A grueling climb to the top of the Maderas Volcano on Isla de Ometepe
I love to hike – especially a challenging one. When the opportunity arose to hike to the top of a volcano, I jumped at the chance. It would be a new experience for me. I was on Isla de Ometepe, an island on Lake Nicaragua. In all honesty, I thought it would be a good hike and take about 4 to 5 hours. I did not anticipate the rigors of this hike. The pressure was set when our hiking guide told the three of us “either we all make it to the top or none of us do”. We were taking a different route on the descent than the one going up – meaning any stragglers could not be picked up on the way down. I’m usually up for a challenge and today was no different.
The day started about 8 am when the guide, and his driver, picked me, and a couple of Norwegian ladies, up at the Xalli Ometepe Beach Hotel. Within a few minutes we were heading down the main, paved road on the island and then turning onto an unpaved one. We passed small homes made of wood with thatched roofs. Slowly, we pulled to a stop at the base of the Maderas Volcano – one of two on the island. This was the extinct one.
Being on an island, we started off just about at sea level. The top of Maderas was 4,300 feet. Our guide told us it would take about 4 hours to get to the top and then another 4 to return ending at a different location on the island. Because the trail was not clearly defined in places and due to the extensive amount of foliage on the mountain, everyone had to stay together. We all make it to the top or none of us do. I found out later that many people don’t make it to the top because you have to get there by a certain time in order to get down off the mountain before it gets dark. You guessed it. There are no lights on the trail. The Norwegians are each 28 and our guide is 34. I’m 64. “One foot in front of the other” is my motto. Take it one step at a time and you’ll get to your destination.
I used the time on my phone to gauge our progress up the mountain. Since he’s been here so many times, I figured our guide would keep us on a four-hour timeline to ascend the volcano. He was right about one thing. There are so many trees, bushes and plants that it’s hard to get many views of the island and the lake.
The lower part of the trail suckered us into a false belief – this was not going to be so bad. I think it was just giving us a chance to build our confidence. The trail, dirt with periodic steps made from railroad ties, was gradual in the beginning. It helped loosen my leg muscles and got my breathing going. We were making good time. Periodically, we stopped to get a lesson about the local nature and wildlife. We spotted a monkey cutting across the tree branches above us at one point.
An hour into the hike, I realized that my shorts and short-sleeve shirt were ringing wet. I felt like I had fallen into a swimming pool with my clothes on. The heat and humidity, on the lower part of the mountain was somewhat stifling. It didn’t bother me too much. I’ve been in hot and humid destinations many times in my travels and felt somewhat used to it.
At an hour and a half, we stopped at an opening in the tree line and got an amazing view of the island and the lake. It was beautiful. These are the things that I look forward to on a hike.
As we got higher on the mountain, the trail became more challenging – narrower, more rocks and tree roots made the footing a little more tenuous. But the biggest issue was the mud. At times, I sank into it to the top of my shoelaces. Other times, the clay-like surface was very slippery. I didn’t have hiking poles so I used the trees and branches to steady myself at times - especially on the descent. The guide offered me one of the two natural wood sticks that he had. It didn’t help probably because I wasn’t used to hiking with them. Upward we continued.
We were about 2 ½ to 3 hours into the hike when I could feel my leg muscles starting to strain – probably cramping from the heat and humidity. There was no thought of quitting. I had two bottles of water that lasted me til the top. That was not enough. The girls brought quite a bit and shared theirs with me on the descent. They were really a good group to hike with. They, and the guide, set a good pace. I followed along – one foot in front of the other - climbing over rocks and tree branches that covered the trail.
A little before the four-hour mark, we crested the top. You couldn't see anything except for the surrounding trees and bushes. My quads were burning by now. It was downhill to the lagoon in the crater. I knew a downhill meant a return uphill to where we were. I passed on anymore uphill and waited for the three to return from the crater in about 30 minutes. During this time, I tried to keep my legs loose – standing and shaking them and sitting and stretching them. I didn’t want them to fully cramp up.
As we took photos at the top, the girls were amazed to find out that I was in my 60s. They were pretty impressed with my tenaciousness.
As we started back down, we soon moved onto a different trail from the one we came up on. I can see what the guide meant about not leaving anyone behind. If you were by yourself, you could have some real issues especially if you didn’t get off the mountain before dark. There were a number of small groups on the trail – even a few solo hikers, which I didn’t think was a good idea. I would not have been comfortable doing that. The guide and our driver were not that expensive. Split three ways among me and the Norwegians, the guide and driver together cost each of us just $15 to $20. What a knowledgeable and fun guide - well worth the cost.
The descent had its own issues. The footing was very challenging – the rocks, tree roots and the mud combined to make an uneven and slippery surface. With my balance not being what it used to be, I slipped and fell on my ass about 10 to 12 times on the way down. I was very fortunate that I didn’t break a bone. Even the girls and the guide fell once or twice. I definitely won the award for Most Falls.
Besides the slipperiness, my quads hurt with each step downhill. The muscles were sore and tired. I was pretty muddy by this time. Normally, you make better time going downhill than uphill; however, I think the footing slowed us way down – not to mention the time to curse and get off my ass every time I slipped.
I was relieved to get to the lower part of the mountain where the incline lessened and the footing was more solid. At about the 8-hour mark, we came to a small parking area where we waited for our driver to pick us up. I wonder what he did today – take a nap maybe. Haha. Not for me today. I was busy conquering a mountain!!!
Having made it to the top and getting back down in the 8-hour timeframe, I was pretty pumped. The girls were ecstatic and we enjoyed a few drinks (a Coke and some water) together before heading back. I felt a big sense of accomplishment. I completed something that many people, regardless of their age, could not finish. These are the times that make me feel that I’m doing ok at my age.