Just hearing the word volcano conjures up exotic images and on the small island of Ometepe, there is not one but two! It was one of our favourite destinations during our month in Nicaragua and talking to other travellers it's one of those special places that everybody loves without knowing exactly why! The island is located a 75 minute boat ride into Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. You can get there on a small rickety panga (fishing boat) or a larger ramshackle ferry - based on our crossing we definitely recommend the latter.
The day after arriving on Ometepe we hired a motorbike and set out to discover the island. The single road runs as a figure 8 around the island's two volcanoes. Pigs and chickens roam freely with no regard for traffic and we passed tiny dusty villages and farmers moving their horses and herds of cattle. It's a simple life with most locals earning a living from farming (bananas, maize and beans) or fishing.
After riding for about 30 minutes we got to Ojo del Aqua, a natural spring pool fed by an underground river that flows from Volcano Maderas. After the hot road the pool looked magical and beckoned us with its clear green water shaded by trees. The water is refreshing and there are facilities to keep you entertained for a good few hours, if you aren't driving you can have a coco loco with plenty of rum or a tasty snack right by the water.
No matter where you are on the island the majestic volcanoes dominate the view. Like supermodels these two volcanoes know how to entice you - changing their look depending on the light, the angle and the white clouds sitting above the peaks - we continually had to stop to take more photos. Of the two, Concepcion is the highest at 1600 metres and a perfect cone shape. Maderas is slightly lower at 1390 metres, its top is generally hidden in clouds creating a cloud forest characterised by a unique fauna of orchids and ferns suited to the high levels of humidity.
When we got to the isthmus we stopped for a swim at Santo Domingo beach which is the island's longest beach. Waves lap the beach and as the water goes all the way to the horizon it's easy to forget that it's a freshwater lake. We were initially taken by surprise when horses and cows came down to the beach to drink. It's also home to bull sharks that travel up the San Juan River from the Caribbean Sea although there are conflicting reports as to how many are left in the lake.
While having a dip at the southern end of the beach near Santa Cruz we were amazed by the unique view - here the beach is 'book-ended' by a volcano on either side.
It's possible to climb both volcanoes, however we decided against it after seeing the young guy next door with an ice pack on his knee. Surely getting older means that it's ok to put comfort (and your knees) above adventure sometimes? Concepcion is rated as a technically difficult 10 hour hike and although Maderas is not as steep we heard the path is deep in mud.
A bit further on in Balgue we had some delectable sandwiches at Cafe Campestre. Balgue is a tiny village, just a cluster of houses really, with a couple of hotels / hostels. The rustic cafe probably caters to hungry backpackers more than locals however tourism and agriculture seem to co-exist in a friendly balance. The local farmers benefit from extra demand and we enjoyed the fresh fruit and meat from free-ranging animals.
The island has a low-key relaxed feel and we were tempted to stay longer than planned. We split our 5 nights between Moyogalpa, the town where the ferry arrives and Santo Domingo. Moyogalpa offers the convenience of more restaurants, transport etc however in other places you are closer to nature and the 'tranquillo' local life. In Santo Domingo we did a short walk through the jungle and felt like Dr Livingstone. We saw howler monkeys in the treetops, heard the birds and in some areas cobwebs covered all the plants creating a mystical fairyland.
Ometepe is like a microcosm of Nicaragua with a bit of everything: wildlife, adventure, natural beauty and a friendly local culture.