Traveling to Nicaragua in July, I didn’t realize that it was the rainy season. After over a week spent in San Juan del Sur, I was excited to explore the volcanic island of Ometepe. I’d heard from many people that this was their favorite place in the country, like I felt about Atitlan in Guatemala. I did enjoy my three days on the island, but there are a few considerations before planning your trip for the summer.
Getting There and Around
The island isn’t that far from San Juan or Grenada but still takes a while to get there. Companies offer shuttles to the ferry terminal in San Jorge, but you can also take the chicken bus to Rivas and from there take a taxi. Ferries and smaller lancha boats run every hour, but the ferries are more comfortable. They cost 35 cordobas, around $1 USD. I was sitting on the upper deck when it started raining and there was no room on the bottom. I recommend bringing a poncho for this reason! At the port, people will try to sell you hotel and taxi packages. Moyogalpa didn’t have much on offer, so I stayed on the opposite side of the island.
Once you arrive, getting around doesn’t get easier. You can take the chicken bus for another 35 cordobas, but it would have taken me close to three hours to cross the island. Instead, I took a rusty shared taxi that took one-hour and cost around $35 USD to get to my hostel in Merida. While I did some walking, the rest of the time I borrowed a mountain bike to get around. It took me an hour to bike from my hostel to Santa Cruz on bumpy roads. While there are places that rent motorcycles and quads, it’s not recommended, especially for those who haven’t ridden before. The roads are no joke and the closest hospital is a ferry ride away. Travel Insurance is highly recommended.
Where to Stay
There are plenty of hotels in the more touristy parts of the island, namely Santo Domingo, but I stayed at Hacienda Mérida, which Kate had recommended, for around $9 USD per night. It’s connected with the Ometepe Bilingual School, which teaches local children English and also recycles bottles and other items to use as building materials. I stayed in a four-bed dorm with a bathroom and mosquito net but had it to myself the whole time. They also let you stay in tents and hammocks, but not during the rainy season. I also heard others recommend El Zopilote, which has its own restaurant and shop. Hospedaje La Penita is more like a homestay that has local meals.
What to Eat
Since I was mostly getting around by bike, I had to take the dining opportunities when they arose. I had breakfast at Hacienda Merida every day and generally ate lunch out. This included one day at a vegetarian restaurant near Ojo de Agua and a family-run place near the waterfall, pictured, where I had the best gallo pinto of the trip. At night, I went to a restaurant near Merida for whole fried fish with all the fixings. Expect plenty of seafood and other options found throughout Nicaragua like gallo pinto. Some restaurants, like a Greek place near my hostel, don’t open during the rainy season and others have limited hours, so be flexible. Restaurants inside the few attractions, like the waterfall and Ojo de Agua, tend to be overpriced and you can find better, cheaper food nearby.
San Ramon Waterfall
I am not a hiker. Not in Hawaii. Not in Australia. Not in Wyoming. But when in Ometepe, you have to experience nature. Instead of the volcano climb that takes a full day, I stopped to buy socks and rode my ten-year-old Huffy to cautiously explore the island, especially after prior bike mishaps. The roads are unpaved and rocky, a challenge to the most experienced.
The ride from Hacienda Merida included some walking up hills and took less than 45 minutes to get to the entrance of San Ramon waterfall. From there, it’s allegedly three kilometers, but it felt like much more. You can take a horse, ATV, or motorcycle most of the way, but it’s still steep and you still have to hike the hardest part. I walked it all.
I started at 10:30, later than I meant to, and listened to podcasts most of the way. It’s steep for the first kilometer, but really intense by the last. Creek crossings, massive boulders, and uneven soil are just a few things in your path. When you finally get to the top, snap a few pictures and stand in the spray of the waterfall before the return hike.
Pena Inculta Rainforest Walk
The owner of my hostel also recommended this hour-long nature circuit near Santo Domingo. The Pena Inculta Trail costs $2 USD to do but has some great opportunities for wildlife spotting. I left my bike at the entry and the manager watched it for me. I carefully walked on the unkept trails up and down volcanic rocks. Sometimes branches would come out or I’d walk through a spider web. Watch your feet as I saw a few centipedes. And up above, there were birds I couldn’t identify, plus howler monkeys.
Ojo de Agua
The Ojo de Agua wasn’t originally on my list, as I’ve been to prettier, natural springs, but when I got stuck due to the Liberation Day festivities, I gave it a try. I’d been warned about the distance from the bus stop, but since I was on my bike, I was able to ride up to the gate. It costs $3 USD for the day, but you’ll need to bring your own towel. I didn’t come fully prepared but was already wearing my swimsuit, saving me a trip to the bathroom at the top of the hill. I recommend coming to stay for a while and eating in advance as the restaurant on site is expensive. Parts of the pool are man-made, but it’s still a nice place to cool off after a strenuous bike ride. Avoid weekends if you don’t want to be around big crowds. And don’t wear sunscreen or mosquito spray as it harms the wildlife.
If you’re visiting Ometepe during the rainy season, pack accordingly. Make sure your backpack has a rain cover, as mine didn’t and I used my body as a shield. I sat completely soaked in the taxi as if I had gone swimming. Keep your rain jacket or poncho on hand like my fold up one from Eddie Bauer. Mosquito repellent is also a must. And don’t be like me and forget socks! Although the random roadside stores sell just about everything a traveler could need. I was also glad to have my dry bag when it rained every single day at around the same time.
There are plenty of things I didn’t have time to do since I was biking my way around. This includes the island’s petroglyphs, visiting the (few) beaches, kayaking to Monkey Island, volunteering at the local school, hiking to the volcano, and visiting the Finca Magdalena coffee farm. You can easily “see it all” if you have a way to get around, but it’s also nice to just relax and soak in the natural and unique setting.
And speaking of the setting, the balance of the environment is very important on Ometepe. Because of its isolated location, everything has to be brought on or grown here. That’s why you’ll see so many animals roaming around and won’t find items not grown nearby sold in restaurants. Trash is a major problem, like on Vieques, because the government doesn’t take care of it. Instead, locals have to burn their own trash. Plastic bags from chips and soda bottles pile up around the island. Hacienda Merida has created a system of buying the bottles, filling them with non-biodegradable trash, and using them as building materials. But if at all possible, pack out your trash. Bring a reusable water bottle instead of buying one. Skip those snacks that come in packages that won’t compost. Download maps instead of taking paper ones. Be aware of your impact as a visitor and how it affects the people who will stay here long after you are gone.
Would you visit Ometepe in the rainy season?