Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua
posted on Feb 14, 2015 by Aaron
Ometepe is an island formed by two volcanoes (Concepción and Maderas) joined by a low isthmus in Lake Nicaragua, the Republic of Nicaragua. The name derives from the Nahuatl language: ome meaning 'two' and tepetl meaning 'mountain' (i.e., 'two mountains'; also translated as 'between two hills'). At 276 square kilometres, it is the largest island in Lake Nicaragua (aka Lago Cocibolca). The island attracts tourists with its pristine forest, petroglyphs and other archaeological treasures, unique wildlife, deserted beaches and eco-lodges. One can hike, kayak, and cycle—all in the shadow of the two looming volcanoes.
The most important towns of Ometepe Island are both located on the northern (Concepción) side of the island. Altagracia (population. 7,041 as of 2005) is situated on eastern shores; Moyogalpa (population 4,795 as of 2005) is located on the west, and the site of the island's main harbor as well as it's new airport.
Highlights of Isla de Ometepe include the waterfall at San Ramon, the scale model of island located in in Moyogalpa, the legends and lagoons of Charco Verde, the petroglyphs and the island’s signature dish of whole, fried tilapia, known as pescado corriente.
While playing an important role in Nicaragua's tourist economy, Ometepe is still off-the-beaten-path—offering plenty of room for exploration and tranquillity to enjoy its pristine natural environment.
Ometepe Island has been a place of refuge for, and the promised land of, many historic and pre-historic peoples. It is regarded as the birthplace of two great cultures: that of Mexico and of Guatemala.
The island is part of the archaeological area known as Greater Nicoya, which also encompasses the Rivas area on the lake shore and descends into Costa Rican Nicoya Peninsula. This region continues to yield a wealth of archaeological data due to its fertile soils. Evidence suggests that the island may have been inhabited as far back as 25,000 years—at the time when settlers were crossing the Bering Strait. Isla de Ometepe has been inhabited continuously since the Dinarte phase (ca. 2000 B.C. – 500 B.C.).
The first known inhabitants were the Nahua peoples from Mexico. Later came the Niquirano peoples, who established an important settlement on the island. Traces of this past are reflected by the petroglyphs and stone idols on the northern slopes of Maderas volcano. The oldest date from 300 BC. Peoples of Nahuatl and Olmeca origin also migrated to Ometepe and were later invaded by Chorotegas and other Nicaraguan peoples.
There is a classified Ometepe period (A.D. 1350–1550) within Greater Nicoyan Period, which corresponds to Mesoamerican Postclassic period. This period is associated with the migration of the Nicarao into the area of Greater Nicoya.
After the Spaniards conquered the Central American region in the 16th century, pirates began prowling Lake Nicaragua. They came in from the Caribbean Sea via the San Juan River. These pirates stole the women, animals, possessions and harvest of the peoples of Ometepe, and established their own settlements—forcing the indigenous inhabitants to retreat inland. The island was settled by the Spanish at the end of the 16th century.
Many folk traditions are kept alive, and inhabitants of Ometepe celebrate more religious and folk festivals than anywhere else in Nicaragua.
Ometepe Island has a traditional economy based on livestock and agriculture. The fertile soil at the base of the volcanoes yield crops of coffee, tobacco, plantains and bananas. Plantains are the major crop.
Today, Ometepe is developing a strong tourist industry based on island's nature beauty and exotic vegetation, animal and bird life, as well as for its rich archaeological past. The opening of the Ometepe airport opened in 2014 (IATA airport code MNLP) promises to further bolster tourism to the island.
The national currency is the Cordóba, but the US dollar is widely accepted—particularly in smaller denominations. [Be sure, however, that your bills are in excellent condition, as locale may refuse to accept them if they're defaced in any way.]
The easiest way to get to Ometepe from Managua is to fly. Currently, there are two flights available per week: on Thursdays (departing 12:00 noon) and Sundays (departing 3:00 p.m.).
The other option is to take a bus. There are a few direct chicken buses each day from Managua to San Jorge. Otherwise, the route involves three segments:
- Managua — Rivas (111 km)
- Buses leave Mercado Huembes every 20 minutes; the trip takes ca. 2 hours.
- Rivas — San Jorge (5 km)
- Buses and taxis take 15 minutes.
- A shared taxi to San Jorge from Rivas bus terminal should cost no more than C$20 per person. Agree the price first, otherwise you risk getting overcharged.
- San Jorge — Moyogalpa
- Ferry boats run daily; the trip takes ca. 1 hour.
Isla de Ometepe can be reached from Granada by ferry with boats departing to Altagracia from Monday through Thursday and on Saturdays. The ferries depart from Granada at 11 a.m. and take between 4 and 6 hours. [We also read somewhere that there's another ferry service departing Granada on Mondays and Thursdays around 2 pm.]
Crossing the lake isn't always a smooth ride. Between November and February heavy winds make the water of the lake pretty choppy; even the ferry can get thrown around a bit. Sitting indoors doesn't necessarily guarantee a dry ride either, as water can splash in through the windows, even when they are closed.
In addition to the ferries, there are also the small lancha boats. Although they look a bit battered, they're reputedly safe and cost slightly less than the ferry. The lancha don't operate on Sundays.
Boats returning to Granada from Altagracia depart Tuesdays and Sundays at 10 a.m. The cost is of the ticket is between US$2 and US$5.
From San Jorge
Reaching Isla de Ometepe from San Jorge is a simple, one-hour, 17km boat ride. There are two classes of boats: smaller, less stable lanchas (motorboats) and larger, less frequent ferries, which can also transport bicycles, motorcycles and cars (with 72 hours advance notice). The ferries depart Ometepe from Moyogalpa and leave regularly. The price is C$35-C$50, depending on the type of boat.
There is much to see on Ometepe, and many ways to see it: bus, car, horse, bicycle, canoe, or on foot.
Buses travel in a figure eight around the two volcanoes, frequently on weekdays, and scarcely on the weekends. Schedules are posted, but not adhered to. Ask around—the locals always seem to know when the next bus is coming, and where you’d be most comfortable waiting (usually in front of someone’s tienda). The two hour long island-wide bus ride, with stops along the way, is a magnificent slideshow of the beautiful scenery and colourful livelihoods that define Ometepe. The bus stops to pick up passengers, and there are many opportunities to shoot photos through an open bus window.
Cars may be rented from Ometepe Tours Rent-a-Car, frente al Hospedaje Moyogalpa, contiguo al Muelle de San Jorge, Moyogalpa. Tel: 045-94116 or 34779. Los Ranchitos Soda Restaurante rents cars and horses, frente a la estación de Policía, Altagracia. Tel: 045-94112.
There are many spots all over the island from which you can rent bicycles, scooters and dirt bikes.
Several other hotels rent bicycles and arrange guided tours.
Rents horses, bicycles, and canoes. None cost more than $21 per day.
It’s easy enough to get around Ometepe on your own, but to get a close look at some of the more secluded spots, try Ometepe Tours, with offices in San Jorge (continguo al muelle, San Jorge, Rivas. Tel: 045-34779,), and in Moyogalpa (costado este del Gasolinera Shell. Tel: 045-94116).
While there isn't much motor traffic in general, getting around the island can still be a long and slow process. Most of the roads on Isla de Ometepe are unpaved (so you higher speeds aren't really an option), and any journey will involve frequent stops to accommodate passing herds of cattle as well as stray horses, pigs and chickens.
Ometepe has a reputation for safety, with few reported incidents against tourists. Keep your wits about you and your eye on your belongings. If you travel from Managua to San Jorge by bus, beware of pickpockets.
What to Bring
Bring the cash you need. A few places accept traveller's cheques, but usually they incur a transaction fee. Credit cards are accepted at the larger resorts and hotels. There are two ATM machines on the island, one in Moyogalpa, and one in Altagracia.
If you plan to hike either volcano, bring lightweight hiking boots or at least sturdy sneakers. A packable waterproof jacket will also come in handy. Swimwear, shorts, and sturdy sandals should suffice for all other activities. Bug spray, sun block, a travel towel and a good hat are important too.
When to Go
While it is possible to travel to the island year round, the best weather is generally between early December and late March, when it rarely rains and the temperatures range from the mid to upper 80’s during the day and a comfortable low 70’s at night. By April, it is increasingly hot and humid, with the rainy season starting in mid-May and lasting through November. Nevertheless, it rarely monsoons and even during the rainy period there are long stretches of clear weather.
Dry season lasts from December through May, though the best cultural festivals take place in November and July. Wildlife viewing is excellent year-round, and is one of the island’s main attractions. Over 80 bird species inhabit the island. Migrating birds flock to Ometepe in May.
Anyone travelling to the island of Ometepe anywhere between October and February, if not well after, do not be talked into a beach tour. There are no beaches at Ometepe during these times. The best time to hit up beaches on Ometepe is between June and September.