Some 250 families fish and farm on Ometepe ’s least-visited shoreline, but it remains the “dark side of the moon:” little visited but equally, if not more, compelling.
Beyond San Ramón, the lonely east coast of Maderas is one of the most isolated spots in Nicaragua, connected tentatively by a poor excuse of a road with no bus service. The locals are not used to receiving guests.
It’s potentially feasible to circumnavigate the entire volcano on foot or on a mountain bike (about 12 or 6 hours, respectively). The coast of Tichana hides lots of unexplored areas, including, reportedly, caves full of paintings as well as some petroglyphs near Corozal.
Albergue Ecológico El Porvenir (tel. 505/8447-9466, $8 pp private bath) is a peaceful hillside retreat with modern buildings, screened windows, volcano views, and lush tropical grounds. It’s less ecological than it pretends, but you will nonetheless awaken to the sounds of the jungle. Contact them directly, or make your reservations in advance through Hotel Central in Altagracia  or Hotel Villa Paraíso on Playa Santo Domingo .
Hotel Hacienda Mérida (tel. 505/8868-8973 or 505/8894-2551 www.hmerida.com , $6 dorm, $20–28 d with private bath, $3 pp campsite, plus tax) is a friendly lakeside compound where second-floor balconies have views of the volcanoes and the lake. They rent bikes and kayaks ($15 for the duration of your stay) and can arrange hikes, fishing trips, and horseback riding; breakfast and dinner buffets ($4.50 and 5.75 pp plus tax) are crafted with whole foods, many from the garden. Internet is available.
The Nicaraguan owner, Alvaro Molina, speaks perfect English and is both passionate advocate for and walking encyclopedia of Ometepe  social causes. A rigorous and none-too-obvious trail leads up to Maderas’s crater lagoon from Merida; you can go down the way you came, or you can descend to the other side and emerge at Finca Magdalena  or Finca Zopilote. But you absolutely must hire a guide, bring food and water, and get an early morning start: This a serious hike for pros only.
Despite the shabby exterior, travelers give good reviews of the food at Restaurante El Pescadito, just outside Hacienda Mérida. Huge plates of fresh fish or pasta will set you back $3–4. Service can be slow as this is a one-man band. The friendly owner has been known to take repeat diners out on his boat to snag the catch of the day and then cook it up.
For more privacy and more money, try La Omaja (300 meters past Merida, tel. 505/885-1124, laomaja [at] hotmail [dot] com, www.laomaja.com , $45). A bit isolated, it offers characterless cabins with panoramic lake views and all kinds of activities and services available.
Farther down the road is locally-owned Monkey Island Hostel (tel. 505/8844-1529 or 8652-0971, www.freewebs.com/monkeysisland , monkeysislandjancinto1 [at] hotmail [dot] com, $4–20), with friendly staff, boxy concrete rooms, and lousy feng shui.
The most popular attraction by far on Ometepe ’s south side is the stunning 180-meter Cascada San Ramón waterfall. The signs say it is a three-kilometer trail, but it’s likely more than that: allow three hours minimum, as the three kilometers are vertical. You can drive a four-wheel drive vehicle part way up to the water tank to skip past the exposed water pipes and head straight to the prettiest section of the hike.
Otherwise, walk through avocado, mango, and lemon trees and up to a small parking area and hydroelectric plant. Once you enter the lush canyon, the humidity rises. You may have to scramble over some river rocks and at times the trail seems to disappear before it emerges a few meters ahead. At the waterfall you can bathe in a shallow pool.
Four kilometers up the road from Merida, in the tiny village of San Ramón, the Maderas Rainforest Conservancy (formerly the Ometepe Biological Field Station, Miami tel. 305-666-9932, info [at] maderasrfc [dot] org, www.maderasrfc.org ), is a facility visited by student groups and researchers from all over the world.
In addition to being active in numerous forward-thinking conservation projects in surrounding communities, MRC operates a field school on the volcano’s slopes for undergraduate and graduate students in primatology, ecology, bat ecology, botany, and other biological sciences. Tourists are welcome to sample the restaurant or stay at the station for a small fee.