In October, I took on an unforgettable adventure to an island I had never heard of, which is on a lake I did not know existed, which is within a country I had never been to. Then and now, I have been living in Costa Rica on a tourist visa, so trips abroad are mandatory.
A tourist visa allows a Gringo, such as me, to remain in this country for 90 days. Before the end of that period, I have to leave the country for 3 days to renew my stay and avoid fines upon exiting. This is called a “border run.” Most Gringos living in Costa Rica go to Nicaragua or Panama for border runs, because they are both accessible by inexpensive, half-day bus rides. Two weeks ago, I opted for Ometepe Island, Nicaragua (“Ometepe”) with a few friends.
Having done little research about Ometepe, I had almost no information about where we were going. I had not been to Nicaragua; had not heard of Ometepe; and was ignorant of whether anyone I ever knew, other than our trip leader, had ever been there. I was in for a completely new experience.
Ometepe is an undeveloped and sparsely-populated volcanic island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. It is not completely ridiculous to suggest that Ometepe was drawn by a 2nd grader. It is an island in the middle of a lake (Lake Nicaragua), which is within an isthmus (Nicaragua) and it consists of two volcanic mountains and has black-sand beaches. It is off-the-grid and so incredibly unlike any place I have ever been to or imagined. Unless travelling by private plane or private boat, visitors can reach Ometepe by the ferry from San Jorge, Nicaragua which carries them to Ometepe in approximately 1.5 hours.
Upon arriving there, my group was welcomed by taxicabs, rickshaw drivers and other assertive tourist transportation service providers. The streets throughout Ometepe are clean, but are used by people in cars, on motorcycles and on bikes, and by horses, pigs and dogs—on foot. None of these animals were on leashes, but they all knew to get out of the way.
Ometepe is the ultimate remote-outdoor vacation spot. Even with only three air conditioned hotels, it has everything travelers need for a week of adventures. Hiking the volcanoes is possible by climbers of all levels as their slopes are gradual. Additionally, renting mechanical or motorized bicycles is as easy as walking down the street and very affordable. Ometepe’s hotels and hostels offer kayak and paddleboard rentals for very reasonable prices. The island has pretty much everything needed to keep outdoors-people entertained for a week at low costs.
Particularly unique and inviting is Oja de Agua (pictured). The main attraction at Oja de Agua is a giant pool dug out of the volcanic rock soil, which is filled with clean and clear water from an underground river that starts at volcano Maderas. It has a rope swing and tight rope going across it. There’s even a wait staff there ready to serve food and alcohol at Nicaraguan prices. I could go Ojo de Agua every day for a week and consider it a complete vacation.
As for the cuisine, Ometepeans have figured out how to make healthy, Caribbean-style food, which is offered for 60% of the price one might pay for similar cuisine in Costa Rica. At an unassuming looking roadside restaurant, I paid $8 for an exotic curry dish and a large smoothie.
For an off-the-grid getaway, a non-stop adventure, or a party-style weekend, Ometepe is terrific. I sincerely hope Ometepe’s character remains in-tact, but it may be in jeopardy for two reasons. First, people are finding out about it, so it could only be a matter of time before bigger and more hotels and buildings are built there. The recent completion of a private runway may be one of many signs of an increase in tourism there. I am not someone who always frowns upon development, but I sincerely hope Ometepe is appropriately cared for if development happens there.
Second, and most troubling, is the potential effect of the additional Central American canal. A Chinese tycoon aims to build an artificial passageway through Central America in addition to the Panama Canal. The financial benefits for doing so are evident. Nicaragua is a narrow land mass between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, so the proposed route traverses through it, and arguably Costa Rica, and no other country. It will save each large cargo ship that passes through it an ample amount of money, which would otherwise be spent on fuel.
The new Canal will bring exponentially more people within a close distance of Ometepe, which will likely lead to its discovery by people at a greater rate than before. Additionally, the environmental impact of building the impending canal could irreversibly alter Ometepe . While the new canal will not traverse directly through it, building it requires dredging and deepening Lake Nicaragua, which has already begun, and could indirectly affect the structure of Ometepe’s bordering landscape. The extent of development of its Ometepe’s surroundings cannot be fully known. The cumulative impact that the new passageway could have on surrounding areas is speculative, but we can only hope that Ometepe’s character is protected.
With the afore-mentioned in mind, the only safe play is to take a trip to Ometepe soon before it is no longer the same place. I had the privilege of going there last month and can say with utmost confidence that if there’s no Ometepe in heaven, it’s not heaven.
 Smithsonian Mag