Due to the nature of these activities, we didn’t photograph much of them. The photos we did take were just cell phone shots. You’ll have to let me paint a picture with words. But rest assured, there are some worthwhile (if blurry) shots at the end of this post!
For a little bit of background information, Ometepe is an island in the middle of a freshwater lake. The island itself is comprised of two volcanoes. One – Concepcion – is active. It’s about 1600 meters high and a notoriously difficult hike. It is steep, and with no shade from trees, very hot. The other volcano, Maderas, is shorter at 1400 meters. Its slopes are protected by trees, making for a tolerable eight to nine hours of hiking. And even though it’s not as exciting as climbing an active volcano, its peak holds an interactive attraction: a natural lagoon, formed within the crater. You can swim!
Although it is agreed that Maderas is an easier hike than Concepcion, everyone cautions you to take it seriously. The guidebook at our hotel, Xalli, said “Do not underestimate this hike!” One of the hotel’s owners told us that people return from Maderas saying that they would not have gone, had they known what they were getting into. “It’s not a matter of if you fall, it’s how many times,” he advised. “It’s very muddy and slippery.”
Xavier and I considered all of this information and decided to try the climb anyway. How often would we have this kind of opportunity? Since we hope to someday climb Cotopaxi, one of the highest volcanoes in South America, we figured this would be good practice.
That was how we found ourselves at the base of a volcano with another couple and a local guide, coordinated by the amazing owners at Xalli. At first, it just looked like a hill garnished with crude wooden stairs. We walked up the stairs for about five minutes, then our guide stopped us. He disappeared into the woods with a machete, at which point we all looked at each other nervously. When he returned, he bore six walking sticks that he had chopped by hand. Everyone took one, scoffing: we won’t need these!
Twenty minutes later, I was full-on panicking. The lovely stairs had disappeared, only to be replaced by muddy rocks which we scaled with all four limbs. The walking stick was suddenly of utmost importance. Mini-waterfalls cascaded down the mountain and created slicks of mud, which absorbed my sneakers like quicksand. The narrow trail was carved between shrubbery, trees, and rocks, which scraped at every turn. I am not much of a hiker, and the climb was utterly exhausting. Unfortunately, whenever we stopped to take a break, giant flies lit on our exposed flesh and bit hard, raising painful welts that screamed for attention as we continued to climb. I welcomed the times that my feet slipped through the muck and I fell, because the flies had a harder time biting through mud slathered onto legs.
This went on for over three hours. Eventually, we reached the layer of clouds and everything went a little foggy. We had been sweating in the blistering heat and humidity, but suddenly it was almost chilly.
The only saving grace was that there were occasional troupes of monkeys swinging through the trees, and I loved catching glimpses of the howlers and capuchins. Monkeys are my absolute favorite animals, so they brought a couple of smiles to an otherwise miserable experience.
Finally, we reached the top. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I was too miserable to swim. The last stretch of climbing had involved a rather treacherous descent. I’m utterly terrified of heights, so that took a lot out of me emotionally. It took all of my energy not to cry as I navigated the steep rocks and climbed down as carefully as I could. After that, I couldn’t imagine stripping to my underwear with strangers and taking a dip. There was no place to change into the bathing suit I’d brought. I was, however, able to admire the beauty of our surroundings and feel pride that we’d made it to the top. Xavier had no such reservations, so I was happy to watch him swim and snap a couple of photos with my phone. (We brought our phones on the hike because, even with no service, the cameras worked – and bringing the bulky dSLR wasn’t ideal). He reported that the water was bracingly cold.
We settled into the grass with packed lunches from Xalli: chicken salad sandwiches, with oranges and a juice box. I could just sadly pick at my sandwich, so Xavier gave its remains to our guide. Thinking of it now, I’m laughing – but man, was I unhappy on that hike. I tried so hard to have a positive attitude because I knew I was in the midst of something special and amazing. But I was completely covered in mud, my bruised limbs ached with fatigue, my body was covered in enormous welts from fly bites, my nerves were utterly rattled from extended encounters with heights. It was an enormous personal challenge.
I’m pretty sure that the entire time, my monologue went something like this. “Damnit! Another fly. Ouch! Oh, I’m so scared. This is miserable. Baby, I’m sorry. I keep complaining. I need to be more positive. What a beautiful volcano! I love that tree! Look, monkeys! %$&#, another fly bite! I $%#&ing hate this! Why are we doing this again? Oh, sorry, that was all negative again. Hmm, what good things can I say? This is wonderful exercise!”
Yes, my boyfriend has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of patience.
To my credit, he wasn’t thrilled about the hike either. Afterwards, we admitted privately that there were times when we each thought we wouldn’t make it. But he kept his complaining to a minimum.
Once we began our descent, I was happier and even began joking around. Three hours later, we were still descending and I wasn’t so happy anymore. We came down a different way than we’d ascended, and it was muddier than the way up. After quite a few slips and falls, I picked up on Xavier’s method of using trees for support. Finally, we reached the vantage point that supposedly warranted the detour. It was beautiful. We looked out over the island and could see all of the lake, the mainland off in the distance, and cloud-covered Concepcion right in front of us.
At that point, we still had over an hour left to hike!
We were in agony from sore muscles, knowing we were almost done could have pushed us through anything. We pressed on for a bit, and finally the trail flattened and the climb became more of a walk. We had to stop for photos when we broke through the trees to reach a gorgeous open field. Volcanic rocks were scattered haphazardly throughout, and you could see the volcano in the background. All I could say was, “Can you believe we just climbed that?”
After nine total hours of climbing, falling, and walking, we reached the main road of Ometepe, where motorcycles were waiting for us. Jonathan and Roslyn had arranged for our transportation back to the hotel. Covered in mud from head to toe, we hopped on a bike. Once we arrived at Xalli, we hobbled around to the back of the resort and walked directly into the lake, clothes and all. The gorgeous fresh water rocked us with gentle waves like the ocean, but it was warm and comforting. We scrubbed ourselves, stretched our tight muscles, and basked in our accomplishment.
Limping around that night, we couldn’t believe what we had done.
The next morning, we were incredibly sore to the point where walking was a challenge. But we had one final activity on Ometepe, and it required stamina. For some reason, I got the idea that I wanted to ride horses. Nevermind the fact that I have literally rode a horse once in my life, and it was a tame little thing in Costa Rica, where our guides led us around a trail with ropes. We were in a relatively isolated environment, it was rustic and mountainous, and I felt like horses would just be the best thing to do. Again with the help of Jonathan and Roslyn, we were able to set up a two-hour guided ride for about $25 USD.
When you go riding somewhere like Nicaragua, nobody asks how much riding experience you have. They just put you on top of a horse, tell you three ways to guide the horse by holding the reins, and set off. We mounted our horses and headed down the road to the beach. After years together, I am learning that Xavier can do pretty much anything, so I was only a little surprised when he took off galloping expertly. My horse followed suit, which was a little bit more of a surprise. It took all of my energy to stay in the stirrups, but I managed. Fortunately, my horse was fairly calm, so I got the hang of riding pretty fast.
We spent two hours trotting around the beach, and it was incredible. Although new to riding, I felt comfortable quickly and had a blast. How could you not? Our horses took us through the shallow surf, wound through wooded pathways, and even raced a little bit.
Unfortunately, that was our last day on Ometepe. We were incredibly sad to leave, having had such an amazing time there. Next, we would head to San Juan del Sur for the last day of our trip…
Did you know that Sunsets Everywhere is on Facebook now? Do you enjoy the occasional breathtaking exotic photo in your news feed? Find the blog here and be sure to click “like” for exclusive photos, chat, and more.