From Lake Nicaragua, the same lake that the Spanish conquerors called the ‘fresh water sea’ because of its sheer size, rises the island Ometepe. The name Ometepe means ‘two hills’ in the native ‘náhuatl’ language. The island measures 276 square kilometers and it houses two majestic volcanoes connected through a small strip of land.
Ometepe is currently one of the destinations admired by both local and international tourists for its nature, hospitality, beautiful landscapes, the two volcanoes, a rich archeological background, relaxing beaches and its numerous natural reserves and forests that enjoy a high biodiversity.
For ages, the island has represented a paradisiacal destination. According to stories obtained by historians, indigenous tribes traveled from up north to find a paradise as foreseen in a vision by their prophets; a place formed by two hills which they found at Ometepe while traveling down south. The island consequently transformed into a sanctuary inhabited by a mix of different tribes and cultures – something that is revealed by the immense amount of petroglyphs, ceramics, and statues that can be found all throughout the island.
The island is currently inhabited by friendly people who love their territory, dedicated to fishing and high quality agricultural production which is made possible by the fertile soil. More recently, the ometepinos (inhabitants of Ometepe) have started to attend tourists and nowadays the island houses numerous establishments offering lodging, food, tours, and other services that enable tourists from all over the world to visit and explore this paradise.
Below we will explain the principal tourist destination of Ometepe.
Moyogalpa: access to paradise
The main port of the island is the port at the city of Moyogalpa (again a word obtained from the náhuatl language, meaning ‘place of mosquitoes’). Three boats and a ferry travel back and forth several times a day during the whole week to connect Moyogalpa to San Jorge, a small town in the department of Rivas.
When arriving at the port of Moyogalpa, you will right away see the active, cone-shaped and most likely clouded Concepción volcano at the background. Moyogalpa is a small, calm town. However, it does offer useful services to tourists like comfortable hotels and hostels; restaurants where you can enjoy local and international food or drink a fresh tropical fruit juice; companies that rent cars, motorcycles, or bicycles; as well as specialized guides, bars with friendly atmospheres, pharmacies, internet cafes, and also a well-equipped health center.
A recently paved road connects Moyogalpa with the city of Altagracia, located at the other side of the Concepción volcano. This road also connects other streets and unpaved roads that lead to other interesting areas. There is some quite good signage that makes it easy to find the destinations.
By following this main road that start at Moyogalpa, you can visit Punta Jesús María, located five kilometers from the city. Punta Jesús María is a narrow tip located at the most western point of the island. It is about twenty meters wide and 200 meters long, and it enjoys a lot of shade from leafy trees that surround the area. This point ends with a sand bar that stretches into the lake for more than one kilometer during the dry season. Water from the lake washes ashore at both sides of this sand bar, which has a width of about five meters. From this point, you can watch a great sunset and there is also a possibility of camping here.
From Moyogalpa you can also visit the Concepción volcano (altitude: 1610 meter), ascending its slopes and passing through its forests inhabited by howler monkeys and white face monkeys, as well as a multitude of birds and insects. If the clouds do not block it, the views from the volcano are magnificent.
The Concepción is an active volcano and its most recent eruption took place in 1957. The islanders will confirm that sporadic expulsions of gases or occasional earth movements are commonplace and by itself no reason to panic. There are, according to several organizations at Ometepe, specific, well-determined areas of risk during a possible eruption.
At some small settlements south of Moyogalpa, a group of inhabitants has set up rooms to offer ‘Village-Hotel’ services that enable visitors to live with the islanders and become familiar with their way of living. This project is not yet up and running, but you could inquire at the offices of a foundation in Moyogalpa, called ‘Fundación Entre Volcanes’.
The region north of Moyogalpa has a difficult access and is therefore less visited by tourists. Small, rural settlements and beautiful but rarely visited beaches are located at this area.
The Tourism Festival of Ometepe will start the 17th of December. Entrepreneurs and authorities from the tourism sector as well as the local population will participate in this event. There will be dances, festivities, bicycle races, ox races, and rowing boat races, as well as other activities.
Charco Verde: spectacular nature
Continuing the road to Altagracia, you will pass by the natural reserve of Charco Verde located at kilometer 11. The reserve houses a hill, a lagoon separated from the lake by only a narrow strip of land, and a spectacular flora and fauna. Furthermore, this area is famous throughout whole Ometepe for its fascinating myths.
Lodging is offered by three places located within the reserve of Charco Verde. They vary in price and comfort, but each one of them is interesting for its location.
The forest of Charco Verde is inhabited by three howler monkey families of about 70 individuals each. Furthermore, migratory and local birds can also be found within the area, as well as insects and even boas.
Part of the calm lagoon is covered in mangrove forest where the trees with submerged tree trunks throw a shadow on the water and create a mystical atmosphere. The rest of the lagoon’s shore is covered by rich vegetation and large fruit trees. During the raining season, the lake’s water level increases and water from Lake Nicaragua invades the lagoon of Charco Verde.
At the eastern part of Charco Verde there is a hill that carries the same name of the reserve, with a viewpoint located at the top, called Mirador del Diable, or the Devil’s Viewpoint. You can hike to this point and enjoy the beautiful views.
At the reserve you can explore the lagoon or the lake from a kayak, you can walk around or horseback ride within the reserve, up the hill, or towards neighboring communities. Furthermore, Charco Verde is a great place to swim or sunbathe and enjoy the beach.
At Charco Verde as well as at any other place on Ometepe you can ask the people about the myth of Chico Largo. This was supposedly a very big guy who owned Charco Verde and who turned into this possessed character after making a treaty with the devil. Or you can learn more about Mama Bucha, who is the mother of Chico Largo. Mama Bucha comes backs from death during the Holy Week (Easter) and strolls looking for pumpkins to carry water, impregnating the surroundings with the smell of cigar.
Altagracia: traditions and heritage
The second most important city of Ometepe is Altagracia, located northeast of the Concepción. Its original name was Astagalpa (meaning ‘house of the herons’ in náhuatl), but it was changed with the arrival of the Spanish and Castilian culture.
Altagracia is also a small town where life is relaxed. There are well-equipped hotels and cheap but comfortable hostels, as well as internet cafes, pharmacies, and stores.
One of the most attractive aspects of the city is the Pre-Columbian Museum where various examples of pre-Columbian ceramics, statues, and petroglyphs are displayed, all found at the island.
Very close to the city is the port of Gracia (Puerto de Gracia). Boats that travel from one side of Lake Nicaragua to the other side (from Granada to the San Juan River and back) pass by this port. The frequency, however, is limited. If you want to travel to either of the two destinations, take in mind that the boat travels only twice per week.
An important cultural event that takes place at Altagracia concerns the patron’s festivities (fiestas patronales) honoring San Diego de Alcalá. These festivities take place from November 12th until November 17th. During this event you can enjoy the different forms in which the population celebrates this event. For this year, for example, a bull run is organized, among other things.
During the celebrations so-called Sompopo dances are performed at the streets. The people move along the streets in a procession, while dancing on the rhythm of the drums with their hands covered in green leaves. This dance is called after ant-like animals that walk in lines towards their nest, carrying leaves. These red insects are known as Sompopos. Santo Domingo: more than a beach
Before arriving at the city of Altagracia, there is a turn you can take towards the Santo Domingo beach (Playa Santo Domingo). An unpaved road brings you to the narrow strip of land connecting the two volcanoes, harboring the most beautiful beaches of Ometepe, according to many.
At the area there are five hotels and hostels, offering different types of amenities and quality at different rates. To some islanders, the official bird of Ometepe is the blue-tailed magpie (urraca); a colorful bird with a distinguishing white forelock. At Santo Domingo, there are a lot of these birds. You can also find other animals with ease including squirrels, and hummingbirds, and with some luck falcons, deer, tortoises, and fresh water turtles.
Besides beautiful beaches, Santo Domingo also offers many activities. There is a small canopy-tour (ziplines), and some hotels offer rowing boats, windsurfing equipment, and even kite-surfing equipment for rent. Hiking can be done at the tropical forest of Cabuya towards the south, or at the Istián River and its mangroves towards the east – both of them containing a high biodiversity.
Indigenous communities are located right before arriving at the Santo Domingo beach. The communities of Urbaite and Las Pilas are both working on a project to offer ‘Village-Hotel’ services which allow tourists interested in agro-tourism and interaction with the local population to observe all this from very close by. These communities are similar to the mestizo communities in their daily routine. Indigenous characteristics include their cultural identification and their communal life.
Maderas: production and mysticism
he zone of the Maderas volcano is no doubt a rural zone with its small agricultural villages and large, productive farms. Here there are several places to observe the pre-Columbian traces consisting of petroglyphs of different sizes.
Several of these haciendas have been equipped with comfortable and cheap hotels, both north and south of the volcano. These farms are stocked by their own production, which includes organic coffee, and the visitors can often participate in the agricultural activities. Within the estates or very close to it you can find petroglyphs, often easily accessible by hiking trails.
Hotels at the Maderas volcano as well as other hotels at the island offer great views of the volcano and its tropical cloud forest. Hiking the Maderas takes quite some time but the splendid natural setting offers a great compensation.
The Maderas volcano is dormant and has an altitude of 1394 meters. Its slopes are covered in forest where you can easily spot howler monkeys and white face monkeys. The vegetation is abundant and the trees are so leafy that they continuously color your hike in a green hue. The green color is alternated by other colors from the colorful flowers that grow in the zone, including a rich variety of orchids.
The trails lead to the lagoon located at the top of the volcano, within the forest. The tranquility, the vegetation, and the sound of birds and an occasional monkey, together with the cloudy atmosphere often present at the lagoon give this site an amazing, mystical setting. According to the islanders, the area is inhabited by fairies and other supernatural spirits.
San Ramón and Mérida: remote, natural splendor
Two little, rural towns called Mérida and San Ramón are located on the southwestern slope of the Maderas Volcano, both right in front of the lake. San Ramón has about 3,000 inhabitants and is famous for the impressive San Ramón waterfall.
This waterfall is located about 4 kilometers from the village, and it can be accessed after a spectacular hike. Great nature and superb views can be expected along the road. More about hiking to the San Ramón waterfall can be found in our Activity Guide.
The same trail that leads to the waterfall can also be used to reach the top of the Maderas Volcano. This is one of the main routes to access to top of this magnificent volcano. Furthermore, every year, at the end of April, San Ramón hosts a famous fishing tournament.
Another interesting aspect of San Ramón is the biological field station that is situated at the border of this small village. Here, foreign students and scientists can study the monkeys that live in this area. In cooperation with universities from the U.S. and other countries, the field station offers a summer course from June through August, and a winter course in January. The place is also open for tourists.
The other village, Mérida, is a similar, rural village on the slope of the Maderas Volcano. A variety of activities can be undertaken in this area, including biking, horseback riding, and kayaking. There are two small islands located in front of the village, known as the Monkey Islands. They are named after the pet monkeys that were released there.
From Mérida there is also access in kayak to the beautiful region of the Istián River. This area is home to many beautiful birds and other animals. It can be reached after a one-hour kayak trip.
Both the authorities and activist organizations are quite preoccupied with the environmental and cultural conservation of Ometepe. The national and foreign visitors should take this in mind and avoid undertaking activities that damage the island’s nature, cultural heritage, or the tranquility of the islanders.
A couple years ago the smuggling of archeological pieces and precious wood was a serious problem at the island. Nowadays, with cooperation of the army and the national police, better measures are in place to prevent this and the problems currently pose a minimal threat. Please note that taking archeological pieces from the island is illegal.
Ometepe was and still is a natural paradise, where the pre-Columbian sanctuary and beautiful scenery amazes visitors from all over the world. It is a place that should be consciously preserved.
Getting there and getting around
You can get to the island by boat or ferry from San Jorge (close to the city Rivas) or Granada. Taking a boat from San Jorge is the fastest way, taking about one hour to get to the main port in Moyogalpa. Ferries are bigger than the regular boats and can also take cars. The fare is less than U$2. See also the schedule below. The boat from Granada leaves only twice a week and is not as reliable as the boats from San Jorge. This boat will take you to the north side of the island, to the city of Altagracia.
A newly paved road between Moyogalpa and Altagracia has dramatically decreased travel times between these towns. The distance is about 24 kilometer, and it takes around 30-40 minutes to get from Moyogalpa to Altagracia and vice versa. The road to the Maderas Volcano is still unpaved and it requires more time and effort to get to this side of the island. For the most private hotels and unexplored nature, however, this is the place to be. You can rent a car on the island, or take your own car there from San Jorge. For the unpaved roads, you need a high clearance vehicle. There are also taxies and buses on the island. Taxies are more expensive than the taxies on the mainland, although prices still hover at very reasonable levels, given the distances and road conditions. Buses and microbuses allow you to get to most places on the island, but bear in mind that public transportation is limited on Sunday.