed myself forward like some crippled insect. It began to pour.
Day 3, 6 p.m.—Eating at Hotel Santa Cruz

I offered to buy Monguia dinner after the descent. We ate tostones and huevos rancheros at Hotel Santa Cruz (dorms $6; rooms starting at $15). Monguia drank a 40-ounce bottle of Toña. I indulged on three cups of lemonade.


A great guide: Douglas Monguia

I asked Monguia if he thought I was going crazy on the mountain. I had spend much of the descent muttering to myself, raving and cursing everything.

He said that I just seemed frustrated. I thought that was a generous assessment of my behavior. And that is why I recommend Monguia as a guide to anyone who wants to climb an Ometepe Volcano.

As a final gesture, we switched caps. We walked to a pharmacy where I bought some ibuprofen. We carried on to the hostel Little Morgan’s, and he shook my hand goodbye.

Day 3, 8 p.m.—Little Morgan’s

We came. We cheated. We conquered. And we paid for it. While Finca Magdalena feels more like a tranquil community at in the woods, Little Morgan’s, located in Santa Cruz, acts as the party hostel.

On the night I arrived, the managers held a trivia night. A group of Brits and I won the contest thanks to one member of crew’s repeated Google searches on her iPhone. To our credit, however, we did manage to identify correctly the “sea of tranquility” and all six of Brangelina’s kids without cheating. Even more impressively, we also missed some questions that we cheated on. So things evened out more or less.

The prize: A free bottle of Rio Plata rum—cheap firewater that tasted great in orange juice or Coke Zero, but by the next morning had defeated our winning spirit.

Everything ached—from my head to my feet—as I joined two others in a taxi to the port. A month later, I still bear some of the marks of the journey.

Two of my toenails—the big left toe and second toe on my right foot—now seem to be permanently opaque. I have not figured out if it is dried blood or if the same volcanic mud has been jammed under my toenail for the last month. Can something that disgusting be a source of pride? Why not?

It is a testament to my 72 hours on Ometepe Island, where I climbed a smallish-sized mountain.

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    Muy interesante el diario recorrido por la Isla de Ometepe