Totoco EcoLodge, Nicaragua

Sometimes vacations can be tainted by high expectations–or at least, sometimes I fear they will be. I was vaguely worried about this before traveling to Nicaragua; reading my guide book and planning the trip had inspired in me such ardent fervor for this  mysterious country known as the land of lakes and volcanoes, I was sure something would disappoint.

In particular, my concern fixated on Totoco Eco-Lodge, where my friend and I intended to stay on Isla de Ometepe. The breakdown of nerves was as follows: excitement, because Totoco looks incredible in pictures (and video!) and has an absurd number of positive reviews on Trip Advisor; anxiety, because I didn’t see how it could possibly be as amazing and gorgeous as it seemed on the Internet; and a little bit of basic worry, because they don’t accept reservations for dorm beds.

The day-long journey to Ometepe—a 106-square-mile island formed by two volcanoes sitting in Lake Nicaragua and looking positively unreal, like two mountains holding hands on top of the water—contributed nicely to my mounting nerves, as it involved roughly nine hours of travel on a shuttle bus, public bus, ferry, and two taxis. Oh, and add to that a scorching Central American sun and stomach problems that prevented me from eating.

By the time we arrived at Totoco, I thought I might pass out. The staff there immediately took our bags, greeted us warmly—as if we did have reservations (I suspect they would have warned us in advance if they thought they wouldn’t have space), and, upon hearing I was sick, hurriedly brought me a glass of fruit juice. I then looked up, just in time to catch a front-row-center view of the sun setting against one of the island’s two volcanoes, Concepción. It was a stunning contrast of luminousness and darkness unlike any I had seen before. I knew immediately that this was the best place in the world to be sick.

Totoco is located about 200 meters (656 feet) up from the base of Ometepe’s second volcano, Maderas, on the northwestern side, which means it affords breathtaking panoramas of Concepción, the island’s isthmus, and the surrounding Lake Nicaragua. To say that the lodge is seamlessly nestled in the surrounding jungle may sound trite, but it’s true. You fall asleep in the open-air dorms to the sound of cicadas and exotic birds and wake up to howler monkeys and, in rainy season, booming, bone-rattling thunder (the clouds above and around appear unbelievably large, close, and looming—or fluffy, depending on the time of day).

Because I had been ill, I spent the next day alternately resting and exploring the lodge and surrounding grounds. (I needed to get my strength back up for the following day, when we planned to climb the 1,394-meter-high Maderas.) Totoco’s main common space, which is open on most sides, consists of a dining area, bar, and inviting rocking chairs and hammock—all with an amazing view. It’s a nearly perfect place to be lazy. As my strength slowly returned to me after lunch, I stared out at the sunlit flora growing just beyond the steps. Oversized green leaves were keeping company with countless varieties of tropical red, pink, and orange flowers, while dozens of butterflies and bees fluttered along from one plant to the next. For a few moments it seemed feasible that I had actually stepped into a nature scene in a Disney movie.

While I recovered and talked with the supremely friendly staff and owners, my friend went on a long guided walk around the nearby town of Balgues. In the process, she learned more about Totoco and its ethos, which made us fall in love with the place even more. Started by three non-Nicaraguans (one Australian, one Belgian, and one Dutch), Totoco makes a point of fitting into its surroundings—not only physically, but environmentally and communally. In addition to the lodge itself, which features compost toilets and a greywater recycling system, the operation encompasses an organic farm where they grow all their own food as well as a development center located in Balgues. The center, run by a friend of the founders, works with the townspeople to support the community through microloans–for residents who present business proposals for projects such as jewelry making or a bike repair shop–and through education projects, like the building of a town library.

It is a prime example of sustainable, community-minded, eco-friendly tourism. A fair amount of this seems to exist all over Nicaragua, too, making it an exciting country to visit these days. As one staff member at Totoco put it, many tourist operations in Nicaragua are “learning from Costa Rica’s mistakes.” (No offense, Costa Rica.)

Of course, with eco-friendly and open-air lodgings come more bugs in more varieties (and larger sizes) than you may have ever seen before. And let’s face it: peeing in a funnel (in the compost toilet) isn’t always easy. But eating delicious, homemade organic food while the jungle breeze blows around you and the sky turns a glowing yellow and then a piercing red against the silhouette of a volcano…that’s worth it.

Story and photos by Jillian Steinhauer