Almost all of my Central American itinerary was made up as I went along, but visiting the Nicaraguan island of Ometepe was on my radar even before I left Chicago — not only because you only have so many chances in life to visit an island made up of twin volcanos in the middle of a lake, but because I would be sharing an experience — a mere 150 years apart — with the great American author, Mark Twain.
In 1866, Twain was on his way from San Francisco to Europe. The first trans-continental railroad was still three years away from completion, so to get back to the East Coast and on to Europe meant either wagon train, or a trip south by boat. And in the days before the Panama Canal, the fastest way to from the California coast to New York was to sail down to San Juan del Sur on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua, take a wagon a few miles across a narrow isthmus, then pile onto a steamer across Lake Nicaragua, then head down the Rio San Juan to the Caribbean. From the steamer, Twain described the volcanoes of Ometepe thus:
“Two magnificent pyramids, clad in the softest and richest green, all flecked with shadow and sunshine, whose summits pierce the billowy clouds.”
Nowadays Ometepe is…something unique. It’s fairly easily accessible from the heavily-beaten gringo trail through Central America, but the little bit of extra effort coupled with the exotic setting makes it a quiet break from the party hostels and beach clubs that can be hard to avoid otherwise.
My journey to Ometepe starts off in Granada’s chicken bus terminal, which is to say a patch of dirt full of buses just past the city’s miserable market (although Santa Ana’s market and bus station remains the absolute worst). It’s pretty easy to distinguish backpackers from locals around here and it doesn’t take long to figure out who is going to Ometepe (the next logical destination south, San Juan del Sur, is better served by tourist shuttle). There’s four of us who get dumped out at a dusty town called Rivas, and we split a cab for a short ride to the lakefront town of San Jorge. There we board a ferry that will take us to Ometepe’s largest collection of houses, Moyogalpa. Wikipedia informs me that Moyogalpa means “place of mosquitos” and that seems to more or less capture the local charm. Up to this point on the journey I’m still not sure where I’m going to stay – my vague plan is to hole up in Moyogalpa for the night and move deeper into the island tomorrow. But getting a late lunch at a cafe there, my traveling companions — an upbeat freckled New Englander named Felicia, and two older (yes, older than me) Irish guys whose names I forget but I’m pretty sure one was John — seem to have a plan to get to a place called Little Morgan’s. I am fuzzy on the selling points of this place but Felicia encourages me to tag along, and somebody else’s plans trump my vague notions so I decide I’m in.
We engage the services of a minivan driver and head around the north coast of the western volcano. On the way, Felicia gives me her business card. Other than her name, the only other things on the card are a sunflower and the phrase “I’m kind of a big deal.”
As we get out of our van at Little Morgan’s, we are greeted by a loud “Hola!” which in and of itself would not be unusual except that it emanates from one of two large green parrots near the entrance, bellhops apparently being in short supply. Immediately thereafter a couple small pigs run past the car, pursued by a dog. To this day I still can have a pretty good laugh thinking about the abject terror on the face of the squealing piglet who got his tail nipped by the dog (the pig was ok, and what do you care, you eat bacon). Near reception – well the hut with the reception desk in it – are at least three dogs, although one of them is temporarily immobilized after being hit by a car and busting his hip (by the time I leave he is moving around a little again). Rounding out the menagerie is a mama cat and her litter of kittens, and a wayward chick who the kittens clearly want to kill, if only they had the claws and coordination. As it is they just hang out on the pool table until somebody takes the chick over to the bar and feeds it some beer.
Also present is at least one human female who runs the place. Place is the right word for it. You can’t really call it a hotel, or a hostel, or anything. It’s really a sort of collection of large tree-houses with no doors and no A/C. The beds have mosquito netting but, at least while we’re there, it doesn’t seem like you’d even need it (in the sleeping areas, at least. All those animals in the common area led to some swarms of gnats hanging out there).
Many lodgings ask for your name and passport. Some ask you to write in your hometown in the guestbook. Little Morgan’s is the only one I’ve been to that asks for your favorite animal. I am not really sure about this. I feel like “dog” is too boring. I write “penguin” but that’s probably not true. Have you ever smelled a penguin?
At any rate, with all this bureaucratic red tape behind me, it’s time to relax. There’s not a lot else to do at the moment – there are a couple of other establishments nearby, but it’s a decent walk back to the main road, so I spend the time chatting up some other travelers on what to do the next day. The two leading choices are either to climb one of the volcanos, which will be an aggressive hike, or take an easier trek to the San Ramon waterfall, part way up the other volcano. With the temperature remaining in the mid-90s and no clouds in, we decide against the exposed hikes to the volcano summits in favor of the waterfall.
Getting there proves harder than anticipated.
In this part of the island, there aren’t so much paved roads, or even gravel roads, so much as there are designated paths to strew large rocks willy-nilly. The van moves so slowly that biking might have been a better idea, although the heat and the amount of rocks seems like that would have been almost as bad. After lurching over the rubble for about an hour, we got dropped off at a neatly manicured little set of houses that mark the driveway up to the main trail. Since we opted out of the more strenuous volcano hike, we feel like obligated to skip the option of being dropped off right at the trailhead, and hoof it and hour up the access road instead. At the end of the road the hillside farmland abruptly gives way to jungle conditions. The trail is decently marked and easy to follow, and if wasn’t for the heat it wouldn’t be a very difficult hike. As it is, though, it’s fairly exhausting, but the hope that the waterfall will be worth it pushes us forward.
The waterfall is worth it. Far bigger than I expected, it tumbles from unseen heights into a small pool in a clearing. We stop for lunch and a swim, and for most of the time the five of us who hiked up together have the place to ourself.
By the time we finally get back down to our waiting van at the roadside, it’s late afternoon, but we have one more stop before heading back to Little Morgan’s, at Ojos de Agua, a somewhat overhyped but still pleasant hot spring pool on the far side of the island from where we are. I assume I would have liked it a lot better if the shadows weren’t already stretching over most of the pool by the time we got there, but it capped the day well enough. With the sun retreating beyond the larger volcano to the west, our van pulls into Little Morgan’s just in time for a spectacular sunset, pictured in the top photo of this post.
Mosquito nets, pigs, chickens, and treehouses aside, the two nights of sleep I got on Ometepe were some of the most tranquil and relaxing I can remember. After the party atmosphere of Bigfoot and the oppressive heat in Granada, the quiet is extremely welcome.
I wake up early the day after the hike. It is now the first of April. I need to cover more than 650 miles to Panama City before my flight leaves for Buenos Aires on the ninth. I need to begin moving much more quickly.