Global Mark : 14.95

Ratings by criteria : 

Charm Scenery Culture Tradition Market Relax Fiesta 


 5 5 2 5 1 5 2 4 14.50

Ratings by backpackers :

Surveyed Liked  Comeback  Recommend  Range AVER.
27 100% 81%(22) 100% 10 to 20 15.41

Description : An island with two volcanoes, a laguna and a sandy beach

Comments : A few people are disappointed by the place : there aren't much to do around ! Well, that is just the point : do nothing but relax ! And when you have rested enough, you will actually find plenty of very active things to do...

What to do ? Wake up with nothing to do and go to bed with only half the things done / If courageous, climb Volcan Maderas (1345m) / If even more courageous, head for Volcan Conception (1610m) / Discover a few petroglyphs (by the church in Altagracia or in the wild near Santa Cruz) / Discuss with the friendly locals / Admire the local's beauties or the panoramas / Swim a lake, inside or outside a volcano / Play volleyball on the beach / Eat mangos from the trees / Spot lots of singing birds or noisy howler monkeys / Watch or play baseball

What you may not like ? The heat & confusing trails, making Volcan Conception climbing impossible without lots of water, excellent physical condition and, usually, a guide (around $10 alone, $5 otherwise) / Some guides not showing up / Not really cooling off in the lake (water ometimes warmer than the air) / The lack of water visibility and nothing-special beaches / The shortage of buses on Sunday / The rubbish, as usual / The many (tiny) spiders and (even tinier) flies / The Rock'n roll on the beach on Sunday / The lack of bananas on sale,despite the many plantations / Spotting a boa constrictor from too near / The not always reliable info and often outdated time schedules / The electricity shortcuts / The cost of purified water (free by the tap !) / The lack of bank and poor exchange rate. Fortunately, you can usually pay for your GH with plastic. 

How long ? A couple of days. Usually more than what you had planned...

Where to be based and where to stay ? The four options are :

- Moyogalpa, by the pier to San Jorge : the biggest town nowadays receives little visitors, except on transit. Quite a few hotels have closed down and the bank has disappeared. There is therefore little reasons to stay. Beside, if the volcano erupts, you are cooked ! A few places anyway :

  • Hotel Ometepelt (4594276), 50m up from the pier / w. shower $7(1) or 10(2) / Go there for the nice clean setting and atmosphere / What you may not like : the rooms are rather small / Change possible but at a bad rates : C11 for TC & 13 for cash. 
  • Hotelito Aly (4594196), just after the Shell station / 100m from pier / 40 p.p., w. shower 50 p.p. / Go there for the nice setting in a small garden / What you may not like : some beds are very narrow and it is basic

- Altagracia, near the pier to Granada : small town with a relaxed pace and a few hotels & restaurants, all charging the same prices. Good central locations with good bus connections and walks around plus a natural volcano protection (not personally tested) :

  • ® Hospedaje y Restaurante Castillo / 45(1) or 90(2), w. shower 70(1) or 140(2) / Free transport from pier / Go there for the best clean rooms, the nice setting by a garden w. hammocks and to follow the crowd (nearly everybody is staying there) / What you may not like : not all the rooms were born equals so ask to see a few.
  • Hotel Central (05528770), S of the above / Same prices plus cabanas for 85 p.p. / Cable TV / Go there for the nicest garden or biggest TV / What you may not like : the rooms (incl. cabanas) are basic and a bit smelly.
  • Hotel Don Kencho, north of the above / 45 p.p., w. shower 70 p.p. / Basic rooms and rather dirty common shower. 

- Playa Santa Domingo : the best beach (does not mean much) with a fair amount of sand but more isolated (especially on Sunday) and more expensive (rooms, food and beers). Bargaining recommended :

  • Finca Santo Domingo (05528767) / $5 p.p., Dbl w. shower $18, cabanas w. AC $40 / Go there for the cheapest prices, good setting w. a mango tree and the backpacking atmosphere / What you may not like : the rooms are fairly basic and the cabanas on the wrong side of the road. Recommended only for the cheapest.
  • Villa Paraiso (4534675,, just after the above / Dbl w. shower $18, cabanas (2 or 3) $30, w. AC 40 / Go there for the nicest setting and nicest comfortable rooms / What you may not like : the locals invasion during WE (restaurant & beach) and the prices
  • Hotel Istian (94276 : Hotel Ometepetl in Moyogalpa), just before the small village of Santa Cruz, 3km away / w. shower $5 p.p. / Go there for the isolation among local people, the correct rooms and the cheapest prices / What you may not like : the isolation (incl. for food : C35 min) and the no-frills setting, not on the beach
  • It is possible also to stay at Hotel Castillo's house for C40 p.p. (6 people max). Inquire at the hotel in Altagracia.
  • If you have your camping equipment, use it on the beach and save money !

- In Balgue, the village by Volcan Maderas : 

  • Finca Magdalena (08865527), where you pay for the climb / Hammock 20, camping 20, dorm (6 or a lot) 25, Sgl 30, Dbl 60, cabana w. shower $25 / Go there for the natural setting, great view to the volcano, proximity to the trail and relaxed atmosphere / What you may not like : the rooms are very very basic & rustic, a bit messy and not really clean. The cabanas are a rip-off at that price ! As for the food, it is acceptably priced at C27-30 but not very good. You could go to the village as well. The finca lso sells organic coffee (50-55) and honey (20)
  • Possibly another very basic place in the village

Backpacker's Tips : Ben Slow, UK (October 07)
« In Balgue you can stay at Casa Campestre. Casa Campestre is a camp site on an organic farm just outside of Balgue. There are 3 camping platforms with thathched roof's, a very big thatched Rancho with fully equipped kitchen and kitchen vegetable gardens. Best of all, private lake access! Visit  or call 695 2071.» 


Where to eat ?

  • In Altagracia : If Castillo is the place to go for a bed, the comedor El Buen Gusto, by Hotel Don Kencho is the place to head for fish : C25 only for an enormous and succulent dish. Possibly the best deal in all Central America !  If you do not like fish, Restaurante Maria has a very limited choice (C20 or 30) and could be worth a try. Castillo isn't too bad as well.
  • In Playa Santo Domingo : None of the restaurants are cheap. Expect C30-35 for the classic 'comida corriente' and 50-60 minimum for more elaborated dishes. At least one small tienda for cheaper drinks and small snacks.
  • In most of the other villages, you should always be able to get some food cooked for you by the hospitable locals. 

Internet ? The corner shop in Altagracia charges C25 for 15mn !

A walk to the beach ?
From my base camp in Altagracia, I decided to walk to Playa Santa Domingo. Not that I had much choice : it was Sunday and the only bus was scheduled at 13:45, with no coming back. Walking around is a bit of the idea here anyway and it is only 8km away. Difficult to get lost : you follow the main road for 4km then turn left (sign) and walk for another 4km. A bit after the turn off, local people were busy playing baseball. They were very serious about it and a few players were dressed like professionals (they were not !). This second part of the walk is nicer with more shade and houses along the way. I actually went further than the beach, looking for that remote hotel I had been pointed to. I ended up at the tiny village of Santa Cruz and the turn off (Balgue on the left, Merida on the right), from where I was indicated the path to the Petroglyphs : road toward Merida for 10mn then path (barbed wire gate) to the left. 20mn later, I found a lot of stones but none displayed any originality. There was a finca so I could have asked but it was getting late and I was running out of water so I decided to feel contented with the nice panorama : the two sides of the island with Volcan Conception in between. On the way back, it is usually easier to get a ride but I was unlucky, missing a possible transport by a few minutes. Only 8km more that I decided to run...

A volcano tentative ?
Hearing that it was possible to climb Volcan Conception without a guide, I came up with the crazy idea of doing it. I was told to go to the small village of Pul and follow the path from there. No problem at first : you pass the lovely cemetery and, 15mn later, turn left just before the road. There are plenty of locals to inform you about the way as you pass several houses. Soon, the road changed into a rocky path and started going up. Immediately, climbing up to the top did not look like such a good idea : I had left at 9:30 (3 hours too late) and was already drenched from my sweating. I continued anyway and, about one hour after departure, reached the first panorama, soon followed by more. At the level of a cabanas, the path however disappeared ! I went down a bit toward banana and pineapple plantations and asked a farmer : - "You need to go over the hill". Indeed, I found a little path again. It lasted 100 meters and then vanished ! Back at the farmer : "Yes, there aren't any road, you need to climb the lava up to the top !" Fighting my way up on razor sharp lava stones ? No thank you ! I enjoyed the panorama a bit more and tranquilly went down. 
Back at the hotel, I got more reliable info from a young friendly guide : there are five different ways toward the volcano's top and I had taken one of the most difficult. Not to say that the others are much easier ! They all require excellent physical conditions, good shoes, lots of water and, yes, a guide : finding the way is one reason, safety over that active volcano is another. 

 << Discover Volcan Conception

A weird walk ? 
I had been told by a local guide that I could do a nice walk from Altagracia toward a beach, following the shore via the pier. The road toward the pier would be quite pleasant if it was not for all the rubbish. The next thing noticeable is fortunately more interesting : local people washing their clothes. From the pier, a tiny path was found. But when I inquired about its direction, answers were vague... I trusted my sources and took it anyway. It was a lovely path at first, inside the cloud forest. 
Unfortunately, it did not last long and I soon found myself climbing volcano rocks, in search for a way. I did not really find it but I discovered huge cactus instead : an interesting ecosystem ! There was also a banana plantation so I was confident about finding a path again. I looked for a while but failed. My last option, beside going back, was to try to follow the shoreline on the rocks. Locating the water was easy. Reaching it was a little bit more adventurous. After the mug's bath (beware not to get trapped !) and the vegetation's fight, I finally reached it. Walking the stones apparently looked like a possible option. Only problem was : reaching the opposite side of the shore ! I was about to swim there when I spotted a fisherman in his canoe. - "Can I follow the shore toward the beach ?" -" Not really, there is no road. Get in, I will paddle you there". A nice enough offer ! This relaxing trip took about 10 minutes and was definitively more pleasant than the rocks' walk option. 
I reached the beach (more exactly where more local girls wash more clothes) and then followed the large road (what a nice change !) toward Pul. Half an hour later, I was back on the main road. Not having found my beach yet, I decided to continue west toward San Jose del Norte. There, I found a big road on the right (just before a green "PC" stone) : it was apparently leading to the shore. It was a long (30mn) walk on a shaded rocky road toward another washing place. Was that really the beach ?  No, the beach was 15 mn away toward the left side, passing a banana plantation. "Beach" may actually be an exaggerated statement as the black sand area was tiny and not too clean. I went to swim anyway. 
So, was it worth following the advise of that guide ? For the beach, certainly not ! Ometepe is clearly a disappointment in that field ! But for the road, why not : the forest section was nice, the lava section adventurous and the rocky roads inhabited by howler monkeys. I would however not recommend the off-track section to anybody except the "Indiana Jones" types. Getting lost is not a problem (shore on your right) but missing a stone and landing badly on another one could be a very serious issue. If you wish to see the cactus, at least do it with someone ! Otherwise, follow the main road via the cemetery. You could also combine this walk with the panoramic view from the feet of Volcan Conception. That would be a good day well spent...

 << Discover an island

A volcano expedition (bis) to Volcan Maderas ?
  For this one, I had taken the precaution of asking travelers instead of locals. Some had just came back and were ecstatic about their experience : "We highly recommend it !". I therefore decided to stay an additional day. With a bus to catch at 4:30am, it would be a long day ! The bus was actually at 4:45 and this was an excellent thing since I was waken up at 4:30 only ! We reached Balgue one hour later. The path starts from Finca Magdelana, 1.3km away (road on the right). There, you pay the C20 entrance fee and get directions : left path after 100m and right path at a water reservoir level.
The first "tip" was good enough : just after the field, take the path on the left. Half an hour later, the second water reservoir, on the left and a tiny path on the right. Was it really that ? I had a doubt : it was really small ! Spotting monkeys in the trees, I decided to wait for a guide bringing other travelers. I was right : it was straight ahead and there was not any right path to follow ! 
Two minutes later, a petroglyph was spotted on the left. Then it started going up. And 5mn later, two paths : take the one on the left continuing up. Within 30mn, you should pass two sitting areas, the second one offering an excellent view toward volcan Conception. Well, at least when there is some visibility ! And at 7:30 in the morning, there aren't usually much. Remember than in cloud-forest', there is cloud ! 
I reached the summit within 2.5 hours (it took the following girls 4 hours). This had been an interesting section, with lots of mug and dense vegetation but the next part was even more adventurous : 20mn of rocks at 75 degrees. Rock climbing ! Actually, it was going down.  I am not a specialist of that specialty but found it rather easy and safe enough (with care, of course). Still, most guides will use ropes on this section and some people will just renounce at the sight of the rocks ! What I found downstairs was more fog : the lake was there all right but not much could be seen around it. It lasted for about 1.5 hours, with only a couple of minutes of better visibility. Still, being on my own, it was a very serene experience.
It was broken as soon as the talkative girls (sorry !) showed up. They decided to swim : a weird idea considering the lack of sun and the strong wind. It took them 5mn to change clothes and 30 seconds to test the water. Then they were out of it ! I can't not blame them : it was chilly ! But it was enough to please the God of the lake : soon afterward, the sky cleared up ! The clouds and fog left to reveal the amazing sight : a lake in a crater surrounded by dense forest and a few eagles above. Magic !  I would have stayed a bit longer but it was getting late (11:45) and busy (another group without a guide) so I decided to go back.
The climb, up the vertical stones, was rather easy and I did not quite understand how the ropes were helping in any way (from my point of view, it was even more dangerous). The clouds had now left entirely and the panorama over the lake was a beautiful sight. It strangely took me nearly as much time to go down than up. It was fun, provided that you have your two hands free and do not mind using them on the trees. Otherwise, walk very carefully : it is slippy ! With the sun, animals were much easier to spot and there were indeed quite a few of them in the lower section : howler monkeys of course but also small mammals and rodent plus plenty of birds and butterflies. A great natural experience !
Altogether, it was a day very well spent. Adventurous yet safe enough (one trail only). You can certainly do it without a guide. I would however recommend to go with someone or make sure that a group will follow your paths : you wish to be found if anything happen ! Walking alone and in silence of course enable to spot more wildlife.

 << Discover Volcan Maderas


Backpacker's Tips : Anthony Asael (March 04)
« Finca magdalena: nice to stay there but i wasn’t lucky because there was 40 kids from a Canadian school making an exchange program. There were very nice, but it was not really possible to rest…. Cost 1.25us for hamac and 1,75 for dorms. » 

Transport on the island ? It would be useless to give the precise transports schedules as they change every couple of days. Some info below but you would rather check with a local for the latest :

  • From Altagracia : To Moyogalpa via the north route (C9, 45mn) : 4 buses daily / To Moyogalpa via the south route (C9, 1 hour) : every 30-60mn from 4:30 to 17:30 / To Balgue (C7, 1 hour) via Playa Santo Domingo (C5, 30mn) : 6 buses from 4:00 to 16:45. 
  • From Moyogalpa : To Altagracia : hourly bus on the south route until 18:30 and three buses via the north route until 16:30
  • From Balgue to Moyogalpa via the beach and Altagracia : 5 buses from 5 to 18:30. From Merida, 2 buses only. 
  • On Sunday, traffic is much more limited with a few buses only from Altagracia to Moyogalpa, a bit more the other way (up to 7pm) and one bus only from Altagracia to Balgue early afternoon. 

Reaching & leaving the island ?
The below info is also subject to frequent changes...

  • From San Jorge, boat at 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 & 18. C20. 1 hour / To San Jorge at 6, 6:30, 6:45, 7, 12:30, 13:30 & 16. 
  • From Granada, lancha 'Mozorola' every Wed & Sat at 11am. C20. 4 hours. Also a bigger barco every Monday & Thursday at 2pm and, in theory, on Sat at 12am. C20. 4 hours. This 'barco' then head to San Carlos (add. C30 & 8 hours) / To Granada, lancha 'Mozorola' on Tues & Frid at 11am. Barco on Tues & Frid at 22:30 (arr at 3am !) and on Sunday at 10am. Info :
  • From San Carlos, the barco leaves every Tues & Frid at 2pm. C30. 8 hours. 

The trip to San Juan Del Sur  via San Jose & Rivas :
SSS / L & R / C15 + 3 + 8 / 1 hour + 10mn + 1 hour / Boat + Bus + Bus
Waking up naturally at 4:20, I figured out that it would be a good idea to catch the 4:45 bus to Moyogalpa : this would give me one hour to visit the place, before the last early morning boat at 7am.
Once there, it became however clear that there would not be much to tour around : a small model of the island and that was it ! I went to check a few hotel and caught the 6:30 boat. It is smaller then the regular ferry and therefore cost C15 only. It is as fast however (1 hour) and was comfortable enough to authorize additional sleep.
A bus and a few taxi were waiting for the boat's arrival at San Jorge. The former cost C3, the later C5. It is therefore a matter of personal preference. The bus took 10mn to reach Rivas bus terminal.
A change of bus, 15mn wait, and we were off toward San Juan del Sur. It was pouring rain so the scenery remained elusive most of the way but it did not look spectacular. 

See also the trip from Granada