Kayaking Rio Istian
Along the narrow isthmus of Isla de Ometepe lies the Istian River. It’s a couple of kilometers of marshy stillness full of wildlife. We rented kayaks from Castillo Mars in Merida. From there it was a 45 minute kayak along the breezy shore of the lake before we found the river’s nearly hidden entrance. We wanted to go at a leisurely pace and were confident we would be able to find some interesting creatures on our own so we opted out of taking a guide along. The mouth of the river is a stretch of mangroves where caiman like to hide. Another group of people pointed out a caiman to us after only a couple of minutes in the river. As we paddled down the muddy river we spotted plenty of water birds and turtles. Our path took us through some narrow overgrown sections, under ant-covered low-lying tree branches, and finally came to a dead end. The river appeared to continue on the other side of thick grass but we (along with everyone else we saw) turned around at that point. On the way back out to the lake we were determined to find a caiman of our own and we succeeded! Rebecca spent summers with her family canoeing through various lakes and rivers of Ontario and she’s quite stealthy in a kayak. The caiman we found was doing its very best to hide behind a leaf which was best/worst. While we were really happy to find the little guy, it was a bit disappointing not to get a good picture of its piercing gold eyes. Feeling as if we had accomplished what we wanted for the day, we paddled back through the lake to return the kayaks and enjoy a refreshing swim.
Joining In A Local Party (and getting an invitation to the best sunset view on the island)
Disclaimer: This isn’t obviously something you can plan to do while you’re here, but keep you’re eyes and ears open!
We’ve mentioned that Merida was a quiet town, so one evening when a band of brass instruments and drums was playing, we had to get a closer look at what all the commotion was. In true Nicaraguan fashion, we were welcomed into the party and someone immediately handed us a liter of beer. The band played on and everyone was having a wonderful time! We started chatting with a few people and found out that it was one woman’s 50th birthday party. There was drinking and dancing and food for hours before the party died down. We were sure to wish the woman ‘Feliz Compleanos’ before she left the festivities. Then in true Canadian fashion, we were the last ones to leave after sharing a bottle of rum with some new friends. A couple that we met that evening is from the U.S. They have been to Ometepe a number of times and recently purchased property there. They plan to start building on it near Merida during their next visit. In the mean time they’e staying at a home up on the mountain – or rather, volcano – side and invited us over one night to watch the sunset and enjoy a great meal. It was a rugged 20 minute hike up to their place but the view was breathtaking. The panorama from their front porch honestly looked like a painting with a perfect view of the lake and Concepcion volcano in the distance. Once the sun set the stars came out… being spontaneous isn’t always easy but it sure can be rewarding.
Climbing Maderas Volcano
After staring up at the volcanoes of Ometepe for weeks I (Tyler) finally decided to climb one. Knowing you had to be almost insane to climb the extremely steep slopes of Conception, I decided on our hometown volcano, Maderas. Not to be taken lightly, it’s still a 7-8 hour round trip hike. A guide is mandatory for the climb, so I hired Johnson. He’s a slender and talkative 17 year old I had met a few days before and claims to have climbed Maderas over 100 times. We set off early, about 7:30am, along a gently sloping path through farm land. Johnson was sure to point out some petroglyphs and the best viewpoints along the way. After an hour the trail became narrow and steep as we entered the jungle and started to ascend the volcano. In no time I was gasping deep breaths and taking extra breaks under the curious gaze of white-faced capuchins. After an hour and a half of exhausting climbing, the forest changed. We were now in the soft, lush cloud forest. Every tree branch or vine was covered in thick dripping lichen. The plush mosses and spongy trees seemed to wrap around us like a cashmere sweater. The trail was quite muddy, and the views almost non-existent thanks to a heavy mist, but we staggered on (well I staggered, Johnson had barely broken a sweat). After three and a half hours we reached the crater rim. This day, like most of them, the top of the volcano was covered in heavy clouds which blocked what is apparently a stunning view of the lagoon down inside the crater. I took Johnson’s word for it, ate my lunch and enjoyed the serenity of being so high up away from everything. To get down we followed the same trail back through the cloud forest, into the jungle, then off the volcano into sunny farm land. I arrived back in Merida muddy and exhausted but happy to have stood on top of the volcano that had been towering over me for weeks.
Swimming In The Ojo De Agua
Talking to other travellers we heard about what was supposedly the best swim on Ometepe. One morning we hopped on a bus and asked to be dropped off at Ojo de Agua (eye of water) which is just outside the beach town of Playa Santo Domingo. About 1 km from the main road we found the lagoon which is actually 2 pools fed by fresh spring water from Maderas volcano. The water contains many minerals from the volcano and is supposed to help with muscle pain, stress and even aging! The area has been built up a little with cement borders around the large pools, wooden lounge chairs and a stand selling coco-locos (a coconut with rum mixed inside) as well as a restaurant. However, the forest is thick around the little oasis which helps to keep its natural feel. The water is a beautiful shade of turquoise and oh so cool and refreshing. A rope swing is the best way to get in. All-in-all Ojo de Agua is an excellent place to cool off, have a drink and meet other people or sit back and enjoy a book. If you crave sand between your toes, the long beach at Santo Domingo is not far away.
Festival San Diego
A couple of days before we intended to leave Ometepe, our friend and guide Johnson told us about a festival going on in the islands main town, Altagracia. Since it isn’t often we’re in the right place at the right time, we decided to extend our stay by a few days to take part in the revelry. The main event of the 5 day festival is an interesting one. After hundreds of people parade through the streets all day – lead by the heart-thumping beat of drums and a statue of the patron saint- the party moves to the outskirts of town. There, many food vendors are set up as well as rides for all ages. It’s at this fairground that the main event takes place. In the center of a ring, kept ‘secure’ by 6 ft tall chain-linked fence, bulls are enticed to charge dozens of boys and men. The bulls enter the ring with a bull-rider hanging on for dear life; when he’s finally bucked off he scrambles to find a safe place to watch. From then on, the bull is heckled by the somewhat intoxicated group of daredevils that remain in the ring (often using a red cape or t-shirt). It’s a very weird combination of bull-riding, taunting the bulls and running from the bulls. We watched a few bulls come and go; some were surprisingly tame while others aggressively charged at their hecklers. More than once, the bulls horns met the torso of a man trying to escape. The most surprising thing was how young some of the boys taking part were; they couldn’t have been older than 13 or 14. Of course, these younger boys were generally the first to scramble up the fence to avoid getting injured. Safe from danger or not, an event like this would never be allowed in Canada. We can only imagine how many “western” safety regulations were being broken. We decided to take advantage of the low safety standards later that night and do a little threatening of our own lives by going on one of the rides. It was a ferris wheel with cars that spun 360 degrees sending us upside down over and over again. So maybe it wasn’t the craziest thing in the world, but it made us feel a little bit badass and we left with a few bruises knowing we did all we could to be a part of this local festival. Festival San Diego is held in Altagracia every year from November 12th-18th (roughly). There is a similar festival for another saint that occurs mid-April.
Exploring Around Charco Verde
This is a small nature reserve dedicated to preserving the wildlife around a green lagoon (the English translation of charco verde) on the island. It’s a safe place for many bird species, turtles, insects and howler monkeys. The main hike around the emerald lagoon only takes about 45 minutes but it’s a nice slice of nature to see. The trail has a couple of optional extensions to make for a longer walk; one heads up to a lookout point over the west side of the island (great for sunsets) and the other sticks to the shore around the marshy peninsula. We headed to the reserve later in the day which only gave us time for the hike around the lagoon and up to the viewpoint. To our pleasant surprise this reserve is home to the nicest beach we saw on the island. Ometepe has a lot of shoreline, however, much of it is not kept up nicely and tends to be overgrown or rocky. The secluded beach here is where we would recommend coming to spend a morning laying in the sand. If you end up coming later in the day like we did, aim for 5:00 and enjoy the colourful sunset. This small reserve isn’t likely to make everyone’s “must-do” list but we highly suggest making time for it if you can!
One other great adventure on Isla de Ometepe is hiking to the 40m high San Ramon waterfall, which we wrote a blog about here.
TRAVELLERS TIP: Get acquainted with the locals wherever you go! We have never been turned away from a party and we have always had a great time at spontaneous celebrations/festivals. These are part of the detour too! Sometimes you have to ditch the itinerary and go with the flow.