Ometepe: a wild island, a wild ride

Any traveler who has ever set foot on the strikingly surreal island of Ometepe knows all too well the trials and tribulations of the journey to get there. This is especially true if your goal was an early arrival.

Ferry Che Guevara (photo/ Dan Rajter)

Our passage to Ometepe started at approximately 5:45 a.m. in San Juan del Sur. After catching the first bus to the hub town of Rivas, we had to scramble to get to the ferry in San Jorge just as it was boarding. Our vessel, FERRY EL CHE GUEVARA, was jammed packed with standing room only. The metallic human transport vessel stepped on the gas the minute we set down our bags, thrusting us straight into the full strength of a powerful northwesterly wind.

The clouds hung close to the volcano (photo/ Dan Rajter)

The ship almost felt like it was testing the limits of its buoyancy and quickly began turning smiles, thrills, and laughter into discontent, sea sickness, and eventual vomiting. It seemed like every kid around us began throwing up, and most had brought little towels specifically for this situation. The morning rain storm didn’t help matters. The thunderous applause from the ominous clouds that shrouded the cone tops of both volcanoes swirled ahead of us, hanging close to the contours of each massive mountain.

Ometepe is lush and green (photo / Dan Rajter)

Then, like magic, the clouds were slowly unzipped by intensely purified rays of light. The green hills of Ometepe’s lush, rain-forest covered slopes became illuminated in vivid color. When we reached the dock, there were women waist deep in the lake washing their clothes on homemade stone washing stations, which was a good sign that weather should clear up.

We had to kill about two hours before the one bus that morning was ready for departure. I remember that one woman boarded the bus with a perfectly crafted homemade cake smothered with yellow frosting. Within 20 minutes, the bus’ ancient suspension jarred by the bumpy, unpaved roads proved to be too much force for the frosting. What started as small fractures in the cake turned into canyons with each pothole. Almost two-and-a-half hours of bumps and stops, we stepped back onto solid ground and into life on Finca Zopilote.

The coffee shop bus (photo/ Dan Rajter)

A bus turned into a coffee shop was parked at the entrance and offered us fresh coffee, snacks, homemade bread, and jewelry. After a little meet-and-greet followed by a 10 minute walk uphill along a lush jungle path, we arrived at the reception hut. We settled into the top floor of a wood and bamboo cabana, which was partially open to the jungle, allowing visits from a variety of strange insects—including a gigantic bug that appeared to be mix between a tarantula and a scorpion. It open-jungle environment also provided good acoustics for a soundtrack scored by nature.

The finca itself claims to be a self-sustaining eco hostel/farm, but we noticed most the work is being subcontracted out to locals instead of maintaining the farm from within. The finca is populated with an immense amount of lush jungle plants, has composting toilets, provides fresh well water, and practice self-sustaining farming techniques with working opportunities available with a two-month minimum.

One beach, two volcanoes (photo /Dan Rajter)

After getting settled, we walked to the empty beach nearby for some afternoon sun. This little stretch of shore offered up stunning views of both volcano peaks—a rarity this time of year. A wide lake beach with a volcano on each end can provide hours of entertainment! Tiny bushy plants were sprouting up everywhere in the sand, as miniature waves crashed on the shore’s edge. We left just in time to catch a sunset that silhouetted Concepcion, the larger of the two volcanoes, and eyed it inquisitively from the lookout tower perched on top of the hostel property later that night.

The next morning we were intent on renting bicycles and riding around the island to see the huge waterfall that exists deep into the forest of Volcan Maderas. We teamed up with Carmella, a Floridian we had met the day before, and found some wheels. The road immediately disappeared as soon as we set out, turning from hand-placed pavers to a wheel-packed, cobbled dirt road. The road would get pretty intense wherever hills lived, turning a casual but bumpy bike ride into a white-knuckled, loose-knee, tuck-and-prey-for-a-smooth-bottom event.

The waterfall is worth the hike (photo /Dan Rajter)

There were several instances when I was convinced that there was a 50% chance of me getting tossed over the handlebars. After you surpass a certain speed in these conditions using brakes carries an almost certain guarantee of road rash. There were a few little tiny congregations along the way, with houses on either side of the only road near the water’s edge. Banana farms and cornfields entered and exited our field of view while we skimmed past cows grazing right next to our tiny path along the road’s edge. Eventually, we found the entrance, gathered our breaths, and entered the park.

It began to rain as soon as we set foot into the thick of the woods. After about two hours of stream-hopping, climbing, and occasional intense spurts of hiking, we came upon a 200 foot waterfall that was teeming in mossy green plants on all sides. Life was clinging onto every crevice around the air born mist and coated with a thin film of water that glistened in the light. All the water fell into a small, refreshing pool before emptying out into the small rocky stream below.

The wind coming off the falling water chilled us to our bone as our sweaty bodies turned into fully covered goose-bumped shells. Our two-hour walk back was topped off with a grueling, two-hour bike ride that sent our legs into early retirement.

We only had two nights on Ometepe Island, but the experience was enjoyed to the fullest. A visit to Central America’s biggest lake to see this unique twin-volcano island is a must for any traveler passing through Nicaragua.

 

Dan Rajter is a travel writer and photographer currently traveling south from Mexico with the goal of ending up in Argentina. His website is www.theadventuresofadr.wordpress.com

 

  • Sharon

    Sweaty bodies. People throwing up everywhere? This is a must visit trip?

    • Robert

      A lot of exaggerations in this piece, Sharon. For example, the boat ride to the island is like any other ferry-type transportation, not a scene from “The Perfect Storm.” The hike to the waterfall isn’t that extreme and only about a hour each way, which even young kids could handle. Also, there are modern lodging options with A/C, TV, and all of that. Don’t let this article scare you off!

      • http://www.theadventuresofadr.wordpress.com Dan

        As the author of this article, I thought I’d weigh in on the first few comments. This piece was definitely not written to sway others from visiting the island. I had a wonderful time there, and look forward to going back someday. I fear it is changing rapidly, as it appears an air strip is being completed to facilitate tourism traffic. This is only the experience that I had, as a backpacker taking the public transportation that is offered. The day we set off on the ferry winds were gusting enough for hats to catch flight, as one did during the journey. I’ve been on multiple ferry rides, boats, rafts, buses, trucks, motos, etc, so I’m not new to waves. The ride that day was noteworthy. As for the hike, I can personally guarantee it takes far longer than an hour to get to the falls. I’m 28, in great shape, and we clocked it at just past 1:30. There are plenty of different places to stay, but we wanted to check out something a little more sustainable and affordable, away from the modern luxuries of soft travel. Also, riding an old bluebird bus around that island is a bumpy experience off of the paved sections, and takes about 2.5 hours from the ferry to that side of the island.

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  • http://no Damian

    First, take the Rey de Cocibolca which is the biggest and most comfortable boat going from San Jorge to Ometepe. Second, the road from Moyogalpa al the way to Zopilote (Balgue/Madronal) is paved so no bumps. By taxi or car you would be there in 30 minutes. It is a must see destination that can be enjoyed by different types of travellers such as backpackers, families, solo travellers and those who are looking for more comfort.

  • Brian

    I’ve lived on Ometepe for five years and I really get annoyed by the blogs and articles which always seem to describe the ferry trip from San Jorge to Moyogalpa like a scene out of a movie … I have only seen people actually vomit a small handful of times in five years of travel back and forth at least twice a month. The little towels are for sweat and are ubiquitous here in Nicaragua … Any travel writer should be well aware of this if he has ever taken any form of public transport in Nicaragua.

    I won’t even get into the other exaggerations.

    • Robert

      Amen, Brian.

  • Dan Rajter

    As a traveler, coming somewhere for the first time your attention is more often than not focused on details that everyday life tends to put through the wash to clean a bit of the experience out of it. Having traveled down from Mexico on nothing but public transport the entire way I am very familiar with the experience of being on a bumpy bus, rocky ferry, back of a moto, etc. I couldn´t count on one hand how many people got seasick on the top deck of the ferry. But again, just my take on it.

    • Robert

      You just described transportation in most of Latin America. Nothing too groundbreaking here. Also, Ive been to Ometepe several times and agree with the others about the facts being misconstrued.

    • cal

      your blogs are great…and are helping me decide where I might travel soon!! Keep it up!!! Oh some people are born to criticize …. just looking to argue!
      Thanks again!

    • Fido

      Dan, don’t worry. You were fine with your writing. What happens is that in November we have these winds called Vientos Alicios that make the difference from other time of the year. For your detractors, they should know, since they say that travel a lot to the Island, that almost every year there are days when Transportation Authority in Nic. has to cancell any trips made in certain days due to intense winds. So traveling to the isla in Nov. could be a real experiance, any other time not so much.

  • http://www.retirenicaragua.wordpress.com Debbie Goehring

    Dan, I’ve lived on Ometepe Island for about 8 years. You are correct about the wild ferry rides, especially during the windy months. I’ve had people throw up on my backpack and all over my shoes. You are also correct about the road conditions to Merida. After we wrecked our moto and I got a bruise the size of a papaya, I swore I’d never return to Merida until the road is finished. I live near the new airport. I, too fear the changes that will take place once the airport is completed. Thanks for an enjoyable article.

  • http://www.projectbonafide.com Chris Shanks

    Well I for one am glad Dan ‘the Jungleman’ survived both the harrowing journey and the depth of his hyperbole.

    I know after weekly trips for the last 11 years of ferry rides to Ometepe, each time I make it I have to kiss the ground and praise god for my survival. That and hose off the vomit.

    Actually no, children are sick infrequently on the lanchas, not the ferries, they are extremely stable and if Dan wants a real ride he should come back when the wind is actually blowing.

  • Robert

    Wanted: accurate stories about travel in Central America

  • Laura

    How sad that a guest blogger cannot share their experiences of travel in Nicaragua without being slated and accused of gross exaggeration by members of the ex-pat community, as if they were being personally attacked.
    Maybe Dan had the misfortune of making the journey across the lake around the time of year when the military sometimes orders all boats to stop running due to very high winds and threat to the security of passengers. Just over 3 years ago, my partner and I were stuck on the island for 3 days as we waiting for the military to give the go-ahead for boats to leave. I’m sure you can imagine how much vomiting was going on during that trip when we were finally able to leave. I’m also fairly sure that Dan would recognize that this is not the norm and that Ometepe experiences strong winds at very specific times of year. Despite making this trip very regularly for a number of years, there are still times when I need to steel my nerves (and stomach) to make it through the 1 hr trip. This is MY experience, and Dan shared HIS experience. If YOUR experience is different, it still does not negate the experiences of others. And I would I deter tourists from coming to the island because of a ferry ride that I don’t personally enjoy? Absolutely not, and neither has Dan.
    In regards to his San Ramon adventure, I thought his experience was very typical. If you have arrived to the Biological Station by bus or bicycle (and yes, this is still a devastating stretch of road but paving is now underway), it is most certainly a couple hours of hiking until you reach the waterfall, not the one hour as commenter Robert suggests. Robert, maybe you had your own vehicle or taxi and drove up the first 2 kilometres to the parking lot and then walked the last 1 km, in which case your time estimates would be closer to the truth.
    I’ll just say finally that one of the things I’ve noticed with tourists coming to the island is that they can be very uninformed about the realities of getting around on the island, especially if on a budget and reliant on public transportation, and end up feeling as though they did not have the time to see and do everything they had planned. Dan was accurate in saying that to get from Moyogalpa to Zopilote by bus will take you over 2 hours. Not everyone can afford the $25-30 comfortable taxi ride to make that trip, as Damien suggests.
    Dan, I really enjoyed reading about your experience on Ometepe and was left with the sense that you really understand some of the challenges that both residents of the island and tourists face in getting to, from and around this unique island, but also that you had a very memorable here and were captivated by the raw, natural beauty like so many of us have been.
    Robert, Adam, Tim and Brian…can I ask what all the other exaggerations are that you’ve identified?

    • Robert

      they already made their cases about exaggerations, in case you didn’t read the above posts in detail

      • Laura

        Sorry, my mistake. When I was reading the above posts in detail I thought I noticed Brian write ‘I won’t even get into the other exaggerations.’ I was just curious what they were. And you (or another Robert) made a comment about the San Ramon hike taking only an hour from the Station to the waterfall which is simply not true and then also go on about there being modern lodging options which Dan actually never disputed in his article. And then there was Adam who agreed that (unmentioned) facts had been misconstrued but has since deleted his comment.

    • Fido

      Laura, High Fives to you. You put it well. I’m a Nicaraguense, and I approve this article. Haah!

    • Giovanna

      Laura, I almost enjoyed reading your comment more than the actual article. :) Very well put. Dan, your description was nicely detailed, and made me want to go back to Ometepe sooner than later. It also made me remember how tired I was after hiking back from the waterfall, but with a feeling I’m sure most who have been there share with me: “it was really worth it”.

  • Robert

    You’d think that “sea sickness” is a phenomenon in Lake Nicaragua after reading this article. Hey Dan, why don’t you rename the article “People Who Get Sea Sick Can Also Get Sea Sick Traveling by Boat to Ometepe.”

    • Fido

      Hey Robert, whatsup with you man? Dan owes you money? Do you know him from some where alse? Did he hurt your feelings? Hey Dan pay Robert the five cordovas you owe him, man!

      • I heart dispatch

        thats funny.