Did she say the toilets don’t flush? I stepped back and looked at the towering cedar loo. The friendly hotel employee who had just checked us in was explaining this monstrosity in detail. This compostable throne did not actually flush, so when finishing up all you had to do was throw in a scoop of cedar chips. I reminded myself of why we had come to an eco-resort in Ometepe – Nicaragua’s famous island of two volcanoes.
There was a good reason to use a dry toilet in Ometepe Island. Not only were we protecting the island’s majestic rainforests and freshwater lagoons, we were using less water. Flushing toilets use over 50 liters of water a day, and they inject waste into chemical filled sewage treatment plants which often pump it back out again into rural areas. In developing countries like Nicaragua, where septic systems are often loosely managed, this can have dangerous results.
My husband Danilo is used to no flush toilets, he grew up in Nueva Guinea, Nicaragua, the heartland of the country, and in the early 1980s no one owned a camera let alone a flush toilet. He likes ultramodern hotels for that reason, but when we travel I look for off the grid hideaways. The Totoco Eco-Lodge ticked all the boxes. It is 100% solar operated and disconnected from all main plumbing lines. Drinking water is provided and you only need to fill your water bottle from the purified tank in the reception.
The 8 elegant casitas are all privately situated, and ours has a panoramic view of the Concepcion Volcano which rises above the lake at almost 2,000 meters.
I’ve visited Ometepe Island three times now, each for just several days as my work only permits me to squeeze in short trips. Located in the center of Lake Nicaragua, Ometepe is a destination in its own right and many travelers come to the country just to visit this volcanic island. As I always say to Casa Lucia guests, always plan a side trip to Ometepe when you visit Nicaragua.
At Totoco, the cabins are simple and built of stone and wood with palm thatch ceilings. Air conditioning isn’t essential here as you are in the foothills of the Volcano Maderas and a gentle breeze blows down day and night. The solar concept makes the most of the bright sunshine which pours down, but there are plenty of open-air spaces for relaxing and retreating from the sun.
We unknowingly spent 3 hours just sitting in a chair staring at the Concepcion Volcano in front of our casita, as blue jays flocked in the trees and howler monkeys roared above us in the forest. Due to the location, wildlife is undisturbed on the island, and there are plenty of opportunities to spot monkeys, iguanas, and sloths. We eventually left our casita to sample cocktails made by hand from mint grown on the reserve. It was nice to just sit and listen to nature without any music or TV screens.
Totoco Lodge offers one of the best saltwater infinity pools in the island. Without the chlorine, you are in a cleaner and chemical free environment, and you enjoy spectacular views of Lake Nicaragua and Volcano Concepcion.
The Gentler Hiking Option
The slopes of Concepcion are often filled with craters caused by landfalls. Instead of tackling this formidable giant, we opted for a more relaxing experience in the Volcano Maderas Biosphere Reserve. The hike would take us along the slopes to the Finca Magdalena, a cooperative coffee farm on the other side of the resort. As we climbed through the lush cloud forest, we kept our eyes open for petroglyphs – the famous pre-Colombian carvings which adorn rocks all over the island. Before long we came across a cluster with round twirling spirals. Experts believe the unusual formations indicate the indigenous people of Ometepe considered this to be a promised land. They also believed the Maderas Volcano was a sacred place, and their markings may tell stories or pass along information to other tribes or people. Indeed, the origins of the carvings are a mystery.
As we were hiking, our guide points out parrots and the national bird. I never see anything with my computer drained eyesight, but Danilo who grew up on a farm sees everything and spots coffee plants, rice and beans. The guide also warns us to be careful – the Maderas Volcano has a lagoon at the center; an unsuspecting drop that has sent hikers off the slopes to their death.
Once we get to the Finca, our first objective is to taste the coffee. It’s so fresh and fragrant we get another cup and enjoy the crunchy corn biscuits flavored with cinnamon sugar. The Finca Magdalena has been operating since 1888 and it has a concept similar to Totoco’s but more suited to the backpacker market. It feels a bit rickety and could use some fresh paint, but there can’t be many places like this where you can stay close to a working coffee farm.
Since we have only a few days in Ometepe, we travel on to the Ojo de Agua to see two main sites in one day. This is a 40-meter long freshwater swimming pool fed by thermal springs. There are conveniences nearby so you can order food and drinks and the servers are so warm and friendly, but a little shy. It reminds us why we always choose to vacation in ‘el campo’, the country. Getting to the Ojo de Agua from Balgue, the town above which Totoco is situated is fairly easy using a rented moped or taxi. The local buses are a slow affair so choose a taxi or go as part of a tour.
We both have different tastes. Danilo wants to eat Nicaraguan food every day which means he’s delighted with fried meat, rice, plantains, salad, and the salty white cheese. I have more international tastes. The women at the lodge can do both, they even make Indian samosas and curry using roots and herbs grown on the farm! They make delicious homemade desserts of rice pudding and tres leche or three milk cakes. In the morning, they wake us up with hot coffee and hot milk, and they put out such a generous buffet it looks like brunch. Those travelers who like generous portions will not be disappointed in Nicaragua.
As we leave the island, I feel disappointed. I could spend months here instead of days and maybe this is because I’m from an island myself. The undiscovered mysteries from the petroglyphs to the many hidden waterfalls and swimming holes make this a truly off the grid and unusual place. Traveling in Ometepe also connects you to nature, and in our world of over-consumption, over-plastic, and over-use it reminds us that we can be happier without devices and flushing toilets. As travelers, we have to do the small things we can to make a difference. I always advise my guests to bring their own recyclable coffee container, water bottle and to refuse straws both when you travel in Nicaragua and when you are at home.
Hasta Pronto – Eloisa
Where is Ometepe Island? The island is located in Lake Nicaragua and is formed by two volcanoes, Volcan Concepcion and Volcano Maderas joined together by a narrow isthmus. The total size of Ometepe is 276 km2 or about 106 square miles and one of the main industries is agriculture. Its diversity ranges from lush rainforests and lagoons to clearwater swimming pools, coffee plantations and, lakeside beaches.
How to Get to the Island & Use the Ferry
To get to Ometepe take a ferry from the Port of San Jorge, a small town located close to Rivas. If staying with us in Granada we recommend booking a $15 USpp tourist shuttle to leave Casa Lucia at 10am. We have a private operator but we have put below a link to another company accepting online payment. Remember when traveling in Nicaragua you need to carry small bills of 10s, 20s, and 5s in US denominations as drivers rarely have change. You can pay in cordobas or USD.
We do not recommend using the local bus as it is unreliable. The trip by tourist shuttle is 1 hour and 50 minutes depending on traffic, so budget enough time to catch a Ferry before 2pm. The journey over the lake to the island is 1 full hour.
Click here for General Information about Ometepe Island
Click here for Tourist Shuttles to San Jorge & San Juan del Sur