I first heard about Nicaragua‘s Concepcion volcano while doing the Tongariro Crossing hike in New Zealand (after a ski season in Queenstown), about how this active volcano along with its smaller near-neighbour Volcan Maderas forms a beautiful figure-of-8 shaped island (Ometepe Island) in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. I learned this from two English guys I was doing the Tongariro hike with, who were also backpacking around the world but in the opposite direction; they’d said it was a tough climb, but they’d also said that the stunning location and incredible views made it a great climb, and so that was the Central American volcano we (my then-girlfriend and I) found ourselves climbing a few weeks later (following my quest for the Mysterious Cities of Gold)
Getting across Lake Nicaragua in the first place – a lake, but the size of a small sea – was almost more gruelling than climbing the volcano. The boats leave from San Jorge on the lake’s southern shore, but we were too late for the larger car ferry and had to go on one of the small boats which didn’t look very lakeworthy, never mind seaworthy. The wind was right up that day and the lake’s surface was chopped up into small, rapid waves which tossed our little boat about such that it really did feel a bit like being in a washing machine. Our stomachs both held out for the shortish crossing, but the scene on board was a misery of vomiting and it was a great relief to reach the terra firma of Ometepe. Needless to say, when we left the island a few days later we made sure to catch the car ferry and thus were able to enjoy a nice relaxing crossing, enjoying the views of Volcan Concepcion and Volcan Maderas instead of the views of peoples’ lunches being spewed over the side. In short, take the ferry!
(a word of caution though; the large bags all get piled up in a luggage area, separate from the seating, and a bunch of island youths boarded the ferry and then as it departed practised their dives and backflips off the side and swam back to shore… it was great watching their acrobatics, but try to make sure your bag isn’t on top of the pile – mine was, and someone (one of the divers, I would imagine) went into a side pocket and took my first aid kit. No great loss, and I hope the contents came in useful for someone, but do double check you have all valuables with you and not in your big bag)
Once on Ometepe Island, we took a bus around to Altagracia on the far side of Volcan Concepcion. We were planning to work out the climbing route and whether or not we needed a guide once we arrived in town, but as it turned out we were greeted off the bus by a waiting guide offering his services for the following day, a wiry middle-aged local man who spoke very little English and who we took an immediate liking to. He explained that he already had one customer (from Australia) signed up for the morning, and asked if we would like to join them to make it a group of four. I don’t recall his price, but it was very reasonable – a good day’s earnings for him, and for us a bit less than we’d have paid to a tour agency (the benefits of cutting out the middle man!). He knew what he was doing, he know where we were going, and he had a calm and patient demeanour… as to whether he actually had the skills to bail us out if we got into trouble, I have no idea and we didn’t have to find out – but we did climb Volcan Concepcion while it was actually erupting! With volcanic gas spewing from the crater like that, it would definitely have been off-limits had it been located in Japan or New Zealand, but with the lax health and safety laws in Nicaragua we could climb it anyway. Our guide took us up the appropriate route to keep the wind behind us so that the gases were blowing away from us… I suppose we’d have had a problem if the wind had changed direction, but our man seemed perfectly confident and we decided to trust him. If things had gone wrong it would have been our fault for climbing an erupting volcano, but we chanced it and we got away with it. Perhaps not the smartest decision, especially considering the awful loss of life in the recent eruption of Japan’s Ontake, for example… health and safety laws exist for good reason. But with that said, it really was pretty amazing being up there on the crater’s edge – lying flat on the rim, behind us was the incredible view of Ometepe Island’s figure-8 surrounded by the deep blue of Lake Nicaragua, and before us we could peek over the lip into the rancid gaseous nothingness spewing out of the crater while holding firmly on to our hats – the wind was absolutely blasting over the rim and to stand up would probably have resulted in being blown clean off the top and into the crater with fatal results. An awesome memory, but one which we unfortunately didn’t get any pictures of as our camera battery had run out before the top and our Aussie companion never came through with the promised email of his pictures… no point in speculating as to why not, but this was before Facebook and wifi were ubiquitous and it’s funny to think about how much harder it was to share pictures not so long ago (the pic at the top of the page was the highest one we got)
The climb itself is really quite tough work, a proper slog up the steep sides of the volcano, but the view gets better and better as you ascend. We started, very early in the morning, by hitching a ride from town to the trailhead in the back of a passing truck, and then hiking up the first 1,000m or so through the jungle. That was hot, sweaty work, but after we emerged above the tree line it became one long scramble up the increasingly steep final 600m over loose volcanic scree, which meant two steps forward, one step back, the whole way up. At 1,600m it’s not a huge mountain, but it was harder work physically than, say, Mt Kinabalu which is 2,500m taller (though you don’t have to worry about altitude effects, as Volcan Concepcion isn’t high enough). We were up and down again in just about six hours or so, but my legs felt it for days afterwards – the next day was pretty much a write-off. As we were descending the final bit of the trail, which passes through farmers’ fields and banana plantations, our guide stopped and chopped us all a banana down (he assured us that he was friends with the plantation owner), and that was surely the most delicious banana I have ever eaten or ever will! That was followed with fish soup back at our guesthouse, which turned out to be a bowl of soup with the entire cooked fish laid across it – and this was like no fish I’ve ever seen, but more like some sort of prehistoric lake monster… I could’ve eaten a horse right then though, so lake dinosaur soup was a good call. The Concepcion volcano hike is a tough but rewarding day hike, though if you want something a bit more chilled then Volcan Maderas is apparently much easier; and if you don’t fancy hiking, you can rent bikes instead and explore the island, or just chill out by the lake. Whatever you do there, Ometepe Island is an awesome travel destination and worth including on any Central American itinerary.
Have you been to Lake Nicaragua or climbed the Concepcion volcano? How was it? Any questions about Volcan Concepcion or Ometepe island? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
See my Nicaragua overland travel page here
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