the tropical paradise of isla ometepe

Wednesday, January 4, 2023: We packed up early in Granada and left the Airbnb by 7 a.m., driving 1 1/2 hours to San Jorge, Rivas. There, we caught the 9:00 ferry (about 1 hour on the very rough seas of Lake Nicaragua) to Moyogalpa, the main gateway to Ometepe. Located on the west side of Volcán Concepción, it is the largest village and commercial center on Isla Ometepe.

We stopped to take a picture on the airport runway (it’s the only air strip on the island and is rarely used), and then went directly to Punta Jesús María, a narrow spit of land formed by water currents and sediments. In some years, during the dry season, the sand bank juts into the lake for more than 1 km and you can walk to the tip with water splashing in from both sides.

From the land spit, you can have a panoramic view of Isla Ometepe with its two volcanoes. The third volcano, which can be seen across the lake on the mainland of Nicaragua, is Mombacho, which we saw when we were in Granada.

Sadly today we weren’t lucky enough to get out on the sandbar because the lake level, still high from the rainy season, had totally submerged it.

On the long dirt road there, as we drove behind a red truck stuffed with a family of Nicaraguans standing in the back, Adam turned on the music he used to make a video he’d sent us, “Vido de Rico” (Rich Life), a song by Camilo, and played it as we videotaped the drive. Sadly, I can’t include the song on the video as I don’t have the copyright, so I used another Spanish song.

We stopped at the Emerald Rainbow Caravan Hostel where Adam worked and lived for a while. The hostel has numerous vehicles that have been painted and converted to guest rooms with Turkish decor. We met some of Adam’s friends, but we talked mostly to Bob from Pennsylvania; he owns a house near the hostel. We sat and visited with him for a bit. He was very thankful that Adam had stayed with him while he had appendix surgery, which he said almost killed him. We could easily see how much people around these parts love Adam.

We made another stop to meet Manja, a German woman who married a Nicaraguan man, Horacio, and has two children; the girl is Elouisa but I didn’t catch the boy’s name. Manja has lived on Ometepe for 12 years. She runs a school where Adam volunteers by teaching math to the children. She has been a good friend to Adam. She happened upon Ometepe while volunteering for a women’s organization when she was young and didn’t know yet what to do with her life.

We ate lunch at Cafe Campestre, where the food was delicious (but service was very slow). Adam played poker here every Saturday night with a group of ex-pat men. Adam and I ordered Red Snapper Ceviche (very spicy!). Alex enjoyed Red Beef Massaman: a fragrant, mildly spiced tender local beef curry with coconut milk, kaffir lime, potatoes, tamarind, and peanuts. Mike had Pumpkin and Chickpea Curry: pumpkins sauteed in coconut milk with chickpeas, fresh turmeric, lemongrass, galangal, lime and red chilies.

We chatted with the British owner Ben who has been on the island for about 20 years; he has a love of Indian food and is passionate about cooking with spices from around the world.

Manja and Elouisa joined us at the table for most of our lunch. Elouisa teased Adam a lot and kept tossing chili sauce, pepper and salt into his beer. He has a great rapport with children.

We had helped Adam buy a house on Ometepe as he loves the simple life here and has forged a great community of ex-pats, Christians at the church he attends, and Nicaraguans. He works on various farming projects with rice and plantains, and although nothing has worked out yet, he believes he’s learning from his challenges and failures.

After lunch, we went to Adam’s bright green Nica-style house which needs a lot of work (new roof, new plumbing, indoor kitchen, on and on…). It was a big mess and a lot of junk was piled everywhere. He does have a stovetop, freezer, a nice cupboard with screen panels, and wooden rocking chairs made by a carpenter friend. He also has three bicycles, a massage table, an outdoor shower, an inside toilet, and a motorbike. He laid bricks to create a walkway to the shower and back porch. Adam loves Manja’s Nica-house and there is definitely potential in his, but it needs a LOT of work!

We met his little dog, Biggy Smalls (a female), who he was very happy to see since he’d been traveling with us. Some of his neighbors had looked after her while he was gone.

Adam’s house is in Balgùe near Santa Cruz and on the Volcán Maderas side of Ometepe. Balgùe has a laid-back backpacker vibe and new accommodations and restaurants keep popping up.

Ometepe’s main road runs in a rough barbell shape, circling each of the two volcanoes and running along the northern shore of the isthmus between them. The Concepción side of the island is more developed, and the major towns of Moyogalpa and Altagracia are connected by paved road.

Alex was feeling very grumpy and down on himself, feeling like he always falls short compared to his brother. He sees that Adam is very sociable and fits in easily everywhere. Alex doesn’t believe he has it in him to be sociable and easygoing with people. Of course, I think he sells himself short as I find him very personable, smart, hard-working and capable.

We stayed at El Encanto Garden Hotel, managed by Adam’s friends Josh and Carolina. From the outdoor dining area of the hotel, we enjoyed watching hummingbirds and seeing the view of Volcán Concepción.


view of Volcán Concepción from El Encanto Garden Hotel

We ate a delicious dinner at Pizzeria Mediterránea where, once again, Adam ran into a number of friends. His community here seems expansive and inclusive.

One of his friends was Emre from Turkey. Emre was setting up tables in front of the restaurant, selling bracelets and other jewelry. He said he loved Ataturk, but despises Erdogan. I bought a bracelet from him in solidarity. 🙂

Thursday, January 5: In the morning, Mike and the boys went on a walk uphill from Adam’s house, while I enjoyed a relaxing morning writing in my journal. I showered and relaxed on the porch, enjoying the breeze and lush tropical surroundings at El Encanto Garden Hotel.

We went to Al Ojo de Agua in the afternoon. Al Ojo de Agua is in the community of Santo Domingo on Ometepe. The water from this natural pool comes directly from Volcán Concepción. Because it is volcanic water, it is rich in potassium, magnesium, calcium, sulfur and sodium.

Another source I read said the crystal clear water was from an underground river that came from Volcán Maderas, Ometepe’s other volcano. The swimming hole is rimmed with cement to form two separate swimming areas where the water gets renewed constantly by the spring that emerges from the bottom of the upper pool.

The lower pool is almost 2 meters deep and 4o meters long. On the edge around the pools can you doze in wooden sun chairs or sit at plastic tables and order food from the restaurant or eat food that you bring yourself.

We ordered a lunch of quesadillas and tacos and fruit juices. At the far end was a platform with a rope swing where you could swing out and jump into the deep water. The boys and Mike had fun doing that while I watched over our belongings.

After a while, Alex and Adam brought us some Coco Locos, rum and coconut drinks. I brought out my selfie stick which I had never used before. We were all laughing hysterically at my utter incompetence at using the selfie stick. I was drinking out of a straw and trying to use the selfie stick and laughing when I suddenly choked and spit out the drink all over the ground. I couldn’t breathe and I thought, this is it! I’m done for! The guys tried to calm me down and I was finally able to breathe with some difficulty.

It was hilarious while at the same time utterly terrifying. Finally, after I calmed down, I decided to give the rope swing a try. I swam to the far end of the pool and thought I saw some steps in the concrete wall so I could climb out. Suddenly, I found myself being sucked into the drainage system for the pool. It took a mighty effort to pull myself free.

I finally climbed up on the platform, put myself in a Zen state of mind, and, without hesitation, jumped out over the water on the rope swing. I felt like I was a thousand pounds of dead weight and plopped heavily into the water.

Adam said he worried about me, especially after almost choking and then almost getting sucked into the drainage pipe. But I survived the rope jump without incident. I didn’t choose to do it twice!

When we returned to El Encanto, I took a shower and relaxed some more while Alex and Adam went for a ride on Adam’s motorbike (with Alex driving).

At 4:00 in the afternoon, we rented kayaks from Adam’s friend Hector near Playa Caiman. We took the kayaks down the Rio Istian where the birds and wildlife became increasingly active as it neared sunset. We heard lots of birds in the trees and saw an egret up close; he took off in flight as we approached. We skirted the mangroves and enjoyed the silence. It was a beautiful and peaceful excursion that we all enjoyed immensely, a great way to spend our final afternoon in Ometepe.

We enjoyed a lovely dinner in the thatched roof restaurant at Hotel Los Cocos. We listened to the song “Ola Adiós” by Vacación at the restaurant.

Later, we sat out on the patio of El Encanto and talked with the managers of the hotel, Josh and Carolina, and two Dutch travelers who planned to head to Mexico for the first time on Monday. It was a fun and fascinating conversation about travel and life in Ometepe.

Friday, January 6: After another delicious breakfast at El Encanto, we packed up and drove an hour, arriving in Moyogalpa by 10 a.m. to catch the 11:30 ferry back to the mainland. We had a lot of time to kill so we walked around to get a feel for life in the island port town.

We stopped at The Corner Store for some fruit juices and cold coffee drinks. We were so happy to have Adam with us to help figure out the ferry!

Moyogalpa, on the west side of Volcán Concepción,  is home to the ferry terminal for hourly boats from the mainland. It’s the nerve center for Ometepe’s fledgling tourist industry.

We wandered uphill on the main drag to have a look at the pretty Iglesia Moyogalpa and admired the nativity scenes and Christmas decorations.

We took the hour-long ferry across to the mainland. It was the same small ferry we’d used to cross over just two days earlier.


Leaving Ometepe and its two volcanoes

After we got to the mainland, we drove Adam to a hardware store to look for a lockbox for his house, but he couldn’t find one. We drove him quickly back to the port so he could catch the 1:30 ferry. Mike passed a car so we could make it on time. We got stopped at a checkpoint by the police not far from where we passed the car. The policeman wanted to confiscate Mike’s driver’s license until Monday, which would have held us up in Nicaragua for three more days; we were due to leave the country on Saturday morning. Thanks to Adam’s knowledge of life in the country and his excellent Spanish-speaking abilities, we were able to avoid the penalty by handing over a 500-cordoba note (~$14).

Adam had told Mike as we left the airport in Managua the first day to never open his wallet in front of the police if we were ever stopped. Instead, he advised him to keep a 500-cordoba note in the glove compartment or between the two front seats to hand the police if we ever got stopped. Since the policeman seemed determined to keep the license despite Adam telling him we were leaving the country the next day, Mike pulled out the reserved note, folded it into his hand, and slipped it to the policeman. He took it quietly and waved us through.

Adam still missed the ferry but it was okay because he met a friend of his and they had a nice chat on the way back to the island.

Here is a video of our time on Isla Ometepe.

We said our goodbyes to Adam, and headed next to San Juan del Sur, where we would spend the night before crossing the border to Costa Rica.