Under the eye of Ometepe’s volcanoes

Small island in the shape of an eight located in the heart of the lago of Nicaragua, Ometepe never fails to amaze. First by its incredible landscapes, under the implacable yoke of its ubiquitous twin volcanoes, which dominate the horizon, but also by the luxuriance of its vegetation. On foot or on horseback, by bike or by kayak, all means are good for discovering a contrasted and relaxed island.

Mérida – It looks like an impressionist painting. The rays of the setting sun dance on the waves of the lake; the sky and the water are slowly adorned with pink, orange and red. Light floods the flanks of the Concepción volcano, highlighting its facade with scars and sparse vegetation. The cloud cover that covered it during the afternoon has now disappeared. All that remains is a small white cap modestly covering the rounding of the summit, which rises to more than 1,610 meters above sea level.

Behind us, we can feel the presence of his brother, Maderas, who discreetly protects us from the prevailing winds from the east. In a few hours, the stars will take possession of the sky; we will take a look at it before going to bed, ears lulled by the lapping of the waves and the rustling of the leaves.

The day was long, but satisfying. First, the first horse ride, on a boring mount, exhausted before you hit the road. My guide had to ride it since I could barely get it going. We hiked the bumpy paths surrounding Ometepe, then the steep paths leading to one of the island’s gems, the Cascada San Ramon. Clinging to the southwest flank of Maderas, the waterfall of around forty meters was worth the detour, a silver flash highlighted by a green setting clinging to the high rock walls.

Along the way, we encountered a huge rock in the shape of a heart, with ventricles and atria. The heart of the island? Who will ever know?

One thing is certain, the weather that day was particularly clear; the view was magnified. We could see all the way down to the lago, as far as San Jorge, the starting point of the ferry that we had taken the day before. Magnificent crossing, despite the undesirable music chosen that day to “enhance” the time required to get to Moyogalpa, tourist center of Ometepe. At least that had forced us out of the air-conditioned cabin to admire again the majesty of the volcanoes that characterize the silhouette of the island.

On the return from Cascada San Ramon, our guide, usually shy, stopped in a small grove to shout at the top of his lungs, like a gorilla defending its territory. The goal? Excite howler monkeys lounging in the treetops. In vain. They looked at him as if his gestures were completely out of place, then fled by urinating from the top of the trees. And too bad for the tourists who so eagerly wanted to hear their loud howls. Maybe tomorrow, they seemed to say.

This did not surprise us, because the island and its inhabitants take their time, always. There is no point in pressing them; better try to take advantage of the moment. Meal preparation, service, washing: everything requires a delay which seems a priori unreasonable.

Classic island rhythm, especially since the place is still spared by mass tourism and its frantic search for efficiency. All that remains is to relax, especially in transport. The roads – except the paved part connecting Moyogalpa and Altagracia, the main cities of the island – are quite bad; the dirt road is dented and uneven. The public transportation system is therefore very slow and crowded. We must also expect to spend part of the journey standing, especially if we intend to give up our seat to those who need it more than us.

The next day, we opted for a kayak getaway in the Rio Istiam, a small marshy stream located between the two volcanoes. The departure was scheduled early in the morning, to avoid the stronger winds of the afternoon. And the freshwater bulldog sharks, joked our guide, specifying that they had developed, in the past, a certain taste for human flesh. No real concern to be made, however, the species having been decimated by overfishing during the last century.

We finally did not see any; on the other hand, we had the chance to contemplate the two volcanoes at the same time, as is rarely possible on dry land.

The Rio Istiam was breathtaking, a paradise for bird watchers and wilderness lovers. Birds, turtles, fish, caimans; everything to please everyone, with the added bonus of the vague feeling of being where man has not yet put the world in his hand. Rare and extremely precious emotion.

The calm of the swamp was all the more appreciated as the way back seemed painful. The wind had risen, the lago was more agitated. Never mind, we still decided to paddle to Isla de los Monos – the island of monkeys, literally -, where can see the only spider monkeys of Ometepe, crowded on a small end of rock of just a few square meters. And for good reason, the latter are very territorial and tend to bite intruders who dare to set foot in their place of residence. They are also very curious and will surely come to see those who are approaching, with their crème brûlée-colored coat and their large, skilful members.

Right next to it is an even smaller island, filled with Capuchins, these little monkeys with coffee fleeces and white faces.

These, it is possible to see them on the main island, while some inhabitants do not hesitate to domesticate them. The idea seems interesting, but the reality is much sadder, while the Capuchins most often end up attached to a tree in the yard, unlike the multiple pigs, chickens and cows which seemingly roam in complete freedom. Dogs are rare, cats are legion, all leaner and greedy for petting each other.

With the compote shoulders, the sweaty body, we finally returned to the hotel with one idea: to rest. There are many options for doing so, from the comfortable hammock to swimming in the remarkably warm waters of Nicaragua’s lagoons. In this regard, Santo Domingo Beach is perhaps the most popular option, although sometimes prone to strong gusts. During the dry season, the beach can extend for tens of meters; at the height of the rainy season, almost nothing remains. Again, the volcanoes are not far away, unshakeable pillars of Ometepe’s landscapes.

Otherwise, the Presa Ojo de Agua is an interesting option, with its translucent mineral waters coming from more than 35 underground sources. Note however that the place is arranged; do not expect a wild setting. Straw roofs cover a relaxation area full of chairs and hammocks. It is also common knowledge among the inhabitants of the island that these waters have rejuvenating properties and beneficial to the body. Perhaps this is what we need, before we set out to conquer the Concepción volcano, a painful ascent which lasts about ten hours.

– To get to Ometepe, take the ferry, either from Granada (three hours), a magnificent colonial city, or from San Jorge (one hour), a small town that does not have much to offer, apart from its beaches and its spectacular view of Ometepe. The more adventurous can take small barges called lancha, more frequent and less expensive, but also more unstable. Avoid when the lake is rough. In both cases, it is not necessary to book.

– Those who want a vehicle in Ometepe would be advised to rent one elsewhere and bring it to the island; rental cars in Ometepe are much more expensive and often not available. It does take a bit of planning though: book your place on the ferry as soon as possible and confirm a few days before the date you choose. www.ferryometepenicaragua.com/forms/frmReserveFerry_eng.php

– Public transport is economical and fairly reliable. However, there will have to be time; stops are frequent and long. Taxis are also available, but they are scarce outside Moyogalpa and Altagracia. Better to arrange a meeting elsewhere on the island. Do not hesitate to negotiate the price.

– Moyogalpa is the tourist center of the island. Several operators are present there and offer organized tours and guided tours. Elsewhere, most hotels offer similar, though less diverse, arrangements. In most cases, it is better to hire the services of a guide – allow between $ 10 and $ 15 per day. He will arrange transportation and can answer most of your questions, in addition to knowing the destination and its potential dangers.

– The dry season in Nicaragua generally lasts from November to April. It is possible to travel during the rainy season, but showers are almost daily and the sky is often gray.

– The currency used is the córdoba, although the US dollar is generally accepted there. Bring enough cash with you, ATMs are rare on the island and you often have to pay cash.

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