During high season in Nicaragua, “head for the hills” is the phrase of choice for many expats who live near the beach. Because the beach is where everyone else goes.
When the sun is at its hottest, work-weary people from all over the country head for the beautiful waters to refresh, rejuvenate, and party. Many resident expats choose these times to go back to their home country to visit family. I choose to step out of the real world, cross a lake, and enter a magical place in Nicaragua called Ometepe Island, far from the crowds and craziness of the beaches.
Ometepe Island sits in the center of the 19th largest lake in the world: Lake Colcibolca (or Lake Nicaragua). When you cross over in the hour-and-15-minute ferry from San Jorge (35 minutes from San Juan del Sur) you get your first glimpse of the magic. The perfect cone of the active volcano Concepcion stands proud in the sun, about 3,000 feet high with wisps of clouds curling around its top. Its smaller sister volcano, Maderas, sleeps dormant on the other side of the island, cradling a crater lake that you can reach after a climb.
Tourism is slowly making its way to Ometepe, but in a thoughtful and more eco-correct manner than many other places around the globe. Take the butterfly farm at Charco Verde for example. Enter the gates and you find yourself in a delicate world of colorful flying butterflies and small birds, all native to Nicaragua. With soft, classical music piped in, turtles in the pond, and beautiful native flowers hanging gracefully from the wire overhead, this open-air farm immerses you in calm.
Many spend the day at “Ojo de Agua,” a mesmerizing clear turquoise pond in the middle of the forest. Why is the water that color? It’s anyone’s guess, no one has ever been able to explain this phenomenon. The cool water refreshes on a hot, sunny day—one of over 300 a year. The food is good at the restaurant there and if you get a coco loco (a healthy dose of rum, condensed milk, cherry juice, and fresh coconut water all served in the coconut), don’t have more than two or you might forget how to get back to where you are staying.
There’s plenty of other things to do on the island, since it is huge (you can actually fit almost five “NYC Manhattan islands” on Ometepe). Rent motorbikes or quads to explore. Taxis tend to be expensive, but you can share one. Take the hike to the San Ramon waterfalls, where you walk through a gorgeous forest along gentle to medium inclines and then jump into the freezing cold pools below the falls. Go to one of the many hotels/hostels on the black-sand beaches and swim, play, or rent a kayak. Go horseback riding to see ancient petroglyphs. If you’re fit, get a guide and climb the volcanoes. Talk to the howler and capuchin monkeys and they may screech back. Go birdwatching, or fishing. Watch the sunset over Concepcion volcano.
Or just sit and relax in front of the beach with a cold Toña (local beer) in hand, listening to the gentle lap of lake waves on the sand, content to be visiting one of the most beautiful and magical places on earth.