Ometepe - throwback to the past

Trip Start Dec 06, 2011
Trip End Jan 28, 2012

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Where I stayed
Hotel Casa Istian
What I did
Ojos de Agua, Isla Ometepe
Charco Verde

Flag of Nicaragua  , Rivas,
Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ometepe. We were thinking very hard whether we wanted to come here at all, because it is tricky to get around and more remote. 
Travelling with Ben we can't just turn up, hitch a ride on the back of a pickup truck and hope to find a hammock for the night. Most emails went unanswered and since we didn't have the time to spend hours calling, we settled on an agency to arrange everything for us.    In the end we made our decision to go very late and got ripped off with ridiculously high prices by middle men that don't pass the money on to those doing the work. Frustrating, also because we were not in control of where we were going and where we were staying. 

Anyway, the island itself is incredible. 
Beautiful, lush, a volcano either end and a swampy river in the middle.  I´m assuming you know as little about it as we did before we went, so here´s a bit of background. This is what wikipedia has to say: "Ometepe is an island formed by two volcanoes rising from Lake Nicaragua in the Republic of Nicaragua. Its name derives from the Nahuatl words ome (two) and tepetl(mountain), meaning two mountains. It is the largest island in Lake Nicaragua as well as the largest volcanic island inside a fresh water lake in the world. The two volcanoes, Concepción and Maderas, are joined by a low isthmus to form one island in the shape of an hourglass. Ometepe has an area of 276 km². It is 31 km long and 5 to 10 km wide. The island has a population of 42,000, and an economy based on livestock, agriculture, and tourism. Plantains are the major crop. As of June 2010, it is scheduled to be named a UNESCO Biosphere Preserve.      
 Volcán Concepción (once named Ometepe volcano) is the northwest half of the island. Concepción is a symmetrical cone, and is an active volcano which now reaches an altitude of 1 610 m. It is the world's highest lake island. This volcano is considered the most perfectly formed volcano cone in Central America. The volcano went through a long quiet period, but on 8 December 1880 Concepción came back to life. This eruption was extensive, and the volcano remained active for a year. More eruptions followed in 1883, 1889, 1902, 1907, and 1924. In 2005, an earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale occurred as a result of increasing pressure within the active Concepción volcano. Cracks appeared in the roads on Ometepe and advice to leave the island was issued. This was the first minor eruption since 1999. The most recent eruption was in 2010. This eruption was extremely violent; however few of the island's inhabitants heeded the order from the government in Managua to evacuate the island. The southeast half of the island consists of Volcán Maderas, which has a crater lake and supports a diverse rainforest environment. This volcano also arose in the Holocene Epoch, and rises 1 394 m above sea level. It is considered extinct or dormant. A large lagoon formed in its crater, and was discovered on 15 April 1930 by the farmer Casimiro Murillo. It is covered with coffee and tobacco plantations and the remaining rain forest. This volcano is a perfect destination for the ecotourist with a notable hike originating from Finca Magdalena. Much of this part of the island is now a nature reserve. The volcanic ash has made the soil of this island extremely fertile, allowing continuous planting without fallowing. The volcanoes are visible from everywhere on the island, and life on Ometepe revolves closely around them. They also play an important part in the myths and legends of the island, which once served as an Indian burial ground."  

So there you go. It was a rather adventurous boat trip to get there, a smallish boat, with an unsecured top deck, very bumpy, no railings, but a couple of big boxes and motorbikes. The way they pushed the bikes up this thin wooden plank we were amazed that none fell into the water. There we were, perched amongst backpackers and locals, ben in his floating jacket, joking about them taking our names in case the boat went down... I took the fact that they didn't collect our fare until we were nearly there as a sign of confidence that we would arrive! The bottom deck looked more grim, and it felt like any wave could just go into the lower deck and sink the boat, but obviously the boat is sturdier and more reliable than it looked, as there were plenty of locals using it. Unfortunately one of the little local boys was sick which we didn´t realise until the sick had run our way and soaked Ben´s clothes... Urgh. Ben looked really odd as you can see in the pictures as he has discovered Fanta and out here they still make them the old way with lots of colorants, so he has an orange moustache in most pictures. Trying to get off the boat was trickier than getting on to it. It´s first come first served, so people don´t wait to let people off before they get on... A little bit of organisation and order could have gone a long way, but hey, it´s all part of the experience. We were pleased that our taxi waited for us the other end and that the room reservation also worked out.   

So using the hourglass image, we arrived at the active thick volcano end and stayed on the thin bit, in Hotel Istian on Playa Domingo near Santa Cruz. Playa is an exaggeration, because the rainy season finished not that long ago, the water levels in lake nicaragua are high so there is no beach right now. We´ve heard that this is the highest they have ever seen the lake, but it´s difficult to know whether this is true. Our room was spartan, and we didn't get the best nights sleep, all three of us huddled under our mosquito net in a double bed with very noisy air conditioning unit and a slight smell. In most places you are meant yo put the used toilet paper in a bin, not flush it, but it wasn't nice in this place, where they used a plastic paper bin without lid and didn't empty it the two nights we were there...  :-/  It was all pretty simple, but the business did sustain a local family, so at least that´s something...   

Apart from wifi and mobile phones, Ometepe is a throwback to 50 or 60 years ago. Absolutely incredible and very, very precious. They are extending the plastered road and are building a small airstrip, so i guess it won't stay like this for very much longer. Although the way they were building the road... They are essentially building it by hand. Laying boundaries for the sidewalk, levelling it with spirit levels, the sort you probably have in your toolbox at home to straighten a picture on a wall... Then the hollow is filled with concrete, mixed by hand by the side of the road. The only piece of heavy equipment we saw was a truck which they used to transport the labourers, bags of concrete mix and water. Overnight the concrete bags were stored at our hotel. The main road is paved with stones, not tarmac. We have since seen brick making workshops by the side of the road, so with hindsight, it wouldn´t surprise me if the bricks were made by hand, too! The airstrip crosses the road (!!!), so who knows how they´ll stop the traffic (human and animals) or whether they´ll ever get around to constructing a building to go with the runway...

There is a lot of poverty on the island. People life a simple life, making money from tourism, fishing or agriculture, bananas being the main crop. Charity and Aid is never far away or so it seemed. A boat funded by the Danish development agency (with money wasted printing this fact onto the side of the boat), banana plantations and exports supported by US AID and Catholic Relief Services, some building donated by the Japanese government, and so it continued. The soil is really fertile, but as we saw big posters advertising the foreign support for banana exports, we did wonder if they would grow as many bananas if they didn´t get the help to export them and how this may have shaped the landscape and ways of living. They also grow beans, rice, sesame, tobacco, produce palm oil, but apart from the bananas, it all seemed to be small families tending their small area of land, nothing on a bigger scale and there was no visible mention of cooperatives anywhere. In Nicaragua as a whole, about 47% live below the poverty line, " the minimum level of income deemed adequate in a given country", but it felt like it´s a lot higher than that on Ometepe. 

People seemed to be closely connected to nature and their food. There were animals running freely everywhere. Herds of cows, goats, pigs, horses, chickens and dogs crossing the road as they liked, sometimes being herded by a local on foot or horse. At one particular point it seemed like whenever we drove past there was a suicidal piglet running across the road.... Behind our hotel was a swamp that belongs to the River Istian and there were cows standing in the water feeding, big white birds sitting on their back and ducks swimming next to them. We saw beans being dried on the ground at the hotel that form the basis of many meals and snacks. 

Food was simple and usually good if it was local. Lovely rice, beans, eggs, amazing meats and yummy vegetables. Anything else? Dodgy. We ordered English breakfast one morning... I can´t remember the full horror, but the eggs were scrambled, the bread was brioche like, it involved rice & beans and - wait for it - a Frankfurter sliced lengthways and deep fried... Urgh. They have amazing quality meat. The chicken in particular that we have eaten in Nicaragua has to rate as the best that we have ever eaten - whether at a cheap local eatery or a fancy restaurant. The beef  - incredible, but apart from some fancy restaurants, Nicaraguans appear to like it well done, grilled or fried until it´s really tough. 

We did a tour on 31 Dec which was interesting, but thanks to the middle man, a complete rip off, but at least we got to see some sights. There are some thermal springs called Ojos de Agua which are amazing. The water is lukewarm and refreshing, the lakes are crystal clear and because we went early there was no one there apart from the owners and us. We could have spent all day there! It seemed like most of these amazing natural attractions are located on private land, owned and managed by individuals and their extended families. Apparently the Finca associated with Ojos de Agua sustains more than 80 people, all extended family. We wondered how much the attractions and nature is managed for future generations and what national protection, if any, there was. Who knows. Afterwards we had lunch on an amazing eco-reserve called Chaco Verde which was more touristy. We had tried to get accommodation here, but according to the middleman it was full. Well, let´s just say it didn´t look full... Lunch was yummy, Ben played on a small playground and then discovered the paddle boats made a good climbing frame, happy in his own little world. Then we went for a walk, although our "guide" wasn´t too keen on it which was incredible. Walking through plantain plantations, seeing a lake which used to be a volcano crater (apparently as the other volcanoes rose this one sunk, hence it´s now a ground level lake), beautiful plants, nice shade and to top it all there was a howler monkey family in the trees above us. Mom & Dad were resting, whilst the little monkey was monkeying about... Felt familiar :-) On the island also saw some ancient Petroglyphs and generally observed the ways of the islanders. There was a church service, held next to the church open air because the church itself looked dilapidated; tobacco leaves drying in a small hut; the man carrying a double bed frame on his shoulders in between villages; babies wrapped in warm blankets, carried in their mothers arms (never on the shoulder or so it seems, and never in a sling) for miles and miles; lots of men cycling, but on Ometepe rarely a woman on a bike. It´s a fascinating place, and although these photos aren´t ours, they give an impression  

New Years eve we had the option to go to a party at a nearby hotel, but we were really tired, knew that Ben hates the fireworks and crackers they use and a bit weary of a drunk local taxi driver giving us a lift home, so decided to stay in the room and go to sleep early. We had downloaded Dinner for One, so Ben enjoyed his first German Silvester tradition on the tablet computer. 1 January was a travel day to get back to San Juan del Sur and be reunited with the most of our luggage. We made sure we took one of the larger ferries and ended up enjoying beautiful views from the safety of an intermediate deck. We shared a taxi back with a lovely American lady who took her 13 year old son to Nicaragua for an adventure holiday and arrived safely at El Jardin for one last huge filet steak. On 2 January our transport to Leon all went a bit pear shaped before we left as the agency forgot our booking and then told the driver a higher price than we had negotiated, but we got there safely, which is the main thing.

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