Floating on the largest freshwater lake in Central America, are two conjoint volcanos forming a tiny island called Ometepe. It offers a remote escape from Nicaragua’s bustling cities, where life is stripped down to its simplest form.
I arrive on a rickety boat from Rivas after sundown. Luckily, I am accompanied by two Spanish-speaking backpackers, the type who easily spark up conversation, and while socialising with a local on the ferry, secure us a place to spend the night.
The three of us squash ourselves and our backpacks into the backseat of The Local’s van, and gaze out in wonder at the vast emptiness. Night falls like a heavy blind and our drive to Merida is illuminated by millions of stars darting across the sky.
Ometepe roads are primitive. There is hardly any fixed source of light or markings on the road, save for the van’s headlamps wresting against the blackness ahead. Locals rattle on their unlit bicycles or scooters, and it’s only a local driver’s intuition that spares their life.
And an hour of ferocious driving along the unpaved trail leads us to our destination. The last two beds available are snatched up by my travel companions, and I agree to spend the night swinging on a giant hammock, hung beneath a bridge by the lake.
With the aid of my iPhone torch, I pull out my baggy grey T-shirt and shorts from the outer compartment of my backpack, create a pillow out of a compact pile of clothes and tuck myself to sleep — feeling one with the elements. I close my eyes to nature’s orchestra: beatboxing toads, hooting birds and the whistling wind.
Colours of dawn wash away the darkness and by 6am, I am awake and feeling energised. Sleeping outside and on a hammock was more comfortable than I imagined — no mosquitos, and the weird noises become part of the soundscape that lull you to sleep.
Wild birds flap their wings on top of my resting spot as I stretch my legs, wipe my eyes open and hop off the hammock to absorb this special moment.
In what was an impulsive act, I splash into the warm and murky waters of Lake Nicaragua, completely alone and without a care in the world. I had never swam in a freshwater lake before and for someone growing up in the Mediterranean, the absence of the distinct taste of salty water against my lips needed getting accustomed to.
The lack of salt makes it harder to stay afloat so I paddle faster, my legs as if on an invisible underwater bicycle steering uphill. Two fishermen silently row their way in to shore gawk at me, making me realise it was naive to be swimming in such a vast lake, without even stopping to consider what could lie beneath.
I wade up to my hammock, towel dry and have breakfast with the other two backpackers — a plate of gallopinto, consisting of red beans, white rice fried cheese and scrambled eggs — providing sufficient nourishment for the day ahead.
My aim was to reach Ojo de Agua, a natural spring pool off San Domingo Bay, which is approximately 12-km away from where I was. Time is arbitrary in Ometepe, and taking the bus on time is a bit of fluke, so I go on foot.
After an hour’s walk in the deserted dusty roads, the sun on my face and the ropes of my drawstring bag cutting like blades through my shoulders, I spot a hand-painted sign on a wooden plank nailed to a tree saying ‘Juice Naturais’ and followed.
Locals on Ometepe are very business savvy, opening their doors to travellers and providing whatever they can offer, whether it’s a guided tour up a mountain, a hammock to sleep in, or an informal restaurant in their backyard.
A teenage girl takes my order, rushes quickly to her kitchen and switches on some music for ambiance. Ten minutes later, I’m sipping an icy-fresh melon jugo (juice), completely alone beneath the natural shade, entertained by an unobstructed view of the Conception volcano and a reggae version of Adele’s Hello.
It is past 10am. I continue walking towards the ‘city centre’, taking pictures through people’s open farms, plantain fields and oxen ranches of every free-roaming horse, chicken and grouchy pig.
Wherever I look, there’s something that takes me by surprise. An old bus tyre planted in the ground to signal a bus stop, cows crossing the road unaccompanied, carefree men lolling up and down on their rundown motorcycles.
I knew it would be a long road to the springs. Every time I stop to ask locals for directions, all I get are heads shaking and an arm waving ‘derecho’. I was constantly challenged but I couldn’t care less. I was on a mission. And walking alone makes me happy.
It’s the only way I could be part of the island, to observe how the locals lived, admire the clouds, speak to the horses, meet the cows, spot a family of white-faced monkeys at the top of a tree and discover a souvenir shop tucked at the back of a house from where I stop to buy my (souvenir) Nicaragua T-shirt.
Three hours into the walk, I arrive at my destination feeling deeply underwhelmed and in an almost culture shock. Since everything is so raw in Nicaragua, the natural springs in my imagination took the shape of literally a hole in the ground I’d take a refreshing dip in.
My imagination was a bit off: A sparkling pay-to-enter resort, filled to the brim with deckchairs lined with Italian, French and English-speaking tourists, sipping rum out of a coconut. I discover the Ojo de Agua is a natural spring pool filled with crystal clear water from an underground river that comes from volcano Maderas.
The swimming hole is actually rimmed with cement and forms two separate swimming areas, where the water gets renewed constantly by the spring that emerges from the bottom of the upper pool. Overall I wasn’t really amused by the ‘clarity’ and ‘purity’ of the water. I spend two hours there relaxing, to get my walk’s worth.
By 2pm I start feeling hungry, so I pack my things, walk to the main road and thumb for a lift. A couple of minutes later, I’m sat at the back of a local’s scooter to San Domingo, around 3km away. I sit straight, hold on for dear life and cough ‘aqui’ for him to stop.
He drops me off right outside this vegetarian eatery called ‘Natural’, where I treat myself to some Toña — the crisp local beer — and a plate of stir-fry with veg with pineapple drizzled in soy-sauce. Lunch is served with a spectacular backdrop of Maderas volcano, with horses grazing on the beach.
I couldn’t muster the energy to walk back. So I stop to gather some melons and bananas for dinner and hitch a ride to Merida. I arrive back to base a little before at 6pm. The sun transforms into a crimson ball as it slowly starts to inch closer and closer towards the horizon, growing larger and larger. The tide is low and I wade into the lake, ankle deep, to savour the last minutes of the day.
- Stay: Los Chokoyos, Merida
- Eat: Natural, a vegetarian restaurant at the edge of the sandy beach in Santo Domingo, on the eastern side of the island, enjoying a view of the smaller volcano, Maderas.
- Hike: Maderas Volcano (smaller of the two, elevation of 1,394 m, famous for its lake crater at the top)