WE AWOKE IN OMETEPE, A REMOTE ISLAND IN LAKE NICARAGUA, THE LARGEST LAKE IN CENTRAL AMERICA.
FORMED BY TWO STAGGERING VOLCANOES, IT’S ONE OF THE MOST TREASURED LOCATIONS IN THE COUNTRY.
One of the volcanoes, Concepción, is still active and composed of hardened lava and loose rocks. With no shielding from the sun, it makes for a boiling landscape. The opposite volcano, Maderas, is much more lush and vibrant. Now dormant, it’s covered in thick Nicaraguan jungle.
We ventured out to this wilder frontier to scale up one of these two volcanoes. I had spent the years up to this climbing the career ladder in the concrete jungle of New York City, consumed by it. Finally having achieved it, my first reaction wasn’t relief for it to begin, but a desire to leave. I needed to withdraw to a far and uncharted land. For once, I needed to not know where I was going.
We filled our daypacks and headed out to meet our guide. With a peak at more than 4,600ft, the climb would take at least ten hours at a constant incline. The guide told us he climbed the volcanoes up to four times a week, sometimes twice a day. I didn’t think it was humanly possible to do something that physically demanding as a day job. The struggles of my own career now paled in comparison next to a man who conquered lava spewing mountains for a living.
We left the hostel on foot and stopped by a broken down school bus that was repurposed into a store, now run by an American who’d taken up a new life on this remote island. I felt a stinging jealousy as I paid for my loaf of bread and jar of island-made peanut butter.
We walked further, through a farm of mango trees, picking some to eat on the trek. The ground gradually began to incline beneath our feet and I could feel my leg muslcles burn. Already, I was starting to break a sweat. I wondered if I had even a fraction of the stamina as our volcano forager. Not one to admit doubt, I pressed onwards. The trees grew taller and the brush thicker. The leafy canopy began to form above our heads.
The jungle swallowed us whole, a constant buzzing emanated from the invisible swarm of bugs that surrounded us. Just an hour in, I was sweating uncontrollably, using all my energy to scale the steep incline. Every step seemed its own mountain to climb. I felt unable to continue onward, and unable to stop, trapped in this stalemate. I couldn’t depend just on my legs; I had to grab the trees to heave myself upwards. It was so steep at points, one misstep could mean a tumble ten feet back down. The fall wasn’t as nerve-wracking as potentially having to use more effort to reclaim lost ground.
We could hear the howler monkeys holler around us. Sounding more like wolves, we spotted them swinging. We heard nuts and small rocks snapping around our heads, and the guide told us it was the monkeys throwing them, letting us know we were encroaching on their land.
The guide turned to me with a smile and asked, “Have you ever sweat like this before?”
The answer was no. At this point, I’d broken my fourth or fifth sweat, and my t-shirt was see-through. But I loved it. I had never before pushed my body this hard.
At one of our rest stops, the guide doled out the mangos and we sunk our teeth in them. One bite and I could feel the juices rehydrate me. It was the most fulfilling fruit I’d ever eaten, so much so that I filmed the whole thing. At the time it seemed like one of the most epic parts of the hike.
I knew we were getting higher when the fog crept into our surroundings. Hiking through clouds added a separation anxiety with the ground below. However, the cool mist was a welcomed refresher. At the higher altitude, we heard parrots squawk above us. They lived so high we could only see the leaves agitate from where the sounds came.
After almost five hours of a constant uphill climb, we finally reached the top. I felt an overwhelming sense of satisfaction, but our guide told us we weren’t done yet. We now had to descend down into the crater. It was so steep, ropes had been attached to the muddy walls so we could grapple our way down. It was another half an hour until our guide cleared some branches with his machete to reveal the crater’s lake. We fell upon a silent and still watery eden privately held in the clutches of the volcano.
This is where we took our well-deserved rest. My shoes were caked in dirt, completely unrecognizable. My friend analyzed his own status.and told me, “I don’t think I’ve ever sweat this much either, I’m completely soaked.” He pulled off his shirt and wrung it out like a towel. The sweat poured from it, formed a puddle on ground, and we both laughed.
The guide set up an appropriate picnic, laid down a frilled white cloth, and out came the food we bought earlier that morning. Using the machete he cut through the jungle with, he sliced our bread and spread the peanut butter. It was simple, but we were so ravenous that it became a feast.
Led out of the crater and up to the peak’s viewpoint, leafy curtains curled open, and we could see the whole island, and Concepción, the other volcano. We sat on our volcano—which felt like ours now, after all our efforts–to gaze at the other, watched its peak split the clouds. It was a truly glorious spectacle, and remains one of my closest connections with nature.
The five hour descent was more grueling than the ascent. The rain eroded the makeshift trails into mudslides.Our experienced guide shone, as he hopped from rock to rock, and swung off branches like one of the Howler monkeys. When we finally reached the road at the bottom of the volcano, my friend and I simultaneously took off our shoes and socks, immediately feeling relief. We walked back to our hostel barefoot and proud.
The next morning, I sat outside, recovering from my accumulated soreness, and saw a group prepare for the same hike, a little too casually. With them, unsurprisingly, was our guide, who was about to dial in another round of exploring the two volcanoes in his backyard.
When the trek began, I was so concerned with where I went to achieve a grand escape. Venturing out into the remote Ometepe had given me what I was after, but now that it was over I felt just as proud with how much effort I had spent—sore limbs and all–as I was with simply venturing out there. Maybe the question wasn’t how far I needed to go to get away, but how much I was willing to go through to create an exceptional memory. Though the prospect of heading back home loomed, I felt renewed. Achieving my career goals didn’t mean an end to exploring. Perhaps the concrete jungle I had tried to escape contained just as grand an adventure as the one I had gone through.