Back to the bloggero! How I’ve missed you. Sorry for my absence.
I’ll preface my grand hike story with this news story from the Associated Press. Note the dateline.
Volcano erupts on island in Lake Nicaragua (November 25, 2007)
MANAGUA, Nicaragua: The Concepcion volcano in Nicaragua sent huge columns of ash into the sky in eruptions that prompted a ripple of small earthquakes, local seismologists said Sunday.
The volcano, one of two on an island in the region’s largest lake, erupted Saturday night [November 24] and related earthquakes continued to rattle the area on Sunday. The 1,610-meter (5,282-foot) volcano is located 100 kilometers (60 miles) southeast of the capital, Managua, on an island popular with adventure tourists in Lake Nicaragua, Central America’s largest lake.
Ash rained down on local communities on Sunday, as strong winds carried it to toward the capital, the institute said.
So, basically, last year while I was out celebrating my 21st birthday, a volcano in the middle of a giant lake in the middle of Nicaragua in the middle of Central America erupted. Obviously I heard nothing of it, nor would have cared much if I did. But on Friday, I hiked to the tip top of this very active, very tall, very tropical volcano. Yes, indeed—I conquered the Volcán Concepcion.
I climbed into a cab on Thursday morning with the Austin group and we made our way to San Jorge, a town just outside of Rivas and the only place to catch a ferry to the great Isla de Ometepe. For a mere three dollars, I spent an hour enjoying a lake breeze and a spectacular view of the island and its two volcanoes. Incidentally, Lake Nicaragua (or Lake Cocibolca, the name I prefer) not only is an incredibly polluted lake with water the color of fermented leaves, but also is the home to the world’s only fresh-water shark. So, no, I did not have a swim. As we approached the island, I did get to see the volcano emerge from the clouds and loom ominously over us. (I realize that was a very hokey sentence. But, seriously, the volcano did loom, and it loomed ominously. There’s just no way around it.) We dis-embarked in Matagaylpa and I had my first taste of Nicaraguan public transportation: an old American school bus converted into the best and brightest of the island’s bus-fleet. Remember riding in school buses when you’re 11, and how you fit into the seats? This bumpy, sweaty hour bus-ride was another hilarious chapter in the ‘Megan is too tall for Latin America’ book. I even got, lucky me, the window seat after a thirteen-year-old boy sat down next to me and spread out into the aisle. Left: a rare glimpse of the volcano sans cloud cover, looking decidedly more friendly after arrival at our hotel.
And then we arrived to the grand Hotel Central. My traveling companions, accustomed to the comforts of home in the United States, were only mildly enthusiastic in their appraisal of our eight-dollar a night lodgings in the middle of quiet Altagracia, Nicaragua. I loved it. I got my own room, complete with a double bed and fan and my own, non-smelly bathroom. It even had a cute little patio, looking out onto a palm-fronded garden. Ah, lap of luxury.
Kimery arranged for a guide to come by after dinner that night to prep us for the coming day. He apparently did not know that we wanted to hike Concepcion, because he arrived and tried to sell us the complete ‘island package,’ which includes mud baths, a private air-conditioned taxi tour, and other expensive things. I could tell Kimery couldn’t understand what exactly he was trying to sell her, so I jumped in: ‘No. We want to hike Concepcion.’ Oh, the look on his face, as he surveyed a group of eight, age 21 to 61, all with beers in their hands, telling him they want to hike one of my most difficult volcanoes in Nicaragua, tomorrow. I will give guía Alan credit for not walking out the door then. Ultimately, we decided that we needed two guides, and that only five of us would attempt the ascent: myself, Kimery, the young couple, Kim and Matt, and Rusty, a man two weeks shy of the great fifty mark and determined to do all the living he could before that moment arrived. With a final look at our beers, Alan left around eight, saying, ‘remember 5 a.m. We start.’
Four the next morning found me up and dressed, carbo-loading on hot dog buns and drinking black coffee—the best accoutrements our hotel could offer at such a wee hour. The hike began and ended at the front door of our hotel and lasted just five minutes short of ten hours. Physically and mentally demanding like nothing I’ve ever done before. Up to the edge of town, right on a dirt road past banana plantations and what seemed like turkey farms, up until the dirt road thinned into wide trail, up until the trail thinned into a single track mud slide. Within an hour, my clothes were entirely sweat soaked. Within an hour, also, the trail disappeared.
Apparently Nicaraguans do not believe in switchbacks. Or even marked and cleared trails. We hiked straight up that volcano. Straight up. This means that the terrain ranged from incredibly steep to downright vertical. Kimery grunted somewhere about halfway up that the trail was actually classified as an easy rock climb, rather than a hike. (I would have done it anyway, but don’t you think this is an interesting tidbit she could have mentioned, say, the night before?)
Several times, I’d be tooling along and find that the trail stopped at my feet and restarted at my head. Thirty minutes could pass clambering over a rock-river, and another thirty minutes slipping and sliding through foliage up a barely-marked mud path. There wasn’t a time in those ten hours that I didn’t use my hands to help make my ascent. Bent over, pulling myself up by rocks or plants, my arms quickly became just as tired as my legs. My least favorite section was what Kimery and I nicknamed ‘the bowels’ (right). We encountered the bowels when, somewhere above me, Alan turned off a path of mud and plants in favor of an old lava flow. Now solidified into rocks that are either solidly planted into the hillside, or as I found out many a time, very loose with a tendency to slip around. For the majority of the hike, I was in a cloud. Literally. The fog was so thick that Kim melted into it not even ten feet in front of me, that I looked like I had been swimming in my clothes, that droplets of water condensed on my eye-brows and arm hair. It was so steep that Kimery stood three feet back from me but five feet below. In addition to the physical demands, the mental ardor of hiking up and up without respite was, well, really hard. Time warped and I repeated phrases again and again in my head in a sort of marine-like drill (What phrases? I don’t know. For awhile it was the chorus of Hotel California. Why? I don’t know.)
As we got higher and higher, the variety of foliage diminished until there only remained a species of beefy plant, thick leaves two feet in diameter. Although they were covered in spines, they were also the only things to hold onto up the exposed, steep face of the volcano. I paused for breath grasping these things and turned around to nothing but space and vertigo. It was clear we were close when all plant life disappeared and all there was to hold on to was loose volcanic rocks. And then, all of a sudden, the slope just stopped, dissolved into fog. The lip of the volcano. The rocks below us were hot and the air smelled of sulfur, but apart from that, there was nothing but fog. Great gusty, windy fog. The absence of anything except fog in this gaping mouth was a sharp contrast to all the green leafy life we had been fighting through the whole way up. That is, the presence of empty space was what finally signaled we had ‘made it’. I collapsed on the warm rock, hugging it against the gusts of wind, and decided I was just about ready to head back down. Alan, our guide, seemed like he had the same thought, as I looked over at him peering around nervously. He told me later, safely comatose in a hotel rocking chair, that the lip is not a safe place to be. At all. Quite apart from the incredibly strong winds and poor visibility, this is a very active volcano. It doesn’t explode and release energy at once (which is ultimately more destructive to surrounding communities) but rather, as he put it, burps quite frequently, letting pressure out gradually. The later makes is a fairly safe volcano to live in proximity of—but makes hikers at the top susceptible to the occasional burps, such as the one the AP covered on my birthday last year.
victorious. tired. soaking. freezing.
But how to get down? We had essentially climbed on hands and knees up the entire slope. I was to learn that we were going to do exactly the opposite the whole way down—hands and butt. Crab waddle. As a rather lanky individual, I had the most difficulty with this concept, so suffice to say, I did not enjoy the way down. I’ll leave it at that. By the time we arrived back at the banana plantations three thousand hours later, my quads were so far expired that I was walking like a bow-legged cow. And then, nine hours and fifty five minutes later, Hotel Central appeared on the horizon. Holy moooly.
After a shower, we limped to dinner at the only restaurant in town. It was not exactly the glorious post-hike meal as I had been so dreaming about all day, but it was hot and it came with beer, so all was well. We toasted our success and after dinner, Kimery and I took off (bow-legged) in search of ice cream. Not only did we find ice cream, but I found a store that sells Snickers bars. I know, right? I splurged and for a total of 40 cordobas (two whole dollars for a darn candy bar), I soon had the bar safely tucked into my back pocket. Or so I thought. Dun dun dun. We sat down on a bench to enjoy our ice cream. I had just finished mine when the stray dog that had been hovering around us for awhile got especially bold and jumped up and took the Snickers out of my pocket. It then hesitated for a moment, surprised surely by the magnitude of its booty, and took off running. Now, let me tell you something. I did not travel to Nicaragua, climb a volcano for 10 hours, survive countless falls, burn thousands of calories, have a mediocre dinner, drink a liter and a half of beer, and buy a Snickers for two dollars only to have a stray dog steal my chocolate out from under me. So, I did what any sane person in my situation would do. I took off after the dog. It ran up the street half a block and into what I thought was an store, but what turned out to be, I noticed only after I was mid-grab for my candy bar, a nice, normal Nicaraguan family’s home. Picture this. You’ve just finished dinner and your family has retired to the comfort of the living room rocking chairs. Maybe you’re listening to the radio. You’re enjoying a breeze because your front wall is somehow missing (stick with me here). A stray dog runs in with a Snickers bar, sits down and is about to rip into it. And then a 6’1” gringa runs into your home. She says in Spanish: ‘uh. Sorry. I’m so sorry. Just one moment. I just need a moment. The dog has my candy?’. She then grabs the Snickers bar dangling from the mouth of the equally as shocked dog, and turns around and sprints out of your home.
I arrived back to Kimery (who, having witnessed the whole debacle, was beside herself) with an amputated Snickers bar in my hand. The dog apparently had a very strong grip on the bar when I so lovingly ripped it out of its mouth, and had managed to secure itself a hearty bite. We consulted, and decided that I could have a small nibble of the un-touched end of the bar, and after such bite, I threw it away with a sad sigh.
Defeated by the volcano and then the stray dog, I climbed in my nice double bed for the best nights sleep I’ve gotten since I arrived in Nica. The next morning was not to be as nice, however, as I woke up unable to walk without dire pain. Years of basketball camps and running a half-marathon—I’ve never been that sore. Ever. I hobbled around Altagracia the next morning, cringing at every stair I encountered. Although it is large compared to Gigante (most places are), it is still a pretty small town. Next to the main plaza was the city’s church, a most peculiar place. Accessed directly from the street, you first walk through the ruins of the city’s first church, a colonial, tiled building left in disrepair, crumbling down upon itself. I arrived then to a courtyard between two buildings. The courtyard contains primitive, ancient looking statues, which I later learned are old indeed—they are 3,000 year old petroglifs from the Chanadega tribe that once inhabited parts of Nicaragua. Carved into giant, porous rocks are holy shapes from nature and vague outlines of faces of this bygone tribe which was extricated by the arrival of the Spanish (and the Catholic church) to Central America. Three-thousand year old holy statues stood scattered randomly around the courtyard, and so did three-year old Goodyear tires, sinking into the mud and grass. Beyond this courtyard stood the town’s new Catholic church, bright white and yellow in the background. Decrepit church leads way to a plaza with ancient native statues and molding rubber tires, and finally, almost as an afterthought, a new church, casting its shadow over ruins. It was an odd visual.
The group headed back to little Gigante and Brio on Saturday. Darn, is it a trek back here. It still amazes me how remote I am. I spent the rest of the day slumped in a sore pile over the table. Sunday, the adventures continued as part of the group climbed aboard a boat for San Juan del Sur, a touristy town an hour (via boat) down the coast. Boat travel is the way to go. I had been wanting to visit San Juan since I arrived, but the route via land requires a very expensive cab ride out of Gigante and several hours of travel. Not only does the water take you directly there, it offers a spectacular view of the South pacific coast of Nicaragua. It also offers the opportunity to snorkel en route, which we did. Although the snorkeling mostly consisted of swimming around looking at sand, it was still snorkeling. San Juan del Sur was very touristy indeed, but it was a nice, colorful town that offers many things that tourists generally want–things that I’ve been lacking since I arrived. (Examples? Pizza, chocolate, bug spray, flip flops, paved roads.) We then hopped back on the boat and fished on the way back. It’s super easy fishing, as the boat captain, Flavio, lets the line out to troll as you sit and wait comfortably, maybe even tan a bit. A fish tugs, and he hands the rod to you. I reeled in one of the three 20-pound mackerels that we ate later that night. Back in Gigante, after Flavio cut their heads and tails off and handed them to us a in a pink plastic bag, we carried them up to Brio where Jaime took over, wielding a very large knife quite skillfully to filet the fish. Adam cut us some sushi cuts and I tasted officially the freshest fish of my life. I was skeptical about eating raw fish in Nicaragua, but as Adam pointed out, it’s just too fresh for anything bad to happen to it. Seriously, not even two hours lagged between when this thing was flapping at the end of a rod and when we ate it. Dinner consisted of fresh fish filet, rice and beans.
Quite the weekend, indeed. I have spent the past two days recovering. Life has returned to a very very slow pace, slower than ever, oozing slow. It’s very quiet, also, as there are no guests (nor do I believe are any coming soon). I shall leave those tales for later, as this post has reached epic proportions. Only this remains: the sun setting behind Concepcion.