Updated: Wednesday, September 20, 2017, 1:25 PM
Virtually the first thing I laid eyes on in Nicaragua was Isla de Ometepe.
Besieged by taxi drivers at the dusty, hectic border, I caught a ride with a college-aged American backpacker and her Australian surfer paramour. They would take me as far as the surfing colony of San Juan del Sur and their party hostel — called the Naked Tiger, of course. But I was staying somewhere a little quieter.
We had just set out on the well-groomed highway, lined by white wind turbines and a dry green landscape, when I looked to my right and saw Ometepe. Ten miles across Lake Nicaragua, a lush, green mountain — no, a volcano — rose from the waves. And just to the left of that, an even more dramatic, scarred peak was capped by white clouds, as if erupting. These were the volcanoes Maderas and Concepcion, together forming an island.
“Yeah, that’s Ometepe,” said the surfer in his Aussie hippie drawl. “Whenever I need to get away from the party, I just go to Ometepe, and it’s so relaxing.”
A double-volcano island in the middle of the world’s 19th largest lake? As an enthusiast of strange islands, I was so there — but first, I would spend a week on the Pacific coast.
SImon groaner / Minneapolis Star Tribune Horses run free in the shadow of the active volcano Concepcion, in the village of San Jose del Sur on the island of Ometepe, Nicaragua.
When I first received the Facebook invite to join my old friend Gretchen, now a yoga instructor in New York, on her seven-day yoga and surfing retreat near San Juan del Sur, I was skeptical. I knew little about the Central American country, except that when I was in grade school, the U.S. funded a covert war against the ruling Sandinistas there (remember Oliver North?). I had seen social-media photos of people doing yoga poses on tropical beaches, but I never thought I would be one of them. Plus, I’m a restless traveler, so I didn’t love paying a package price to be confined to one place for a week with a group of mostly strangers.
Yoga on the beach in a developing country with a bunch of Brooklynites? It sounded like the recent surfing episode of HBO’s Girls.
Then I looked at the map and realized that San Juan del Sur is central to the Pacific coast, Lake Nicaragua and the historic city of Granada, and that I could get there by flying to Costa Rica. Maybe I could make some friends and retreat from the retreat to go on a few adventures.
From the Naked Tiger, I took a taxi a little way up the coast to Casa Maderas Ecolodge, on a rocky road strewn with farm animals and speed bumps. The budget eco-lodge — in a Spanish-style villa built into a hillside with a pool and an outdoor restaurant — was topped by an open-air yoga pavilion overlooking a valley.
I reconnected with my friend Gretchen and was shown to my room — clean and inviting, with a hammock on its high porch and a mosquito net hung over the bed like a canopy.
I met some of the other yogis arriving on Saturday — mostly New York women in their 20s to 40s and one couple — and that evening I was moving through the week’s first class, warming my aching joints and thinking, “I will not be able to do this for a week.”
It turns out we formed an unpretentious, fun-loving group, and by midweek we all felt like tight friends. Sharing 11 intimate yoga classes and two meals a day — traditional “Nica” breakfasts of eggs and gallo pinto (beans and rice), plus modern healthy dinners prepared by the Casa’s kitchen, and plenty of cheap Nicaraguan Tona lager — will bring people together. Soon I was gliding into the yoga routine, feeling better than I had in ages, and sinking into my environs.
simon groaner / Minneapolis Star Tribune Waves fill a trench at Playa Maderas, Nicaragua, as the "shark's tooth" bluff rises behind.
On Sunday, I signed up for my first surfing class at nearby Playa Maderas, a beauty of a beach that attracts surfers from around the world. Fellow yogi Kelly and I were paired with Reynaldo, a winsome young local guy who led us through the footwork. It turns out that mixing yoga and surfing is not preposterous. The two skills require similar discipline and balance, with the surfer’s quick mount resembling yoga “flow”: tabletop, upward dog, high lunge and the final standing position, which is a bit like the classic Warrior 2. On the waves, Kelly stood up almost right away.
“Think positive, brother, it’s all in your head,” Reynaldo told me. After much crashing trial and error, and a second lesson on Wednesday, I could almost get up on my feet — with one hand on the board — but it was still invigorating.
Retreat from the retreat
This retreat was anything but days of downward-dog drudgery. I took daily long walks on the playa and discovered that the area’s beaches are separated by immense amounts of volcanic rock, with visual evidence of plate tectonics. Then there were three dinners in San Juan and a number of day excursions.
Tuesday was Volcano Day. We began with another lakeside view of Ometepe. Then it was on to the gorgeous Laguna de Apoyo, a large, deep lake in an extinct volcano crater. We stopped for lunch, kayaking and swimming at the appropriately named Hostel Paradiso. Finally, we headed to Nicaragua’s top tourist attraction: Volcan Masaya, an active volcano that allows you to drive straight up to the rim and look down inside. A blot of bright crimson lava was visible in the crater, which is said to glow brightly at night. Our driver told us of two American extreme cyclists who rode straight into the crater to their doom. But we had to leave after only a few minutes, as the sulfuric gas belching from the hole was quickly too much to handle.
Another day, I skipped out of morning yoga to board a shuttle to the colonial port city of Granada, one of the oldest European settlements in the Americas, dating to 1524. Granada has an old Spanish feel, full of historic churches and colorful building exteriors obscuring lush interior courtyards. The baroque, scarred Iglesia La Merced church is one of the oldest buildings I’ve seen in the Americas, first built in 1534, destroyed by pirates, then rebuilt in the 1780s. After wandering the street markets of Calle Atravesada, I made my way back to San Juan via Nicaragua’s cheap local “chicken bus” system.
Navigating the colorful public buses was rewarding, both for the people-watching and for the exposure to real Nicaraguan life outside of the backpacker bubble. Despite its economy’s big strides in this decade, Nicaragua remains one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Many Nicaraguans live in simple concrete structures that lack basic services. Pastimes include hanging out with your family and friends on the side of the road, and village life often spills out onto the road itself.
Unemployment is still very high, and a tourist will often be approached (insistently, but politely) with offers of goods or services.
The Sandinistas’ socialist leader, Daniel Ortega, has been president again since 2007, and he’s something of a populist dictator, accused by international organizations of corruption and anti-democratic practices. Still, along with Nicaragua’s rising profile as a tourism hot spot, there are signs of improvement. The U.N.’s 2017 World Happiness Report named Nicaragua as the country that has made the world’s greatest gains in happiness. A noticeable military presence keeps drug traffic at bay.
And indeed, despite all the controlled chaos, I felt a strong sense of a safe, civil, supportive society, and I never felt threatened — mostly ignored.
Weekend on Ometepe
On the last morning of the yoga-surfing retreat, we bade tearful goodbyes, connected on Instagram and pledged to keep in touch, and I made my way solo to Ometepe.
From the lakeside port of San Jorge, I boarded a classic ferry (less than $3) for an hourlong sail across Lago Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. Also known as Colcibolca or Mar Dulce (“sweet sea,” i.e. freshwater sea), the lake is known for its population of freshwater bull sharks. Many people come to Isla Ometepe for a challenging daylong guided hike up and down either volcano — but I just wanted to be there on the island.
Ometepe’s port town of Moyogalpa was a blitz of signage and tourist solicitations. I decided to rent a generic Chinese scooter over a motorcycle. The proprietor warned me to hang on to my keys and helmet. “Don’t worry about cars,” she told me. “Worry about animals in the road.”
The scooter was the right choice at first. The main brick-paved road on the island was smooth, and most vehicles two-wheeled. With 107 square miles and a population of 30,000, Ometepe is shaped like a barbell (or an infinity sign, one of the yogis, Jess, had suggested), with the volcano on either end ringed by circular roads. The 12-mile route to my hotel wrapped around the larger Volcan Concepcion, through gorgeous countryside and busy villages. And yes, animals were everywhere: horses, bulls, iguanas, dogs and puppies, cats and kittens, pigs and piglets. If there is a Good Life in Nicaragua, it may be on Ometepe.
My lodging, Casa Hotel Istiam, was on the wide isthmus between volcanoes. From the back patio, I could see the active Concepcion (a 5,280-foot peak) on my right, and the dormant Volcan Maderas (4,573 feet) on my left. Had the apocalypse struck, I’d have been in maximal danger. My $25 room featured a painting of Christ in the sky between the volcanoes, but not so much as a table lamp. No matter — I was here to explore. I scooted to the towns of Altagracia and Balgue as the sun set over Concepcion, then dined at the acclaimed beachside Hotel Villa Paraiso as a full moon rose over Maderas.
On Sunday morning, I rose at dawn for a full day on Ometepe. Sunday was a quiet day of leisure for the island’s Catholic community. While riding a dirt road to a popular swimming hole called Ojo de Agua, I heard a distinctively guttural, curdling growl — howler monkeys. I stopped my scooter in its tracks and looked up at a troop of the big, black monkeys in the branches directly above, eyeing me warily. I gingerly moved on to the park, for a hike through a field of plantains growing in the rich volcanic soil, followed by an invigorating wade in the spring-fed pool.
After a breakfast of fruit and granola at a beachside vegetarian restaurant, I geared up for my final mission: to travel to the remotest end of Ometepe and hike up to the San Ramon waterfall. The road around Volcan Maderas was too rocky for my delicate scooter, so I rented a mountain bike from a family of women sitting at their empty outdoor cafe. Soon I was mountain biking my way around a volcano — on an island, in a giant lake, on a gorgeous day.
I never made it to the waterfall that day. A third of the way around Maderas, I realized I had left the key in the ignition of my scooter. I had to return, or risk losing the scooter — and then there was no time to make it back, as I had a flight to catch in Costa Rica the next day. Crestfallen, I returned to my hotel, stopping to view some famous, well-preserved petroglyphs near Hotel Finca El Porvenir.
I felt much better after an evening swim in the warm, shallow “Mar Dulce” waters at Playa Santa Cruz across from my lodge. The huge lake is eerily devoid of watercraft, but that may be changing. President Ortega has ambitions to build an ocean-linking canal via Lago Nicaragua to compete with the Panama Canal. If that ever happens, it could forever alter the character of this lake and island. But for now, as I’d been told, it was very relaxing. The yoga retreat could just as well have been here.
Savoring my last swim, I made a commitment to return to Nicaragua and Ometepe. And next time, to rent a motorcycle.
Read full story: Going with the flow in Nicaragua