Day 85 – Volcanoes, Four Ways (Parts I and II)

After an aborted trip to the southeastern tip of Nicaragua (due to a bridge which appeared on the map but not on the river we had hoped to cross), the next stop on our Grand Tour was Ometepe, an island in Lake Nicaragua formed by two majestic volcanoes.

Active as recently as 2012, Concepción (on the left) is the aggressive elder sibling, peaking at 1610m, while Las Maderas, its deceptively cute little sister, reaches a mere 1394m, still a good 50m higher than anything in the UK. Topped by cloudy toupées they are imposing yet serene from a distance, and increasingly ominous the closer you get.

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We made our way to the island by crossing Lake Nicaragua on a small ferry, grateful for an uneventful journey as they handed out life jackets in anticipation of a rough crossing.

We navigated straight for the southern tip of Ometepe in our trusty steed, the affectionately named ‘Suzi,’ a tiny Suzuki Alto with the power of a mid-sized lawnmower. Suzi is the kind of car you’d buy for your partially-sighted grandmother, for damage limitation purposes, and was ill-suited for Ometepe’s steep gradients, potholes, ‘puddles’ of unknown depth and scattered rocks of the jagged, puncture-causing variety.

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Having already lost one wheel to Nicaragua’s roads we were extra cautious, sputtering along just above walking pace, but made it safely to Finca La Magia, our home for the next two nights.

Part I – The Bottom of a Volcano 

I’ve got a lot of good things to say about the bottom of (inactive) volcanoes. At an altitude of 50m, Finca La Magia is a secluded, verdant rural retreat, positioned on the lower slopes of Las Maderas which looms in the background. Taking the large thatched pagoda-cottage-hut for around $10 a night each we were glad to be off the beaten track as we tucked into a healthy, home-grown dinner.

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It was at this dinner that we met Anna, a diminutive Spanish traveller from the rural outskirts of Barcelona, who suggested that we join her on a trek up the volcano the following day. She had hired a guide, which would be cheaper if shared among four people – simples. We warmed to Anna and enthusiastically signed up.

From our brief conversation with Anna I got the impression that we were going on a 4 hour hike (2 hours each way) for a swim in a beautiful freshwater laguna on the volcano. While some of those words (such as ‘volcano’ and ‘hike’) were accurate, the sentence as a whole bears very little resemblance to what ensued.

It would be easy to blame our misinformation on the language barrier, but really it was our complete lack of research or questioning that got us into the subsequent mess.

 Did we stop to ask Anna why the walk was due to start at 5am? Nope.

– People leave early to give themselves time to complete the 10 hour round trip before dusk

Did we check any reviews? Noooo.

– It recently became illegal to climb the volcanoes without a guide due to ‘too many deaths’ 

Did we ask about suitable footwear? Another no.

– I wore my Gump-branded Nike Flyknits, barely suitable for a brisk walk into town let alone a 1400m volcano ascent

Did we pack sufficient sustenance for a hike of this nature? Of course not.

– We each took a single cheese sandwich and a litre of water 

Part II – Climbing a Volcano

Negotiating the 5am start back to a leisurely 7.30, we departed at around 8am, still not realising that we had a whole day of trekking ahead.

We met our guide, who spoke no English and potentially no Spanish as he spared the pleasantries and started walking. Puffing on a cigarette he had the distinct air of not giving a shit, which soon proved to be an accurate description of his approach to guiding. Not knowing his actual name we christened him the Little **** as he blazed up the volcano with no discernible interest in our location or well-being.

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The hike started at a blistering pace as we left another group far in our wake. The Little **** and Anna (who turned out to be a mountain goat, not a human) almost ran up the path, closely followed by Jolie (a half-human, half-goat creature, think Mrs Tumnus), with Andy and me trying to look composed as we struggled to keep up.

The Little **** paused occasionally but would get going as soon as we caught him, meaning there were very few rest breaks in our ascent. Having set off late we knew we were behind schedule, but this pace was ridiculous and surely unsustainable. Apparently not. This view from half an hour in was approximately where my enjoyment of the day ended.

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As the sweat poured off us and our breathing grew louder, Andy and I exchanged bewildered glances as, one hour into our hike, we were knackered, the climb was getting steeper and the pace was not relenting.

We decided to ask how much further there was to go.

It was apparently another 3 hours to the top, and the terrain was about to get a lot more challenging. This was a very disappointing answer for at least 2 members of the group, who had expected to be at least half way to the crystal clear blue laguna by now, soon to be tucking into a cheese sarnie and turning around for the gravity-assisted journey home.

This precipitated our first discussion regarding ‘expectations management.’ Had we expected a 4 hour sprint up a volcano we might have been pleased with our progress thus far. To be told at this stage that we were effectively about a quarter of the way up felt like a punch in the stomach.

As we finally entered the cloud cover at the upper reaches of Las Maderas the temperature dropped, visibility reduced and our hike became a climb. With the Little **** far in the distance and the path barely perceptible we did our best to keep moving in the right direction as we climbed between fallen trees and crossed exposed ledges.

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Things got properly sketchy as we approached a 5m vertical cliff which could only be ascended by rope. With the increasingly treacherous conditions we were all a bit nervous (Little **** and mountain goat aside), as the reward for slipping on a muddy ledge or letting go of that rope was quite likely to be death, with steep precipices greeting us on every side.

By this stage my Nike Flyknits were covered in mud and utterly useless, meaning I had to adopt a Gollum-inspired climbing technique, trying to keep as many points of contact with the floor as possible.

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We finally made it to the summit, with exquisite views of about 10 metres in every direction. As a special reward for our efforts the Little **** told us it was another hour’s hike if we wanted to see the laguna. Ummm what?

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The mountain goat frolicked with glee at the prospect of another two hours of fun, Mrs Tumnus pulled a sympathetic but unconvincing frown, while Andy and I did our best to facially describe how we felt about the day so far.

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We’d eaten most of our sandwiches by this stage and drunk most of our water. In another example of the disparity between expectations and reality we asked the Little **** whether the water in the laguna was drinkable. He chuckled and shook his head.

Descending one final rock face we expected a breathtaking, clear laguna, the pinnacle of the journey and the reason we were all there, but were instead met by a shallow, muddy bog. Gallows humour prevailed as we waded into the deep mud, gave ourselves volcanic face masks and emerged like sexycute monsters of the deep.

P1000115We met another group at the lake who looked relatively unfit but strangely composed. They were not covered in mud and none of them were about to break into tears. Talking to them, we discovered there was an ‘easier way’ and a ‘harder way’ up the volcano: we had taken the latter.

After a day in which the goalposts had been repeatedly moved further away, Andy and I saw this for what it was – our one shot at redemption. Negotiations started immediately.

Looking to me for support, Andy suggested to the Little **** that he and I follow the other group’s guide down the easier route, leaving the goat-humans to go down the hard way. The Little **** warned us that we would have to pay the second guide an additional fee, at which point my fight or flight reflex kicked in and suddenly I spoke decent Spanish, successfully explaining “Venderiá mi abuela para tomar la ruta fácil” that I would sell my grandmother to avoid taking the hard route back down (sorry Nanna, I knew it wouldn’t come to that).

We decided not to split the group; Mrs Tumnus required a little arm twisting and the Spanish mountain goat was visibly disappointed but the Little **** acquiesced and we took the easier route back down.

The easier route soon turned out to be a misnomer, at least for me as I slipped and stumbled down, grabbing onto whatever sturdy looking vines, branches and roots I could find to reduce the load on my trainers, which were now soaked through and functioning like muddy ice skates.

I took a couple of sharp branches to the face, fell over too many times to count and at one point straddled a tree with one leg either side, barely preserving the Jones family jewels.

We finally made it down to the lower, flatter slopes of the volcano, and saw some beautiful nature along the way, such as this smiley faced butterfly, and some enormous trees.

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At the bottom of the mountain, Mrs Tumnus changed back to Jolie and proclaimed, non-sarcastically “that was fun, wasn’t it?” When Andy and I looked at her in horror replying “no” she relented with “yeah but do you feel a sense of achievement?” At that point, no not really – we were just delighted that it was over.

Looking back on this it is pretty cool to think that we climbed a volcano, higher than anything in the UK, despite being completely unprepared and ill-equipped for the task. Every time we see Las Maderas in the distance I feel a reluctant but tangible sense of achievement. But did I enjoy it? Absolutely not!


Next stop: Volcanoes, Four Ways (Parts III and IV)

What is The Gump Method

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