Saturday, November 20, 2010

Nicaragua part 4 - Ometepe

After flying from Big Corn Island back into Managua, we were met by a rather surly driver from Adelante Express. After a long wait for another couple who were being dropped off in San Juan del Sur, we finally were on our way to San Jorge, where most of the boats and ferries leave to Ometepe. Two hours and a dash through a rainstorm later, we just barely managed to jump on the boat over to Moyogalpa, Ometepe's main port. There was only a bit of covered space on the boat, and it was already overcrowded so the first part of the ride was a bit damp.
But the rain did stop about halfway through the 40 minute trip, and soon we were getting our first glimpse of this magical volcanic island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua!
I'm not the first writer to visit Ometepe; Mark Twain beat me there by about 144 years! The following spring, he wrote about his experience for a San Francisco newspaper - here's what he had to say about his first look at the island.
Mark Twain - Alta California, March 16, 1867
Out of the midst of the beautiful Lake Nicaragua spring two magnificent pyramids, clad in the softest and richest green, all flecked with shadow and sunshine, whose summits pierce the billowy clouds. They look so isolated from the world and its turmoil - so tranquil, so dreamy, so steeped in slumber and eternal repose. What a home one might make among their shady forests, their sunny slopes, their breezy dells, after he had grown weary of the toil, anxiety and unrest of the bustling, driving world. 

As I could not even hope to improve upon this description, I'll just say...ditto!
Upon docking in Moyogalpa, we were picked up by a driver for the ride to our home for the next 2 nights, La Omaja. Our driver was a very friendly guy named Oscar who was great about pointing out the sights along the way.
The road is currently being improved, but for now is fairly rough most of the way, so the 16 mile route took about an hour and a half. It's a very scenic drive, though!
We also stopped for a few minutes when our driver spotted monkeys in the trees along the roadside.
 Yes, those are monkeys eating Pringles. No, Pringles are probably not any healthier for monkeys than for humans. But everyone deserves a little treat now and then!

Upon arrival at La Omaja we were greeted by the owner, Jamie, and his sweet dog Maya.
As it was low season, the hotel was fairly empty, and we were lucky enough to get to spend many hours chatting with Jamie over the course of the next 2 days. Jamie moved to Nicaragua from Omaha, Nebraska (thus the hotel's name) some years ago, and is married to an Ometepan woman with whom he has 2 children. All of this makes him extremely knowledgeable on everything from island/country politics to the history and legends of Ometepe to the unique benefits and challenges of living on a remote island in the middle of a lake in the middle of Central America!
We were immediately enthralled with a beauty of La Omaja's setting. Perched on the side of the Maderas volcano, the property offers a view down the verdant hillside to Lake Nicaragua to the front and left, and to the right you can see the Concepcion volcano, its summit often partially shrouded in romantic mist or fluffy clouds. Lush tropical flowers attract hundreds of butterflies, brightly colored birds sing sweetly (and occasionally screech) as they fly overhead, and Jamie's horses graze sedately in the grass. At night, thousands of fireflies sparkle like glitter everywhere you look - I've never seen anything like it!
The deluxe cabanas are fairly simple but comfortable, with two double beds, a couple of wooden rocking chairs and table facing a TV (the hotel offers Direct tv, though as usual we never turned the tv on). The standard cabanas have 2-4 twin beds and no television. Both categories have fans and the deluxe cabanas also have a/c (the standards may as well, though I'm not sure). All cabanas feature a modern bathroom with a cool rock shower, with surprisingly good water pressure and plenty of hot water.
 Each cabana also has a large covered terrace with a couple of chairs, a table, and a hammock.
La Omaja's restaurant offers a pretty extensive menu for such a small and remote property, with everything from sandwiches and full American-style breakfasts to traditional Nicaraguan specialties.
The food was very good, though the tostones were particularly excellent. Here, the fried slices of plantain were served with fried circles of Nicaraguan cheese - my mouth waters just thinking of this delectable dish!
They also have a full bar, of which we took regular advantage. From what I recall, beers were around $1 apiece, bottled soft drinks a bit less, and bottles of rum around $8 each. Hammocks hang alongside the tables, and I spent more than a few hours reading, reclining, and rumming in these! La Omaja's bar/restaurant staff (along with others working at the resort) don't speak much English as a whole (though probably more than we can speak Spanish!), but are warm, friendly, and very helpful and efficient!
In between relaxing and taking in the scenery, we did manage to fit in a few excursions! We only had one full day on Ometepe, but were determined to make it count. After breakfast, Jamie drove us to the beach, where we rented a kayak and set out for the Monkey Islands. These were a bit further (and the lake a bit rougher) than we had expected, but worth the effort. As we drew up to the first Monkey Island, it's two resident spider monkeys came out to stare us down threateningly. After having read a story about a girl who got to close and was attacked by the aggressive male, we opted to keep a safe distance. Especially after noting the chompers on one of them...
After getting our fill of the spider monkeys, we kayayed over to the other Monkey Island, which supposedly hosts several groups of howlers and capuchins. We spotted none of the former and only one of the latter - perhaps we were there during naptime? We did see quite a few birds, though!
 La Omaja from the water
 Back on the beach where we rented the kayak, we watched some local women wash clothes the natural way, and looked for signs of Lake Nicaragua's infamous bull sharks. No fins were spotted, though--maybe they were napping too?
That afternoon, Jamie went with us for a hike up to the San Ramon waterfall on the Maderas volcano. Although we were able to drive up the volcano a bit, there was still about a kilometer's worth of pretty rough terrain to traverse. A kilometer is nothing when on dry, flat ground, but as we soon learned, it can feel like a much longer distance when hiking almost straight up on muddy paths and climbing over slippery rocks in the middle of a river! But when we finally made it to the waterfall about an hour and a half later, we discovered it was well worth the energy expended. From the top of a ridge over 150 feet high, the water rushed in multiple torrents down through the lush rainforest. Unfortunately, the humidity and mist made it difficult to get good pictures, but at least we have the memories!
On the way back to the ferry the next day we stopped at Santo Domingo, a dark sand beach, for a few minutes. As it was cloudy, we decided not to spend much time there, but on a sunny day it would be fun to spend a few hours laying out and enjoying food and drinks from beachfront bars/restaurants!
From there we headed to Ojos de Agua ("eyes of the water"), two natural swimming pools. It started raining right when we arrived, and the water was a bit chilly, so we didn't spend much time in the water, but did enjoy some tostones, cocktails, and chatting with some tourists and locals!
Finally it was time to leave for the ferry dock. This time we were taking the big ferry out of San Jose - a much more comfortable experience than the tiny boat we took to the island!
Overall, we loved our time on Ometepe. It's truly a magical place, and I highly recommend it (and La Omaja) to anyone looking for a unique and wonderful experience a bit off the beaten path!
When we arrived back in San Jorge, we were picked up by the same driver from Adelante Express, and made it to Granada in record time (despite our pleas to the driver to slow down, he seemed to be in a tremendous hurry to get home for the evening). But we did make it to our hotel in one piece, and were excited to experience Nicaragua's famous colonial city!

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