Ometepe Island blew us away with its untouched beauty and rustic feel. The jungle and beaches were beautiful and undisturbed by man’s machines. Only a few cars, buses, and motorcycles bounded along the cobblestone roads, and lurched slowly along the rock-and-dirt roads. There’s only one gas station with one gas pump on the island. It felt like we were exploring the island with the natives 100 years ago!
The island is the largest on Lake Nicaragua, formed by 2 volcanoes just a few miles apart and connected by a short strand of beach – Playa Santo Domingo. One is dormant and the other active, erupting most recently in 2010!
The island population is about 30,000, and there are probably just as many cows, horses, pigs, and chickens roaming around as well. There are only 2 large towns, meaning they have more than 10 roads in them, but the island is mostly undeveloped except for some plantain crops. Only a handful of hostels and hotels are around the island, which also means not many tourists.
El Tesoro del Pirata
The first place we stayed was called El Tesoro del Pirata or “Pirate’s Treasure,” a tranquilo place in a picturesque cove. It’s a few km to the east of San José del Sur and Port Charco Verde down a dirt road.
We got off the bus too early in town, and ended up walking 6 km in the rain because we were stubborn. We certainly weren’t going to pay $10 for a 4 mile taxi ride when we just paid 40 cents to ride the bus for a half hour! It was a nice walk, and we got to say “hi” to the locals who were out walking, riding their bike, or having their horse pull them up the hill on their bike.
We were afraid some of the cows on the road would charge at us because we were in their road territory! Those horns made us scurry along a little faster a few times!
At last we walked down a palm tree-lined road and were glad we finally made it! It was an awesome place, although we would have been happy with just about anything since it was almost dark out. Our blind choice worked out after all!
We were the only people at the hotel, and the private rooms were only $25 – perfect! We could have paid $10 more for air conditioning, but I convinced Alyssa that a fan would be fine once we stopped sweating from our long hike in. Alyssa was just tickled about the 2 hammocks right in front of our room!
The beach had a few boats and docks on it, and the locals were out fishing and harvesting crops nearby. It was quiet and peaceful. There was a nice restaurant at the hotel with a thatched roof that gave it a real homey feeling. The food was delicious, and the ambiance was enjoyable.
Ometepe Island Local Fishing Family
In the morning we went to say hi to some kids who were down on the beach, and made some smiley friends. We shared some cookies with them and they showed us how they fished in the cove. They used some of the fish to feed their growing family of 13 kids, and sold some to buy other types of food, clothing, and batteries for their flashlights.
It was amazing what this family could do with the bare essentials. Their dad would row out into the cove in their homemade boat with the oldest daughter and she would drop the net as they went. Then, they would pull it in towards the shore, trapping the fish as they got shallower.
All the kids would help pull in the net, and their dad would pull in the other side. The 2 year old girl would cheer them on and catch any that would try to escape. She was learning the ropes of being a fisherwoman at a young age!
They gave her a tiny fish to hold to keep her happy, and she played with it for a long time. What 2 year old girl plays with a fish??! She even gave it a few kisses. She adored her little fish.
We had a great time with the family, they were so happy, smiley, and the kids were incredibly well-behaved. If I ever have a kid half as obedient as they were I’d be happy! They didn’t want us to leave, and even invited us to their house that evening to listen to their dad play the guitar!
We walked to their house and had a great time that evening. Their dad belted out a few songs with his guitar as the sunlight faded. He pointed to the nearby electricity pole and said their latest house project was to connect to the electricity grid. He even had a sole light bulb socket ready to go.
The 16 year old girl was excited to learn some English, so Alyssa got right to work and started a group lesson with them all, by flashlight!
We had a great time with them! Their whole family was so warm and welcoming. We hope we can come back someday to see the kids a few years older.
Playa Santo Domingo
We took a bus to the east, towards Altagracia, and got off at the cross “El Quino.” Another bus usually passes along the road towards Playa Santo Domingo, but nobody was quite sure when – typical. So, we headed off walking. Soon, a pickup truck slowed down to pick up a few old ladies, and we hopped in the back with them. There’s nothing like riding in the back of a truck down a windy road with rain pelting you in the face!
Nobody worries much about the rain on this island. They just keep going, because in a few minutes the sun will come out and they’ll start sweating again. We even got laughed at once because we were using our umbrellas!
Playa Santo Domingo was a beautiful place, but it was raining and windy when we were there. There are many hotels on this part of the island, and I can imagine the long beach would be a fun place when the sun is shining. There are a lot of places to rent motorcycles, scooters, and pedal bikes here. A motorcycle rental runs about $35 a day + gas.
Ometepe Island – Mérida
We hopped on the bus again and headed to Mérida. It looked pretty close on the map, but the bus chugged along at an agonizingly slow pace because the road was so terrible. We could have walked there almost as fast!
We stayed the night at Hacienda Mérida because they have these nice maps all over the place. There were a few more people, and had more of a hostel ambiance. There were hammocks hung up all over the place, good for relaxing and working on our blog (except the wifi was out the entire time we were on the island). The private rooms were $25 here as well, and were really nice, with a cool stonework bathroom.
The restaurant was great here as well! We tried their homemade ice cream, but it had too gritty of a texture for our liking.
They provide a pretty sweet map to help tourists find their way around the island. Click on the pictures below for a larger view of it, courtesy of Hacienda Merida.
San Ramón Waterfall
Our inspiration when we’re traveling is to visit all the waterfalls we can, so the San Ramón waterfall was first on our list of places to explore. There are no buses that go far enough to get to the waterfall, so we rented a motorcycle from Hacienda Mérida and headed off. The road is pretty rough, but passes along the water with some beautiful views. Be sure to bring a picnic!
The waterfalls are on the left, just after a big sign. It cost $3 per person and $2 for the motorcycle. There was a nice day-use area with grassy areas, cabinas, a restaurant, and free bathrooms.
We took the motorcycle 3 km up the hill to a parking lot. Some sections were pretty steep, and Alyssa was getting nervous on the back of the bike! Good thing it wasn’t raining! We continued up the trail for another 2-3 km on foot along a beautiful trail with butterflies, colorful birds, and lizards. We took 45 minutes to hike up from the parking lot. It might take another hour to hike the first section, so about 2 hours total.
I was really impressed with the size of this waterfall! It is 50 meters tall – 150 feet! You can’t even get the whole waterfall in one picture! There’s only a light shower of water coming down, so don’t expect to see Iguazú Falls. It’s so tall it looks like a sheet flowing in the wind when it gets blown to the side.
Don’t forget your swimsuit to cool off in the pool of water after a long hike. Some people were filling up their water bottles from the waterfall, so we assumed it was good to drink. We drank a little, but it didn’t taste all that great – I guess it would do in a pinch.
We wished we could have stayed longer at the waterfall, just to soak up more or its relaxing powers. The way down was even better than going up with the stunning lake views. We tried to find a geocache near the parking lot, but somebody must have run off with it.
Trail-finding tip: After you’ve been hiking up about 20-30 minutes after the parking lot/power plant you’ll get to the part of the trail where it drops down into a dry riverbed and there’s a big wall on your right. Fear not! Keep going a few hundred feet along the riverbed and the trail will pop off to the right again.
Details for Getting to Ometepe Island
We found the beautiful island of Ometepe by our usual coin-toss navigating and talking with the locals. We encourage you to do the same, and ask around for what’s good to see!
We got off the bus in Rivas, right on the main highway. There were 5 bike taxis ready to take us to the port for $2 – $5 per person, but we needed to do a few things in town first. There’s a big Maxi Pali grocery store ~300m to the south of the bus stop, where we got a bit of food to bring with us. There was an ATM right inside the store too.
Then we walked north to the main road going east to San Jorge – the port town, and turned right at the roundabout by the gas station. There are bus stops on this road for a cheap local bus that drops you off right at the ferry for $0.25. Don’t be tricked into paying $10-$30 for a taxi!
At the port, they charge $0.40 for a fee to enter the island. Again, don’t let them talk you into reserving a taxi in advance.
We sailed on the large car-ferry for $3 each, along with a group of about 40 people. That’s a steal for an hour and a half boat ride! It was pretty smooth the whole way, even in choppy seas with water spraying over the bow.
There is a smaller launcha or “boat” that we took on the way back because we didn’t want to wait for the ferry. We felt like we were part of the choppy waves. It’s a bit more sketchy than the bigger ferry. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t know how to swim… Naw, they have life jackets.
Just hope your boat is loaded more evenly than ours was! A few times we tipped over to the right 45 degrees because the boat was loaded poorly! I’ll admit, my heart did a pitter-patter twice on that ride.
If you want to skip all this traveling, just grab a flight into the island airport! I have no idea what it would cost, but it’s always an option.
Helpful Tips We Wish We’d Have Known
- Map of the Ometepe Island with information (courtesy of Hacienda Merida): Front, Back
- We saw a few ATMs in Moyogalpa from the bus, and there might be one in Altagracia. Don’t expect to find any in the other small towns.
- Remember that the only gas station is in Altagracia. There might be one in Moyogalpa, but we didn’t hear about it. You’ll need to fill up your car or motorcycle if you rent one, or you might be able to pay someone a ridiculous price to fill it in a smaller town like we did for one gallon in the motorcycle.
- Bring a few groceries or snacks with you from Rivas because the little stores here don’t offer much selection.
- The locals say they drink the water, but told us we should probably buy bottled water.
Ometepe Island Ferry & Bus Schedules
- Ferry from San Jorge to Ometepe Island
- Ferry from Ometepe Island to San Jorge
- Ferry Schedule at Playa Santo Domingo
- Bus Schedule from Hacienda Merida
- Bus Schedule for Playa Santo Domingo
Ometepe Island is an untouched place of beauty. Put it on your bucket list to visit!