It’s said that nothing worthwhile comes easily, right? Whoever said that clearly has traveled through Nicaragua. The country is absolutely beautiful, but many of its treasures are only reached via challenging or interesting methods of transportation.
By this point, Xavier and I were tallying how many unique methods of transportation we had employed in our trip. Bus, train, commercial jet, 12-seater propeller plane, taxi, panga boat, dive boat, chicken bus, horse-drawn carriage… That’s nine! Not bad for six days.
We were about to add another form of transport, and for the most worthy of destinations.
Isla de Ometepe is the world’s largest volcanic island inside a freshwater lake in the entire world. The island was formed by two distinct volcanoes – the 1600-meter Concepción in the north, and slightly shorter Maderas towards the south. A narrow isthmus, or land bridge, runs between the two volcanoes. Adding to the excitement, Concepción is an active volcano! It has erupted as recently as 2010. Although its peak is usually cloaked by clouds, on clearer days you can see wisps of smoke pooling at its tip.
They’re building an airport on Ometepe, but for now, visitors must take ferries. Those ferries depart from many points on the mainland. Even Granada is a point of departure, which is convenient for many travelers who enjoy five-hour ferry rides. Our choice? Travel by land to San Jorge, where the ferry ride lasts just an hour.
We caught a chicken bus from Granada to Rivas, which cost a couple of bucks each and took almost two hours. From Rivas, our fastest option was to take a taxi directly to San Jorge. We shared the cab with a couple of older ladies from the States, who were incredibly confused by the whole process and Xavier’s rapid-fire Spanish bartering with our driver. “Wait, are you from here? Is he from here? You’re from the States? We are too! You know Spanish? How does he know Spanish? He’s not from here? Is he your tour guide?” Somehow, we all got to the dock in time to catch the 2:00 ferry.
The view from the San Jorge dock was an exciting reminder of what was in store and where we were headed. Yes, guys, that is an active volcano. We weren’t just going to look at it. We were going to step on it.
The ferry has three levels of seats, but if they’re full, you can squeeze in wherever there’s room – even if that means underneath the galley stairs. There were two battered seats inside, where it was borderline unbearably hot.
On a brighter note, the ride took just over an hour. I watched the volcano grow larger and larger as we approached.
Ometepe’s major port city is called Moyogalpa, and like many other ports, it is somewhat of a circus. If you don’t know where you’re going, you will be approached by locals and urged to consider whichever hotel is giving them kickbacks. Once again, we had no idea where we should stay. We had vague ideas of heading towards the southern Maderas side of the island, the smaller volcano. Our indecision didn’t phase one of the taxi drivers, who shepherded us into his SUV and drove us approximately three hundred meters to the Internet cafe.
Our options were:
– Stay in Moyogalpa for the duration of the trip. Pros: convenient, proximity to some tour operators, no $25 cab fare to Maderas. Cons: loud, boring, too commercial.
– Stay in Moyogalpa one night, then find finca/hostel closer to Maderas for the next couple of days. Pros: immediate relaxation, buys time to find the best place to stay, allows us a blend of experience on Ometepe. Cons: time may be wasted because we’re not on the other side of the island immediately.
– Try to find finca/hostel closer to Maderas immediately. Pros: instant gratification. Cons: We had no idea what we were looking for and didn’t want to waste money and time driving around a remote island looking for random empty rooms.
On the fly, we decided that it might be best to stay put in Moyogalpa for the night and head towards Maderas the next day. I camped out in the internet cafe to find our next destination, savoring the air conditioning. Xavier trooped off to find us a room.
We reconnected a half-hour later with great news on both sides. First, we had a room for the night at the Cornerhouse Inn! For $40 USD, we would be occupying a breezy corner room and its private bathroom. Breakfast the next morning was included. And I had booked the perfect resort for the next two days: the Hotel Xalli, in Santa Domingo.
Xavier had done a great job. Our room was adorable. I loved the mixture of brick and wood and immediately swore that our future farmhouse would be built with exactly that combination of materials.
The room also boasted an amazing view of Concepcion.
There wasn’t much time to settle in. Sunset would be here within a couple of hours, and my boyfriend was determined to rent a motorbike and do some exploring. It’s the best way to see the island, since many of the roads are unpaved and rough. I was a little nervous, but we negotiated our price, helmeted up, and took off.
(By the way, that makes for 11 forms of transportation now that we’ve added a ferry and a motorbike).
Our first glimpses of Ometepe were interesting. The island’s highway system consists of one main road that circles around the entire island. We headed straight up that road, passing little towns, farms, and plenty of roaming cows and chickens. Although about 30,000 people live there, signs of development were minimal. Most buildings were rustic, comprised mostly of sheet metal and stray boards. The island lifestyle was in full effect, though. People were calm and relaxed, even when they were walking around the road, swinging machetes. (Everyone seemed to have their own machete!). Many seemed to spend their time stretched out on their porches or even on rocks in their front yards, just watching.
The people of Ometepe travel mainly by bicycle and motorbike. We would have fit right in on our bike, except for one thing: locals don’t seem to wear helmets! Our sleek, shiny, full-head motorcycle helmets pegged us as tourists from a mile away.
Almost everywhere, you could simply glance up see the steep slopes of Concepción standing tall over the surroundings. It was a constant reminder that we weren’t on just any island, but an island made out of pure unadulterated volcano.
The main road traveled directly across the new airport’s runway. We stopped in the middle to admire the dramatic view, and wonder what would happen when the airport opens for business. Since people, cattle, and horses seem to freely wander around the island with little to no regard for defined roadways, I can only imagine the mayhem that will occur when an airplane needs to land and the cows aren’t budging.
If there is anywhere closer to heaven than your arms wrapped around your love, taking in the sights of a volcanic island from the back of a motorbike, I’d like to find it.
Little Corn Island was an amazing beginning to our trip. We had wondered how anything could top it. But after just a couple of hours on Ometepe, we knew this experience would be incredibly special.
Because Xavier knows how much I adore sunsets, he swung the bike around and brought us to the port just in time to catch the sun descending beneath the waters of Lake Nicaragua.
It was magical… and then we discovered the midges. Or rather, they discovered us.
Midges are a seasonal affliction on Ometepe. They are clouds – literally, clouds – of small flying insects that swarm like locusts but, thankfully, do not bite. You must remember that they do not bite in order to stay sane as they buzz, fly, and crawl all over you.
Anyway, we swatted ourselves like crazy, jumped back on the bike, and took off to find something to eat.
Food in Nicaragua is satisfying and delicious in a way that food at home isn’t. Our dinners were simple plates from the most casual of restaurants: fried chicken and fish, served with the ubiquitous french fries, rice, and salad. But the flavors were phenomenal. Dining abroad always makes me lament the industrialized agricultural system that dominates the US. The majority of American meat is utterly flavorless. This Nicaraguan chicken actually tasted like chicken. Sure, it was breaded and fried, but when you got a piece without crunch it was still worthwhile. The best analogy I can think of is, have you had a pale, watery tomato from the grocery store in January? Compare that to what you’ll find at a farm stand in July. One version is a pale imitation of what it always should have been. The flavors made the simplest of meals crave-worthy.
Walking back to the inn was a little intimidating. Apparently, the island has its own Virgin, and we’d arrived on the night that they set off fireworks and then parade the statue around town to celebrate the preservation of its virginity. (Or something like that. I was not raised Catholic, so don’t quote me on my explanations of their religious events). The random bursts of firework explosions had been making me jump all night, but nothing was as eerie as exiting the restaurant directly ahead of the parade. I looked behind to find us being tailed by hundreds of people wielding a statue of a virgin and chanting. I was able to snap this quick shot with my phone before we hightailed it back to the hotel.
The next day on Ometepe would be one of the best yet.
Have you ever been followed by a mob while traveling?