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Ometepe Travel Guide

Ometepe Island (Isla de Ometepe) is a large island in the southwest region of Lake Nicaragua. The island is twin-peaked in that it is formed by two volcanoes emerged from the lake: the Volcán Concepción in the northwest region of Ometepe and the Volcán Madera in the island’s southeast. The Volcán Concepción is a symmetrical cone, still active, and reaches an altitude of 5,282 feet, making it the highest lake island in the world. The 4,500 feet Volcán Madera, on the other hand, consists of a crater lake and lagoon fringed by a diverse rainforest. The entire island is a great protected natural reserve, covered by lush vegetation as well as coffee and tobacco plantations. Today, Ometepe Island is a popular ecotourist destination in Nicaragua filled with wild and exotic flora and fauna. The island especially captivates the hearts of the archaeologically-disposed visitors with its numerous ruins and petroglyph markings.

Ometepe Island was first inhabited around 2000 BC by the Nahua Indians from Mexico, followed by the Niquirano Indians. The ruins of their settlement in the form of ceramics and monuments have been uncovered on Ometepe; many petroglyphs and stone idols can be found along the slopes of the island’s two volcanoes with the oldest items dating back to 300 BC. The indigenous people created myths and legends about the island and its volcanoes and many tribes once used Ometepe as an important religious burial ground.

In the 16th century, the Spanish Conquistadors conquered Ometepe Island. The ensuing years brought the attention of several European pirates who ransacked and pillaged the indigenous villages on the island, forcing the settlements to move further up the volcanic slopes.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, many archaeological excavations were conducted on the island. The Cruz site on the northeast end of the island, for example, produced close to 30,000 prehistoric ceramic pieces. Petroglyphs were also discovered in the 1990s from field surveys, which mapped over 70 archaeological sites with close to 1,700 petroglyph markings on some 1,400 rock boulders. Many of these petroglyphs contain spiral markings depicting figures, the significance and meaning of which remains unknown. In addition to the petroglyphs and pottery shards, the island’s sites have also yielded the remnants of several house mounds.

Ometepe is essentially two circular islands joined by a narrow isthmus. The island’s largest town is Moyogalpa, located on Ometepe’s western shores. Its second largest town is Altagracia on the northeast side near Volcán Madera.

The two volcanoes, Concepción and Madera, are obviously the biggest attractions of Ometepe Island. You can hike and climb their slopes; the higher you reach, the better view you get of the island, lakes, and villages below. There is a trail that leads to the top of Volcán Concepción that begins at the town of Altagracia and another trail that starts from Moyogalpa; both trails take about five hours to hike. Meanwhile, the trail up Volcán Madera starts from the village of Balgiie and takes four hours to reach the summit. Along the way, you’ll find a 460-feet waterfall. And at the top, you’ll find a beautiful crater lake you can swim in.

The slopes of Volcán Concepción and Volcán Madera both offer an incredible scenery of howler monkeys, spider monkeys, white-faced monkeys, spotted jaguars, cougars, armadillos, chocoyos, toucans, macaws, and the exotic and endemic Guardabarranco.

There are also several archaeological remnants on the island, including pre-Columbian stone carvings and ancient petroglyphs, which are mostly found on the Madera side of the island at Balgiee and Magdalena.

East of Altagracia, there are also some beautiful freshwater beaches where you enjoy recreational water activities and the comfort of basic lodging and dining.

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