Can I interest you in a beer? How about a volcano?

When you go to Italy you really should eat some pasta. When you go to Japan you really should visit a temple. When you come to Nicaragua, you really should climb a volcano.

My volcano is called Volcan Maderas on the southern half of Isla de Ometepe, the large pile of gorgeous sitting in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, located, conveniently enough, directly behind the farm/hostel where I’m staying.

So yesterday I got up at 6:00, washed my shirt and shorts at 6:30, ate breakfast at 7:00 of rice and beans (mixed they are called “gallo pinto” and are the staple Nicarguan food) with a scrambled egg and handmade corn tortillas, to be ready to follow the guide up the mountain at 7:30.

His name was Levis, a calm and quiet young man whose house will be finished in one week, he is looking forward to having his own place instead of living with his girlfriend’s parents.

With us were Stefan, from Paris, who looked like either a computer programmer or a hit man; Karen, from New York, my new friend who came out with me from the rural town of Las Salinas where I taught a couple English classes; and Boris, from the Yukon, who has a bodybuilder physique, to the point that I suspect his abdominal muscles could throw a better punch than I could.

We started walking up a steady slope between fields of coffee and coconuts. The dry season heat was already fairly brutal, promising more, there was not a breath of wind, and the humidity was at least 100%. 200%? Is that underwater? Then 198%.

Burly Boris, no problem.

The sweat was soon dripping off of all of us, including Levis, which made me feel much better. No drier, but better.

The first part of the walk has rough steps, which we climbed steadily for the first hour. Imagine an hour on the stairmaster, but in a sauna. Did you bring enough water? Not unless there’s a packhorse behind you.

We ascended above the stair-builders’ reach, which was good. Stairs all the way to the top = child’s play. I wanted more of a challenge. Silly, silly me.

Note Stefan’s sweat, while Karen may be
having a breakdown.

The terrain got rougher, the slope steeper, the sweat drips steadier. We took a welcome break. Continued. Steeper, rougher. I have seen waterfalls with less flow than my upper lip. I was nice and shiny. The shirt barely made it out the gate, and spent the rest of the day draped over my shoulder under the strap of my messenger bag. At pauses I would wring it out. And I am not stretching the meaning of the word “wring.”

After a good long walk we rested again, feeling proud of ourselves, and Levis told us we were at about 700 meters above the lake. The peak? 1400. We were halfway. Shit. Then I asked how high our starting point was. About 115. Less than halfway. Shit and shit.

The way got rougher, our party straggled apart, and I would find myself walking alone through the jungle, on the side of a volcano, along a path that was really just a watercourse carved out during the long rainy season, narrow ankle-breaking loose stones.

Getting harder.

We climbed into the clouds, which brought the temperature down a tad (don’t overestimate the meaning of the word “tad”), though the limited sunlight meant the mud never really dries. I can’t imagine doing this hike during the rainy season. My Teva’s were soon mud-slicked inside, until I was basically ice skating with each step.

Advice note: don’t wear Teva’s when climbing a muddy volcano.

Actually, one surprise of the walk was that all of my beloved gear became my enemies. The sandals were trying to kill me. One of my best purchases ever was my Timbuktu messenger bag, which is normally ideal for allowing quick access and return to my camera, but it swung always in the way, smacking into every tree, rock, and howler monkey on the volcano.

Even my trusty blue linen shortsleeve shirt, which I’ve worn most of the days down here (and washed first thing most of the mornings) was falling off my shoulder, inevitably into a mud puddle, and generally making a nuisance of itself. When Karen asked how I was doing at one point, I could only get out past gritted teeth “I hate my possessions.”

The cicadas were unbelievably loud.

But the jungle and hike were beautiful. Cicadas louder than car alarms, with brilliant irridescent colors, butterflies the size of birds, howler monkeys grunting in the valley bellow, giant fuzzy caterpillars whose hairs will mess your skin right up if you brush them. Levis was an incredibly intelligent guide, and even offered to switch shoes with me on the way down, although my masculine pride (i.e. stupidity) meant there was no way I was going to accept less than finishing what (and how) I started.

If it’s on you: ok. You touch it: problem.

We eventually made it to the top, and Levis indicated a tree I could climb. I went as high as seemed safe. “You can go farther.” I went farther. “No, farther, the branches are very strong.” Farther. I pushed past some leaves and found myself looking down on the island from above the canopy.

I took a picture, which I’ll upload when I get a better connection, though it doesn’t come close to representing that feeling of popping one’s head up above the canopy, on top of a volcano. Quite a feeling.

We continued down into the crater, which houses a lake reknowned for its surprisingly cold water. Oh, and someone mentioned something about mud I think.

I came out of the jungle, dropped my bag and shirt and flung off my would-be assassin sandals, and headed for the water. First step sank a few inches into sikly silty mud. Liquid dust. Next step sank farther.

Boris on the left, Karen in the middle, both in shock.
Levis the guide, all in a day’s work.

Within a few steps I was up to my hips in mud. Another interesting sensation. I reassured myself that there are no water snakes here (although we did see a poisonous coral snake on the way back down) and went for it. Slogging. Slogging.

Some helpful Canadians (is there any other kind?) yelled from shore that the only way to do it was to go horizontal and swim. I slid down, and was soon paddling into the lake. Way out in the middle I reached my hand down to see…it was about two feet deep.

I would say you could walk across the lake, but you wouldn’t be able to, the mud is much too deep for that. It was an odd feeling to be able to touch the bottom but suspect I could drown anyway. Now that would be a gnarly way to go.

In case you thought I was making it all up.

A quick snack lunch on the chicken sandwich I carried up from the farm, then the long descent, which felt brutal, but actually went faster, especially when chatting with Levis. All told it was just over seven hours of hiking, and I have rarely felt more tired in my life.

We got back to the farm in the pleasant warmth of afternoon, covered in mud and trying not to limp, and a cold beer has never tasted so good.

I sit here now, the next day, with a light sunburn on my shoulders and an achy knee, and plan on going beyond beer to drink every cold beverage the kitchen can produce. Next stop: banana milkshake thing.

Cheers.