For those who don't know, Ometepe is an island in the middle of the largest lake in Central America, Lake Nicaragua. According to locals, this island the safest place in Nicaragua, even though there are only 6 police officers. The island itself is made up of 2 volcanos, Concepción and Maderas. Concepción is the only one of the two that is active and it’s known to cough up a bit of rocks and ash without much warning whereas Maderas is inactive and a bit smaller. Historically, Concepción has had major eruptions every 50 years... It is currently 7 years overdue. The hike is notoriously difficult, particularly since the volcano is about as tall as 3.5 Sears Towers stacked on one another. There’s only trails for part of the climb, so a local guide is required by law. One wrong step towards the top would lead to several broken bones at best, and possibly much worse.
We ended up getting to the base of the volcano early and we impatiently waited for our guide to arrive. After worrying that we had messed up, he showed up and we departed. Esé spoke very little English, so I got to practice my Spanish for 8.5 hours and surprised myself with how successful I was after having not practiced in years. The first two hours of the hike was in the tropical forest. We saw monkeys, we saw parrots, we saw random animals I’ve never seen, and boy was I sweating. Drenched, actually. It was probably 85 degrees or more and humid, so even with the shade of the trees and my rigid workout routine prior to departing on this trip, I was struggling. We started off strong, passing a couple groups ahead of us, but I eventually ended up needing more frequent breaks. After I dubbed Esé the Energizer Bunny, he nick named me Tortugita, which meant little turtle in Spanish. Fitting.
After 2 or 3 hours, we made it to the look out point. With wind blowing us over, literally knocking us down, we ate a little bit, took some photos, rested our tiring muscles, and asked our guide about the rest of the route.
He recommended that we head back down. The winds were strong, and he thought it would be too dangerous. Most guides weren’t giving people the option; just heading on the descent. Esé asked us and my brother, Bryce, wanted to so badly, so I agreed to hike another 100 meters then decide.
The terrain had become just rocks. So steep that we were on all fours, the wind lashed at us constantly. Losing my footing a few times, I’d call down to Bryce to warn him about the rocks cascading towards him. We made it to the second stopping point and we could see the top, finally. But it was still an hour or so away. An hour on dangerous rocks with winds well over 20 mph. I tried to convince my brother out of it, as everyone who had enough courage to climb to this lookout spot had the same debate and eventually turned to descend. Bryce even tried convincing me to just wait there for him (??? Wait 2 hours on the side of a volcano— no thank you.) but finally I decided that we had to go. At least try.
I knew it’d be hard, but even I underestimated it. It was brutal. The air was so thin and the rocks were getting less and less stable but more and more jagged as we went up. Some of the rocks were pretty warm, and in some of the gaps between rocks, if you placed your hand there it would burn as the heat from within the volcano warmed the rocks outside. Looking to either side, we could see huge valleys where magma had cut through the ground in the last eruption. Falling down would likely mean death. To illustrate this, Esé would gently toss a rock down and we’d listen to it roll down the jagged side, over the cliff, & several seconds later, we’d hear it thump onto the ground below and continue rolling.
We stopped near the top to put on jackets and eat another banana. We had climbed into one of the valleys to help block the wind, but it was daunting to look up and see how steep the climb ahead was. We saw only one group come down from the top; the rest of the people hadn’t even attempted. Apparently, on a good day, only 25% of hikers reach the top. On the day we went, I’d guess that number was well under 10%.
So, ever so carefully, we finished the hike. 2 minutes from the top, the wind was so vicious that I crouched down, trying to keep the volcanic rock and ash out of my eyes and mouth and cover all exposed skin as rocks pelted me with such force that I thought I’d be bleeding. I debating turning back there. Thankfully, I didn’t. In four more giant steps, I found myself with a view of a MASSIVE crater. Sulfuric gas pretty much replaced normal air though, and the winds were whipping us around, so we only had a few minutes here before we started my least favorite part: the descent.
Honestly, what can be scarier than climbing 5,200+ feet up an active volcano, scrambling over slippery, jagged rocks, and holding on for dear life when you slip? Let me tell you: going DOWN that volcano. I was pretty tired when we reached the top, but the way down was so much worse. My knees ached pretty quickly. My feet and ankles we sore within minutes from the last several hours of balancing, and my legs felt like I had already done 400 pistol squats on each side (probably because I basically had.) Bryce & I joked on the way down about how awful it was, but all joking aside I really wasn’t sure we’d make it. Twice, I lost my footing on the rocks, sending several flying out down the volcano while I slid down the side towards one of the valleys, catching myself just in time & seeing a panicked look on Esé’s face. I was bleeding in a few spots by now, but the blood was mixed with dirt and rock and the pain in my muscles overshadowed any pain on my skin. It took us two hours to get back to the trees and mud and away from those **bleep** rocks.
With over an hour left, our legs were visibly shaking. My feet had stopped lifting high enough when my mind told me to walk, so I’d continually fall a bit in the muddy forest and would use my walking stick to pull myself back up. At one point I strongly debated staying on the ground, waiting for insects to eat me alive and let me Rest In Peace on the side of this massive volcano.
Spoiler alert: we did survive. Our bodies took about a week to recover and we were both sunburnt to death, but we survived. I had shampooed 6 times that night in our freezing cold shower, but there was still a layer of volcanic rocks and dirt embedded into my scalp. That lasted about a week, too. Thankfully, the memories of that incredible hike have lasted much longer.