In truth, not a lot. Isla de Ometepe is an incredible volcanic island located in the middle of Lago Nicaragua in the south west corner of Nicaragua. It looks like a fantasy island, something you might see in a movie about ‘lost worlds’: the island is literally two giant volcanoes (one still active) connected by a thin strip of land formed by a lava flow from a previous eruption.
The land that skirts the volcanoes is home to a few villages that house the local community and, increasingly, international travellers who come in search of peace and quiet, black sand beaches, wildlife and adventure. Clearly no one has considered that one of the volcanoes could go ‘bang’ at any moment…that would be an adventure!
The volcanoes dominate the landscape. You can see one-or-the-other, or both at the same time, almost everywhere you go on the island. Both are climbable, but really, in this climate, are you going to drag yourself off the beach and up a serious incline?
We’d started the day with a 40 minute bus ride to the Penas Blancas border-crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Stepping off the bus there were so many people wanting to change money, carry our bags or hire a taxi it was like being in a cattle mart. Clearing Costa Rican immigration we had a bizarre 1km walk to Nicaraguan immigration – some sign posts would be really useful – where we were fleeced of $26 dollars to enter the country and gave up the will to live.
At which point we paid $20 to get in a taxi towards San Jorge.
You reach Isla de Ometepe either on an antique passenger boat or a fairly modern ferry. When we arrived at the dock in San Jorge the antique passenger boat was about to leave. We paid our $2 and hoped for the best. It wasn’t a smooth crossing. It might be a lake but it has waves more like the ocean and our little boat was pitching around, cargo was flying across the deck and several passengers looked a little unwell.
We reached the ‘town’ of Moyogalpa seventy minutes later to be greeted by a hoard of touts selling hotel rooms, motorbike and cycle rental, restaurants and tours – this is the low season and your business is important! Negotiating our way out of the throng we landed safely in The Cornerhouse, flopped down in the midday heat and had a watermelon smoothy while trying to work out where to stay. I’d wanted a rum smoothy but it was a no-go from the start.
The island has dozens of places to stay – from party hostel to working farm. FInally, we decided to head to the near-deserted Charco Verde, which has cabanas overlooking a lovely beach, gets stunning sunsets and is next door to the Reserva Charco Verde (home to monkeys and lots of birds).
While Isla de Ometepe is definitely embracing tourism, island life is still pretty slow and traditional – and I mean slow. You’re more likely to see people driving an ox-cart or riding a horse than you are to see cars. The one traffic-jam we found ourselves involved in was twenty cows walking slowly down the road with occasional encouragement from a man on horseback. How long this will stay the same is debatable.
It is a lovely place to spend a few days relaxing – you could go up a volcano but, really, why? The island is also home to several pre-Hispanic sites that are worth making the effort to see. There are rock carvings and petroglyphs of humans or animals still in situ, although the island’s small and disorderly museum hosts a number of examples of pre-Hispanic pottery, Stone Age tools and even a couple of gold ornaments and jade jewellery.
Bizarrely, in the middle of the island there is also a fresh water pool that is both crystal clear and refreshingly cool. The person who found this place must have thought they’d landed in paradise. Their descendants now charge $3 for the privilege of knowing why an oasis is really lovely. It is fed by an underground spring and is surrounded by trees. You can swim in the pool while exotic birds flit overhead and, in the heat of the day, it is probably the nicest way to spend an hour imaginable.
This, however, is an island for sunsets, and it is the sunsets I’ll remember most…