Up at 7, coffee at 8, and we hit the trail at 9. Since we were set on hiking guideless, Tom and I decided to go with the most secure option and take the trail above Finca Magdalena. At dinner the night before we had run into a troop of Brits fresh off the trail and caked in mud from their goofy Indiana Jones hats to the trips of their hiking boots. They had also down Maderas without a guide, and had (almost) successfully taken the Finca Magdalena route. Their mistake was starting at 11:00 and forgetting headlamps. Finding your way up to El Zopilote in the dark may be a challenge, but finding your way down an unfamiliar volcano through dense jungle sound terrifying, It took them nine hours, which we scoffed at. Our goal was six. Three up, three down.
I was happy to finally get to see Finca Magdalena- that’s where my mom and I were planning on staying when we were going to come to Ometepe. While Finca Magdalena has the same basic operations and ideals as El Zopilote, it’s visually different. Instead of being nestled within the trees, Finca Magdalena rests on a clean, open field decorated with dainty flower gardens. The main building- rooms, restaurant, balcony area- is a classic farmhouse, sun bleached planks and white paint peeling in rustic character. Café tables line the balcony railing, styled like a typical white farmyard fence, where tourists sipped coffees and gazed out across the gardens, Concepcion, and the lake beyond.
Finca Magdalena is an agricultural cooperative made up of 24 members and their families. They are involved in environmental conservation efforts, and lead guided tours up Maderas. The community was hurt by the 1990 elections, during which many of the strides made during the Sandinista era were reversed. Many cooperatives were forced to shut down because they were unable to pay back loans, but Finca Magdalena clung on and survived. The farm wasn’t originally a hostel and restaurant- that element of the business sprang up after hordes of tourists began to pass through on their way up to Maderas´ crater. Since 2000, tourism has been by far Finca Magdalena’s greatest source of income and has morphed the farm into a prosperous haven for its community members and their organic produce.
The trailhead to the crater is obvious and sits right behind the farmhouse. I was relieved to see how official and well kept the trail was. And dry! We had been warned multiple times of the intense mud on Maderas. We had seen evidence covering the bodies of the hikers last night. But it couldn’t be so! It hadn’t been raining- where did the mud come from?
The trail continued to be dry and compact until about an hour up, and I realized how the volcano is able to keep herself constantly moist: The entire upper half of Maderas is wrapped in the permanent embrace of a single, thick, watery cloud. As you hike, the air becomes thicker and wetter until it literally drips with precipitation. You’re being drawn into the clutches of the dense, swirling fog that squats on gentle Maderas like a soggy hat- It’s like you’ve stepped under the little black rain cloud that Winnie the Pooh goes through so much to avoid.
And that’s when the trail gets muddy. Really muddy. At first, I did my best to avoid the ooze by grasping on to the gnarled jungle root that reached out at me like deformed arms, pulling myself onto the steep sides of the trail, leaping over puddles, and balancing precariously on slippery rocks. Around hour two, my hope that my boots would stay reasonable dry shuddered, took one last rattling breath, and died. I sunk in. Up above the high tops of my high tops.
Squelch. Once you resign yourself to hiking through this kind of mud, it can be fun. Possibly my favorite part of the Maderas hike was how different the environment was from my dry hometown hills outside of Leon. Everywhere, gigantic, drooping trees hung with moss and on the moss glistened millions of tiny droplets of dew like sparkling diamonds. The closest thing I had to compare it to was the Olympic rainforest on Washington’s far west peninsula.
As we climbed higher, we hoped that the fog would burn off and that we’d get a view, but all we could see was a dense wall of white. We could have been anywhere. Progress was immeasurable. That was the weirdest part for me: On Cerro Negro, or Telica, the crater of the volcano is in perfect sight for hours. You lock you eyes on the pinnacle of your destination and climb. There are no trees to distract you, no small undulating hills or shroud of cloud, only steaming volcanic rock, the piercing sun, the shriekingly blue sky, you, and the angry crater ahead. In comparison, Maderas was like wandering through a hazy dream or climbing a very muddy stairway to heaven.
Maderas is its own cloud forest. At times, the path was so wet that it was a river. Literally, water streaming down rock towards us. We had to make some executive decisions along the way about which paths to chose, which I felt entitled to make because I was a volcano guide. Of course, my experience had zero effect on an unknown volcano. The way up is simple, though, there is really only one direction in which you need to go. I don’t think it’s necessary to elaborate. The way back down is the tricky part, if you want to come out the same way you came. The real life saver was Tom’s compass, which helped us re-find a couple of tricky spots on the way back down.
We summited and didn’t even notice. Then Tom pointed out that everywhere you looked, the land seemed to sloped downhill. Oh. Look at that. We exchange a summit high five, no need to snap any pictures, and began our descent into the crater. It was about a 20 minute downhill climb, or more appropriately, down hill slip. Still couldn’t see a thing but the mossy tree two feet away. And then all at once, a clear window appeared between the shoulders of trees and we caught a glimpse of a glowing green field and a lake. Excited, we scurried down the last bit of slope, and entered a phantasmal bowl of emerald magic.
The lake took up most of the crater floor and the rest was strewn with a brilliant lawn that seemed to radiate light. On all sides, the searing green molded into thick jungle that coated the crater walls, and rose jaggedly into the fog. At spots where Maderas´ protective cloud drifted, the spiky crater lip jeered sharp and equally green. The walls were so steep, so sheer, that it was a wonder the dense jungle vegetation clung on. In places the fog visited us, swept down the cliff walls and snaked along the waters. It made dreamlike pools and airborne rivers and infiltrated my mind, putting me in a trance. It was the land of Oz. It was definitely worth the climb and worth the shin high mud that had finally broken through the waterproof layer of my boots.
Tom tested the waters but the ¨lake¨ turned out to be basically a huge mud pool. We feasted on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, lounging on the lawn and gazing about in awe. But we had a six hour goal, and we’re a competitive pair.
The way down was, honestly, not a whole lot of fun. I’m already not a fan of downhill climbs, but Maderas throws in added bonuses of slick rock, slippery mud pools, and roots that waited in hiding to attack your ankles and bring you down. I fell more than once. The way is also significantly steeper than the volcanoes I’m used to. Towards the end, my knees were shaking, my shins were splinting, and my toes were on fire from being crammed up in the front of my shoes. We reached Finca Magdalena after seven hours of hiking and I collapsed my filthy, energy sapped body, drenched head to toe in slime, onto a nice white seat tat the patio restaurant.
We walked into Balgue for celebratory mango smoothies, and then made our way down the road to El Zopilote just as the sun dropped behind Concepcion. It was our last night on the island; we had to be in Leon the next day for Tom to pack up and catch an early flight the following morning.
For our last breakfast we picked out a little, rustic comedor right on the beach. We sat beneath the palm thatched roof in the early morning, steaming white coffee mugs in our fingers while the white surf crashed and steamed in towards our toes.
It was a good thing we got an early start- it took us ten hours to get from where we had breakfast to the Quetzaltrekkers headquarters. Ometepe is NOT that far away from Leon. But it was a Sunday. Busses crawled. We waited hours for boats and microbuses. When we finally arrived at the soothingly familiar blue front door of the QT HQ after a long walk from the terminal, I reached into my bag and realized I had lost my house key along with my wallet… Oops. No matter, some one would let me in.
I rang the doorbell. Nothing. I rang it again. After ten minutes of this, I remembered, again, that today was Sunday. Sunday means Family Dinner Night, which usually means that every member of our volunteer family would be home eating together, but for the first time in my experience the crew had planned to eat at the beach hostel. Which meant there was not a soul at home. And no way to get in. Tom and I briefly contemplated another round of mock cat burglary, but I had no idea how we would access the roof system that leads into the open courtyard.
We were tired and frustrated and none of our options seemed like good ones. At long last we decided to take a taxi to the beach, retrieve a key, and hop back into the cab back to Leon. Not the cheapest option, but the least stressful. Tom left early the next morning and we both dove back into the working life with not much enthusiasm. My vacation over, I should have been relaxed and refreshed, and I may have been a bit, but we had packed ourselves to the brim with adventure. With three weeks left in Nicaragua, I knew there was more adventure to come.