The twin-peaked island of Ometepe (Nahuatl for “two hills”) is remarkably insulated from the rest of the country by the choppy waters of Lake Cocibolca. Long before the Spanish arrived, the islanders considered Ometepe sacred ground, inhabited by gods of great power. Even today the island remains awash in myths and legends, some of which date back to the days of the Nahuatl. Today’s islanders prefer their home to what they call “over there.” In 1957, as Volcán Concepción rumbled and threatened to erupt, the government ordered the islanders to evacuate Ometepe; they flatly refused, preferring to die on their island than live anywhere else.
The slopes of the volcanoes echo with the deep roar of howler monkeys, and the air is filled with the sharp cry of thousands of birds. Ecologically, Ometepe has been called the edge of the tropics, as a dividing line between tropical and dry falls between the two volcanoes. Volcán Maderas is extinct. Its crater is filled with a shallow lagoon and its slopes are carpeted with more tropical and humid species, including actual cloud forest at the top. Concepción is an active volcano whose slopes are covered with tropical dry forest species. On December 8, 1880, Volcán Concepción erupted with such force that lava and smoke flowed out of the crater for nearly a year. The most recent mini-eruption was in 2011.
Ometepe’s proud residents live a mostly agrarian lifestyle on the slopes of the twin Cenozoic volcanoes. The two principal towns, Moyogalpa and Altagracia, are formerly sleepy port towns and transportation hubs enjoying an upswing in tourism. Costs are lower here than on the neighboring Pacific coast. Many isolated areas on the island do not accept credit cards; take advantage of the ATMs available in town before heading out.
Alternative Tourism on Ometepe
There are numerous opportunities to support everyday Nicaraguans with your tourism dollars. From long-standing solidarity partnerships to sustainable agriculture work and research projects, Ometepe awaits those looking for something a little different.
Homestays and Community Tourism
There are a handful of community-based tourism projects around the island. Experience authentic Nicaraguan living and invest in community tourism by spending a night with one of the families of Puesta del Sol (in the village of La Paloma, a few kilometers south of Moyogalpa, tel. 505/8619-0219 or 505/8695-7768, $25/night). Accommodation rates include three home-cooked meals and filtered water. All bedrooms have a fan and access to toilets, but you’ll share common spaces with dogs, chickens, and curious children. Rent a kayak or bike, and hang out in the small waterfront café. Learn to make comida típica in cooking classes ($10 pp), and try some of the locally made hibiscus wine. Basic Spanish will make your stay more enjoyable as the families involved don’t speak much English. (Someone in the community does speak French, however.)
Pueblo Hotel Los Angeles (tel. 505/2569-4611 or 505/5720-1542, contact Carolina Flores Morales, $20/night pp) is a network of 15 women in the community of Los Angeles who host tourists in their homes. The cost of a stay includes three meals per day and a complete immersion experience. Aside from traditional tourism activities offered elsewhere on the island, the Pueblo Hotel members can arrange tours and a local youth organization rents bicycles.
At the foot of Volcán Maderas, Mujeres de Balgüe (tel. 505/8656-0857 or 505/8897-5035, $8 pp) is a group of women who open their homes to guests. You’ll get your own private room and you can arrange meals ($3 breakfast, $4 lunch, $4.50 dinner) with your family. It’s best to arrange in advance, but once in Balgüe, you can check for availability at Comedor Isabel.
In Moyogalpa, Escuela Hotel Teosintal (2 blocks east of the dock, $20 d) aims to provide an additional source of income for local producers and improve customer service and tourism services on the island. The theory is reinforced by the students’ interaction with hotel guests. The hotel can arrange tours around the island or up to the volcanoes. The project, operating since 2005, can connect you with a network of agricultural cooperatives, many of which specialize in the production of sesame seeds for export.
In the community of Santa Cruz, you’ll find the Fundación Entre Volcánes (tel. 505/2569-4118, firstname.lastname@example.org), which runs projects all over Volcán Maderas focusing on environmental education, agriculture, and sustainable tourism. Opportunities range from assisting with school workshops to farm work and teaching composting techniques. You could also assist with community tourism trainings and marketing. Your Spanish should be at least conversational. Time commitments depend on the project.
In 2007, the folks at Hacienda Mérida founded the Ometepe Bilingual School (on the southwestern side of the island, tel. 505/8868-8973, contact Alvaro Molina), a free afterschool English-language program for children in the rural community of Mérida. The school hosts international volunteers; student groups and individuals come from around the world. You can teach English to local elementary and high school students. There is a two-week minimum commitment, a $125 fee, and accommodations with a local family, or in the dormitories at Hacienda Mérida.
The Maderas Rainforest Conservancy (formerly the Ometepe Biological Field Station, Miami tel. 305/666-9932, email@example.com) is located near Merida, on the slopes of Volcán Maderas. They manage numerous forward-thinking conservation projects in surrounding communities, including a botanical garden on the lakeshore to serve as a refuge for endangered Blue Morpho butterflies. They also operate a field school for birding groups and research students. Tourists are welcome to sample the restaurant or stay at the station for a small fee.
To learn about organic agriculture, permaculture, and horticulture, spend a couple of weeks at Finca Bona Fide (about 300 meters left of Finca Magdalena, tel. 505/8616-4566, $20/night, less if you stay more than 1 week). Chris runs a beautiful farm, offers 18-day organic agriculture workshops (free for locals), has a nutritional kitchen in Balgüe, and offers farm work internships. Enjoy rustic lodging (a bunk bed or hammock on a raised platform) and three meals a day. Advance arrangements are preferred.
Similar agricultural work arrangements can be made at La Finca Ecológica El Zopilote (tel. 505/2560-1764). If you’ll be sticking around more than a couple of weeks, ask about discounts. Finally, check out the Fincas Verdes network to get a lowdown on the various agricultural and conservation ventures being offered on the island.
Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.