Our 2-month trek across the incredible, diverse landscapes of Central America has brought us to so many incredible places. From ancient Maya cities to live, erupting volcanos, to quaint, colorful colonial towns drowning with incredible coffee, Central America has so much to offer. But Ometepe was still a surprise.
Here in Nicaragua, we think we’ve found the best hidden gem. It’s unique, it’s fun, it’s just epic. I even think it should be nominated as one of the world wonders.
Here’s why you need to visit Ometepe Island, Nicaragua on you next trip to Central America.
Ometepe, Nicaragua: The island on
one two volcanos
The first time I actually saw Ometepe island was on a flight to Central America years ago. I had no idea what the hell I was looking at out of the window except for two volcanos in the middle of a lake. But I knew I had to go there someday.
The island of Ometepe literally is two volcanoes sitting in the middle of a huge lake. You have the active Volcan de Concepción and Volcan de Maderas. You can hike up to a lagoon on top of the Volcan de Concepción, where you can be in a lagoon, on a volcano, on an island, in a lake, in Nicaragua, land mostly created by volcanos. Volcanoception. That’s like the coolest thing, ever.
Ometepe: The Bali of Central America?
In our travels, we were hoping to find something similar to Bali somewhere. First, we tried Tulum. That was wayyyyy too Americanized. (Even if beautiful). Then we hoped Antigua Guatemala would bring us some hippie vibes. It was awesome, but nothing like Bali. But when we set out on the 70-minute ferry across to Ometepe, we didn’t expect we would find anything here.
So far, the hippies:population ratio here has been the highest we’ve seen. It’s actually been rare to see tourists at all on our trip, so it’s a welcome site. Here, you can find more yoga and meditation retreats than Pollolandia restaurants – a welcome change from what we’d seen before. And for once, vegetarian and vegan food that’s not just side dishes!
That being said, it doesn’t have quite the raw beauty and wow-factor of Indonesia. But it’s probably as close as you’re gonna get on this side of the world.
The floor is lava
When you first drive off the ferry, you’re facing the Volcan de Concepción head-on. The first half kilometer of your voyage forces your face to lock itself straight ahead and your eyes to open up big as you slowly approach this behemoth of a volcano.
When you realize that the ground beneath you used to be lava, you start to admire the work of time. Rainfall creating gorgeous ravines, trees growing against all odds, and all the creation and destruction over millions of years. It’s hard to imagine just how powerful these volcanos are. But I’m certainly glad that the floor isn’t lava anymore.
People are as friendly as Ometepe is volcanic
Unfortunately, our experience driving a car on the island involved two flat tires (because Sixt gave us a faulty spare tire) and a lot of running around. Fortunately, the people were more than willing to give us a hand. And though we spent a lot of time walking around all sorts of neighborhoods, we never once felt uncomfortable.
Here we were driving in the middle of nowhere when one of our tires literally exploded. I pulled out the jack, spent the next 15 minutes laboriously rotating the ridiculously inefficient handle, learned how to take the spare off the bottom of a Chinese-built car, and chucked it on there. Since my hands were as dirty as they’ve probably ever been in my life, we knocked on someone’s door to ask if I could wash my hands.
What I experienced next was true kindness. This older couple was living the true rural life; no running water, no electricity. Yet, they volunteered to grab some water from probably their only container and some soap to help me out. It was: 1) a realization of just how spoiled we are back home, 2) a genuine display of hospitality. (Side note: NEVER rent a DFSK or any other Chinese-built car.)
Ometepe feels like a world of its own.
Have you seen those movies where people decide to create their own country for fun? That’s kind of what Ometepe is like. There’s no hustle and bustle of bus city streets.
Instead, the island harbors this rare sort of rural feel – without actually being rural. When you take the ferry across to Omepete, it feels more like you’re traveling through time instead of space. Off the boat is a land that feels like the good ol’ days, plus a couple creature comforts of today’s world.
With this rural feel comes a natural trust. It seems that everyone here knows each other, and there’s a great sense of community. We haven’t met locals who’ve lived their whole lives here with no intention of leaving, and expats who couldn’t leave once they stepped foot.
Where to stay
When staying in Ometepe, you basically have two choices: the beach, or the jungle. We chose both.
Jungle: Totoco Eco-Lodge (Balgüe, Ometepe)
We have an absolutely fantastic stay at the Totoco Eco-Lodge. It’s about a 45-minute drive from the ferry dock in Moyogalpa, and it’s truly in the jungle. The noise of the parrots, white-tailed magpies, cicadas, crickets, and nighttime rainfall provide a soothing melody to fall asleep to. The food is just absolutely sublime, and the service is some of the beach we had in all of Nicaragua. Truly top-notch.
Beach: Xalli, Ometepe Beach Hotel (San Fernando, Ometepe)
We stayed at Xalli our last night and wish we had stayed longer. The constant, calming wind blowing off the beach of Playa Santo Domingo just feels rejuvenating. Hearing the waves and being surrounded by tropical vegetation combined with the great hospitality, delicious food, and comfortable rooms make for a wonderful stay.
Things you have to do in Ometepe
Eat at Playa Mangos for the best view on the island
I didn’t actually find this one. My girlfriend, Andi, had seen a spectacular picture on instagram and gave me no choice but to come here. As soon as I walked into the beach, I was in love. Not just with her, but also with the scenery.
We sat under massive ceiba trees enjoying a spectacular sunset with wild horses running around and a volcano in the background. And to our surprise, the food was actually good! They really didn’t have to make their product that great, but they did. And that’s what makes eating at Playa Mangos a must-do on the island.
Go on a kayak tour at sunset
Kayaks and canoes are available all over the island, but if you’re already at Playa Mangos, they offer rentals starting at just $15. You can enjoy the raw nature of the island, lined with volcanic sand, palm trees, ceiba trees, mangroves, wild horses, cows, and more. The water in Ometepe is relatively calm and makes for great kayaking for anyone.
Check out a waterfall
With volcanos typically come waterfalls and Ometepe is no exception here. Make sure to check out the cascada (waterfall) de San Ramón, located on the southern volcano, Maderas. You can hike there in a couple hours or go horseback riding as part of a tour.
How to get to Ometepe from Mainland Nicaragua
Flights are currently very limited into Nicaragua. At the moment, only Avianca is flying into the international airport in Managua. This means you’ll probably have to connect in San Salvador.
Another (probably easier) option is to take a direct flight to Liberia, Costa Rica and then take ground transport to Nicaragua. Tica Bus is a great, reliable bus company we took many times in Central America. Our pick this time was to rent a car to the border, walk across, then rent a car from the border on the other side. This was basically seamless and we highly recommend Alamo.
Once in the country, you’ll have to drive or take a bus or shuttle to the ferry terminal in San Jorge, Rivas. There, you have almost hourly ferry service to Moyagalpa, Ometepe island. If you have a car, make sure to take a ferry – not a lancha. And we highly recommend reserving ahead if you have a car (by phone) because the ferries fill up fast. Show up at least 45 minutes ahead of departure.
In normal times, there are flights to Ometepe, but they are no longer running.
Nicaragua Travel Restrictions
Non-vaccinated passengers must have a negative result from a real time PCR test (swab) for COVID-19, performed in a period no longer than 72 hours before entering Nicaragua.
No antigen or rapid test is allowed. And make sure to fill out the “Prechequeo” form online at least 7 days ahead. We were late on this and had to go through enhanced screening upon arrival in Nicaragua. So yes, you don’t need it, but it streamlines things quite a bit.
Also note that Nicaragua charges $15 per person to enter via land borders. Don’t ask me why.