I liked Ometepe the minute I arrived.
And I’m loving it more and more each moment!
I don’t even know where to begin! Adventures on horseback? Magical and rejuvenating pools, or climbing the beast itself: Concepción?
I will start by mentioning that the southern half of Ometepe is quieter, less expensive, less developed, and, in my opinion, the best place to situate yourself for all that Ometepe has to offer.
On moving from Moyogalpa, we dropped our gear at Little Morgan’s and walked to Santa Cruz. There we rented bicycles and rode to Ojo de Agua, the aquatic gem of Ometepe.
Located in the valley between the two volcanos, The Eye of the Water derives its name from several dozen springs which have been piped into one central concrete swimming hole. Although it’s a bit artificial around the edges, on a scale from 1-10 of awesomeness, this deliciously cool swimming hole rates high.
The water is perfectly clear and clean with a deeper section and a rope swing situated at one end. Loads of locals and tourists alike flock to the pool to soak up sun, cool off in the water, and enjoy coconut water straight from…well..the coconut of course! What’s not to love?!
We took our turns on the swing, and, as you’ll see below, it wasn’t just us having a blast staying cool.
Late in the afternoon, the sky clouded over, so we picked our way back through the muddy field to our bicycles and dried our hair and clothes on the ride home.
We stayed just one night in Little Morgan’s. This party hostel has its charms, especially on a Saturday night, when these two
S omewhat Calmed Down Old Fogies Down-For-Anything-Thrifty-Drifters were willing to stay in a dorm and enjoy a few cold Toñas with some new friends while playing Pit.
We subsequently watched a candy and cigarette filled piñata get beaten to death with a crutch, (with a few onlookers nearly loosing their heads as well) and witnessed a few
stoned-out-of-their-heads slightly inebriated guys pull ticks off the resident dog and, after taping them onto some home-made Nicaraguan fireworks, let ’em fly.
It was a fun night. Loud. Raucous. Silly. Needless to say, we couldn’t keep up with the more seasoned residents of this guest house and were the first to crawl up into our double dorm bed. If we weren’t already sober, this guy sobered us up instantly. He made his presence known just as we were brushing our teeth.
The next morning we walked 5 minutes up the road and checked into Hostel Santa Cruz ($12/night-private room with shared bathroom). Situated high on a hill, it offers a wonderful view of Concepción and Lake Nicaragua. A large communal area under a huge thatched roof features 6 large tables – works of art in themselves – being hewn from fabulously old large trees. Complete with bar and restaurant and TV that’s always on silent and almost always shows Animal Planet, everything from quiet relaxation flute music to Nicaraguan rap is piped in. A few hammocks, a lavish garden, and plenty of palms sway in the breeze. To boot, there are about a dozen chickens that are constantly under your feet, pecking away at specks so small you’d swear they were mad.
This is our view. The building in the foreground is our room. Yeah, I know. Que Bufalo!*
Adam had some work to do on Sunday, and I was keen to ride a horse. At $6 an hour, and with so many riding opportunities (beach, mountain, countryside), I couldn’t wait to get started. I also want to mention this: on the mainland, as is the case in many developing countries, there is a fair share of skinny, sickly-looking horses. But here in Ometepe, although you will see the occasional thin horse, most are pretty good-looking.
While Adam spent the morning working, I joined two Austrians and two Germans for a group tour on horseback. Our guide, a leather-faced man with a kind smile, asked if I had experience riding horses and I said that I had a little. He put me on the biggest horse, who, although totally obedient, loved to trot at the very least. If I gave him the least bit of slack in the reigns, he would take off – at a gallop if we reached a field!
I loved this feisty horse! Sure, he liked to move at a clip, but he responded immediately to command and didn’t try to take my leg off on a fence post or barbed wire (which was nice).
Our guide took us deep into the countryside. We crossed farms growing rice and vegetables. We passed hulking mother pigs with a half-dozen piglets sucking like mad at their teats, saw chickens roaming everywhere with their chicks in tow, and saw big beautiful cows – white ones and splotchy brown ones. Soon we were crossing open pastureland, which rose slowly to the foot of Maderas Volcano.
My horse insisted on being in the lead. If another person’s horse got ahead, my horse would tailgate until the trail widened enough to pass, and when it did, he passed without asking permission from me, though he would refrain with snort if I denied him.
The land grew steeper and rockier and thick jungle began to close in on us. The deeply unnerving hoarse roar of the howler monkey, more much like a hungry tyrannosaurus rex than a harmless cuddly-looking humanoid, echoed though the dark, wet, dense forest around us. The creatures themselves remained elusive, their disembodied howls echoing off the walls of the mountain.
The path grew steep, and my lovely steed took great pains to navigate the rocky terrain and keep himself and me upright and safely in the saddle. We leveled out in an expansive field of low lying foliage and boulders, and we left our horses tied to trees as we made the last climb on foot.
In about ten minutes, we reached our destination: a lookout point just beneath the cloudline where we could see the island of Ometepe below us, its shorelines straddled by Lake Nicaragua. It was cloudy, so Concepción, impossibly huge, disappeared into the clouds. Why, at that point, did I have it in my mind to climb this mother of volcanos?
Note in the photo above the dog that followed us from Hotel Santa Cruz to the lookout point. A second one joined us halfway. Two dogs taking themselves for walks. Hey, why not? Also, the photo at the top of this blog is a panorama from this vantage point.
We sucked down some water and enjoyed the view for several minutes before descending and mounting our steeds for the return ride. I galloped, more comfortably now, through each field we passed, and doubled back to the rest of the group time and again. A few of the horses they rode were lazy and slow. One, aptly named Tortuga, is the one I’m trying to get Adam to ride with me to the beach in the coming days. He’s not really into it.
I returned galloping onto the terrace at the hotel, hoping Adam was there to witness my triumphant arrival. He wasn’t. He was napping. So I gave my horse a nice scratch between the ears and whispered sweet nothings to him before heading in to tell Adam all about my great equine adventure!
So the following day, although I sort of wanted to ride my horse all day up and down the beach, Adam prevailed upon me (without much resistance) that it would be super awesome if we climbed Concepción, the island’s most formidable peak.
Sure, why not?
So we set our alarm for 4:15 and were up before the sun. I walked to the shared bathroom that morning, peering up at the stars that were winking in the predawn light. The air was fresh, and I felt wonderful – glad to be awake during the quiet, majestic stillness of the morning gloam.
We each carried four liters of water plus two sandwiches, Oreos, snack cakes, and a tube of Pringles between us. We met a group of four English backpackers and two Nicaraguan guides just outside the entrance to Little Morgan’s and took the 5:30am bus to the trailhead just outside Altagracia.
It soon became clear that the English kids were going to head towards the summit at a pace that on the long-gone game Oregon Trail would have been called “strenuous” and would have resulted in collapsed and expiring oxen and members of your party dead from exhaustion.
Luckily for us, our super awesome guide, Alexis, brought along a friend – an up-and-coming guide-to-be who had already summited fifteen times. He and the Brits were gone, and the other two were left with me, plodding along at the speed of snail as the degree of the trail became ever steeper.
We passed brilliant blue butterflies fluttering their jewel-toned wings in the shade of early morning light. Banana fields came and went along with a few cattle and some horses chewing on dew-covered grass. A difficult hike was how it began, and it only got more impossibly inconceivably hard after that.
We were soon in a boulder field – rocks as sharp as sabers – gaining altitude more ruthlessly than your personal trainer hell bent on killing you with a stair-stepper. Our jungle-like surroundings (with the ever present ominous call of howler monkeys) gave way to low dense (but still tropical) bushes. My lungs balked at the strain. No breaks. No flat portions.
You see, the Nicaraguans didn’t build this trail with switchbacks and such. Nope. They built the trail to go straight up the side of the freakin’ volcano. So up, and up, and up is all it did. You’d see a horizon above your head, and when you reached it another one appeared, looking exactly the same – punishing, brutal, relentless. I wanted to die.
And I wasn’t even halfway up.
Alexis was the best guide ever. Unlike other guides I heard about, he didn’t leave us in his dust to conquer the mountain with the gusto of conquistadors hell bent on domination of all things conquerable. Rather, he allowed me to set a slow and steady pace and told me I could take my time. I led, footstep by painful footstep, as Adam followed and Alexis took up a patient lead.
After the boulder field, we reached a rock strewn gully. We climbed straight up the boulders, occasionally reaching 6-8 foot walls which could be scaled with careful placing of the feet and hands into nooks and asking oxygen-starved muscles to haul your entire weight up while your utterly spent quads bring you back to vertical and continue up a never-ending ascent.
We stopped for a few minutes to gnaw on some snacks and drink water. Here’s me trying my very very best to smile. Really. I was trying.
We finally left the stone gully and, having long passed into the clouds, entered an alien world of low-lying green shrubbery with dainty pink blossoms. They had a name like “pink fangs” or something, and there was also sombrilla de pobre – the poor man’s umbrella.
So by now the scenery was dominated by these two plants, and the trail was so thick with them, that through the wind and the mist I probably couldn’t have found the way without our discerning guide. I used the thick hardy branches of the plants to pull me up the sheer face of the mountain.
It seemed that after a small break, which involved Oreos, the going was made easier by the shot of sugar in my blood stream. My lungs were no longer straining, but my legs cried fowl with every step.
I seriously doubted if I could make it, but I had gone too far to turn back. There was only one way down, and that was up. So up and up and up and up we went.
After clawing our way up an incline so brutal Genghis Khan would have balked, the vegetation faded to a stoney obscurity. We left behind the sharp, glass-like obsidian rock to tread, hand over hand, on bubble-filled pumice stones. Nearly losing as much traction as we could gain, we clawed our way to the top like shipwreck survivors claw their way up a beach after a long swim to shore.
The very rocks beneath our feet were hot, and the stench of acrid sulfur was undeniable. I suddenly saw a line in front of me that appeared to have no further extension. There was nothing but rotten, fetid steam past the event horizon.
“Casi ya! Casi ya!,” I cried. Almost there!
The crater was only the mouth of hell. In the whipping wind, the crater curved off to our left and right into the mist and dropped 70 or so meters straight down.
I literally sat on the side of the crater and cried. I cried because it was so hard and I thought so many times I didn’t have it in me to do it. But I did. I really did it. I put one foot in front of the other while my husband had my back encouraging me, catching me when I lost my footing, literally pushing up the steepest climbs. In that moment I shed tears of happiness at our accomplishment. And somewhere inside, the future hardships – be they childbirth or calamity – seemed like things I could endure as long as I had my husband by my side.
And as the tears mixed with the water and sweat upon my face, I found myself laughing. The relief I felt was enormous.
Necessity soon demanded I put on my long sleeved layer (It was windy and wet and cold), and we chowed down on our ham and cheese sammages.
Our guide, Alexis, sat protected from the wind in a small gully, and I soon joined him. The stones I sat on were so hot, they burned my butt! I sat on a small boulder and dug my shoes into the warm gravel while I noshed on Pringles and shook my head at the enormity of our undertaking and its breathtaking conclusion.
But we weren’t finished. Not by a long shot.
Down was not going to be any easier.
After 20 minutes of each step jarring the ankles, knees, and hips, I came to a realization that I had three more hours of bone-breaking downhill hell to endure. Losing a few feet per step meant that I had to use my hands to ease me down, placing them on sharp rocks and cutting into my thumbs and palms. And when I lost my footing, not once but several times, I used my hands to stop falling hard on my bottom, so that soon my right hand was lacerated and bleeding and to add insult to injury, would be embedded with stones and covered in dirt for the next five hours.
But no adventure of this kind is complete without a little sweat, tears and blood, so I continued on, placing each foot as carefully as I could as I descended the wind-swept upper altitudes for the now sweltering lower climes.
The vegetation returned, the mosquitos pursued us with rabid intensity, and all the while Adam chattered on with our guide in Spanish. Each step battered the feet and occasionally a particularly difficult footfall meant a foot caught between two sharp rocks. Grimaces and sheer determination were all we had to sustain us on that wicked downhill gradient.
We descended the gully, the boulder field, and although it seemed we never would reach sea level, we finally put our feet down on flat ground and the most suprising thing happened.
We went bandylegged.
Our legs felt like they didn’t know what to do on flat ground. Our knees thought they would bend backward. We walked like puppets on strings. But in the sunlit heat of flat ground, our sore feet and aching muscles and the knowledge that we did what we did we felt euphoric. We had long ago begun fantasizing about showers, a cold beer, a hot meal, and a snuggle. But now it was only a bus ride away.
We had to wait nearly an hour for the bus to arrive and we rode it back and did all the things we wanted to. And at the ripe old hour of 7:30 pm we passed out like spent puppies.
Would I do it again? Hell no! Would I have done it in retrospect? Hell yes! It was worth it!
We contacted our tour guide, Alexis, through Little Morgan’s, and he charged $15/person, which was the lowest fare we could find on the island. We summited at 10am and were at the bottom by 2:30. Alexis has climbed Concepción 46 times as of this climb.
*Que Bufalo = local slang for “Cool!”