Standing on the shore and looking out onto vast Lago de Nicaragua, it’s not hard to imagine the surprise of the Spanish navigators who, in 1522, nearly certain they were heading towards the Pacific, found the lake’s expanse instead. They weren’t too far off – merely a few thousand years – as both it and Lago de Managua were probably once part of the Pacific, until seismic activity created the plain that now separates the lake from the ocean. Several millennia later, by the time the Spanish had arrived, the Lago de Nicaragua was the largest freshwater sea in the Americas after the Great Lakes: fed by freshwater rivers, the lake water gradually lost its salinity, while the fish trapped in it evolved into some of the most unusual types of fish found anywhere on earth, including freshwater shark and swordfish. Locally, the lake is still known by its indigenous name, Cocibolca (“sweet sea”). It’s easy to be captivated by the natural beauty and unique cultures of the islands that dot the southwest sector of the lake, including twin-volcanoed Isla de Ometepe and the scattering of small islands that make up the Solentiname archipelago. On its eastern edge the lake is fed by the 170km Río San Juan, which you can boat down to the remote El Castillo, an old Spanish fort surrounded on all sides by pristine jungle. The Río San Juan and El Castillo are reached via the largest town on the east side of the lake, San Carlos, a bug-ridden settlement mainly used by travellers as a transit point. Making your way around the lake can be quite an undertaking: Lago de Nicaragua is affected by what locals call a “short-wave phenomenon” – short, high, choppy waves – caused by the meeting of the Papagayo wind from the west and the Caribbean-generated trade winds from the east. Crossing can be hell for those prone to seasickness. You’ll need to be prepared for the conditions and patient with erratic boat schedules.
Almost everyone who travels through Nicaragua comes to ISLA DE OMETEPE, Lago de Nicaragua’s largest island, to experience its lush scenery and tranquil atmosphere. Ometepe’s name comes from the Nahuatl language of the Chorotegans, the original inhabitants of Nicaragua, who called it Ome Tepetl – “the place of two hills” – for its two volcanoes. The island has probably been inhabited since the first migration of indigenous groups from Mexico arrived in this area, and a few stone sculptures and petroglyphs attest to their presence on the island. Even from the mainland, taking in the sight of its two cones, you can tell it’s a special place.
The higher and more symmetrical of the two is Volcán Concepción (1610m), Nicaragua’s second-highest volcano. Much of the island’s 40,000-strong population live around the foot of Volcán Concepción, where you’ll find the main towns of Moyogalpa and Altagracia. Smaller, extinct Volcán Maderas (1394m) is less perfectly conical in shape, but clothed with precious cloudforest, where you’re likely to spot such wildlife as white-faced (carablanca) and howler (mono congo) monkeys, green parrots (loro verde) and blue-tailed birds called urracas. Almost all activities on the island are based in the outdoors: walking, hiking, volcano-viewing, volunteering and horseriding are among the most popular.
Most people are here to visit Ometepe’s iconic twin volcanoes, but there’s plenty to do elsewhere, from chilling at lodges and stretching out on beaches – notably Playa Santo Domingo – to exploring waterfalls and pre-Columbian remains.
While there’s also little to detain travellers in Altagracia, a sleepy town set slightly inland on Ometepe’s northeastern side, it is quieter and less touristed than Moyogalpa. The Parque Central is ringed by several pre-Columbian statues found on the island, while the Museo de Ometepe, off the west side of the park, houses a few more local archeological finds.
Every year during the third week of November, Altagracia celebrates the week-long fiesta of San Diego de Alcalá, in honour of the village’s patron saint. If you’re passing through on November 17 you may be lucky enough to see one of the highlights of the festival, the Baile del Zompopo (“dance of the leaf-cutter ant”). The locals set out from the church in a traditional procession through the streets, parading aloft an image of San Diego. Participants act out the distinctive dance with tree branches held aloft – representing the indigenous leaf-cutter ant – while moving to traditional drum rhythms.
Moyogalpa, the largest town on the island, sits on the northwest side of Volcán Concepción. It’s convenient for the ferry and has a few decent bars and restaurants, while its popularity with backpackers means it’s not a bad place to arrange a tour or shoot the breeze for an evening. After you’ve walked up the hill and looked at the dock, there’s not much sightseeing to do – the museum, on the right just before the church at the top end of town, houses a few artefacts and petroglyphs.
Stretching for more than 1km on the east side of the narrow isthmus separating the two volcanoes is the grey-sand Playa Santo Domingo. This is the best place to swim on the island, and many volcano-climbers and hikers spend a day soaking up some sun here. The beach is accessed from the recently resurfaced main road circling Concepción.
For an authentic Ometepe experience, consider arranging a homestay with a local family. For US$20 per night (including all meals or US$7 bed only), one of ten families in the Puesta del Sol collective will take you in and share their home with you. The group (8619 0219, infrequently updated website puestadelsol.org) has small plots of land growing organic herbs, fruits and other plants from its base 2km from Moyogalpa, and makes wine and tea from hibiscus. Visitors can learn about cultivation, experience life with a typical Nica family and arrange visits to Ometepe’s sights – bike and canoe rental can also be arranged.
If you have time, it’s worth exploring the quiet villages dotted around the lower slopes of Maderas. Petroglyphs are scattered over this part of the island, with one group clustered between the hamlets of Santa Cruz and La Palma – ask at Finca Magdalena for a guide. A two- or three-hour hike from the Finca Magdalena will take you to the pleasant, but extremely cold, San Ramón waterfalls. The naturally fed pools at Ojo de Agua (the waterhole), a twenty-minute hike from Villa Paraíso near Playa Santo Domingo, also merit a visit. If you’ve just hiked a volcano, there’s nothing more refreshing than climbing on the rope swing and diving in to one of the rainforest-shaded pools.
The main hike (8–10hr return) up Volcán Concepción starts from just outside Altagracia. Much of the climb is extremely steep and it’s compulsory to hire a guide for the upper sections. Several trails wind up, and all are quite an exercise – start early and bring plenty of water – with an exposed and rocky stretch towards the summit that gets very windy. The cloudforests of the lower slopes are gorgeous (keep an ear out for howler monkeys), and the dramatic views from the top, encompassing neighbouring Volcán Maderas and the expanse of surrounding Lake Nicaragua, are genuinely breathtaking.
The hike (7–8hr return) up the verdant slopes of dormant Volcán Maderas is less arduous than the steep climb up and down Concepción, though it can nonetheless be a muddy and slippery walk – guides are mandatory. The final stretch down into the crater is not for the faint of heart; the rocks are almost sheer and you’ll have to use a rope. Birds and monkeys can be heard (if not seen) all the way up, and the summit gives stunning views of Concepción and the lake. The crater itself is eerily silent and still, its lip covered by a mixture of dense, rainforest-like vegetation and a few bromeliad-encrusted conifers. Make sure you take plenty of water, sunscreen and perhaps a swimming costume; the crater lagoon is swimmable, if pretty mucky.
The mighty 170km-long RÍO SAN JUAN is one of the most important rivers in Central America. In colonial times it was the route by which the cities of Granada and León were supplied by Spain and emptied of their treasure by pirates, and optimists still claim it could one day form the basis of a canal to rival Panama’s. It’s the site of regular squabbles between Nicaragua and Costa Rica (see 2010), although you wouldn’t know it while drifting down its sinuous and gloriously verdant length: the only settlements nearby are remote and sleepy villages whose inhabitants make their living by fishing and farming. Ecotourism offers one of the few sources of income: pack a waterproof, insect repellent and a stout pair of boots, and get ready for grand castles, intriguing tours and giant grilled river shrimp.
Most travellers see the Río San Juan from a boat between San Carlos on the eastern shore of Lago de Nicaragua and the old Spanish fort and town of El Castillo, the only real tourist attraction in the area. Wildlife is abundant along the river, and travellers who venture up- or downstream will certainly spot sloths, howler monkeys, parrots and macaws, bats, storks, caimans and perhaps even a tapir.
The full name of the Río San Juan’s historic fort is La Fortaleza de la Inmaculada Concepción de María, though everyone refers to it simply as El Castillo. Lying on a hillock beside a narrow stretch of the Río San Juan, the fort was built by the Spanish as a defensive measure against the pirates who continually sacked Granada in the seventeenth century. It was more or less effective for a hundred years, until a British force led by a young Horatio Nelson finally took it in 1780, after which it was abandoned for nearly two centuries. The neatly restored structure boasts an interesting small museum with dusty armaments of the period, information on the area’s history and a few random artefacts found during the restoration of the castle, and a library with more than a thousand books on the history of the castle and the Río San Juan area.
Downstream from El Castillo, heading out towards the Caribbean, the northern bank of the Río San Juan forms part of the 3000-square-kilometre Reserva Biológica Indio Maíz, the largest nature reserve in Nicaragua. The climate here is very wet and hot, with the vast expanses of dense rainforest sheltering many species, including the elusive manatee, jaguars, tapirs, scarlet macaws, parrots and toucans. The pristine Indio Maíz vegetation stands in sharp contrast with the Costa Rican side, where agriculture and logging have eroded the forest.
Located at the mouth of the mighty Río San Juan, just as the Río Indio branches off northwards, Greytown was one of the first places European explorers/pirates (depending on your point of view) arrived. Nearby San Juan de Nicaragua (aka San Juan del Norte, aka Greytown), however, is perhaps the youngest town in Central America, established in the early 1990s when a mishmash of families displaced by the war decided to return to Nicaragua. All that is left of old Greytown is an overgrown graveyard and a dredger brought by Cornelius Vanderbilt in the 1800s with hopes of creating an inter-oceanic canal.
Sleepy, bedraggled SAN CARLOS, at the southern end of Lago de Nicaragua and the head of the Río San Juan, has to be one of the most unprepossessing towns in the whole country. Despite its position as one of the main transit towns for the lake area, and the odd bit of renovation work around the dockfront, an air of apathy pervades its ramshackle buildings and battered streets. That said, the people are friendly and most visitors end up spending at least one night here – generally en route to the Solentiname archipelago, to El Castillo and points further south along the Río San Juan or to Costa Rica via Los Chiles, although San Carlos itself is an access point to the wild and relatively untouched Los Guatuzos reserve.
Lying in the southeast corner of Lago de Nicaragua, the SOLENTINAME ARCHIPELAGO is made up of 36 islands of varying size. For a long time it was the islands’ colony of naïf-art painters that brought it fame – priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal lived here for many years before becoming the Sandinistas’ Minister of the Interior in the 1980s, and it was his promotion of the archipelago’s primitive art and artisan skills that led to the government declaring Solentiname a national monument in 1990 – but today the islands are better known for their unspoilt natural beauty and remarkable wildlife. The archipelago’s isolation keeps all but the most determined travellers away, so it’s a nice departure from the backpacker trail.
The archipelago’s largest islands are also the most densely inhabited: Mancarrón, La Venada, San Fernando (also referred to as Isla Elvis Chavarría) and Mancarroncito. Most people stay on Mancarrón, home to a simple church whose interior holds vibrant paintings of birds, trees and houses, and make trips to San Fernando and other nearby islands. It’s worth paying a visit to the small MUSAS museum on San Fernando, where you’ll find information on the local wildlife, petroglyphs, medicinal plants and, of course, the local artisanal process. Make sure you bring plenty of cash with you – there’s no ATM on the islands. Other than that, you’re best off interspersing long periods of relaxation with the odd hike along the many trails – where you’ll see plenty of birdlife – and a few spots of fishing.