January 14, 2014

Nicaragua – Ometepe, Rivas, Masaya

Filed under: travel — Frederick Noble @ 2:10 pm Share RSS

A pair of volcanoes loom in the distance on the drive from Managua to San Juan del Sur as you speed around the borders of Lake Nicaragua. On one side of the lake is the island of Ometepe consisting of two volcanic mountains, one entirely covered in dense jungle, the other rocky and occasionally belching steam. Each wear ever-changing powered wigs of clouds, sometimes looking like unkempt George Washingtons, other times like aging Andy Warhols. It is rare to catch a clear view of either peak.

Ometepe from the ferry

We drove our rented truck to meet the ferry at San Jorge, just outside of Rivas. Outside the ferry grounds gate, a man with a badge on a lanyard told us the ferry was full for vehicles but we could get on as pedestrians and catch a cab on the island. He directed us to what we thought was the ferry office, but was actually the office of a man who arranges tours of the island. He described what his nephew could offer us in terms of guidance around the island, deftly avoiding the fact that he was not an official in any capacity and that the $30 per person did not include the ferry and parking fees. When we walked onto the ferry, I began to wonder if we’d been hustled so I asked a crewman if there was room for another vehicle. He glanced at our new-found handler and the two exchanged knowing looks before directing us on board, sans truck. Once the ferry got underway, there was, in fact, room for our truck. On the return trip, however, there was not so it could be that I wasn’t entirely swindled. We might have been stuck on the island overnight, had we driven. Then again, that would not have been a bad thing. There are cheap hotels and the island has more to offer than can be done in the short window between the first and last ferry to/from the island. There are multiple companies running ferries at the moment, so even finding a complete schedule was a challenge. Were I to visit again, I’d know not to trust anyone outside the gate at the ferry compound, try to get my vehicle on board, and plan to stay overnight.

parkThe island hosts a small nature preserve where you can go on a looping hike through the jungle, gawk at flowers, and take a dip on a black sand beach or in a lagoon surrounded by howler monkeys. There is a restaurant on the grounds as well, but we didn’t take the time to check it out.

park

park

park

park

horses of OmetepAs on the mainland, you’ll pass cowboys directing herds of cattle from horseback, bicycle, and occasionally from the backs of the cows themselves. Horses are everywhere.

Our guide drove us on, waving at almost every passer-by while his tired, battered jeep struggled to make it up even the smallest hills. A policeman stopped us and extracted a small toll, about $1 per person (less the driver) to allow us to travel from one side of the island to the other.

Ortiega, that is.

lunchWe were starved, so we stopped at Hotel Playa Santo Domingo, a hotel and restaurant recommended by the guidebook, as well as our guide. We had micheladas, delicious grilled fish, and churasco while looking out over the lake.

Next, our guide drove us to Ojo de Agua, a spring-fed swimming pool. It’s pretty, with crystal clear, refreshing water. Local kids run amok while teenagers jump from a tree into the deep end of the pool. Waiters not old enough to buy cigarettes in this country fetch beers for visitors from the neighboring bar. Another man sells coconuts filled with Flor de Caña and crushed ice, prepared right in front of you.
Ojo de Agua, coco loco

Other than a few details, the place isn’t much different than a public pool anywhere. If you’re on the island for just a day trip, I’d recommend a short hike up one of the volcanoes over a visit to Ojo de Agua. Unless you hustle and don’t see anything else, you probably can’t reach the peak of either volcano without an overnight stay on the island. The last ferry to the mainland leaves at 4:30, and may depart from a different town than where you arrived. But even a short hike up part of a  volcano would likely be a more unique experience than Ojo de Agua.

Should either of these volcanoes erupt, I feel sorry for the residents. The slow, crowded ferries are in no way adequate to evacuate the populace. In addition, our guidebook said some of the roads were the worst you will have ever seen. Either the main road has been paved since then or we didn’t get to portions that impressed the book’s author. In fact, the road bisected the runway of the island’s tiny airport, which also looked to be in good repair.

Ometepe airport

Ometepe

Back on the mainland, we decided to poke around before returning to HQ. There are some nice Spanish Colonial buildings in both Rivas and San Jorge. This was a stepping stone along the Atlantic-Pacific route before the Panama Canal, so money once flowed through the towns.

Rivas

Rivas

These days, riches flow through the Super Pali, a Walmart subsidiary that is probably the best place to buy non-souvenir goods, from refrigerators to plantains.

If your ferry lands at Granada and you’ve already explored that town, you might check out Masaya. The town itself isn’t as pretty as Granada, particularly around the outskirts, and it is not easy to find your way in and out of. But it’s worth it for the massive artisan market, housed in a faux fortress, where you can find pottery, woodwork, hammocks, hats and more.

Masaya market

Masaya market

Masaya mural

If you spot something you like, go ahead and haggle for it. Foolishly, we decided to try to check out the entire place before circling back to look for what we wanted. The place is immense and you’ll be sick to death of shopping by the time you reach the end. You probably won’t remember exactly where that certain item was, as most of the booths are identical.

Masaya

If you’re headed south from Masaya, stop at San Juan del Oriente, just outside of Masaya, where several of the potters live. You can find a wider selection of ceramics at the same amazing prices. Sometimes you’ll get to meet the artists in person and the environment is much less overwhelming.

Nicaragua:
Managua
San Juan del Sur
Ometepe, Rivas, Masaya
Granada

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