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Nicaragua: Unspoiled, irresistible Ometepe

By Jake Batsell
September 25, 2004

OMETEPE ISLAND, Nicaragua — When climbing a volcano, never hike and take pictures at the same time.

I should have known this already after five years in the land of Mount Rainier. But I learned my lesson the hard way on the slopes of Volcán Maderas.

Inspired by a captivating view of the cloud-shrouded volcano looming over plantain and papaya trees — but also wanting to keep up with my hiking group — I decided to point and click while walking.

Bad idea. A pair of rocks sticking out of the ground sent me tumbling, producing a pair of unintelligible pictures and a smattering of horse manure on the hand that broke my fall.

It was a harbinger of sorts for our seven-hour hike up and down muddy, slippery Maderas — everyone in our four-person group bit the dust at some point. But what's a little stumble when you can walk through a lush cloud forest, gawk at howler monkeys and wade in a lake on the floor of a volcanic crater?

These are just a few of the attractions on rugged, verdant, largely unspoiled Ometepe Island, which has had a sister relationship with Bainbridge Island since the late 1980s.

The defining feature of Ometepe — which gets its name from a Nahuatl word meaning "two hills" — are its majestic pair of volcanoes, Maderas and Concepción. Most visitors can't help but feel the urge to climb one of the two peaks.

But beneath the volcanoes, plenty of other options beckon, including petroglyphs, beach resorts and a coffee plantation — all against a low-key backdrop of tropical temperatures, friendly people and a delightfully slow pace.

Sister connection brings visitors

The sister-island connection between Bainbridge and Ometepe generates a steady stream of Seattle-area visitors to the Nicaraguan island, particularly during the summer months of November through April.

Scores of volunteers from Bainbridge make their way to the island every year, including an annual Spring Break contingent of high-school students. And the island also is drawing more leisure travelers as volunteers return and spread the word of Ometepe's charms.

"If someone is traveling (in Nicaragua) from the Northwest, they'll probably stop through here," said Jim Starrs, a Bainbridge teacher who spent a year on Ometepe running the program office of the Bainbridge-Ometepe Sister Island Association.

Getting to Ometepe from Seattle entails a two-day succession of flights, taxis and a rickety public bus or two where one might encounter (as I did) plastic bags of chicken livers in the overhead luggage racks.

The epic journey finally delivered me to the ferry stop at San Jorge, a sleepy port town on the western shore of Lake Nicaragua, also known as Lake Cocibolca.

Ferries with food

From San Jorge, it's a one-hour ferry ride across the lake to Moyogalpa, Ometepe's chief port. The ferries are smaller and wobblier than their behemoth Puget Sound counterparts, but at least these ferries have food service — if so inclined, you can snack on an empanada and sip a cold beverage as each passing minute brings you closer to the looming volcanoes.

Moyogalpa offers the first glimpse into Ometepe's laid-back tempo. Near the ferry dock, Hotel Ometepetl beckons with its thatched-roof restaurant and siesta-friendly patio dotted with hammocks and rocking chairs.

The island's main commercial hub, Moyogalpa makes a suitable overnight stop, but for many visitors it is simply the place to connect to transportation farther inland.

Speaking of which, be forewarned: Ometepe's roads are paved only inside the main cities. Beyond that, brace yourself for bumpy travels on the main dirt road that winds around the island figure-8 style, encircling the two volcanoes.

Comforts might surprise

Ometepe may attract the hardy, adventurous soul, but it has its comforts, too. The narrow strip of land that connects the two volcanoes is home to a trio of modest resorts on Playa Santo Domingo, where one can while away a few days on the beach for a fraction of what it would cost at swankier Caribbean or Baja locales.

At Villa Paraiso, considered to be Ometepe's fanciest digs, I landed a stone cabin just a few steps from the beach for a mere $45 a night.

This is as luxurious as it gets on Ometepe, with air conditioning, private baths and hammock-equipped porches from which you can lazily take in views of Lake Nicaragua or share an encounter with boisterous blue jays called urracas.

The beach resorts offer phone service and accept credit cards — relative rarities in rural parts of Ometepe — as well as restaurants that serve steak, fish and heavy helpings of Bob Marley music.

Not natural for natives

This is not the realm of ordinary Nicaraguans. For that, venture down the road to villages like Balgüe, where backpack-toting tourists cross paths with mule-toting farmers, uniformed school kids and the occasional wayward pig.

From Balgüe, a half-mile trek uphill will bring you to Finca Magdalena, a working coffee farm that doubles as a backpackers' hostel.

The finca, home to a farming co-operative formed during the Sandinista era in the 1980s, grows and processes organic coffee that is exported to Bainbridge Island as part of a sister-island partnership that has delivered new schools, drinking-water systems and other community projects to Ometepe.

During the coffee season, which usually runs from November to February, the finca's guests can watch or even participate in various stages of the harvest.

At the finca's farmhouse, lodging options range from hammocks to dorm-style rooms to private huts, all for a pittance by U.S. standards. I sprung for a double "matrimonio" room — essentially a cubicle with a full-size bed — for $4.50 a night. Shared bathrooms have private showers with frigid water piped in directly from Maderas' springs.

All meals are served from the finca's porch, which offers glorious views of Concepción and Lake Nicaragua. Over a lunch plate of gallo pinto (rice and beans), you'll take in a torrid vista of colors, from pinkish bougainvillea to yellow lilies to the deep-blue lake waters that rival Puget Sound in August.

Keep in mind that Finca Magdalena is a hostel whose clientele differs from the beach resorts. While Villa Paraiso is the domain of Speedo-clad Westerners lounging lakeside on beach chairs, the finca attracts backpackers who might spend their idle time sewing crafts or strumming mandolins.

Still, the finca's unpretentious camaraderie is part of its appeal. Guests dine and rub shoulders with working coffee farmers and, in an affirming testament to the honor system, are asked to log their own charges on a communal notepad.

The finca's farmers also double as guides for volcano hikes and tours of the Nahuatl petroglyphs scattered around Maderas' northern slopes. Expect to pay about $4 for an hourlong tour of carved images including serpents, scorpions, mermaids and spirals.

High-level hiking

Finca Magdalena also is the launch point for the trail up Volcán Maderas, the more popular of the island's two volcanoes for hiking. Dormant Maderas (4,573 feet) is a more manageable day hike than its taller and volcanically active counterpart, Concepción (5,315 feet), and Maderas offers more aesthetic appeal with its cloud forests and crater lake at the top.

Maderas is no casual stroll, and it's well worth the $15 needed to hire a guide for the seven-hour round trip. The trail is steep, rocky and quite slippery when wet, and it helps to have a spotter during the rope-assisted descent into the crater.

The hike is challenging — some might say exhausting — but it is an impressive sensory experience. Hear the growls of howler monkeys cascade down from the treetops. Feel the crater lake's cool waters massage your flaring calves. Taste the sweat dripping from your forehead.

But remember — no photos unless your feet are firmly planted on the ground.

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