Tag Archives: hiking

The Climb Up Volcan Maderas

We arrived at La Isla de Ometepe on Thursday evening on a ferry that was, let’s just say, a bit out of date. The ferry ride was a bit windy and seemed to go on forever, but was nothing compared to the boat adventure we had between the Corn Islands. We had traveled by taxi from San Juan del Sur to San Jorge with our friends Ryan and Alouette. Upon arrival in San Jorge we were quickly greeted with information and offers for tours, taxis, and hotels on Ometepe. With some difficulty, we were able to decline their offers and go have a quick lunch in peace before boarding the next ferry. While eating, we started talking to a father and son from Santa Barbara who were planning to take the next small boat to the island. Drew convinced them it would be worth it to wait the half hour for the larger ferry boat and we had increased our group to six. Bruce and Ian were interested in hiking one of the volcanoes on the island, as we were, so we all decided to look for a place to stay together so we could arrange a hike for the following morning.

The island is in Lake Nicaragua and is made up of two volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas. Concepcion is an active volcano and Maderas is inactive. Maderas is also slightly smaller than Concepcion so we had all decided to hike that one. When we arrived on the island, we hopped in a “colectivo” van, which is basically a taxi you take with a bunch of other people to make it cheaper per person. We had a total of 13 people in the van and it worked out to be $4 per person for the approximately 45 minute drive across the island. Since the 6 of us were planning the hike for the morning, we decided to check out a place we had heard about that was right at the base of the trail. After dropping off the other 7 passengers at various hotels and hostels, we made our way up a muddy dirt road to Finca Magdalena.

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A view of Ometepe from the ferry.

As we pulled up to the main building, my first thought was “this can’t be it.” In front of us was an old farm house that even from the outside looked like it was lacking in comfort and security. Drew tells me to go in first to make sure we can get a private room so I walk up the steps and find a girl who works there. I asked for a “habitacion privado” and after confirming that she had some, she proceeded to show us the shared bathroom and showers. I wasn’t thrilled about that but I figured I could deal with it for a day or two. When she showed us the rooms, I really started to have doubts. We walked down a dark, drafty hallway to a series of private rooms that were locked with padlocks and with doors that appeared to be made of nothing more than plywood. Inside each room was a simple bed with a worn mosquito net that had at least a few holes. The walls of the rooms did not meet the ceiling. No one looked terribly excited about the place but for $12 a night, no one could think of a reason to go elsewhere. Until Bruce asked if they take credit cards and the girl said, “no.” Bruce literally ran down the steps to see if Maximo, our driver, was still there. He was and we all heaved sighs of relief as we grabbed our stuff and jumped back in the van.

With the help of Maximo, TripAdvisor, and Bruce’s fluency in Spanish, we landed at Villa Paraiso, a very nice hotel, for a reasonable rate. We each had our own Cabana with private bathroom, AC, hot water, and even TV. The hotel is right on the lake and has its own restaurant and pool. The service was excellent and the place was really comfortable. After we had settled in, we all agreed that the other place made us feel like we were entering a horror movie and we were all so glad to be at Villa Paraiso. Before he left, we arranged for Maximo to pick us up at 6:00 AM, along with a guide, for our hike up Volcan Maderas.

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Ryan hanging out in front of Villa Paraiso.

After a comfortable night under the cool air of the AC, we awoke shortly after 5:00 AM to get ready for the hike. We dressed, packed a bag, and met in the lobby at 5:45 for coffee. The hotel had prepared bagged lunches and bottled water for us. Maximo arrived with our guide, Bismark, and we all piled back in the van. We made our way back up the dirt road to Finca Magdalena and the head of the trail. After dividing up the food and water among everyone’s bags, we were on our way.

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Starting out on our journey!

Bismark took off at a fast pace that left some of us a bit out of breath but we mostly kept up at first. The trail started off just a little slippery and uphill but nothing too difficult. The higher we got though, the steeper and wetter we got. Bruce and Ian did not bring backpacks and at one point offered to carry mine and Alouette’s. That turned out to be a life saver as I don’t think I could have made it with that pack on. Big shout out to both of them, but especially Ian who kept up with Bismark all the way up and down with my backpack on his back! As we got higher up the mountain, our pace slowed and it seemed every time we asked Bismark how much longer to the top, the answer was 40 minutes. The first time I fell I felt like giving up but I was determined to keep going. The next time I fell I landed right in a puddle of mud and I was ready to cry. I pushed through the tears though and kept following the group. I think having Ian up front with my backpack full of food helped motivate me like a dog following its owner with a pocket full of treats.

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View from a lookout point on the way up.

We managed to make our way to the top after a brief encounter with a poisonous snake, a bee sting, and a few scrapes and bruises in about 4 hours. When we got to the top, I was a bit underwhelmed. There was just a small clearing but we were still mostly under the cover of trees and it was cloudy so there was no view. I have never enjoyed a ham sandwich like I did that day though. We were all famished. The hotel had packed us 2 sandwiches each, crackers, fruit cups, and bananas and we ate it all. There is a lagoon in the center of the mountain that I was really looking forward to all the way up, but it was actually quite cold at the top of the mountain and I had no desire to go swimming at that point. Bismark said the lagoon was another 5 minutes down the trail and that he would stay there with our stuff if we wanted to go check it out. We started off but Drew and Ryan very quickly decided to stay behind. A little further down, there was a pretty big jump down that I wasn’t so sure I’d be able to get back up so Alouette and I turned around as well. A few minutes later, Ian and Bruce were back as well. Apparently there was an even bigger jump, into a large mud pit, and they decided to turn back as well. Perhaps there was a reason Bismark was going to stay behind all along.

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Alouette, Bruce, Ryan, and I starting out for the lagoon.

We didn’t get to rest for long before it was time to start making our way back down. Bismark was concerned it might start raining, hard, which would make the descent more difficult and more dangerous. The “trail” was actually more of a stream bed so I get the feeling we would have needed a raft had it started pouring. The way down turned out to be much more difficult for the most part. It was slippery and hard on our knees. I fell at least 8 times and my wrists were starting to hurt from catching myself. Everyone was worse for wear and we were all ready to just be done with the whole thing. It was the thought of a shower and a hot meal that got us all safely down the mountain. Safely might not be the most accurate word, but we were all alive and still able to stand at the end so that’s something. Bismark and Ian were literally running down the mountain at times and apparently at one point Bismark slipped and caught himself just before flying off a cliff.

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The whole way up was lush and green.

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A petroglyph we found on the way down.

The highlight on the way down was a group of howler monkeys in the trees. Ryan had stopped and turned around to wait for those of us who were behind him and looked up at just the right time. There was even a little baby monkey. I had been hoping to see monkeys this whole trip so I was so excited to finally see some. By this time the trail was starting to flatten out and we were on the home stretch. We got down to Finca Magdalena and Drew got a round of beers to celebrate our success. We cleaned off our shoes with a hose, drank our beers, and truly enjoyed being able to just sit down for a bit. Maximo’s wife had come to pick us up but couldn’t make it up the dirt road in her truck so we walked down a bit to meet her. Bismark, Drew, Ian, Ryan, and Alouette hopped in the bed and Bruce and I sat in the cab.

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A howler monkey in a tree.

That morning, Drew had asked Maximo if there was somewhere on the island to get Nacatamales, Nicaragua’s version of tamales, and he said we could get them on Sundays. On our ride home though, Bismark pointed out a house that had been making them and had them available right now, so we had to stop. We picked up one for everyone, at less than a dollar each, and headed back to Villa Paraiso. When we got there we gathered around a table and savored those Nacatamales. Nacatamales are larger than Mexican tamales, with the same corn meal but also rice and potatoes. They are filled with fatty pork and onions and are wrapped in a banana leaf. They were the perfect after-hike snack.

After getting cleaned up and resting for a bit, we all met up for dinner at the hotel restaurant and discussed our day. We were all hurting and exhausted but I think everyone was proud that we completed the hike. I know I am.

San Juan del Sur: Haven for Surfers, Yogis, and Catholics

Where can you surf, practice yoga, and visit one of the largest statues of Jesus Christ in the world? San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua is home to all of these things and more. A town with an eclectic mix of local and ex-pats, San Juan del Sur has quickly become one of the most interesting places Drew or I have ever visited. As I write this, I am sitting in a restaurant right on the beach, drinking a cappuccino, being solicited for sunglasses (which is probably a cover for the drugs he’s really selling), watching pelicans float on the waves in the rain, with a large statue of Jesus Christ on the hilltop overlooking the whole town.

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It seems that, more than anything, surfing is what brings people from all over the world to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. So, Drew and I decided it was time to take a lesson. We ran into a guy from Colorado who we had met on Big Corn Island and he told us about One Love Surf School through which he had just taken a lesson. We went down the next day and signed up for a lesson. The guy, when he asked where we were from, was surprised to learn a couple of Californians had never been surfing before!

The next day we showed up at the shop, ready to hit the waves. We hopped in their truck with the boards in the back and headed for Playa Remanso, South of town. Apparently, the best beach for learning to surf is Playa Hermosa but it is closed through September because the next season of Survivor is being filmed here. Playa Remanso was beautiful though, and not too busy which made it just that much better for learning.

The lesson began with our teacher talking to us about the nature of surfing. It requires patience and being able to relax and just go with the flow. He said you’ll spend 80-90% of your time waiting or paddling and only 10-20% actually surfing. After this brief talk, we got to practicing on land. We learned how and where to lay on the board, how to move our arms for paddling, and finally, how to actually stand up. We practiced over and over until we showed that we had the motions down.

Finally it was time to try it out in the water. We attached the boards to our ankles and walked out into the waves. When it got a bit deeper we hopped on the boards and started paddling out. This proved to be the hardest part for me as I am not a very good swimmer and my arms are not terribly strong. Finally we got out far enough and it was time to try to catch a wave. The first time I basically just stayed down on the board and felt what it was like to just ride the wave. The next time I was able to get up into position 1, which is basically Cobra pose in yoga. For the next 2 hours or so we kept trying, again and again. We were both able to stand up for at least a few seconds by the end of it all.

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Overall it was a lot of fun and something I might try again but I wouldn’t call it my new hobby. I can see how it requires the ability to relax and just stay focused on where you are. In this way it is very much like yoga, which is something I really enjoy. The day after our surfing lesson, in fact, I found a yoga studio and joined a class. My body was a little stiff and in need of some good stretching. It turned out that most of the people in the class are here for a surf camp and so the class would be focusing on restorative poses for surfing. Perfect!

Now one of the things I love about yoga is the quiet relaxation it brings. This class turned out to be far from quiet. Imagine you are on a serene rooftop with soft music and birds chirping. Now throw in a live band, amplified for miles, and cannons and fireworks going off every 30 seconds or so. The entire building shakes every time the cannon sounds. So much for peaceful yoga class, right? It actually turned out to be pretty amazing how class was able to go on and we could stay focused despite the uncontrollable distractions.

You will read more about these “distractions” in Drew’s post, but in short, we happen to be in San Juan del Sur during the festival of San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist). This is a huge celebration in this heavily Catholic town. As I mentioned earlier, a huge statue of Jesus overlooks the town. We decided to hike up there, along with our new friend from the Netherlands, Alouette. We headed out, with directions from the owner of our hostel. He said it would take about 50 minutes…not too bad.

We started off along the beach and then began to wind our way up through the streets leading up the hill. We rounded a corner and the road just got steeper. We were beginning to question our desire to go all the way when a guy with a pickup showed up and offered us a ride. We gratefully hopped in the bed of the truck with another guy and his bike and rode up the rest of the hill. At the top we still had a steep set of stairs to climb and a $2 entrance fee to pay but finally we arrived.

The view from the statue was incredible. We could see all the way south to Costa Rica. The hills are scattered with huge houses that would cost tens of millions of dollars in the Bay Area but probably come in under a million here. The statue itself is quite impressive though is not as large as the famous statue of Jesus in Rio de Janeiro.

Having surfed, stretched, and hiked throughout San Juan del Sur, I find myself still intrigued by this town. We have already extended our stay here by a couple of days as we continue to explore the great culture, great food, and great people that populate San Juan del Sur.