La Isla de Ometepe
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The twin-peaked island of Ometepe (Nahuatl for “two hills”) is remarkably insulated from the rest of the country by the choppy waters of Lake Cocibolca. Ometepe’s 38,000 proud residents live a mostly agrarian lifestyle, harvesting plantains, rice, tobacco, sorghum, sugarcane, corn, honey, and coffee on the slopes of the twin Cenozoic volcanoes.
Nicaragua’s pre-Columbian history may have begun on and around Ometepe. According to legend, the Nahuatl people in modern-day Mexico fled the stronger Aztecs, guided southward by a vision of two volcanoes in the middle of a broad lake. Long before the Spanish arrived, the islanders considered Ometepe sacred ground, inhabited by gods of great power; even today the island remains awash in myths and legends, some of which date back to the days of the Nahuatl.
Today’s islanders prefer their home to what they call “over there.” In 1957, as Volcán Concepción rumbled and threatened to erupt, the government ordered the islanders to evacuate Ometepe; they flatly refused, preferring to die on their island than live anywhere else.
At night, the slopes of the volcanoes echo with the deep roar of howler monkeys, and by day the air is filled with the sharp cry of the thousands of parakeets and hurracas (bright blue jays that scold you from the treetops). Ecologically, the island of Ometepe has been called the edge of the tropics, as a dividing line between tropical and dry falls right between the two volcanoes: Volcán Maderas is an extinct volcano whose crater is filled with a shallow lagoon and whose slopes are carpeted with more tropical and humid species, including actual cloud forest at the top. Concepción is an active volcano whose slopes are covered with tropical dry forest species like guacimo and guanacaste.
Underneath the greenery, however, is fire. Beginning December 8, 1880, Volcán Concepción erupted with such force that lava and smoke flowed out of the crater for nearly a year. It was this eruption that created some of its more distinctive features visible today, like the Lava de Urbaite, Peña Bruja (a broad cliff visible from Altagracia), and Peña de San Marcos. Concepción erupted again in 1883, launching large rocks from the crater, and again in 1889 and 1902, ruining crops in Rivas. In 2005, Volcán Concepción has rumbled, fumed, and ejected tons of volcanic ash, smoke, and debris, in spectacular, frightening eruptions. There were also mini-eruptions in 2007 and 2009.
Plan carefully before you leave. Ometepe has one ATM machine that accepts VISA cards only and is closed on Sundays; bring cash and in particular, small bills. Transport can also be problematic and sporadic.
Getting to La Isla de Ometepe
Note that Lake Cocibolca can get rough when the wind is high, at which times the larger boats are more comfortable. Avoid the roughest seas by traveling early morning and late evening, and sit near the center of the ship where the rocking is slightest. Don’t worry—when you pull into port, the men climbing the rails and jumping aboard are not pirates, they are taxi drivers in San Jorge or bag porters in Moyogalpa.
By Boat from San Jorge: Boats from San Jorge on the mainland sail to Moyogalpa daily. Thankfully, a few new safer boats have joined the old junky fleet. They compete to transport the island’s plantain crop in addition to passengers.
The Ferry Ometepe, a big steel boat with radar and life jackets and from whose roof you can travel in the fresh air is one of the better old ships. A newer, larger, cheaper, and faster option than the old junk ferries is El Che Guevara (departure from San Jorge to Moyogalpa 7 a.m. and 4 p.m.; departure from Moyogalpa to San Jorge 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.). El Che charges $16.50 to bring a small pickup truck and $14 for a small car; motorbikes cost under $3.
Rey de Cocibolca, a 1,300-passenger, four-story boat built in the Netherlands, now plies the waters of Lake Nicaragua between San Jorge on the mainland and San Jose del Sur on Ometepe, a little town soon to become a big town thanks to the traffic. A one-way trip costs $2.50, any deck. This boat departs from San Jose del Sur to the mainland at 7:30 a.m. and 3:20 p.m.; from San Jorge to the island at 9:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Bringing your vehicle costs less than $10 and the driver goes for free. For more information on the boat schedule, contact tel. 505/8691-3669 or 505/8833-4773.
The rest of the old San Jorge fleet ride lower to the water and thus provide a bumpier ride. These boats are independently owned and, unfortunately, rarely give honest information about the others, so if you’re told, “The next boat doesn’t leave for four hours,” keep asking. Each company posts a sign with its own schedule; there is no main sign listing all the different times. Volcano Lake Tours (office near the port, tel. 505/8827-7714) will give you reliable information about the schedule.
By Boat from Granada and San Carlos: The Empresa Portuario de Nicaragua (EPN) ferry leaves Granada on Mondays and Thursdays at 3 p.m., arriving in Altagracia between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. The ship then continues onward to San Miguelito on the southeastern lakeshore, arriving in San Carlos around dawn. You can usually stay on the boat until the Río San Juan boats begin operating at 6 or 7 a.m. (instead of having to get a room). An upper-deck ticket costs a couple dollars more and earns you more room to hang a hammock.
On the return trip, the ferry leaves San Carlos on Tuesdays and Fridays at 2 p.m., passes Altagracia at 11 p.m., and arrives in Granada at sunrise. The price for a one-way passage between Granada and Ometepe is $3, but when seas are high, the ship will skip Ometepe altogether, preferring to hold tight to the lee shore of the lake.
© Randall Wood & Joshua Berman from Moon Nicaragua, 4th Edition