What a Quick Visit to Ometepe Taught me about Slowing Down

maderas-ometepe

Feeling the urgency of slowing down we decided on a trip to Ometepe. It seemed like the perfect idea. A place so primordial and raw that it would leave us both calmer and sharper. Where perhaps by unplugging from our internet connections and time saving devices, we’d manage to create more time and space to think.

The trip didn’t start calmly. It started with an anxious rush towards the ticket window at the port of San Jorge, only to be told that there was no room on the ferry for our truck. As we didn’t want to wait for the next one, we ditched the truck (there is covered parking at the port) grabbed our backpacks, and scrambled on board as pedestrians just as the ferry was pulling away from the dock.

The three of us gathered at the prow grinning at each other. We’d made it. The ferry turned to point towards the twin mountains rising out of the water in the distance.

ferry-ometepe-island

The largest in the world

Ometepe is extraordinary. It’s the largest volcanic lake island in the world made up of two volcanos: Volcán Maderas (1,394m / 4,573 ft) and her bigger sister, Volcán Concepción (1,610m / 5,282 ft). While Maderas is dormant, lush and dotted with petroglyphs, Concepción is active, rocky and periodically releases large columns of ash into the air. The two are so close together that laval flows have created an isthmus joining them into a single island.

A taxi driver we’d organized moments earlier from the ferry greeted us at Moyogolpa. “Here’s our international airport,” he announced optimistically when we rolled over a thin ribbon of tarmac hemmed in by dense foliage. The airport has yet to open but is slated to receive flights from Costa Rica.

We stayed in a leafy cabin at Hotel Villa Paraíso.  The hotel sits directly on Playa Santo Domingo and though there is not much to do beyond simply being there and contemplating the surroundings, we found that was all we needed.

Welcome to Ometepe time

We awoke to a peach dawn. You can’t see the sunrise over water in San Juan del Sur (over there, it’s all about the sunset) so we took a moment to contemplate the gathering light. A solitary egret pulled a fish from the lake only to be chased away by a pair of vultures. Turning a wary eye to the hunched impostors, it took off, flying to the deeper waters beyond.

“It’s like an excerpt from the Discovery Channel,” said one of my companions. “The circle of life is playing out in front of us,” said the other. Unable to come up with an equivalent line about the natural order of things, I suggested to my naturalist friends that we find some coffee. The winding path to breakfast took us past lemon trees, hibiscus bushes and signs pointing out escape routes in case of a volcanic eruption.

A popular activity on Ometepe is to hike the volcanos. But as we’d come here for a change of pace and not a sweaty scramble up two mountains we decided that hiring bicycles and slowly riding to a local spring (El Ojo de Agua) was more our style.

el-ojo-de-agua-ometepe

10 years younger

“You’d better take a photo now because you’ll look 10 years younger when you leave and no-one will recognize you,” said the friendly man at the entrance to the spring. We tied our bicycles to a palm tree and on we went, discovering a very relaxed scene. El Ojo de Agua is the kind of place where you’ll find yourself whispering; the atmosphere so hushed by the still pockets of water and the trees smothered in broad-leaf creepers.

Breakfast the next morning was at Natural, a vegetarian restaurant a little along the beach from our hotel. As we were tucking into our gallo pinto, the clouds cleared from Volcán Maderas to reveal the peak for the first time.

We could have made use of the high speed wi-fi and electric sockets, but we remained unplugged, polishing up our hammocking skills and embracing “Ometepe time” as we’d started to call it the previous day.

Time passed, the lake calmed and began to reflect the sky. Fortified by a lunch of roasted eggplant and homemade curry, we walked into the glassy water searching for the warmer sections.

Suddenly, a dark stripe at the distant horizon. The wind came first, whipping the surface of the lake into whitecaps, breaking up the sky. Seconds later large raindrops were pounding the water. At the first fork of lightning we retreated to loungers on the beach, our hair standing on end. The atmosphere felt raw, elemental and alive with energy.

Just another day on Ometepe Island.

ometepe-from-ferry

The lake was placid again the next day. The only difference; we’d found a boat to row into the lake to get a view of both volcanoes. A flock of birds turned in the air, the heat shimmered off the water and the whole thing seemed hallucinatory.

I was in the company of old friends and ancient mountains and I felt giddy with the sun. We lazed gladly for a few hours as the boat spun in the water, lost in the stillness. One volcano came into view followed by the other, in elegant symmetry.

Was Ometepe everything I’d imagined?

One of the marks of a good trip is how you feel when you leave.

I felt both clearer and calmer. But I also had another emotion – I was sad to be leaving a place where I had been so happy.

It’s ironic that the shadow of an active volcano should represent one of the most peaceful places I know. My only hope is that by stepping away from life for a moment, I’ll have something useful to bring back to it.

Travel notes:

Getting to San Jorge from San Juan del Sur – By public transport, catch the bus from San Juan del Sur to San Jorge. From the dropping off point you’ll need a taxi to the ferry port. By car, take the main road out of San Juan del Sur to Rivas. The road takes you to La Virgen, a town on the edge of the lake and you’ll see Ometepe in the distance. At La Virgen take a left to Rivas. Keep going over the speed bumps, past the baseball stadium on your right and the Uno gas station on your left until you reach a roundabout. Take a right to San Jorge. As you approach the lake, there are blue signs for the port and ferry terminal. They’ll point you first left, then right. Drive to the end of the road. If you’re not taking your car on the ferry, you can park it securely at the port. We paid 500 cords (around $20) for 4 nights/5 days of covered parking. Open air parking is cheaper.

Ferry times – The ferry to Moyogolpa takes 60 minutes. Here’s the schedule.  If you want to take a car, it’s a good idea to make a reservation. A car with driver costs around $25 one way. A passenger costs $2 – $3 depending on the boat. Beers on the ferry cost $30 cords (just over $1). If it’s not midday, grab a seat at the very top of the ferry for the best views.

Hotel Villa Paraíso –  The lake view cabins provided everything we needed, including very hot water showers. We liked the grilled tilapia so much that we ordered it twice. The recipe is simple and unaffected, just like Ometepe itself. We also recommend trying the tostones con queso after spending a languid afternoon at the lake. The 24km taxi ride from Moyogolpa to the hotel cost us $20.  Hotel website.

Natural restaurant – At the south end of Playa Santo Domingo is Natural, a vegetarian restaurant under a shade palapa on the beach. The wi-fi is fast but the vibe is unhurried. We loved the roasted eggplant topped with tomato and have since used the recipe at home.  The passion-fruit, pineapple and watermelon juice was also a favorite. Ask for it in a to-go cup (para llevar) to enjoy on the beach.  Natural website.

natural-restaurant-food-ometepe

Bicycle rental – We rented from a place next to the pulpería on the main road, but there are other options. It cost us 100 cords (just under $5) to rent a bicycle for the afternoon. We didn’t haggle. ATVs and motorbikes are also available.

El Ojo de Agua – We paid 75 cords ($3) to get into El Ojo de Agua. You’ll find chairs, tables, hammocks, toilets, showers and a restaurant. There’s also a viewpoint (mirador) with a view of Volcán Concepción (Volcán Maderas is blocked by trees). The water is cold, so come here on a hot day.