There comes a moment in every burgeoning mountaineer’s career when they realize there’s always a bigger challenge. There’s always a bigger, taller, harder mountain, but at the top, the reward is almost always worth it.
I am a reasonably fit person, but by no means in shape enough to conquer Everest. I run several times a week and have a job where I must lift and carry heavy objects no infrequent amount of times. I go to the gym to satisfy a requirement (not out of enjoyment) so I have a level of strength hovering around at least average (I hope).
That being said, hiking up Volcan Maderas in Nicaragua was an absolutely eye opening experience from start to finish. Algebraically speaking, in terms of my hiking experiences, it is definitely a local maximum – I hope there will be better in my future, but it’s at least a relative peak in my young life.
Getting to Ometepe
Little background: Nicaragua is the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere behind Haiti, so the infrastructure one might be used to when traveling, say, Europe is definitely not there.
Having traveled around rural Asia numerous times, my standards aren’t super high, and so I think Nicaragua has a great balance of accessibility and remoteness. Bridges and roads are slowly being constructed and so with a little patience and wee bit of knowhow you can get anywhere in the country.
Ometepe is an island in the largest lake of Central America, Lake Cocibolca or Lake Nicaragua. The island is really two volcanoes connected to one another. A Siamese island, if you will. (You don’t have to.)
From San Jorge on the mainland of Nicaragua, you can take a ferry to Moyogalpa. It is not a luxurious ferry. It is not a speedy ferry. It is not a very calm ferry. But it works well enough and the people are friendly. This is travel in Nicaragua in a nutshell.
When you get to land, the ferry will unload cars, motorcycles and scores of passengers, some of whom are gringo travelers and most of which are locals. You will see a plethora of taxi options. Don’t be super picky; they’re all cheap for short distances.
The Volcanoes of Lake Nicaragua
The northwestern island is formed by Volcán Concepción and the southeastern by Volcán Maderas. Concepción is active, Maderas is not. Concepción is more barren with better sightlines at the top, Maderas has a cloud forest, with mudslides and a crater lake at the top. The Concepción part of the island is more built up with better roads, the Maderas side has run down roads, or really just paths.
Our hostel was not too far from the port of Moyogalpa on Ometepe. From virtually anywhere on the island you can see one of the two volcanoes, although there are definitely some better spots than others. The spots are usually located randomly on the “highway” in between random breaks in the canopy of trees.
At the hostel was a guide, and a rather sweet one at that. I’ve seen stories in Nicaragua about guides who don’t want to take people to the top of the mountains, because obviously it’s too tiring. Some try to overcharge. Some are just lame.
Our guide was awesome.
He spoke incredible English, knew the island like the back of his hand, was remarkably fit, and also lent us motorcycles. (Even though we don’t know how to ride them.)
Learning to Ride a Motorcycle
I went to Nicaragua with a buddy, and to keep his identity secret, let’s call him Kevin. Kevin has an ego so large, we must weight him down with concrete blocks to keep him from floating away. Kevin, mind you, has never ridden a motorcycle. He has, however, ridden a bicycle and can drive a manual car. So, like, good enough?
Our guide, who was so gracious enough to lend us his bike, also lent us his knowledge. He brought Kevin to a grass field for an entire five minutes, and back he was, ready to ride.
I’m not sure these were ideal circumstances. This was all back roads. There were gullies everywhere and branches crisscrossing the road. The road wasn’t so much paved half the time, but rather artfully undulating bricks. I was another human being on the back, adding more than a few pounds of weight. The sun was going down (on the ride back), and our helmets were meant for bikes, not motorcycles.
Nevertheless, Kevin is cocky, and so he assured me I’d be fine.
The key to riding a motorcycle, I learned, is just to go faster. Something in the road? Go faster. Speed bump? Go faster. Cow in the road? Go faster. Car coming? Go faster. Going uphill, with a car on your left, no room at all on your right, a gully cutting across the road diagonally, gravel removing any serious friction between the tires and the road, and branches perpendicular to that?
After more than a few scary moments (2 hours contain a lot of scary moments), we finally made it to the trail head.
Climbing Volcán Maderas
I don’t quite remember the exact location of where we set off from, probably because I don’t quite remember how we got back – but more on that later. I do know it was somewhere between Balgüe and Santa Cruz.
We set off with our guide and he began by both warning us of the dangers of and pointing out the various features of the volcano. He urged us to stay close as Americans died there by separating from the group and getting lost for days.
After that little scare we could appreciate some of the finer points. There were howler monkeys and leaves that got you high and leaves that killed you and more howler monkeys.
One word to describe the volcano: bipolar.
The hike started out relatively coolly. The air wasn’t super humid and the forest we set out in didn’t look terribly different from any other tropical forest I’ve seen. (Qualifier: I’m not Balboa; I don’t machete through jungles too often.)
The volcano itself is a neat cone. This means the hike starts out nicely sloped at the beginning and increases in difficulty as you get to the end, where you’re on all fours at points. By the base, the air is pleasant, but the weather changes with the landscape.
As the forest became jungle, and the canopy overhead thickened, the air joined in likewise. The humidity increased, and each breath became tougher. The air pushed down on our shoulders; it was viscous wading through the gas.
To make matters worse, I had gotten somewhat sick in my journey in Nicaragua. It was nothing terrible: achy, tired and sore throat. I’ve dealt with that every winter of my life living in New England, but I generally don’t hike volcanoes.
Each step hastened my respiration which already felt like breathing through a coffee stirrer. Luckily, Kevin had focused on his trudging upward and his own breathing as well, which meant the ego was temporarily suppressed. He wasn’t sprinting up the mountain, which allowed me to catch up. Thanks buddy!
As I describe this hike, I must say that two gentlemen were simultaneously climbing and having just a dandy ole time. One was wearing khaki shorts and some clean, white tennis shoes.
As the hike wore on, one had to get on all fours to scale rock faces. It was muddy, it was slippery, it wasn’t clean. My shoes were wrecked. Kevin’s shoes were caked in mud. Our guide’s boots were sloppy. The khaki-donning fellow’s were pristine.
As we progressed up, one of the four in our group was tiring much quicker than everyone and so the guide stayed more with him as we advanced to enjoy the views, where we’d wait for them again.
We saw these nicely dressed hikers having a pleasant conversation, not even gasping for a breath as if walking to the corner bodega to grab a sandwich. Meanwhile, we had a straggler climbing like an inch worm for an hour to make it up a hundred meters.
God bless these remarkably fit people. Furthermore, there are trail runners who sprint the whole thing and leave their guides reeling, urging them to wait for fear of getting lost in the jungle. As we finally neared the top of the volcano, they were already coming down, not a drop of sweat or mud to be found.
Anyways, getting to the top as incredible. As we passed evermore howler monkeys, we saw the biodiversity the tropics are known for. I lack the capacity to describe these species properly. However, if you can combine random zoo animals with arbitrary Crayola colors, you get the idea.
Butterflies and other insects fluttering about pushed a kaleidoscope to its limits. Plantain trees littered the landscape and plants I’ve never seen in quaint Springfield, Massachusetts dotted the trail. As we crossed the halfway point, however, our guide warned of mudslides.
Uhhh, where?? This place is stunning.
Windy, Windy Volcán Maderas
The volcano near the top certainly changes its mood quickly. The once thick, muggy air turned cool and thin without notice. Though most of the views on the hike were obscured by dense thickets, when you could peer out over Lake Nicaragua, the sightlines were clear.
Rapidly, they became foggy. You couldn’t see over the tree tops, never mind out to the rest of the island. Mudslides appeared every 10 minutes. We were warned to watch our step lest we wish to unsettle a loose stone and enjoy the most perilous chute ever.
The weather changed from pleasant to upset, as gusts whipped about at the top. What was once merely a tiring hike became a draining one. As you looked out over the mudslides, you saw precisely nothing. It wasn’t clear where you were or what was beyond 50 meters.
The weather became rather cold as goosebumps dotted our spines and a misty rain showered over the cloud forest. Forceful winds chilled our skin. It was as gorgeous as it was frightening for a rookie in this environment.
At one point, pushing through, step after upward step, we reached a ridge. We had done it. We had reached the top of Volcán Maderas!!
Except we hadn’t, really.
The volcano has a crater lake, which means we needed to descend down into it. On tired legs, descending a steep incline really aches your joints, but eager to see an entirely new sight, experience a unique setting, we made the extra half hour journey.
When we sat on the edge of the lagoon, with our lunch of trail mix and water in tow, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. Literally.
I have now seen Google Images of the crater lake on top the volcano, and I must say it’s gorgeous. But on that day, we saw nothing through the soupy fog. This is one of the risks of traveling for natural beauty. People travel the world over to see the Northern Lights or Mt. Fuji only for cloud coverage to ruin it. We had a remarkable experience regardless.
We found a rock to sit on to eat, as much of the shore was muddy. As we walked around we *pwlllfff* stepped ankle deep in mud. No bueno. At least the raisons in the mix was something to talk about. Wolfing those down, we emerged from the sticky mud ready to leave.
Time to head down the volcano. (But being in a crater, alas, time to head up first.)
Genius Tour Guide of Ometepe
One of the genius bits of our guide was how he revealed the landscape to us, slowly and poignantly. The first moment was a leaf that could save our lives. If boiled it would gave a fainting patient a boost of energy. Hopefully, it wouldn’t come to that.
Then he pointed out the howler monkeys and where they tended to stay.
Next was a lookout point you could see from many directions if lost.
After that was a grove of plantain trees and some rock formations and some mudslides and so on.
One of the purposes of this was to give us a more cultural experience. The other, as we found out, was in case we got lost.
Now that we were on top of the volcano, Kevin’s ego swelled up and his pace downward accelerated. While three of us in the group were feeling much better from the injection of about 50 calories and 10mg of sugar into our systems, there was still the one straggler. Our guide shouted at us to slow down, wait for him at checkpoints and generally not be an idiot. But idiots we were/are.
Kevin’s an idiot because he doesn’t listen to people. I’m an idiot because I do and still mess it up.
As we used the list of checkpoints (plantains, howler monkeys, look outs), we realized at one point we might be lost. And then we realized we might really be lost. And then we realized, yup – we lost.
The cool thing about Google Maps is that it works even without cell signal so long as you load the maps locally on wifi beforehand, which I so cleverly/accidentally had. We had a heading but not really a corresponding trail, which were all winding and directionless
Plus, as you may remember now and I could not then, the trailhead was between Balgüe and Santa Cruz. That’s not a particularly precise location. Whoops.
The good news with me is that I’m a generally calming presence and only have 1-2 panic attacks per any given setback. We were golden, what with our half liter of water, half-loaded GPS map and a half-setting sun.
All we have to do is go down, correct? Volcanoes all lead down. So that’s what we did, while also going left and right and up and down and left again. Eventually we made it sufficiently down through the jungle to sorta hear humanity.
Our third hiking partner was a Cuban-American dude from Brooklyn, who happened to have passable Spanish. He hurled out some plea for help in an apparently comprehensible form as a reply was willfully forthcoming. A quick back-and-forth ended, and we were left unsure what was to happen. Our moment off the proverbial island was halted.
And that’s when a strange man with a machete appeared. That’s also when I learned how friendly the people of Nicaragua are, that even if you speak different languages, come from different backgrounds and have various levels of comfort with Nicaraguan geography, they will always help you. Especially the one’s with machetes.
He led us through the rest of the base of the jungle and volcano, and soon we were home free. Thank the Lord.
Moral of the Story
You should always hike with a buddy. You should always take at least 3-4 minutes to learn how to ride motorcycles. You should always bring just enough water to last a hike. And never have full blown panic attacks by yourself in a jungle; you need friends.
Let me know what you think in the comments below! Have you been to Volcán Maderas before and think I’m a wimp??
Like what you’re reading on Nicaragua? Check out some other related articles in: The Nicaragua Chronicles!!