In our first foray back into international travel since our big trip, we met up with our friend Phill in Nicaragua on our spring break week. He is on his yearlong gap year trip and invited us to join him, which is fitting since he joined us for a week in Bali on our trip!
Our first stop was the beautiful Ometepe, an island formed by two volcanoes in the middle of the gigantic Lake Nicaragua.
Typically, we have been able to use points to fly internationally for cheap, but we were unable to do so this time. A combination of needing to fly on exact days and it being a popular time to travel meant that there were no redemption options available. So we – gasp– had to pay full price for the tickets!
There is no direct flight to Managua (the only international airport in Nicaragua) from Denver. The best cheap flight combination we found was to leave Denver Friday night, then layover overnight in Houston before flying to Managua the next morning.
The layover was long enough that we decided that we would like to get a hotel room rather than try to sleep on the airport floor. Eric did have some Hilton hotel points for signing up for one of their credit cards, and we were able to book a room in a nearby property for free using these points. Travel hacker status redeemed!
By the time we landed in Houston, it was late enough that the hotel shuttle had stopped running. We took the plunge and used Uber for the first time! We were a little nervous that we wouldn’t figure out how it worked, but it was quite easy. We even figured out how to use a first-time referral code, so the ride was free for us.
Saturday morning we took the hotel shuttle back to IAH and flew to Managua. From Managua, we then needed to figure out how to get to Ometepe. The only way to reach the island is via ferry from the town of San Jorge. This is also where Phill was waiting for us to rendezvous, as he had traveled there the day before from Costa Rica.
There are buses that travel from Managua to a town near San Jorge (Rivas) for very cheap, but on this trip, we were less concerned about money and more about time. So, we opted for the expensive but fast option to take a taxi straight from the airport to San Jorge, a two-hour ride.
Internet research suggested that $50 was the going rate for this trip, but when we went to the taxi area the tout quoted us $80! We were eventually able to negotiate this down to $60. Quite an expensive trip for us, but it was definitely more convenient.
After our rendezvous with Phill, we got on the next ferry to Ometepe. We sat in the lower level to stay in the shade – after coming from Denver, we were already wilting in the Nicaragua heat. The ride over was pleasant and not too choppy. It was a little odd though that the TV on the boat chose to play the movie Titanic during the voyage – the sinking scenes were just concluding when we pulled into the port on the island.
From the port town of Moyogalpa, we still had to figure out how to get down to the small town of Merida on the other part of the island. Phill jumped up and found us a taxi right at the dock. His Spanish is much better than ours – we can speak some, but he can speak it better and had been practicing for a month in other Spanish-speaking countries. Our “taxi” turned out to be a big passenger van! We were expecting that this meant that we would pick up other people but we had the van to ourselves for the whole ride. Phill even sat up front to practice his Spanish with the driver.
A little less than 24 hours after leaving our house in Denver, we were enjoying our first sunset from the dock at Merida.
Where We Stayed
Ometepe is a big island, so we struggled a little bit to decide which part of the island to stay on. Did we want to stay in one of the larger towns, by the beach, or in a more remote area. Ultimately, after mapping out what we wanted to do, we decided on Hacienda Merida in the town of Merida on the west side of the southernmost volcano (Maderas).
One of the intriguing things about Hacienda Merida is that its proceeds help support a bilingual school that meets on the grounds of the Hacienda itself. Our first evening there we were given a tour of the facilities. They use a pretty ingenious method to construct the school buildings: trash! The “bricks” are made from empty 1 liter water bottles stuffed with trash. They even pay members of the community to provide them the filled bottles, so they are recycling and helping keep the village clean.
For our accommodations, we got a quad private room with attached bathroom. No air conditioning (but there were fans and mosquito nets), and cold water showers, but this was pretty standard for comparable properties. Since our room was pretty small and warm, we spent most of our free time hanging out in the open-air common space / dining room.
Our favorite part of staying at Hacienda Merida was watching the nightly sunset. The Hacienda is on the water, and has a small pier of crumbling concrete (left over from the days when this was a Somoza-sponsored coffee plantation). Each night we would grab a drink and head out to watch the sun descend. We had a great view of the sun over the lake and of the Volcano Concepcion to our north.
What We Did
San Ramon Waterfall Hike
One of the reasons we wanted to stay in Merida was that it seemed to be a good jumping-off point for some interesting nature hikes. A lot of other guests chose to take a guided hike all the way to the summit of Volcan Maderas, but we decided to opt for what sounded like a simpler self-guided hike to a waterfall that was just partway up the volcano.
The guidebook made it sound like this was going to be a relatively simple hike, and no one at the Hacienda disputed this. They did warn us that the waterfall itself was not super impressive, but we still thought the hike up sounded pleasant.
To reach the trailhead, we walked down the road south from Merida along the shore of the lake. It wasn’t strenuous, but it was very hot, so we already had drunk a lot of our water by the time we reached the gate to the hike.
From the trailhead, it was a 3 km walk up to the waterfall. Well really more like a climb – we followed a road and then a trail up, up and up.
By the time we reached the top, we were hot, sweaty and exhausted. And, as warned, due to the dry conditions the waterfall was more of a trickle.
There wasn’t any shade at the top, so we only lingered long enough to cool off our feet then headed back down. Luckily, we were able to catch a ride from some other tourists who had their rental car parked at the trailhead.
Back at the Hacienda, we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the hammocks with some cold fruit juice!
Ojo de Agua
On the morning of our second full day, we caught the local chicken bus back to the center of the island. We hopped off at the entrance to Ojo de Agua, a complex with two pools filled with crystal-clear spring water. It was a little more developed than we had anticipated, but the water was nice and cold, and we had arrived early enough in the day that there weren’t too many other people around.
Playa Santo Domingo
From Ojo de Agua, we took a shortcut shown on Maps.Me (to Eric’s surprise, actually accurate) and took a nice scenic walk to the most popular beach on the island, Playa Santo Domingo.
After a nice lunch (see below), we walked up and down the beach itself. It was a little windy to swim or lounge in the sand, but we did enjoy the nice views of the lake and Volcan Maderas.
Getting back to Merida from Santo Domingo was a bit of an adventure. We waited for over 30 minutes by the road before the chicken bus finally came by. It was so crowded that we just hopped on via the back emergency exit – Eric almost fell off when the bus pulled away while he was still getting on! We had to crowd in and brace ourselves against the ceiling of the bus, which was quite uncomfortable.
Where We Ate
Hacienda Merida had its own restaurant, so due to the convenience we just ate there for all our breakfasts and dinners.
For breakfasts, the two of us had the traditional gallo pinto, which was rice and black beans plus some scrambled eggs.
The first night for dinner we all had barbecue chicken with potatoes and fried plantains. The second night we had something different: Della and Phill got homemade corn tortillas topped with beans and veggies, while Eric splurged and got a full grilled fish (surprisingly not too bony!). The last night the restaurant offered a full buffet, which included pizza, cannelloni and more traditional fare like rice and beans.
Our one meal not at Hacienda Merida was on Playa Santo Domingo at Natural, a vegetarian restaurant right on the beach. Some nice fresh fruit smoothies helped cool us off, then the two of us each got a curry which was quite good. The most interesting part was that they had simmered a full banana in with the curry, so it had soaked up a lot of the flavor for a nice sweet and spicy treat.
Ometepe is a beautiful place, and it is very cool to stay on a volcanic island in the middle of a gigantic lake. That being said, we weren’t sure it quite lived up to our expectations. We suspect we might have enjoyed it more if we visited when it wasn’t so hot and dry. Maybe next time!
The sunsets were one of our favorites things of our entire time in Nicaragua though – might have been worth going just for that!