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Looking back at my travels in Central America so far, I’ve been wondering if there has been a wholly unique place. The kind of place that is the epitome of the region; the kind of place you couldn’t find anywhere else in the world.
So far, the leading contender for that position is Ometepe, an island in Lake Nicaragua formed by two joined volcanoes.
I almost didn’t go to Ometepe. It looked like a lot of hassle. From what I had researched online, almost no rooms were able to be booked in advance, even upmarket rooms. As you might remember, I strongly prefer booking accommodation in advance because I can’t stand dragging my suitcase door to door.
The place where I really wanted to stay was El Zopilote, a hippie commune featuring free morning yoga classes, organic food, bread making seminars, even courses on beekeeping. Seriously, beekeeping! It came highly recommended by friends and readers alike, and I thought it looked fantastic.
However, El Zopilote is tremendously popular, is usually fully booked in high season, and there is no road there, which meant that I would likely be dragging my giant rolling suitcase up a long stretch of rough terrain, only to find out that it was booked, and would have to drag it down and hike a long ways to another place that may or may not have availability. I couldn’t reserve a room or even a hammock by phone.
Then through Googling I found Hacienda Merida, which actually did book online through its website (though not through any other online booking sites), and it looked like a great budget spot, so I plunked down $21 for three nights in a dorm.
That was a smart decision. Ometepe stole my heart from the moment I arrived, and Hacienda Merida was home to the most unreal sunset views. I can’t believe I almost missed out on this wonderful island; I want to scold my past self!
Behold…here is how I fell in love with Ometepe, the island of twin volcanoes.
My first volcano view from Hacienda Merida! The island is made from two volcanoes joined by an isthmus — Volcán Concepción, the taller and pointier one, pictured above, and Volcán Maderas, the slightly shorter and rounder one.
Volcano hiking is one of the most popular things to do on Ometepe, but they are both long, strenuous, and difficult climbs, especially Concepción. Knowing myself and my fitness level, I wasn’t in good enough shape for the hikes. (My fellow hikers would hate me for slowing them down; I would hate myself for letting my pride bite off more than it could chew.)
But I went on to hike Volcán Cerro Negro near León and have another hike coming up on Volcán San Pedro in Guatemala, so at least I have those!
Hacienda Merida’s dock is a narrow concrete structure filled with falling-apart chairs, but what it lacks in flash it makes up in camaraderie.
First thing I did? Threw on my bathing suit and jumped into a kayak!
There are lots of places where you can kayak around Ometepe, including a swamp on the isthmus and a “monkey island” where the monkeys will attack if you get too close (eek!), but I chose to just kayak along the coastline and take photos with both my Nikon and iPhone.
This is one of the reasons why I always bring a dry bag on my travels. Kayaks are precarious; I kept my camera and phone wrapped up tightly in the bag until it was time to take photos!
That’s Volcán Maderas, the shorter, rounder volcano. You can’t quite see it, but the guesthouse is in this photo.
As dusk set in, I saw my first Ometepe sunset and was instantly hooked. Bright colors, an actual pointy volcano — I was in love!
Some kayakers took in the sunset colors on the water.
Every night, all the guests come out to shoot the sunset and enjoy a beer or two on the narrow cement dock. I loved the atmosphere — it was like a low-key party every night!
The next day, I decided to take the bus to the town of Santa Cruz, on the Maderas side of the island near the isthmus. This was the gateway to the beaches.
Ometepe is a very early-to-bed, early-to-rise place — I was the last one awake at the hostel at 10:00 PM and the last bus of the day from Merida to elsewhere on the island left at 8:30 AM! I hopped on the big yellow school bus, where everyone squished in like sardines, paid my 15 cordobas (60 cents), and jumped off as the driver yelled, “Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz!”
Three beaches line the east side of the isthmus: Playa Santa Cruz, Playa San Fernando, and Playa Santo Domingo. Though, honestly, they’re more like one big beach.
I will never get tired of seeing Volcán Concepción pop up everywhere you go.
Horseback riding on the beach! In retrospect, I would have loved to do this.
I loved this tree and the clouds.
Ometepe, and in particular the beaches, reminded me of White Lake in New Hampshire, where I spent my summers camping. It has a very similar feel — a quiet place that demands you to slow down and enjoy the surrounding atmosphere.
How to Protect Your Belongings on the Beach
Though White Lake never had pigs that jumped in the water for a swim!
After lunch (delicious whole grilled fish with gallo pinto (rice and beans), fried plantains, and salad) from a roadside restaurant, I set off on a walk to the Ojo de Agua, a swimming hole on the northern island, just north of the isthmus.
My guidebook (which I keep as a PDF on my phone) implied that there was some kind of side path shortcut to the Ojo de Agua. There wasn’t. I’d have to walk the main road the whole way, a distance of about two miles. Which isn’t a bad distance to walk, ordinarily, but in 95-degree weather (35 C)? Not easy, especially with the lack of shade.
Still, I had my beautiful Volcán Concepción to admire and guide me along the way.
The sun bore down. Sweat ran into my eyes. My backpack had begun to feel heavier and heavier.
I passed a few shirtless Scandinavians with backpacks walking in the opposite direction and asked how long I had to walk to the Ojo de Agua. “About ten minutes,” one replied. So twenty minutes, I thought to myself. Twenty minutes it was.
A sign signaled the turnoff for the Ojo de Agua. At this point, I was near melting. The shady forest was a blessing. 500 meters to go.
And finally, paradise. The Ojo de Agua. Technically an artificial swimming hole, but created to look like it’s part of the natural landscape, and fed by an underground river coming from Volcán Maderas, some people say that the waters contain healing properties and will give you eternal youth.
Stripping off my sweaty shirt and shorts and slipping into that cool water after such a long, hot walk was one of the greatest swims of my life. (It’s up there with Kuhmo, Finland.)
After far too short a time at the Ojo de Agua (ideally, you should allot a whole afternoon), I grabbed the last bus back to Merida at 4:15 PM. That gave me plenty of time to catch that evening’s sunset — a cotton candy-like pink and blue confection that ranks among the best I’ve ever seen.
Definitely the best sunset of my three-night stay, and one that I’ll always remember.
My Australian friend Bugs, whom I met on the pub crawl in San Juan del Sur, took this shot of me on the Hacienda Merida dock. There were lots more shots, but unfortunately I was wearing my baggy Sunday Funday tank top, which gives you the most unflattering silhouette and made me look like my waist was bigger than my hips.
This one came out nicely, though.
I hope this image evokes a feeling — the relaxation, the nature, the color. For me, this is what Ometepe is all about.
The next day I spent having a low-key day in the Merida area. If you’re craving some time camping, the nice thing about Hacienda Merida is that you can rent an already-popped-up tent with a mattress for less than $5 per night. No need to carry around equipment of your own!
And if you’d like to sleep under the stars, you could get a hammock. I need to do that sometime. Though if I did that, I’d have to lock my beloved portable safe to a tree.
Is there any time of day more delicious than golden hour? Not to me!
After two sunsets at the guesthouse, I knew the drill. I headed to the dock long before the sunset to grab a prime spot.
Sitting on the narrow strip of concrete were two friends from Canada. Seeing me approach with my Nikon, they made room for me to sit next to them on the edge. Soon we were joined by a brilliant girl, a community organizer from Detroit, and we made room for her as well, the four of us stacked together tightly on the edge of the dock, making use of every spare inch.
I watched the final sunset with three new friends, our faces illuminated in orange as the sun dipped beneath the horizon.
This was Ometepe, and it was spectacular.
Essential Info: To get to Ometepe, take the one-hour ferry from the town of San Jorge, just outside Rivas. There are two kinds of ferries: the large car ferry and the small boat. I took both and while the large ferry was fine, the small boat was an absolute nightmare. You can find a schedule here; I strongly recommend waiting at the dock until you can take a large ferry.
I stayed at Hacienda Merida, which I very much enjoyed and recommend. The sunset views are out of this world. Keep in mind that the last bus from Merida to the rest of the island leaves at 8:30 AM, though there are several buses back to Merida in the afternoon. Tents and hammocks start at $4.60; dorms start at $7.00; rooms start at $25.
Do not stay in Moyogalpa. This is the port town where the ferries come in and there are lots of hostels here, including ones you can book online, but honestly, Moyogalpa is a tourist ghetto that could be anywhere in Central America and the true pleasure of Ometepe is getting to escape to a chilled out guesthouse on the lake where you feel enveloped by nature. (The one exception: if you’re hiking Concepción, as the trek sets off from Moyogalpa. But try to stay somewhere else on Ometepe, too.)
The best way to get around Ometepe is by bus, costing less than 50 cordobas ($2) per journey. Renting a motorbike or bicycle gives you a lot more freedom. Keep in mind that Merida is at the base of a very hilly, unpaved road — if you’re not in shape, the bike ride could be more like torture to you.
Ometepe is a slow burn kind of destination. Don’t rush it — I recommend spending at least three nights here.
Be sure to buy travel insurance before your trip. I never travel without it and use World Nomads.
Have you ever been to an incredibly unique place? Where was it?
56 thoughts on “Traveling to Ometepe: Nicaragua’s Volcanic Island”
I can just feel the low-key relaxed vibes of Ometepe through your photos. I especially love the one of the motorist riding away from the volcano, epic and beautiful.
Thank you! I love that one, too.
Sitting here, shivering, sipping coffee, missing Central America like MAD. Thanks for that. 😉
Oh, and as far as unique places go, I’d say maybe Formentera in the Balearic islands. Or the way outer suburbs of Naples.
This looks like pure paradise on earth, and your photography (which has always been good) is getting better and better. I am totally enchanted.
Thank you very much, Anna. I worked hard on these photos!
Ah, are you still enjoying staying dorms? I’m a few months older than you, and definitely felt I was a bit out of place when I stayed in them in Ireland last year, although clearly for long term travel the cost can’t be beat! Although it seemed like the more off the beaten path you were, the more variety in ages I’ve seen at hostels.
I can still stay in dorms occasionally, Sarah, but only on a limited basis. I still prefer having my own room whenever possible! This hostel had good common areas so I pretty much only spent time in the dorm when sleeping.
It’s hard to beat volcano sunsets! The sunset from the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Have you done it? It’s an other-worldly experience! Now I want to go visit Ometepe!
I seriously need to get to Hawaii, Sonja!
I absolutely fell in love with Ometepe, it’s so magically wow!!!
What a beautiful and peaceful place! Central America has been calling to me lately and you’re making it hard not to book a trip to Nicaragua!
I think you should, Laura! It’s such a great country.
WOW, this place looks like heaven! I’ve been hearing more and more about Nicaragua–looks like it really is a great place to visit. It’s actually super embarrassing for me that I’ve never been to Central America considering that I live in Texas–I couldn’t get much closer!
I can’t even begin to imagine what that volcano sight must be! It’s totally AWESOME! I remember my two blissful days in a village of Sikkim, where I found flowers in every corner, cardamom plantations, pretty huts with mist resting on them…mountain views and innocent villagers always ready to invite me for a cup of tea. 🙂
Sikkim sounds amazing. I would love to visit!
What a unique island! I love the rising volcanoes in the background – that was one of my favourite things about my trip years ago to Central America.
Oh my.. amazing photos Kate! Enjoy the paradise!
Love your pictures, especially the sunset ones. Omtepe is still as beautiful as i remember from 7 years ago, want to go back now..
Was just in Ometepe a few weeks ago for the second time – absolutely loved it there. The sunsets are incredible, I have a photo literally just like one of your sunset ones aha!
It looks beautiful in Merida. We only had two nights to spare so stayed in Moyogalpa and I actually liked it. We hardly saw anyone (maybe we were there in low season) and stayed in a guesthouse with a roof terrace with an incredible view of the volcano. It is an island I would love to go back to for longer when I am in Nicaragua next.
I’m glad you liked it there, Katie! Thanks for sharing. It does make more sense if you don’t have a lot of time there.
Some beautiful photos Kate! I’d never even heard of Ometepe so thank you for sharing!
Wow, this seems so relaxing. Great sunsets are a must for me, and these look like paradise. Was three days too short or was it just right?
Three days felt perfect for me, but if you want to do a lot of hiking, I’d add on more, since each hike is pretty much a full-day activity.
You’re fortunate to have visited when you did because the entire dynamic of the area is likely to change soon and dramatically with the Nicaraguan canal project cutting its route very close to the island. If you plan to visit, do so soon.
I first visited Ometepe in 1992 and again in 1994; it seemed inconceivable then that the island would grow into what it is today. I’m glad that so many have managed to experience its beauty.
I’m very concerned about the canal project, Bob, especially for the beautiful coastline around San Juan del Sur. It would be a tragedy to see such a beautiful place be ruined by something that isn’t even necessary.
Gorgeous shots, Kate! Those sunsets are so stunning. Ometepe was on my list before I left – I’ve heard only good things about it – but unfortunately I didn’t get there before I left. Oh well – Nicaragua is right next to Guatemala on my list of favorite places so I know I’ll be going back.
I’ve been to Monkey Island. Those buggers definitely will go after you for food! I’m so gald you’re loving Nicaragua, it’s one of my favorite countries!
Holy wow!! I’ve never heard of this place and my traveling in this part of the world is extremely limited. I love how you captured it. Volcanoes are so harshly beautiful. I just bookmarked this under my “places to see” tab now!
I’m glad to hear that, Stephanie! You’ll love it.
That looks so relaxing and beautiful! Those volcano pics are amazing!
These pictures are the best and most breathtaking ones I’ve seen this month!
Absolutely beautiful, Kate!
Thank you, Zascha! I was really pleased with how they came out.
Ometepe looks like paradise, I’m so glad you ended up going there, and sharing those pictures! 🙂 I want to go!
Wow beautiful pictures and great post, I have just started to post in mine as I travel a lot and discovered yours which is admirable
Great article Kate! We were there in 2013 and absolutely loved it too! It’s such an interesting and unique island in Central America! We also didn’t brave a volcano hike but managed to do a 4 hour waterfall hike instead which was amazing albeit VERY hot & sweaty! I know that feeling of being desperate to arrive and jump in the water for a cool down! Hope you’re enjoying the rest of your adventures in Nicaragua and Guatemala….highly recommend a visit to Semuc Champey for some candle caving (very different and cool experience!) or even just chilling out while learning how to make chocolate from freshly picked beans! 🙂
Thanks! Semuc Champey is a big priority for me this May.
I really liked Ometepe. I took a ride on the back of a motorbike for the day and visited most of the places you mentioned. It was a bit awkward being just me and my driver as he just sat and watched while I explored places. He was sitting in a chair waiting while I took a dip at the springs. It kind of took the edge off the relaxation aspect! On the positive side, it was a great chance for me to practice Spanish.
Thanks for sharing this! I’m toying with the idea of backing through Central America next summer and I think Ometepe is now on my list of must-sees!
Someone on the comments section mentioned being too old for hostel dorms. I would like to point out that there are many people over 30 who I have met in hostel dorms! Especially in South America! Thanks for the great hostel find too!
Great article thanks for sharing your experience! Wonderful pictures–that volcano looks breathtaking!
I stayed near Santa Cruz in the off-season 2013 (early September). I was the only guest in my hotel for 2 days. The beach and view of Concepcion was amazing. Your photos took me back. Thanks!
Omotepe is great, was there in Jan this year and stayed at Merida and another place near Ojo – both on my blog. Did a horseride to the waterfall and was pleased I didn’t hike it – as you say it is so hot and that heat drains energy big time.
The larger ferry didn’t seem to take long to get to the mainland.
I disagree about Moyogalpa. It’s a charming little town with great character. To call it a “ghetto” is an elitist attitude. I’ve been to countries all over the third world and I love the charm of these small towns. Maybe they don’t have pristine streets or private beaches, but it does have a character all its own. Yes, there are many other towns in LA that have a charm to themselves. Moyogalpa is a great place to begin your Ometepe adventure. Plenty of places to gather information, relax after the ferry, spend a night or two. I would recommend The Landing, right off the ferry. Clean rooms, friendly owners, reasonable prices.
Hi Kate! Amazing blog and what a great life 🙂 I’m sure you’ve worked super hard to get there but it seems worth it!
I had a quick question, I was wondering whether to go to Ometepe or not (long story short I’ve got 4 days to fill – staying in leon and have to be back 5 days later) but your article convinced me to give it a go. Also thinking of staying in Hacienda Merida as it seems cheap and clean! How did you make it there from Moyogalpa? I was thinking a taxi to make it easier but not sure how much that would cost?
Thanks and happy travels/happy blogging 🙂
Hi, Julie —
I took a taxi there because I’m lazy. 😉 I believe it cost around $30, but I’m not positive. And I took the 20-cent bus back because I left in the morning (the buses only leave Merida in the morning). The buses run at very odd hours; I would email Hacienda Merida directly to ask what your options are!
We’re headed to Nicaragua in a couple weeks and this post was a great help, thanks! We’ll likely be coming straight from Liberia, Costa Rica but think we can pull it off same day. Also, have you heard anything about the neighboring island Zapatera?
Yep, you should be able to get the ferry to the island, no problem. Just leave on the early side because that border crossing is awful and you don’t want to do it in the heat of the afternoon. Have not read anything about Zapatera!
For someone who is not Nicaraguan, how you captured the essence of this beautiful island of ours is just about as accurate as it gets..truly impressed…last time we stayed on the santo domingo side at the Xalli, its relatively pricier, but we experienced the same as you but on the sunrise side. excellent entry!! Although you did definitely miss out on the san ramon waterfall experience..hope you return for that one day. we spent 4 days and even then it was still amazing on the 4th day. We will stay on the Merida side next time for at least 2 days.
I appreciate that, Celio! Thanks so much!
Great head. Thanks for the advice:) I’m heading to Ometepe in like three days from Playa Santana. I’m so excited to get there. I’ll have to check our the hostel you’re talking about. Cheers!
Were you able to sleep with it being that hot? I am supposed to go at the end of December but I’m worried about sleep 🙁
I found it to be fine, but everyone is different and I can’t tell you how well you’re going to sleep there.