A slippery day on the way to the Ometepe island volcanoes

Volcán Concepción to the left and Maderas in the distance.

I panted heavily as I leaned up against a tree next to the ascending path covered in muddy rocks and roots.

A stiff wind blew across me further chilling my skin and my t-shirt that had become saturated with sweat and humidity.

Muddy trail to the Maderas volcano.

As I looked around, I marveled at how enclosed I felt, not by the dense jungle canopy and undergrowth that towered around me, but by the thick clouds that had enveloped the forest. While the plants, flowers and clay mud had vivid colors, the fog seemed to both brighten and sap these colors away.

The combination of the fog, the droplets forming on my glasses and the endorphins of the hike made the scene of the dormant Maderas volcano on Ometepe island in Nicaragua a dreamlike hue of whitish gray.

Petroglyphs found on Ometepe island.

Ometepe island is situated in Lake Nicaragua about an hour-long ferry ride from Rivas and about a four-hour ferry ride from Granada. The island is dominated by two volcanoes, the active 1,640-meter (5,400-foot) Concepción, and its older sibling, the dormant 1,370-meter (4,500-foot) Maderas.

The combination of the volcanoes with the remoteness and limited accessibility has made the island a unique destination for tourists. Adventurers come for the grueling, seven-to-10-hour hikes up the volcanoes for the reward of looking inside the mildly-active crater of Concepción.

Guide José Luis and mud-splattered author

However, Ometepe lacks the massive resorts and elegant hot springs that surround Arenal volcano (though that might change with the newly constructed runway for small planes). The island is instead dotted with small B&B’s in towns and dirt-cheap hostels in the more rural areas. Often the hostels are called fincas or “country properties” where the owners and staff seek to give guests a very rural experience, often serving food produced on site.

One such hostel, El Zopilote or “the Vulture,” houses guests in lodges in the jungle, and guests must make a 10-minute hike from the road passing through the forest and other farms in order to get to the facility. Guests also can purchase loaves of bread, eggs, vegetables, chocolate sauce and other products made on site.

Clouds embrace the trees along the route

However, guests should be prepared to fully embrace nature. The dormitory lacked screens to prevent mosquitoes, lizards and an assortment of other bugs and small critters from entering. The facility also lacks plumbing, but does have complimentary filtered water. Although it does have wireless Internet, guests must sit outside the small residence of the owner of the hotel in the jungle in order to use it.

Those tourists that are not interested in such a natural experience may prefer to stay close to bigger towns of Moyogalpa and Altagracia. However, those looking for a weekend getaway in the lap of luxury may want to skip Ometepe and visit Arenal in Costa Rica instead.

Although the island has other attractions including small museums, horseback rides, hot springs, canopy tours, pre-Columbian petroglyphs and beautiful beaches on the lake, the main attraction is still the volcanoes. Guides are a must on either volcano because numerous trails that cross one another make it easy for tourists to get lost.

Most hotels, regardless of how expensive they are, can arrange guides with only a night’s notice. The guides can accompany tourists up either of the volcanoes. These guides usually cost about $20 per person for the day (all tours are cheaper per person with more people), but they are usually locals who do not speak English. These guides experience the flora and fauna by living on the island, but they are not trained tour guides and they may not be able to answer all questions that the tour may yield. The tour companies in towns that line the main street in Moyogalpa are able to offer more comprehensive tours in English, but usually at a higher price.

Both volcanoes are a very different experience. While Concepción is rocky and lacks any vegetation on it after a certain point, Maderas, which means “wooded” in Spanish, is completely covered in thick woods and undergrowth.

Normally tourists can hike up both volcanoes, or at least to the tip of the crater on Concepción, but officials have closed the volcano above 1,000 meters as a result of the recent earthquakes in Costa Rica and the eruption of the San Cristobal volcano further north in Nicaragua.

As I started the hike early one September morning with my guide, who preferred to be called José Luis, I saw why this was the slow season and not the best time to hike up the volcano. The volcano looked imposingly large from the foot, but the upper-third of the volcano was covered in a thick blanket of clouds. Since it is now the dry season, these cloudy days are less frequent.

However, we hiked on anyway, passing farms where my guide cut mangos off of trees as snacks for later.

Within minutes of entering the forest, and ascending the volcano itself, I was breathing heavily and urging myself to make every step forward.

Meanwhile, the soil became wetter and wetter as we ascended, and sometimes the path had carved a small canyon into the clay soil and a stream flowed down the slick rocks and roots. In other places, the path was so waterlogged that mud would swallow my entire foot when I stepped down.

“It’s muddy,” said my guide coolly after he looked back and saw my foot completely submerged.

As I calculated each and every step still slipping dozens of times in my trail-running shoes, my guide coolly and elegantly took each step with quick but graceful provision, using the tip of his machete to keep his balance. Whenever he felt he might lose his balance, he would swiftly but gently plant his machete into a nearby tree trunk to steady himself but not cause harm to the tree.

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