Isla de Ometepe is a twin-volcanic island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. It’s one of the most awe-inspiring places on the planet and a can’t miss destination while you’re backpacking Nicaragua. Some of the best things to do on Ometepe include swaying in a beachside hammock, hiking through the jungle, or munching on incredibly fresh food while hanging out with the friendly locals. In the evenings, you can sit on a kayak dock to watch the sky turn purple as the sun sets behind a volcano topped with swirling clouds.
Ometepe was formed by two 4,500-foot-plus volcanoes — Concepcion and Maderas — and the low-lying beaches and swampland between them. Ferries from San Jorge — near San Juan del Sur and the most popular beaches in Nicaragua — arrive in Moyogalpa, on the Concepcion side. This is where most travelers base themselves. Good tarmac roads encircle Concepcion and lead to the beaches between the volcanoes. On the other side, Maderas is rougher around the edges and there are fewer settlements. Dirt roads run all the way around this side of the island. This is the quieter, more low-key area to stay in — and is closer to many activities.
Sound like your ideal vacation? Read on for the five best things to do on Ometepe Island — one of the biggest Nicaragua highlights.
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- 1 1. Hiking Ometepe volcanoes
- 2 2. Relax on some of the best beaches in Nicaragua
- 3 3. Visit ancient petroglyphs
- 4 4. Walk to San Ramon Waterfall
- 5 5. Watch the sunset
- 6 How to get to Ometepe Island: The Ometepe Ferry
- 7 Getting around: Accessing the best things to do on Ometepe
- 8 Where to stay on Ometepe: The best Isla de Ometepe hotels
- 9 What to eat on Isla Ometepe
- 10 Safety on Ometepe
1. Hiking Ometepe volcanoes
Naturally, one of the best things to do on Ometepe Island is to hike up one (or both) of the volcanoes.
Which volcano you choose will probably be determined by where you’re staying — if you’re on the Concepcion side, it’s difficult to reach one of the Maderas trailheads early enough to start the hike, and vice-versa. But if you haven’t picked where to stay yet, a few other things are worth considering when choosing an Ometepe volcano hike.
First, Concepcion is the higher and longer hike, but it’s also the easier one, mainly because it’s usually dry. Mud and slipperiness aren’t huge issues. However, it is an 11-hour round-trip hike, and is by no means easy.
Second, Concepcion’s summit often becomes inaccessible due to high winds. You may not know if you will be able to attempt the summit or not until you’re already halfway up. Winds are not a problem on Maderas, but rain is — it won’t stop you from summiting, but it guarantees that you’ll be wet and muddy. Even when it’s completely clear at the base of the mountain, it’s virtually always raining at the top.
Third, don’t expect great views from either summit. You’re at or above the cloud line for most of these hikes, so you’d have to be very, very lucky to get a good view. Concepcion offers better chances.
Finally, the local guides estimate that both mountains have about a 50% summit rate. That means half of the groups who attempt hiking Ometepe volcanoes end up turning back. I can’t emphasize enough that these are not easy day hikes — you should only attempt them if you’re in pretty good shape, have the proper clothes, and don’t mind some uncomfortable weather conditions.
I hiked Volcan Maderas, and I can say without a doubt that it’s #1 on the list of things to do on Ometepe. But if you are considering this hike, read on for more about what to expect.
What it’s like to hike Volcan Maderas on Ometepe
The round trip for hiking Volcan Maderas takes around eight hours. There are several access points to different trails. Most backpackers use either the Finca Magdelena or the Merida trail. The Santa Cruz trail is also an option, but it’s less accessible. I went up and came down the Merida trail. You can theoretically go up one trail and down a different one, but you’d have to tack on $20+ per person for a taxi ride or an additional couple hours’ walking to get back to your starting point.
Guides are mandatory for hiking Volcan Maderas and easily arranged at your accommodation. They charge $15 for the group, but if you have more than three people you’ll have to take two guides. This may seem a little excessive, but as soon as you get on the mountain you’ll realize how easy it is to get lost. Tourists have died on these paths after attempting them alone.
Hiking Volcan Maderas starts with an an hour walk to get to the start of the trail. Then the first couple hours, at lower elevation, are uncomfortably hot. The scenery is tropical forest — big trees, lizards slithering across the path, lots of bird calls. You’ll pass some petroglyphs and a few small waterfalls.
After about two hours, you’ll reach a viewpoint of Concepcion and the beach below you. This is the last rest point on the ascent. You have three hours of climbing to go, so take this opportunity to have a snack.
Immediately after leaving the viewpoint, the scenery changes dramatically. You’ll be enshrouded in the cloud forest. The “path” turns into ankle-deep mud, when it’s not a sheer ascent on boulders and tree roots. Significant portions of the path involve literally pulling yourself up 10-meter sections with your arms. It’s pouring rain and very, very slippery.
If you make it to the top, you’ll summit at around 1 pm. I wouldn’t have even known we were at the summit if the guide hadn’t told me to be careful — one wrong step to my right and I could fall into the crater. I couldn’t even see it through the fog and rain. Luckily there is one small spot that is inexplicably protected from the weather, so you can eat your lunch in comfort.
Then comes the real fun part — going down. You’ll have to carefully lower yourself over the same boulders and tree roots that you traversed on the ascent. This is where you’ll really register how slippery it is. If you make it to the bottom without being coated head-to-toe in mud, consider yourself extremely lucky.
There may not have been any views, it may have been muddy and soggy and cold, but hiking Volcan Maderas was one of the most fun treks I’ve ever done. I highly recommend it as one of the best things to do on Ometepe.
Practicalities for hiking volcanoes on Ometepe Island
Whichever hike you choose, here are a few tips to help you prepare for your hike on Ometepe Island.
If you don’t speak Spanish, request a guide who speaks English. Additionally, try to meet your guide and hiking buddies in advance and feel out their enthusiasm for summiting. Once you start the hike, if one of you turns back, you all must turn back, so make sure your fellow hikers have proper gear and enough food and water. Some guides push to turn around after hitting the major viewpoints — this is especially common on the Finca Magdalena trail on Maderas. Choosing a licensed guide instead of someone you meet on the street should help you avoid this.
Most hostels and guesthouses can prepare a packed lunch for you to take up the mountain. Order something high-calorie that keeps well. You should also bring a few snacks — these are lengthy hikes and you need enough food to keep you going on a five- to seven-hour ascent.
Bring at least two — preferably three — liters of water, ideally in a hydration pack so you can drink while you’re walking. Whatever you do, don’t try to carry your water bottle (or anything else) in your hands as you hike. You need your hands to pull yourself up the boulders. Neither hike has accessible water sources to refill, so bring everything you need from the beginning, even if you normally rely on purification.
Finally, wear proper clothes. That means real hiking boots — not tennis shoes and definitely not sandals. Long pants will help protect your legs from the mud. A smartwool t-shirt is a good idea — it’ll keep you cool on the lower slopes and will dry quickly even if it’s pouring rain at the summit.
2. Relax on some of the best beaches in Nicaragua
You are on an island, after all. So what better things to do on Ometepe could there be than spending a day at the beach?
Everybody’s favorite beach on Isla de Ometepe is Playa Santo Domingo. Located between the two volcanoes, it also has the last big cluster of accommodation before you hit the dirt roads on the remote Maderas side of the island. While it’s one of the most beautiful beaches in Nicaragua and the lake is good for swimming here, its accessibility means it’s pretty crowded. It can also get uncomfortably windy, especially in the afternoon.
For a more remote alternative, try the area around Reserva Charco Verde. You’ll get stunning volcanic views along with your beach time. This is a particularly good option is you’re staying on the Concepcion side of the island, as it’s only about 10 km down a good tarmac road from Moyogalpa. Rent a motorbike or a bicycle.
3. Visit ancient petroglyphs
Ometepe Island is dotted with hundreds of ancient petroglyphs. Chances are you’ll pass them while exploring the island — maybe without even noticing. Look for the unique spiral design, which is unique to Ometepe.
The most concentrated and accessible collection of petroglyphs is at Finca el Porvenir, at the midpoint of the island between the two volcanoes. You can follow a short trail for about 30 minutes around the petroglyphs, but there is little explanation.
Finca Magdelena also has an impressive collection of petroglyphs. After you see the ancient sites, consider taking their coffee tour as well. The finca also provides access to a short hike up to a viewpoint of Concepcion — technically this is the start of a summit route for Maderas, but don’t go past the viewpoint without a guide. You can stay here if you want to do several of the activities on offer.
Smaller collections of petroglyphs are everywhere. If you hike up Volcan Maderas from any of the trail heads, your guide will point out a few of them.
4. Walk to San Ramon Waterfall
On the far side of Ometepe Island, behind Volcan Maderas, is a stunning 60-meter-high waterfall known as Cascadas de San Ramon.
The waterfall is about a 3-km hike from the parking area, which is another 2 km from the road. The whole hike takes about two hours in and another hour back out.
It’s a relatively easy hike by Nicaragua standards, but you should still wear proper shoes and bring plenty of water. (If you have a Steri pen, you can refill at the base of the waterfall.)
San Ramon Waterfall is one of the best things to do on Ometepe in rainy season or just afterwards. Unfortunately, if you visit in February-April, the falls may be reduced to a trickle. It’s still a beautiful and worthwhile hike though.
The easiest way to get to the trailhead for San Ramon Waterfall is to rent a bicycle. Alternatively, if you’re staying on the Maderas side of the island you can walk there — it’s about 4 km from Merida. Some of the horseback riding trips also include a stop here. Just remember that there is no shade and there are no shops between Merida and San Ramon — this is the wild side of the island, so don’t count on being able to find ice cream or a fresh water bottle, and bring plenty of high-SPF sunscreen.
You are very unlikely to even be able to find a taxi or truck on this side of the island, and even if you find one, they’ll charge you at least $20 per person to get back to Merida.
5. Watch the sunset
Without a doubt, the sunsets on Ometepe are some of the most beautiful you’ll find anywhere in the world. Spending the evening with a beer in your hand and your toes in the sand while watching the sky turn bright colors over Volcan Concepcion is one of the best things to do on Ometepe Island.
While most tourists stay on the Concepcion side of the island, the best sunset views are from the Maderas side — you’re going to want to be far enough away from Concepcion to see the whole mountain.
If you’re not staying on the Maderas side, try cycling to Punta Jesus Maria. Santo Domingo Beach is another popular option, since many travelers stay in the area, but the Concepcion views are slightly obscured.
Hands-down the best place on the island to watch the sunset from is the kayak dock at Hacienda Merida Ometepe. If you’re coming from elsewhere just to watch the sunset, buy a beer or dinner at the great on-site restaurant.
One word of caution: Even though it’s one of the best things to do on Ometepe, you should be very careful about cycling or motorbiking to the Maderas side of the island at night. The (dirt and stone) roads are much worse than on the Concepcion side, and you’ll have a lot of distance to cover in the dark. Bring a torch (flashlight) or headlamp and make sure your bike has enough air in the tires.
Wherever you go and however you get there, watching the sun set is the perfect way to end your trip to Ometepe.
How to get to Ometepe Island: The Ometepe Ferry
Ometepe island is a one-hour ferry ride from the port in San Jorge. There is nothing else of interest to travelers in San Jorge, but it’s an easy transit point to San Juan del Sur, Granada, Masaya and Managua. For example, from Managua to Ometepe takes about 4 hours, including the ferry ride. The Ometepe ferry dock is a 5-minute shared taxi ride away from the bus station.
Boats run throughout the day, at least once an hour, to Moyogalpa on Ometepe. Choose a bigger ferry over a smaller wooden boat. Tickets cost $2.20. Click here for the full Ometepe ferry schedule.
Ometepe experiences regular windstorms, even in high season. These can make the Ometepe ferry crossing unsafe and shut down the dock for days at a time. Leave at least one buffer day in between leaving Ometepe and your international flight, and try to take one of the earlier boats (before 9 am), as the winds are calmer in the morning. (Read about my nightmare Ometepe ferry experience here.)
If you get stuck in Moyogalpa for a couple hours while waiting for onward transport, Pizza Buon Apettite has good coffee, decent pizza, free WiFi and a nice patio.
Getting around: Accessing the best things to do on Ometepe
Getting around Ometepe is either difficult or expensive, especially when you first arrive.
The easiest way to get around is to hire your own bicycle or motorbike. You could rent a motorbike from Moyogalpa for your entire time on the island — this works best if you’re staying on the Concepcion side, where all the roads are tarmac. If you prefer to cycle, you can rent a bike from most guesthouses. A bicycle should cost around $8 for the day, while a motorbike runs more like $25.
Walking is another alternative if you’re not trying to cover huge distances. You can easily walk from Merida to the San Ramon Waterfall, or from the beaches to Finca el Porvenir. But just to give you a sense of scale, the entire Maderas side of the island is 35 km, and the Concepcion side is bigger. Plus, it’s hot, and there are few places to stop between towns.
Hourly chicken buses ($1 max) cover the Concepcion side of the island up to Altagracia. A few buses a day go on to the Maderas side — check the current schedule here and note that almost nothing runs on Sundays. In Moyogalpa the bus station is to your right when you get off the ferry dock. Always arrive at least 15 minutes before the bus is scheduled to leave, especially if you’re picking it up from an intermediary point.
Because of the unreliable schedules and infrequency of service, I wouldn’t recommend relying on the buses for day trips — rent your own two wheels instead to access everything on this list of the best things to do on Ometepe. However, they’re convenient for getting between Moyogalpa and your accommodation.
The only other options for getting around the island are the trucks that serve as taxis. They’re much slower than motorbikes or even bicycles, not much faster than the buses, and outrageously expensive. It’s only worth considering them if you arrive on Ometepe at an inconvenient time for the bus. Bargain hard, but bank on paying at least $20 for short trips, and $30-$45 to cover the length of the island.
Where to stay on Ometepe: The best Isla de Ometepe hotels
Ometepe hostels and eco-lodges are some of the best in Nicaragua. For an island this remote, it’s shockingly affordable to get a great room.
The biggest factor you should consider is what your priority things to do on Ometepe are. Every town has good-value accommodation, so you should choose based on location. If you want to hike up Concepcion, consider staying in Moyogalpa. For Maderas, stay at Finca Magdelena or in Merida. If you prefer to spend more time at the beach, choose accommodation near Playa Santo Domingo. And if none of those appeal and you just want to chill on a tropical island for a few days? There are plenty of remote options outside the major towns.
On the Maderas side, the best of the Ometepe hotels for budget travelers is Hacienda Merida Ometepe. Private rooms start at $25, and they have dorms for $10. The staff can help you arrange all of your activities (with good local guides who don’t overcharge). It has direct access to one of the Maderas trails. The kayak dock is an amazing place to watch the sunset. The on-side restaurant is awesome. And you can spend your evenings listening to howler monkeys swinging in the trees above you.
If you’re looking for the party scene, the Ometepe hostels around Moyogalpa or near the beaches are your best bet. Ometepe is a pretty quiet place though, and most people are in bed by 10 pm.
What to eat on Isla Ometepe
The food on Ometepe tends to be traveler-focused. That has its pros and cons: It’s easy to avoid yet another meal of beans and rice, but it’s quite a bit more expensive. Plan on paying at least $5 per meal.
Most travelers eat at their accommodation for breakfast and dinner. To be honest, I didn’t venture any further — I didn’t see much of a point. The food at Hacienda Merida Ometepe is excellent (especially for vegetarians).
If you’re participating in one of the more remote Ometepe Island things to do, bring a packed lunch. Long stretches of the island have no shops or restaurants.
Safety on Ometepe
Ometepe Island is one of the safest places in Nicaragua — and probably in all of the Americas. You have very little to worry about compared to the rest of the country.
The biggest risks are getting injured while participating in one of the activities on this list of things to do on Ometepe, or wrecking on a bike or motorbike. Be very careful on the dirt roads if you have your own transport.
Robbery and violent crime is basically unheard of. Solo women don’t need to worry about exploring alone.
Between the adventure activities, the beautiful beaches, and the great accommodation, there are plenty of things to do on Ometepe Island to keep you occupied for a few days. It’s sure to be the highlight of your trip to Nicaragua!
Want more tips and advice for backpacking Nicaragua? Check out my definitive Nicaragua travel guide!
Have you visited Isla de Ometepe? What was your favorite of the Ometepe Island things to do? Leave a comment!
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