On my first night on Isla de Ometepe I went out for dinner alone and walked back to my guesthouse along a mostly-unlit road. As I was passing through a particularly dark section I noticed a crab crawling across the road. I thought it was odd that a crab was crawling around so far from the shore, so I walked over to get a closer look and to see if it was okay.
The crab was a tarantula.
That was the moment when I realized that Isla de Ometepe, or Ometepe Island, in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, was a special place.
Only two hours from San Juan del Sur, Granada and Managua, Isla de Ometepe feels like an entirely different planet. Most of the roads are unpaved, farm animals wander through the streets, monkeys play in the trees and yes, tarantulas walk confidently across the road at night.
Isla de Ometepe was the last stop on my two-week trip to Nicaragua, and I ended up wishing I’d stayed longer. I would have happily given up time in Granada or San Juan del Sur for more moments of both peaceful reflection and heart-pounding adventure on this island that was formed from two volcanoes.
The following five activities are my top choices for travelers seeking adventure on Isla de Ometepe, ranging from famously difficult full-day hikes to easy strolls along flat nature trails.
Whether you’re on Isla de Ometepe for a day or a week, and whether you’re an avid outdoorswoman or a beginner nature lover, you’ll find the perfect adventure on Isla de Ometepe in one of these excursions!
Hike An Active Volcano on Isla de Ometepe
I’m going to come right out and confess that I didn’t climb Volcan Concepcion or Volcan Maderas while I was on Isla de Ometepe. You see, a few days into my Nicaragua trip I went to grab some mosquito repellent from my first aid kit… and realized I’d forgotten to pack my first aid kit. Besides not having mosquito repellent (which wasn’t a problem – I used an organic spray from my carry-on and didn’t get bitten anywhere in the country) I also didn’t have my inhaler. My asthma tends to flare up during long hikes, so a trek up either Volcan Conception or Volcan Maderas was out of the question.
However, I chatted with lots of locals about the hikes and the consensus was that Conception is the more beautiful and more challenging hike, clocking in at about eight hours return. That being said, the local military has now set up a checkpoint on the trail and they require all foreign hikers to be with a local guide. You can still climb Volcan Maderas on your own, and the trip only takes about six hours, but it’s known for being a slippery slog thanks to the heavy mud along the trail.
Kayak with Caimans on Isla de Ometepe
This was definitely one of the highlights of my time on Isla de Ometepe. The Rio Istian is a river that snakes its way across the isthmus between Volcan Concepcion and Volcan Maderas, creating a marshy swampland that attracts wildlife from monkeys to kingfishers to caiman.
We set out on the lake around 11:00 am, choosing to take a powerboat to the mouth of the river before boarding the kayaks (this cost an extra $5 but saved about thirty minutes of paddling each direction). From there it was a slow and lazy paddle along the river, with lots of stops for photographs of the amazing birds and almost ten minutes of time with a family of howler monkeys that lived in the deepest recesses of the swamp. We learned that the best time to see caimans (kind of like little crocodiles) was around sunrise or sunset, and I seriously considered returning for a second kayaking trip the next day.
The company we used was located near the “El Peru” turn-off on the south-west side of Volcan Maderas and I would highly recommend their services. Besides having a great, patient guide, there was an English-speaking owner (he’d spent a lot of time in Hawaii) and clean bathrooms at the main entrance. The tour lasted more than two hours and cost $20 US (plus $5 for the optional speedboat). Bring lots of sun protection (long, light layers are best), a bottle of water and your camera.
Explore a Cloud Forest on Isla de Ometepe
I arrived in Balgue in the early afternoon and promptly went to El Bamboo, a local restaurant, for a fruit smoothie. I came back to La Urraca Loca Hostel around 2:00 pm and asked if they had any ideas about how I could spend my afternoon. The owners jumped on the phone with a local tour guide (also their immediate neighbor) who agreed to take me for a private tour of the local natural area.
We set off through the back gates of the hostel across some of the local farms, where he taught me about the local agriculture, plant life and wildlife (like the flocks of parakeets in the trees around us). Within minutes we encountered an energetic family of howler monkeys, and a little while later we encountered some curious capucin monkeys too.
The trail took us up the side of the volcano, past centuries-old petroglyphs and onto the property of Finca Magdalena, a local organic coffee cooperative. The trails grew muddier as we ascended even higher, entering a dense cloud forest trail that led onward to a volcanic lagoon. We encountered few other people throughout the hike (one farmer and two foreign couples) and it was amazing to learn about the local ecosystem from someone with insider knowledge. The entire tour cost only $10 and we were out exploring for more than three hours – an amazing deal!
Cool Off Under a Waterfall on Isla de Ometepe
Since I couldn’t do any long or strenuous hikes without my inhaler, I followed the advice of some other travelers and decided to hike to the San Ramon Waterfall. After all, one Swedish girl that I met said, “It’s not even a hike. It’s just a walk.” As it turns out, this is one hike where you can really choose your own level of difficulty.
The waterfall itself is located near the village of Merida, on the southern coast of Volcan Madera. The walk from the shore is about four kilometers, but if you’ve got a scooter or ATV you can choose to cover the first two and a half kilometers in your vehicle. I arrived at the waterfall by moto-taxi (again, organized by the owners of La Urraca Loca Hostel in Balgue) and my driver offered to drive me in, but I thought it would be a good opportunity to catch up on lost hiking opportunities.
Ultimately, it’s a fairly steep hike that gains more than 600 meters of elevation over the four kilometers, with few flat sections. However, it’s still relatively easy as long as you’ve got lots of water (I’d recommend two liters).
Starting before 9:00 am also helps you beat the heat; this means you need to leave your accommodation around 8:00 am as it takes about an hour to get there from anywhere else on Isla de Ometepe.
There isn’t much wildlife along the way – I could hear howler monkeys but I didn’t see any. I did encounter a few lizards, lots of Nicaraguan magpies, beautiful butterflies and some farm animals. The final kilometer or so is through denser vegetation and includes some stream crossings via slippery rocks.
At the end of the trail you’ll be greeted by the San Ramon Waterfall, a towering green wall of falling water that pours down from fifty meters (165 feet) above. The pool at the base of the waterfall is shallow so you can wade in up to your waist and allow the cool falling water to splash over your head and shoulders.
I’d recommend bringing a pair of flip-flops to help you navigate the rocky ground beside the pool – I stepped on an insect at the water’s edge and its sting made for a painful four-kilometer walk back to my moto-taxi (fortunately it was downhill on the way back!).
Entrance to the waterfall is $3 and there may be a surcharge if you’re coming up in a vehicle. There are bathrooms and a small restaurant at the entrance to the site.
Try An Easy Nature Walk on Isla de Ometepe
If this is all sounding a little bit too strenuous for you, there is an excellent alternative to difficult hikes on Isla de Ometepe. Charco Verde Nature Reserve and Butterfly Gardens is a protected ecological habitat on the south-east side of Volcan Concepcion.
The park includes a large lagoon, a dense forest and a waterfront beach area. Most of the park’s trails are clear, wide, well-marked and fairly flat, making them perfect for travelers who prefer a relaxing stroll over a sweaty trek. It’s also great for families with children and older travelers.
I arrived around 9:00, following a filling Nica breakfast, and was the first person out to venture out onto the peninsula trail that morning; as a result I scared off a few snakes and more than a few lizards! There were also beautiful birds and lots of butterflies, but I didn’t have any luck spotting monkeys in the trees. The park has a butterfly garden but there’s no need to spend time with captive butterflies when you can find them flying freely along the park’s trails.
Entrance to Charco Verde is $5 at the visitor station – discounts are available for guests who stay in the on-site hotel (which also serves some food and rents kayaks).
Taking the Ferry to Ometepe
Back in San Juan del Sur, I was given one piece of advice:
You can do anything you want in Nicaragua, just don’t take a lancha to Ometepe Island.
You see, there are two types of boats that cross Lake Nicaragua from San Jorge to Isla de Ometepe. There are new, modern ferries to Ometepe that are capable of carrying cars and trucks, and there are small, rickety lanchas that carry foot passengers, cola bottles and bags of flour.
I meticulously planned my transportation connections from San Juan del Sur to San Jorge so that I’d arrive in time to catch a ferry to Ometepe, but my shuttle bus driver was on “Nica Time” and we spent forty-five minutes cruising around San Juan del Sur picking up more passengers before we departed town five minutes before the ferry to Ometepe was scheduled to depart. There was no way I was making that boat.
So, I was stuck on a lancha. Not just any lancha though. I was on the oldest, most run-down, least-reliable, slowest and most nausea-inducing lancha of them all. I don’t want to name any names, but it was called the Santa Martha. Yes, the Santa Martha is the sketchiest boat in Central America. Santa Martha is the lancha that you should avoid. Fortunately I’d made some small talk with a local family at the ferry terminal and they saved one of the few coveted above-deck seats for me, meaning I wasn’t trapped on the damp, humid lower deck where every wave (apparently) feels like a punch to the stomach. From the top of the boat I found the journey refreshing and calm, but I’ve heard it was another (puke-filled) story down below. And as a bonus, we didn’t sink!
On the way back to the mainland I was able to catch one a modern ferry to Ometepe. The ride was much more comfortable, with ample outdoor seating on the top deck, offering beautiful parting views of the island behind us.
Transportation on Isla de Ometepe
Once you’re on Isla de Ometepe there are a few different transportation options. I ended up getting around by public bus, private taxi and moto-taxi (also known as the back of some guy’s scooter).
Buses are inexpensive and generally operate according to a schedule that isn’t posted anywhere, but that any local can explain to you. However, they primarily operate between Moyogalpa and Altagracia, with service further afield limited to two or three runs per day.
If you want to do a few different activities in a single day, you’ll need to private transportation like a scooter, all-terrain vehicle (ATV), taxi or moto-taxi. One day I shared a taxi with some other travelers, and for less than $20 USD per person we got a custom itinerary from Moyogalpa to Charco Verde, Rio Istian, the Ojo de Agua and a private terrace with sunset views.
I also hired a moto-taxi to take me from Balgue to the San Ramon Waterfall. When we first set out I felt a little embarrassed about hiring a driver because the roads near Balgue were quite smooth, but as we looped along the southern end of the island and hit the unpaved, rocky terrain I was glad that my life was in the hands of someone who knew the roads well. I felt even better about my choice to use a professional when I got back to the hostel that night and learned the guys in the room beside me had wiped out on their rented scooters shortly after setting out that morning, and had spent their day in the hospital instead of taking in Isla de Ometepe’s attractions.
Isla de Ometepe Hotels
On the Concepcion side of Isla de Ometepe there are two possible home bases. Moyogalpa is the main port city and has the best access to the ferries and lanchas. The central street is packed with tour operators, shops and restaurants, while the side streets are home to dozens of small, family-run guesthouses. I chose to spend two night here at Casa Mauro, a family-run guesthouse offering spacious, clean rooms with private bathrooms and support with organizing day tours. Altagracia is a bit further afield; it offers fewer amenities but is more centrally located for ground transportation around the island. There is hourly bus service between Moyogalpa and Altagracia for less than $1 USD.
On the Maderas side of the island, the accommodation is clustered on the stretch of road running between Santo Domingo and Balgue. There are beachfront (or beach-adjacent) options around the isthmus, while the options at the base of the volcano are often on organic farms and coffee plantations. I opted to spend two nights at La Urraca Loca, a new boutique hostel in Balgue run by a Spanish-Italian couple. I loved the mix of indoor and outdoor spaces, and nothing beats waking up to the sound of the howler monkeys in the trees behind the hostel. I stayed in a breezy private room (shown above), which featured a comfortable bed with mosquito net, a powerful fan, an indoor swing and a safe. The owners also helped me organize two of my island excursions with reliable local guides.
Isla de Ometepe was the highlight of my two-week journey through Nicaragua. I recommend that travelers save it for the end of their visit (because other destinations may pale in comparison!) and that you allow at least five nights on the island to fully enjoy the attractions around both Volcan Concepcion and Volcan Maderas.
I feature Ometepe Island in my Nicaragua Travel Itinerary, which can be customized for a seven- or ten-day trip through Nicaragua.
Traveling further in Central America? I suggest that you continue your trip in Roatan, Honduras, where you’ll find fascinating Caribbean culture, delicious cuisine and world-class scuba diving.
And while you’re in Nicaragua, make sure to enjoy at least one Nica Breakfast!