Backpacking to Isla de Ometepe

Off the beaten track – these four small words sit on every backpacker’s lips and are the very reason most people are inspired to travel. Sadly, getting away from the masses becomes more difficult each year as traveller numbers soar. But if you are searching for that small corner of the globe where jungle is still undeveloped, beaches are pristine and a basic way of life is standard, not a tourist gimmick, look no further than Central America’s gem, Nicaragua.

Central American Safety

Volcano Nicaragua Ometepe

Yes, this country has a war-torn history, but with its civil war decades behind it, now is the perfect time to visit. As one of Central America’s safest destinations and with a nation of people so warmly welcoming as to humble, you’ll wonder why you haven’t visited sooner.

Isla de Ometepe – Island of the Two Mountains

Isla de Ometepe is arguably Nicaragua’s most dramatic and breathtaking destination. Formed from two volcanoes, towering out of Lake Nicaragua, connected by an 'isthmus' (a narrow stretch of land formed from lava flows), this hour-glass shaped island stretches no more than 31 kilometres long and runs between five and ten kilometres wide.

Ometepe's Volcanoes

Bus Nicaragua Ometepe

You wouldn’t be the first to catch your breath when Ometepe’s volcanoes, Conceptión and Maderas, first loom before you. Conceptión, creating the northwest of the island, is the more imposing image owing to its height (1610m) but also because of its near-perfect, symmetrical cone shape. Although Conceptión’s last major eruption was in 1957, this volcano is still powerfully active and saw an eruption as recently as 2010.

Dormant Maderas, forming the southeast of the island, is smaller in comparison, but is still an impressive 1394m high. Maderas’ main draw, however, lies in the expansive lagoon that has formed in its crater. When viewed amid the cloud forest, this crater-lake is truly an eerie and unworldly image.

But volcanoes are not all Ometepe has to offer. With beaches, the beautiful San Ramon waterfall, naturally organic farmlands and abundant wildlife with howler and capuchin monkeys and parrots galore, you will barely find time to relax – which also happens to be another pastime Ometepe specialises in.

The Journey to Ometepe is Part of the Fun

It took Jules Vernes’ Phileas Fogg eighty days to navigate the globe, and with Nicaragua’s public transport system, it may feel like you’re enduring the same trek to do the relatively short distance from Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, to Ometepe. But it all adds to the sense of straying off the beaten track.

Buses in Nicaragua

Boat Nicaragua Ometepe

Nicaraguan bus journeys are fun, but they can be painful – listed journey times should be doubled to account for an insane number of stops. Don’t expect to get a seat, and air con is achieved by opening a window, if possible. While the roads threaten to rattle your bones into a pile, the local guy’s sheathed machete resting on your leg threatens you more closely (don’t worry, this is farming country and carrying a machete is the norm). But despite the discomfort, practising your Spanish with the old lady who has a chicken in her lap makes the journey worthwhile.

If the buses don’t ignite your sense of adventure, a jaunt on the lancha from the mainland to Ometepe will do it. Although it is only 15km away, it takes an hour to cross the lake as the small wooden boat pitches and rolls. The boat will take in more than the occasional bit of water (it will be lapping around your ankles – pity the poor man who had to carry his dog in the potato sack the whole way). If you are prepared to wait a bit longer, the more stable ferry is available, but where’s the fun in that?

Conceptión or Managua -- Climbing the Volcanoes

Confronted with Ometepe’s two volcanoes, the natural instinct is to climb one or, for the more adventurous, both of them.

Climbing Maderas

Maderas is naturally the easier of the two, but don’t be fooled into thinking it will be a leisurely stroll uphill. You will quickly find yourself knee-deep in mud with a lot of steep climbing and a tricky descent into the crater to see that all-important lagoon. You should be able to complete Maderas in eight hours up and down on a beautifully scenic route through coffee and tobacco plantations and diverse cloud forest.

Climbing Conceptión

Volcano Nicaragua Ometepe Beach

There is no denying it. Conceptión is a tough 10 to 12-hour hike round-trip involving steep and slippery terrain. You need to be super fit for this one, but it does afford amazing views as well as the personal sense of achievement that comes with scaling Ometepe’s biggest volcano and, in fact, the world’s largest lake mountain.

Be aware that there is no nicely laid out tourist trail. Indeed, many tourists have died on these volcanoes. But don’t let that deter you. Get a good guide (actually, now mandatory), equip yourself properly and set off early to get full use of daylight hours and you should be fine. You will not find drink or snack vendors on the way so get your hotel to pack you a lunch and take plenty of water.

Ometepe Accommodation – rough but ready

Post climb, there is a range of places to rest your head. From farmhouses to dorms to camp sites and eco lodges, Ometepe has the full range (apart from five star hotels, of course). Power supplies can be hit and miss, but that only enhances the stunningly clear night sky – and don’t fear, there is always a generator to keep your after-hike beer cool.

Pick a guesthouse with a hammock, put your weary feet up and stare at the stars in what may be one of the clearest sky’s you’ll ever see. Tranquilo.

Ometepe is such an adventure lover’s playground, offering wilderness and dream landscapes all rich in natural beauty.

Simply, this place is still untouched and crying out to be explored.