For most travelers, Nicaragua is the forgotten stepchild of Latin America. Your typical tourist gravitates more naturally to Nicaragua’s better known neighbors: Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama. These countries immediately call to mind a clear image of just what you’re getting yourself into: cerulean waters, lush jungles and a certain expansive canal.
So, why should you venture off the standard Latin American path? Just what does Nicaragua have to offer? Quite a lot, actually. For starters, let’s explore the not-to-be-missed Ometepe Island.
Smack in the middle of Nicaragua lies a massive freshwater lake (think Great Lakes, can’t-see-the-opposite-shoreline scale). And what lies smack in the middle of that freshwater lake? A lush, tropical island formed by two volcanoes. You’ll also find freshwater sharks, but I digress.
If possible, catch the last ferry to the island and climb to the top of the boat for clear views. During my ride to Ometepe, which lasted about an hour, the sky was awash with a vibrant, colorful sunset. In the distance, we watched lightning dance from purple clouds to the summit of a far-off volcano. This picturesque scene alone makes the journey to Ometepe worthwhile.
On the island, we stayed at the lovely Hotel Villa Paraiso. Each casita, or little house, comes replete with its own hammock and guests eat breakfast directly overlooking the beach.
We started our first day on the island with a lazy stroll toward the island’s smaller volcano, Maderas. Aside from one Nicaraguan on horseback and a second herding a trio of cows, we had our own private beach. This is one thing that continues to amaze me about Nicaragua. How are its stunning natural wonders not swarmed by legions of tourists? I have a feeling this near-total privacy cannot last, so head to Nicaragua sooner than later!
After a languid morning, for a mere $2/person you can spend an afternoon at Ojo de Agua, a clear swimming pool fed by natural waters. Lounge chairs, hammocks and a bar/restaurant surround the pool, so it’s a great place to snuggle up with a book and a cocktail. If you’re feeling more adventurous, swing from a Tarzan rope into the deeper pool. An added bonus? Legend has it the waters possess restorative, healing powers.
On the walk back to the hotel, be sure to look up. We saw at least 40 playful monkeys swing from trees to telephone wires and back again.
Finally, for the more athletic traveler, (supposedly) the hike up Maderas is not-to-be-missed. A lake formed in the crater of the inactive volcano, and now supports a lush rainforest environment. However, despite good intentions, you may find yourself looking toward a full-day, uphill hike in 90 degree heat with trepidation (as, ahem, a certain traveler did).
For a training-wheels version of the excursion, take an easy path along the base of the volcano and view a series of petroglyphs carved into boulders along the path.
To conclude? There are many reasons to visit Nicaragua, and Ometepe Island, replete with volcanos, monkeys and gorgeous views, is an essential component of any Nicaraguan itinerary.