Isla de Ometepe, or, why I travel

Every so often a place comes along, or more accurately, I come along to a place, that reminds me of why I travel. Nicaragua’s Isla de Ometepe is one of those places.

Its twin volcanoes soared out of the murky waters of Lake Nicaragua as the rickety ferry lurched closer. Clouds whipped off the peak of 1,610m Concepción Volcano while its runty twin, Maderas, at 1,394m, festered under cloud forests.

So far it doesn’t sound that inviting, right? Murky, festering, cloudy…not idyllic at all. When I arrived I was sick of travel. To be specific, I was sick of budget travel: dormitories, rice and beans, dirty old school buses and being ripped off. Our hostel in San Juan del Sur can be summed up in three images: blocked sinks, paper-thin walls, and saggy beds with stained pillows.

I played the travel writer card. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I did. I contacted a few interesting (and definitely not aimed at budget travellers) places and proposed that I review them in return for a reduction in price.

The two that got back to me were inspirational: eco-conscious hotels run by truly dedicated people with the kind of enthusiasm for their cause that makes Obama look lazy, or at least faced with a lot more stubborn, ignorant and unreasonable opposition.

Hotel Finca del Sol, my first stop on the island, is run by Sheri and Cristiano. They have created a hotel that allows them to live an eco-friendly life; they have composting toilets, organic gardens, solar panels, two cabins and one loft, and they’ve built it all themselves, where possible using materials from their own plot of land. We spent two nights in the rocking chairs of the loft room, marvelling at the view and hummingbirds flitting past.

Next we visited Totoco, Isla de Ometepe’s most expensive hotel, but also its most ambitiously environmentally friendly. Not only do they have everything you’d expect from a luxury eco hotel (hot showers/solar panels, luxurious cabins/water recycling, five-star views/local staff and so on), but they doggedly work at building a relationship with the local community and returning third-generation forest to its more biodiverse original state.

All very admirable and rejuvenating for someone (me) weary of money-grabbing hoteliers and traders with little foresight beyond the next bank statement.

Add to those inspirational hotels the island itself. Local legend would have you believe that the island’s volcanoes were formed from the breasts (it’s always the breasts…) of Ometeptl, a daughter of the Niquirano tribe who fell in love with Nagrando from the rival tribe, Nagrandando. At the time, the area was a dry and fertile valley. When the lovers decided the only way they could live in peace together was to die together, they slit their wrists. As Ometepl died she arched her back in pain and despair, her breasts swelling to form the twin peaks, and the valley flooded.

Today, the single road around the island is rough, plied more frequently by horses, ox-drawn carts and bicycles than cars; Concepción Volcano is still active and emergency evacuation routes are clearly marked. But the people are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met in my travels. Walking through what appeared to be back yards and gardens (although we were assured it was a public footpath) on our way to a beach, families sharing a meal, old men in beat-up fedoras leaning on fences and kids swinging off branches all had a smile and a “good day” for us. In the back of a taxi on our last day, our driver acknowledged everyone he knew (i.e. everybody) with a toot or a quick blast of a siren (surely illegal?!), a wave and a smile, which were readily returned.

Island wide, chickens idly scratch in the dust, well-dressed women with worry-wrinkle-free faces do their laundry in the sunny shallows of the lake or clear streams, restaurants take an hour or two to serve your food. Island time rules, and it’s infectious. I caught it, good and proper, and I needed to.

Five days relaxing and soaking it all up on Isla de Ometepe has put me back on track for travelling. I played my trump card and it won.

See images of Isle de Ometepe (& Granada), Nicaragua
15 things to do on Isle de Ometepe, Nicaragua
Review: Hotel Finca del Sol
Review: Totoco Eco Lodge

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