As part of my winter 2012 Nicaragua vacation I stayed on Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua.
Start of hike up Volcán Maderas
Ometepe Island is an amazing place formed from twin volcanoes in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. On Ometepe I stayed at Little Morgan's Resort just outside of the village of Santa Cruz. Little Morgan’s is on the sits on the lake shore at the foot of Maderas volcano. I arrived Saturday afternoon and through Little Morgan’s I scheduled a guided hike of Maderas for Sunday morning. Saturday night the summits of both of Ometepe's volcanoes were cloud free and I was looking forward to the hike the next morning. During the night however, the clouds reformed around both peaks.
I was lucky to be staying at Little Morgan’s on a Saturday; it was pizza night at the nearby Finca Ecológica El Zopilote. El Zopilote is an organic farm / guesthouse. They have a large wood-fired pizza oven and every Saturday night they serve pizza dinner. With large group of guests from Little Morgan’s we walked over to Zopilote for the pizza feed. The food was great and there was live music. It was one of the highlights of my stay on Ometepe Island.
In the morning I was joined for the hike by one other tourist, Brett from Austin, Texas. We met our guide Alexis at Little Morgan's and walked from there to the trailhead. Alexis is an Ometepe local but he spoke good English. He was a quiet guy, but very knowledgeable about the all the plant and wildlife we saw on the hike up. One of the interesting discussions we had on the way up was how much people earn on Ometepe Island. Ometepe is rural and outside of tourism most of the jobs are in agriculture. Depending on what they are doing a farm laborer earns around eighty córdoba a day. At the time the exchange rate was twenty-three córdobas to the dollar, so working on a farm pays only slightly more than three dollars a day. We paid Alexis ten dollars each for the hike. During the tourist season Alexis said that he hikes Maderas three to four times a week. In my two weeks in Nicaragua I saw that a lot of the environment is badly degraded and from the air you can see widespread deforestation. Ometepe by contrast was relatively pristine and is scheduled for UNESCO Biosphere Preservation status. The dramatic difference in wages makes a pretty strong argument for environmental protection and eco-tourism.
Hiking up Volcán Maderas
At the beginning of the hike we crossed private farmland and had to pay twenty-five córdobas for the privilege. We meandered through a banana plantation before entering the real jungle that covers the slopes of Maderas. Almost as soon as we walked into the forest we could hear the unearthly bellowing of howler monkeys that made the jungle sound like its full of dinosaurs. The trees were full of colorful birds and on the ground our path often crossed lines of leaf-cutter ants.
The jungle that covers Maderas is called a cloud forest, because even if it is a sunny day the peak usually wrapped in clouds. It never rained but the volcano was wreathed in a thick mist and we got soaked from the steady drip-drip of condensation falling from the trees. It was a four-hour slog to the summit up very steep trail with few switchbacks. The higher we travelled the muddier it got. At times we were hiking in ankle deep mud.
At the summit there was no view because of the clouds, so we did not spend much time there. It's not called a cloud forest for nothing, and we learned that it is very rare to get a view. From the summit we hiked down a steep trail to the lagoon in the dormant volcano’s crater. The lagoon is supposed to be very picturesque, but it was completely mist shrouded when we arrived so there was nothing to see. We stopped for lunch at the lagoon and there ran into a large group of local teenagers. They were all carrying machetes and some had rifles slung over their shoulders. I had heard stories of tourists getting robbed while hiking Maderas. Ometepe is a rural area so maybe it’s normal for country kids to go around with machetes and rifles, but it still made me nervous.
On the hike back we stopped at a place below the clouds about halfway down Maderas with bamboo benches. It was called El Mirador (basically “place with a good view” in Spanish). From the Mirador we had a very good view of Ometepe Island’s other volcano Concepción. Ometepe is an amazing place and looks like something out of a movie. When I showed my brother the photo of Concepción from El Mirador his first reaction was "That looks like the kind of place where King Kong would live!"