Visiting Nicaragua–Ometepe Island


After we visited Granada (see this post: Travel to Nicaragua–Granada), we headed to Ometepe  Island, a volcanic island in the lake.

Ometepe Island

Ometepe Island is in the middle of Lake Nicaragua (also called Lake Cocibolca. Lago Cocibolca is its Spanish name). It is the largest island in the lake, and was formed by two volcanoes. You can see the island on the map below. Granada is at the north end of the lake, on the west side.

Ometepe Island

We took a car, provided by the tour company, to the ferry terminal near Ometepe.


The ferry ride to the island (from Rivas to Moyogalpa) took about an hour. Even though we are in a lake, the water is choppy. This is a big lake! You can see the cone of the northern volcano, Concepción, from the ferry. Concepción has erupted 25 times since 1883, the last time in 2010.


Here is a map of the island, showing both volcanoes, the small towns and the one road that circles the northern part of the island and another, the southern side. You can rent a motor bike, scooter or ATV. Or you can hire a car and driver. We were there only a short time, so we hired a car and driver.  


Our ferry is ready to dock at Moyogalpa, on the western side of the island.


There were a couple of cars on the ferry, but mostly people, a lot of tourists with their bags.


The houses are pretty small, brick and cement, just like in India. They use cement bricks, though, not red clay here. No clay on the volcanic island, I bet.


A dirt side street, lined with trees.


Another house, with the laundry hanging out to dry.


A graveyard, surrounded by a blue fence.


The northern volcano, Concepción.


A small park where kids can play.


The southern volcano, Maderas, has not been active in historical times. Its crater contains a crater lake. It is a popular place for tourists, with an special environment and animals. These include white-faced monkey, mountain crabs, howler monkeys, and butterflies, including the famous blue morphos. (A picture of this butterfly from Wikipedia is below.)


The slopes of Maderas are one of the few places on the Pacific side of Nicaragua where cloud forest grows. Cloud forests have rich plant and animal life, made possible by the high levels of humidity (and water). Prehistoric petroglyphs have been found on the slopes of this volcano. (More about these petroglyphs later in this post.)

Climbing to the top of Maderas is a popular tourist activity, but not one we will do. Our legs are not what they used to be.


A Nicaraguan bird,  pretty big, large as a crow. I don’t know its name. Do any of you?


Walking to the hotel in Playa Santo Domingo, on the isthmus between the two volcanoes, on the north side.


Petroglyphs are an important part of the ancient heritage. Notice the spiral design, to the left of the sign. This is one of the typical motifs.


Hotel entrance.


Looking out from the eating area.


Table in the shade, next to the beach. The Playa Santo Domingo is a 4 km-long stretch of sand and is one of the best beaches on the island.


The hotel from the beach. It is under the tree with the glorious orange blooms. I wonder what kind of tree this is. We have one in India like it, maybe it is the same kind of tree?


The beach is wide and pleasant, with horses and people and seabirds.


Except for the dead fish that were in the water and all over the shore. When Carol saw all the dead fish, she lost her enthusiasm for swimming. The locals all told us that in the very hot time of year, like we were in, the water becomes too hot for some of the fish species, and they die off.


This skeleton almost looks like an abstract painting. I wonder what kind of water creature this is?


Here I am in the lake. I look to be in almost to be over my head.


But when I stood up, you can see that the water is quite shallow. It drops off slowly as you walk from shore.


I really liked the fresh water. It seemed like the best combination of a seaside resort; sand and surf, with warmish fresh water.


We arranged for a car and driver to tour the island some. The first place he took us was on the lower part of Maderas volcano to look at Petroglyphs. These are figures inscribed into the surfaces of rocks. They are old, with the oldest being about 2,400 years old. They were carved by people of two tribes, the Chorotegas and Niquiranos. The Niquiranos controlled Lake Nicaragua when the Spanish came in the early 1,500s. They spoke dialects of Pipil, a language related to Aztec, and their legends tell of migrating from the north (Mexico). The Chorotegas lived in the lower mountains, and are related to groups that extend to the south, to Costa Rica. They were earlier than the Niquiranos, who displaced them into the mountains from the western Nicaragua lowlands. The Chorotegas date back to about 600 CE.  The area around Lake Nicaragua, with a good climate, ample rainfall, and very fertile volcanic soil was very attractive, and so was occupied by the most powerful of the local tribes.

The island has been inhabited at least since 1,500 BC. Apparently the original population was a part of a migration that started in South America, going north to Mexico.

The culture and food of the peoples of western Nicaragua also show a link with the early inhabitants of Mexico; the staple foods of both populations were corn, beans, chili peppers, and avocados, still the most common foods in Nicaragua. Chocolate was drunk at ceremonial occasions, and turkeys and dogs were raised for their meat.

Each of these groups had a highly organized society with independent chieftains (cacicazgos) who ruled according to each group’s laws and customs. Their weapons were of swords, lances, and arrows made out of wood. Monarchy was the form of government of most tribes; the supreme ruler was the chief, or cacique, who, surrounded by his princes, formed the nobility. Laws and regulations were disseminated by royal messengers who visited each township and assembled the inhabitants to give their chief’s orders.

The petroglyphs date back to the 4th Century AD, about the same time as the first Mayan calendar. The native artists carved the rocks using flint and obsidian chisels. No one really knows what they represent or why this was done.

The petroglyphs show that the Chorotegas and Niquiranos had a highly organized and advanced culture. Carving each one is a big job, and there are many, many of these carvings.

We visited a site with a number of these Petroglyphs. The rock below is about 5 feet high, inscribed with lines. To the left it kind of looks like a volcano, maybe erupting toward the bottom.


This sure seems like a face.


The grounds were nice. The guide showed us through them, stopping to sample various different native nuts and fruits.


Here is a pineapple. I had never seen a growing one up close before.


More petroglyphs. Note the spirals on the upper one. This is the most common pattern.


The guide is pointing to one that looks like a woman giving birth.


Carol took this picture so she could show people in India how to collect garbage and trash. Separate it for easier recycling. We learned to do this with our San Jose household garbage, so we have done this for years. We still do this in India, but there are not many good places to take recycling, especially plastics. 


On the fence of the Petroglyph exhibit are painted the names of countries from which people have visited.

The fence shows mostly countries in the Americas.


European countries are shown here. We joked with them that now they need to paint “India” on there.


The Butterfly Park: El Paraiso de las Mariposas

In Charco Verde, Ometepe, there is a new place to visit, a place for the lepidopterist, one who studies butterflies. This place is only two years old and has already 2,000 living species.


The first part of this “butterfly park” is the planting of a wide variety of plants that the butterflies like.


There is a garden of many different kinds of flowering plants. You need flowers since the butterflies eat only the nectar of the flower.


A butterfly eating at a food station where they put out nectar-like food.


Many different kinds of butterflies to see as you walk through the place.


Signs (in English) teach about the life cycle of the butterfly.


They breed them here, too. In the garden, eggs are collected. Then when the larvae hatch, they are placed on each host plant, according to the species where larvae were feeding.


They have cases of butterfly cocoons, developing to hatch. They are carefully marked with colored pins to identity the kind of plant where they were harvested.


Butterflies abound and surround us.


One in a handler’s hands. I reached out my finger, but none landed on it.



The El Ciebo Museum – Pre-Columbian Pottery

I knew nothing about this place, but it is outstanding. It has about the largest collection of Pre-Columbian pottery that I have ever seen.

Carol is entering the grounds of el Museo El Ceibo.


When we enter I follow the layout of the exhibit for a while. This means that the first part of the photos are in roughly ascending date sequence, from the oldest, about 5,000 years old, to the newest, from about 1,500 CE. Ometepe is in one of the richest archaeological zones in Central America.

Orosi Phase 3000 – 500 BCE

The pottery on Ometepe Island is among the oldest found in the Americas. The oldest is 7,000-8,000 years old, found in the Amazon Basin. Nicaragua is in a part of the world – the lower part of Central America – that pretty much developed on its own. It was originally populated about 15,000 years ago, as the new inhabitants to the Americas worked their way south from their crossing between Alaska and Asia. When the agricultural age started in the New World and large-scale societies formed, like the Olmec 5,000 years ago in Mexico, and the Mayans and Aztec in the last 1,500 years, these ideas came to Nicaragua, but the conquering tribes, for the most part, did not. So 5,000 years ago, Nicaragua (and the rest of the southern Central America area) were following their own path to the development of civilization. The remains left of pottery tell a big part of the story of this development.

During this period, ceramic manufactured was monochromatic or a single tonality. Color glazes were not used. This was the start of Ometepe pottery. For the most part, I will just show the pottery without comment.

I do not know the reasons for the names of these phases in development, I assume they are from the archeological work, and probably are tribal names. In modern times, many of the names are associated with Costa Rica.




Tempisque Phase 500 – 300 BCE

During this period begins to develop bi-chrome ceramics. Often these are colored with a slip glaze and incised with a pattern.





Bagaces Phase 300 – 800 CE

This period already manufactures ancient polychrome ceramics, tri-chrome ceramic: red, black and beige.


What are these?



Animal forms, as show below, became common.



Sapoá Phase 800 – 1350 CE

This period features polychrome ceramic and pots where legs and facial features are common.



Human teeth, part of a burial site, are shown here.


Look at these fancy polychrome footed bowls.


Ometepe Phase 1350 – 1550 CE

This was the final Pre-Columbian phase. During this period they made advanced polychrome ceramics, Luna ceramics, and black side pottery.


The design on this pot is striking. Is this a person, animal or god?


They call this Luna Ceramics. I do not know what the definition of this is. There is a stylized face in the middle.


Is this another face in the middle, or some kind of insect or animal?


Gravesite reconstruction

Shown below is a reconstructed gravesite. It is the re-creation of a Pre-Columbian tomb; it was found and studied 15 years ago by Ghitis Rivera, 700 meters from the location of this museum. During the recovery process, it was mapped identifying location of human remains and the artifacts contained.

The tomb was reconstructed within the museum. It contains teeth, bones placed in a ceramic vase, a jade pendant, an animal-tooth necklace, an eagle-head tripod, and a gold artifact, so it is inferred that the remains belong to a very important person of Ometepe ancestors.


Incised decoration.


Grinding stones.


I love the face in the handle of this pot.


Carol is speaking to the guide in one of the display rooms. If you look to the lower left, you will see pots that look like pregnant bellies. We were told that this was a common form. The larger sizes were used as funeral urns.


Here is a bead.


Small pieces, faces.


Simple necklace.


More small pots, some with faces, some with the “pregnant pot” form.


Images of people have become common forms for the pots.




This is some kind of long-handled flint axe.


They made complex forms, like the tall pot in the center of this photo.


Necklaces, higher class that the simple clay pieces we saw above.



Late era pottery.


I like this footed bowl.


These designs seem quite sophisticated.


Some kind of man. Looks like he may have to urinate.


I am not at all sure what this is. Maybe a tobacco pipe?


A small gold ornament.


More faces.



Very well done polychrome footed bowl.


Another nicely designed three-foot pot, with a female figure on one side.


More faces. Looks like an animal on the right. The one on the left looks to be whistling.


I don’t know the story of this pot. And there HAS to be a story.


Xulo Dog

Ceramic figure of a dog. Dogs were important; the natives fed them and ate them. This piece is 2,800 years old.


Flint spearhead

Fish-shaped spearhead, estimated age of 5,600 years. It is the oldest piece in the exhibit.


A map showing some of the archeological sites on Ometepe Island.


The day is over, we are back at our hotel. The nice weather is good for growing bugs. A swarm surrounds this light in the dining area. In the evenings these bugs also hovered around some of the plants on the property. Several times we had to walk right through the swarms. At least they didn’t bite.


I really enjoyed Ometepe Island, with the most pleasant water and beach. (Carol says: “Dead fish notwithstanding!”)

The ancient relics tell another story, that this has been a good place for humans to live for at least the last 6,000 years. Most of the archeological story is yet to be told. This is just beginning in Central America, the first serious effort started in the 1960s. Work in Nicaragua started even later, delayed due to the revolution, and then the Contra war. These conflicts lasted until the 1980s. Even now Nicaragua’s university system is established well enough to support this kind of Archeological field work. Much more will be done in the coming years. I occasionally read of ancient cities being discovered in the Nicaragua jungle. It will be interesting when the full story of mankind in Central America is known.

Next we go to a beach town, San Juan del Sur.

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8 Responses to “Visiting Nicaragua–Ometepe Island”

  1. Maudina Warrick Says:

    Your photos are beautiful. I forgot to ask what kind of camera are you using.

  2. Maudina Warrick Says:

    I hope you continue your blog no matter where you travel or move to. I just discovered your your blog and really enjoy your personal involvement with the people and places you visit. This is the way I like to travel also. I not only need to “budget” travel but I also enjoy it. I’ve considered moving to another country for retirement and have traveled quite a bit over the years so I have a keen interest in where you may be going and what it is like.

    • Richard Clarke Says:

      Living our retirement years out of the USA has been wonderful. We think we will go to Lake Chapala area in Mexico to live next. Nice climate, a big expat community, and 4 hours from our kids.

  3. Rick Peterson Says:

    Dear Richard, Have you and Caroline left Tiru for good? Fond regards and enjoy your travels, Rick


  4. marilynsandperl Says:

    As always, I really enjoyed reading about your travels and learned so much. The photos are wonderful. I noticed that the pots are made of red clay, so do you happen to know how the indigenous people got it to the island? Was it brought to the island from another location? Also, was the temperature there any cooler than Granada?

  5. R Krishnamoorthy Says:


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