While the relaxing bits, the sightseeing bits, and the shopping bits are fun, I always love the adventure bits of the annual group trips I take with friends. Every year I get together with five close pals and we travel to an unusual destination, stepping out of sight of Starbucks and our familiar NYC habitat long enough to discover fun and surprises. Great adventure moments from past years included boat-riding under the falls at Iguazu Falls in Argentina, shooting AK-47s and M-16s in Vietnam, and getting thrown around an Istanbul hamam by a 250-pound old Turkish dude in a towel. Some would consider this last item to be an exotic treat but I stand firmly by the adventure classification on this one.
This year’s trip to Nicaragua was no exception; I’d been excitedly eying an excursion to Isla Ometepe, especially when zip-lining turned out to be more of a fun little ride than an adventure, and I really needed an adventure. In case you missed it that was the foreshadowing portion of this story.
After a couple days in Granada, the six of us were staying in an inexpensive house with a pool in southwestern Nicaragua, located up in the jungle hills overlooking the coastal village of San Juan Del Sur. Also with us on the property was a modest household staff, a family of howler monkeys, a large tree sloth, and several thousand species of insects ranging from mildly annoying to really freaking scary. It was late May on the cusp of the rainy season and weather ranged from stunningly gorgeous to really quite rainy. After a couple days of sitting around the pool between rainstorms and excursions to nearby secluded beaches we relished the idea of visiting nearby Isla Ometepe but my suggestion that we hike to the top of Volcán Maderas was understandably met with some skepticism.
Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Nicaragua, and the 21st largest lake by area in the world. Sticking out of the middle of the lake are twin volcanoes Concepción and Maderas, the bases of which form the large, lush Isla Ometepe. Ferries from the mainland drop travelers on the larger, active Volcán Concepción, whose steaming cone rises ominously over the island’s 35,000 residents and their villages, abundant farms, and livestock. Concepción’s smaller and more dormant neighbor Maderas rises about 4,600 feet about sea level and is crowned with a cloud forest and a crater lake.
Although everyone was interested in visiting this beautiful and unusual island’s beaches and waterfalls, the prospect of a long and muddy hike up through a cloud forest on a volcano was met with less enthusiasm. This was maybe encouraged by the fact that every one of our guide books made reference to degrees of strenuousness, the perils of hiking through a sloping river of mud, and the idea that guides and ropes are required for the descent into the crater following the deaths of American and British tourists in a recent accident. However being adventurous, and possibly naive, my friend John and I decided to take on Maderas.
The next morning we six rode the ferry from nearby San Jorge to Ometepe, with the intention of most of the group returning that afternoon while John and I hiked through evening and returned the next morning. The ferry ride offers an hour-long glorious view of the twin jungle-covered volcanoes rising dramatically from the giant lake’s surface. Jokes about King Kong were abundant.
We landed in the village of Moyogalpa where John and I looked for a local guide while our friends joked about this being the last they’d see of us and took photos to show rescuers what we were wearing before we disappeared. I stopped to buy a couple bottles of water from a woman behind the counter of a small shop and met another American who’d been on the island for a couple days, and by one of those odd travel coincidences was another gay guy who lives two blocks from me in New York City’s East Village. He told me his friends successfully climbed Maderas yesterday though he had turned back halfway, finding the hike too strenuous.
We had been looking for the guide office when we were approached by a man named Harrington who for US$90 would hire us a professional hiking guide for the day, drive us to Maderas on the other side of the island, wait all day at the base, and drive us to a hotel when we returned that evening. We talked him down to US$70 for the whole package and set off in his jalopy to collect our hiking guide.
Harrington’s jeep had a broken odometer, an absent front passenger’s door handle, and the power window control was dangling from the passenger door by a pair of wires. Harrington smiled and sheepishly showed me the box containing the new parts for his car, explaining that he hadn’t had a chance to install them. Harrington was a third-generation resident of the island and quite proud of the island’s peaceful history. Ometepe’s location shielded it from Nicaragua’s violent past, and even today there are no guns or gangs on the island. We stopped to pick up our guide, Javier, who wore a khaki uniform and a National Geographic hat. Javier was in his early 20′s and had studied for the past couple years to be an island guide; he was fun, spirited, and happy to talk about the island, and his native Nicaragua.
Being apprehensive about the rain and mud factor I asked Harrington if it was likely to rain today and he responded, smiling, “Probablemente si, probablemente no.” It turns out the rain and wet factor was considerably more important than I’d expected and though I was grateful we were fairly well-prepared, there was more we could have done to be ready.
If you’re going to hike Volcán Maderas in the rainy season you need a sturdy pair of hiking boots. You can get away with a pair of good hiking shoes or even trail runners, but you’ll need to be extra careful as this hike becomes very treacherous. Of course you’ll need the essentials including food and water, and be aware that mobile service is spotty on the island and doesn’t work on most of the climb. Be prepared to be partly muddy and completely wet, so you’ll need to waterproof any portable electronics and wallet items. A walking stick is key though you can find one fairly easily, and a guide really is necessary.
Harrington drove us for about 30-40 minutes across Ometepe, stopping just beyond the coastal villages of Altagracia and Playa Santa Domingo at a little farmhouse inn, which was to be the starting point for our climb. Harrington parked the SUV, and after we bought and stowed some sandwiches from the inn’s kitchen, we set off on trek with Javier through boulder-strewn fields of livestock and rows of plaintain trees. The boulders were the result of an old and violent eruption; while Maderas last erupted in the 13th century, its neighbor Concepción continuously spews steam and ash and had four eruptions in the last century. The island inhabitants remember the most violent one in 1957 when the Nicaraguan government ordered an evacuation, though few obeyed and abandoned the island. I asked Javier whether the people today were concerned about the next eruption, and with wide eyes he replied in the affirmative; apparently even after a few decades’ time there’s something about giant rocks on fire falling from the sky that leaves an indelible impression.
Javier showed us a number of petroglyphs carved into the strewn boulders. Ometepe is home to over 1,700 petroglyphs carved into 1,400 boulders, with the oldest ones dating as far back as 300 BC. As we continued up the base Javier pointed out stunning centipedes, ants living in the hollow thorns of a tree, and explained the fascinating and omnipresent multitude of leafcutter ants. The leafcutter ant is one of the largest ants in Central America and its queen can be bigger than a mouse. The legions of leafcutter ants carry specific types of leaves underground to their den where they feed and nurture a large fungus which in turn feeds the ants.
At the point on the volcano slope where the open fields end and the jungle begins there’s a stunning view of the opposite volcano, the island, and the surrounding lake. It’s also pretty much the last view of the vista for this hike, because the rest of the trail is under a heavy canopy in a cloud forest. Once inside the cloud forest we quickly became enveloped in a light mist which gently whited out our surroundings and made everything on us damp. We’d been sweating enough that the mist wasn’t very noticeable but it became more increasingly tangible in the moments where it approached light rain. It wasn’t exactly raining but the air was very wet, and as the wetness increased the muddiness of the path also increased. The rough trail was a good outlet for a cascading thin stream of water; we were soon hiking up a slim river of slippery mud and it wasn’t long before our legs were brown to the knees.
As the path became muddier and more treacherous Javier would throw us the occasional vine to swing between stable, dry rocks, as John hummed the Indiana Jones theme. Even with walking sticks the occasional slip and fall was inevitable though dangerous as some of the slope was quite steep, and more than once i slipped and barely avoided impaling my face on a broken tree branch vertically jutting out of the ground. John took a couple mudslide spills and on the second one I was joking about his Kathleen Turner moments (remember that mudslide scene in Romancing the Stone?) when I smacked my head against a low hanging branch for the second time. Even score, I thought, as nearby and somewhere above the howler monkeys roared with pleasure.
Eventually we reached the summit although this was hard to know because of the complete lack of view beyond the trees. There we met a small group of hikers accompanied by another guide, the first travelers we’d encountered on the hike. They were young twentysomethings, a mix of English and Spanish speakers, similarly damp with mud and sweat and rain, and joined Javier in assuring us that the descent into the crater was more of the same level of difficulty and that ropes weren’t necessary to get down and back out. Sure enough it didn’t take long to descend into the crater, and although there were a couple of moments where the trail went vertical it was easily managed using the abundant branches and vines for traction.
The scene inside Maderas’ crater looks like a tiny slice of rural Scotland nestled in the Central American jungle. Heavy white mists blow cold, wet air in gusts of varying strength and density across a small grassy field and the still waters of the crater lake. Someone had built a small wooden bench where one can sit for a bit in the cold mist and enjoy the lack of view, and Javier graciously tore three placemat sized leaves off a nearby tree to protect our butts from the wet bench. This gesture, though gallant, seemed curiously ineffective since the leaves were at least as wet as the bench and our shorts, underwear, and the butts in question had already been considerably wet for at least two hours. We ate wet sandwiches and wet granola bars, drank some wet water, and started the ascent back to the summit and the trail back down.
The trip down was even more treacherous than the trip up on account of an increase in mud output, and treacherous paths are often more difficult and cumbersome to descend than ascend. (Ever tried walking down a steep, muddy river on a slippery, steep incline? FYI, it’s tricky!) We also now had to contend with the fact that we got a relatively late start because instead of the recommended early morning start from the base we first had to get to the island and find a guide, as a result darkness was starting to fall and we had to beat the sunset as this trail would not be fun when the light gave out. A couple of hours later and just at sunset we emerged from the trail, but the adventure wasn’t finished.
The hiking portion of the trip was indeed strenuous and the second most difficult hike I’ve experienced. This is subjective based on your level of experience of course, and I’ve never hiked in a cloud or rain forest before. The most difficult hike I’d attempted previously was descending to the floor of the Grand Canyon and returning up to the South Rim in one day. Nothing else I’ve experienced, including hiking in the Colorado Rockies, Alaskan interior, Swiss Alps, and various desert parks in the American southwest, was as tricky as Maderas in the rainy season.
Harrington dropped us at the nearby Hotel Finca Santo Domingo (http://www.hotelfincasantodomingo.com/), a simple but cozy place located on the isthmus connecting the two volcanoes, on the beach at Playa Santa Domingo. We arrived with just enough time to order dinner in the hotel dining terrace, where we were the only diners. The portions were as huge as the prices were cheap, that is to say, very. We started with plantains fried with a slice of queso blanco and a dash of hot sauce, had bowls of chicken soup and a crazy gigantic fish soup which contained an entire fish (complete with head and tail!), and moved on to chicken skewers and John somehow ate two more entire steamed fish which came wrapped in foil, followed by an ice cream sundae.
That night a big storm swept in driving wind and rain that hammered the trees and the walls of the hotel. It also made for a perfect soundtrack for two tired hikers to crash out to. Sleeping soundly was not an issue. However, the next morning we learned the torrential rains were the forerunner of Tropical Storm Alma, which was apparently turning out to be the first hurricane of the season. We had a few hours of calm weather in which Harrington returned to show us a couple sites on the island before we boarded the morning ferry. We saw the beautiful Ojo de Agua, a series of bright blue-green pools fed by natural springs. Like most sites on the island it costs a couple US dollars to see, and seemed like a fun place to spend the day when a hurricane isn’t on its way. It was really very beautiful and it was here I got my first wasp sting. As my hand stiffened up Harrington told me about being attacked by a small swarm of them when he was a kid and what his face looked like when they were done.
We drove on to the base of Concepción where we visited Laguna El Charco Verde (http://www.charcoverde.com.ni/ingles/start.htm), a green lagoon on an ecological reserve complete with a small hotel and restaurant. Harrington was explaining the mystical significance of the lagoon and how the hotel’s founder communed directly with the spirit of the wizard who lived beneath its waters, but I missed a lot of the details because at that moment my Blackberry perhaps mystically popped back in range of a mobile signal and I started getting alarming messages from our friends back on the mainland.
It seemed the Hurricane Alma (yes, she was now a hurricane) was to land up the nearby Pacific coast accompanied by severe storms. Our friends were already caught in it back in San Juan del Sur and were trapped in the house; the roads on the mainland had partly washed away and our driver wouldn’t be able to pick us up from the ferry terminal in San Jorge until the roads were restored. Harrington called a friend of his on the mainland who confirmed all this, and added that nearby villagers were being sent to storm shelters. We returned to Moyogalpa, the port town in the shadow of Concepcion Volcano, to learn that the ferries back to the mainland weren’t running, and the weather started looking ugly.
Realization sunk in that we were trapped on the island’s active volcano for at least another night, and a quick inventory revealed that we had 20 dollars, no spare clothes, and nothing to pass the time. We showed up the day before with the intention of hiking and spending the night, bringing only a second shirt and pair of underwear. The intense mud, sweat, and rain from the hike soaked everything we had including the clean clothes, so we were already wearing damp clothes and had thrown out the more unrecoverable material from the previous day’s activities.
With no other recourse, we whipped out a credit card we checked in to Moyogalpa’s Hotel Ometepetl, located just up the street from the ferry landing. Fortunately the island’s first ATM had just opened up the street (all the guide books and web sites still say there’s no ATM on the island though this is no longer true) so we picked up some cash and prepared for a stay of undetermined length. We picked up a few things at a little clothing shop in the village, bought some water and snacks at a little grocery store, then stopped at an American hostel that sold used books in English. Armed with a pair of novels and dry underwear we settled in at Ometepetl’s bar/restaurant terrace for the day, while the torrential rains slammed against the solid tin roof. The rains created a four-inch deep river of water that flooded the village streets, preventing us from leaving the hotel. We spent the day drinking on the hotel’s covered terrace and reading novels (the 1980’s crime potboiler Gorky Park, in case you want to know, and it was quite good; John read James Baldwin’s queer classic, Giovanni’s Room; yes, we might have been stranded on a island in a lake in Nicaragua, but there was still some lavender lit to be found). It felt like an exotic vacation scene out of an early twentieth century novel.
Our stay at Ometepetl was interesting. Our hiking clothes, which were strewn about our little dank hotel room, wouldn’t dry in the damp air lending the room a strong musky odor. Strangely, our shower floor was covered with a pool of mud and all the coaxing in the world couldn’t get the hotel staff to remove it. The bar had a curious shortage of mixers; after attempting to order a vodka and club soda, vodka and seltzer, vodka and tonic, and vodka and lemonade, I finally settled on vodka and orange Fanta which actually wasn’t all that bad. In fact, being trapped in an uncontrollable situation with nothing to do made me appreciate why people run away to the tropics.
That night the rain let up enough for us to wander out and try the Restaurante Los Ranchitos (http://www.losranchitos.com.ni/history.htm). We sat under their huge thatched hut and drank crazy frozen drinks and had really good food as my boyfriend back home in New York emailed me national weather service reports indicating that the storm had hit the northwestern coast of Nicaragua, which meant the worst was over in our location and depending on the roads we could leave the next morning.
And yes, at about 7am the next morning we were able to climb aboard the colorful wooden ferry (think of Bogart’s African Queen), as the brilliant morning sun blazed in the sky (Hurricane? What hurricane?) Frankly, we probably lucked out as the storm or its residual damage could have trapped us much longer. And after hearing our friends’ stories about going stir crazy trapped in the house in San Juan del Sur I realized we may well have had the better end of the deal. Although we had nothing on us and weren’t the least bit prepared, there’s no substitute for having all your options removed and being forced to do nothing and relax for 24 hours. Even if it’s on the base of an active volcano in the wake of a hurricane.