Ometepe Island, the Largest Freshwater Island in the World!
The largest fresh water island in the World, Ometepe is in Lake Nicaragua or Cocibolca, as it is now called. The island has a total land mass of 246 square kilometres and a population of around 40,000 souls. Ometepe island is a true treasure chest to discover! Its name, Ometepe, comes from the Nahuatl language and literally means two mountains. This could not be a more appropriate name, seeing the two majestic volcanoes that form the island. Reputedly, when seen on a map, the island looks very much alike to Tahiti in the French Polynesia.
Ometepe`s volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas are very different between themselves. Maderas, at 1396 meters above sea level, is an extinct volcano with lush tropical vegetation around it. There are several water sources within it that feed different communities on the island and its crater is home to a lovely lake. Concepcion on the other hand is higher, with its peak at 1610 meters above sea level and is still an active volcano. Thus, the crater smokes and you can clearly see where the most recent lava flows have gone in the near past.
Politically, Ometepe is part of the department of Rivas and the island is shared by two different municipalities, Altagracia, which controls about 80% of the territory and Moyogalpa, which is home to the remaining 20%. Most of the arrivals to the island are through the port of Moyogalpa, making this the more commercial of the two main towns, and boasting three different banks, each with an ATM machine. Altagracia, despite having a larger population, only has one bank and one ATM machine.
Getting to Ometepe
Getting to Ometepe is quite easy. The most often used route is via San Jorge in the department of Rivas, This is the port that provides regular ferry service between the island and the mainland. Take note that there are three different types of ferry’s. The regular passenger ferries are old wooden boats that are not very fast and furthermore not very stable. Keep in mind that although a lake, Cocibolca is huge, almost 10,000 square kilometres and when windy, there can be some really rough surf out there!
The second option for ferries are the passenger and car ferry boats that service the route between San Jorge and Moyogalpa (this is the same route served by the passenger ferry). These are larger and definitely more seaworthy and comfortable. The cost of passage in these is only 40 cordobas, less that $2.00 US per person one way.
Finally, there is a much larger and modern ferry, which was built in Europe and donated to the island. This ferry, “El Rey del Cocibolca” has two daily departures and goes from San Jorge to the port of San Jose in Ometepe. Passage in this ferry is much more comfortable and costs only 50 cordobas per person, less that $2.50. The schedules for this ferry are at 9:30 A.M. and 5:00 P.M. departing from San Jorge, and 7:30 A.M. and 3:20 P.M. departing from San Jose in Ometepe. In general, the first ferry from San Jorge departs at 7:00 A.M. and there are departures roughly very hour after that. The first ferry departing from Moyogalpa to San Jorge departs at 6:00 A.M.
Another option is to take the government passenger ferry that departs twice a week from Granada to Ometepe. Departures are only Mondays and Thursdays at 2:00 P.M. arriving at the Port of Altagracia at around 6:00 P.M. This same ferry continues to El Morrito, San Miguelito and San Carlos, all in the Rio San Juan department, so on the return trip it is possible to board the Ferry in San Carlos on Tuesdays and Fridays at 2:00 p.m. towards Ometepe. Arrival at Altagracia is a bit before midnight, and the return from Altagracia towards Granada leaves at midnight.
This is a long trip, and although the top deck is exclusively for tourists, it can be a grueling trip from San Carlos. If you decide on this option, make sure you buy a hammock and some ropes; you will be a lot more comfortable if you can relax in your hammock during the passage. Last, but not least, there is a 1500 meter runway under construction going on between Moyogalpa and Puerto San Jose. This new airport is expected to be in operation before the end of 2012, so it will soon be possible to fly to Ometepe. At the time of printing there are no scheduled itineraries, but I imagine that there will be service from Managua and possibly Costa Rica.
During pre-Columbian times, Ometepe was home several cultures, who considered the island sacred, and there are many remains in the form of petroglyphs and large stone sculptures to prove this. Today, the main economic activity in the island is agriculture and cattle. It is interesting to point out that Ometepe produces 40% of the total banana output in Nicaragua! There are many mango and papaya plantations as well as corn, yuca and beans.
The island has a narrow isthmus that joins both volcanoes. This is actually a fresh water swamp that is a unique habitat, home to many birds. The swamp is known as the Istian River. This, together with the lush tropical vegetation around the Maderas volcano are the backbone of the Ometepe a Biosphere Reserve. Because of this status, the whole island is under a special conservation status by law.
The island has many different facets. If you want to get to know them all I suggest you plan to stay at least 3 full days in Ometepe. Probably the best way to get around is by motorcycle; although there is a road that goes around the islands two volcanoes, only about a ¼ of it is paved. The remainder is a dirt road that is anywhere between bad and terrible! A regular vehicle can traverse it. It will however take plenty of time and a lot of bumping around in the process!
The paved road basically covers the route between Moyogalpa and Altagracia. It continues around the south side of the Concepcion volcano to the junction at El Quino. From there, it leads towards Santa Cruz, on the Maderas Volcano part of the island. There are many the hotels in the island Merida and San Ramon. These will feel relatively remote because of the bad road.
Generally speaking the eastern side of the island tends to have high surf and waves. It feels very much like the ocean surf. The western side of the island has nice tranquil waters that are great for canoeing and kayaking. For example, on the eastern side of the island you have the community of Santo Domingo. There you will find several hotels on the beach. The surf there is constant with waves breaking on the beach. You will feel more like being in the ocean.
On the Western side, you will find communities like San Ramon and Merida. There the lake is very calm and perfect for a kayak or canoe trip. The hotels and hostels are scattered around the island. Depending on what your interests are you should choose a hotel that is in a specific area of the island. Thus, is you are looking more for hiking and ecotourism activities, the area around San Ramon and Merida are probably your best options. If you are looking to get a feel for the charm of a local town, Altagracia is your best option. If you prefer kayaking or canoeing, check out the Charco Verde or Merida. If your interest is more in Volcanoes, then stay closer to Moyogalpa or Altagracia. This will give easier access to the Concepcion Volcano.