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THIS IS MY TRAIL
Andrew Westbrook
Andrew Westbrook is a travel journalist with a passion for escaping the crowds on remote, long-distance trails.

Maderas Volcano

Hiking in Nicaragua to the
Crater of the Dormant Volcán Maderas

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Maderas Volcano

A challenging one-day trek

The dormant Volcán Maderas is found on Nicaragua’s stunning Isla de Ometepe, a worthy contender for being the eighth wonder of the world. Formed by a pair of dramatic volcanic peaks connected by a slim sandy isthmus, the Central American island rises from Lago de Nicaragua, an hourglass of dense, beach-ringed jungle. The larger of the two mountains is the active Concepción, standing 5,280ft tall. The more interesting hike, however, especially in the rainy season, is its older sibling Maderas (4,570ft), which last erupted 3,000 years ago. If you’re planning on hiking in Nicaragua, this is a trip you don’t want to miss. Expect mud, monkeys and a steep scramble on this punishing one-day trek.

  • Trail length: 11mi
  • Climb: 4470ft

Twin peaks

Chugging over to Isla de Ometepe aboard the ramshackle ferry, it’s easy to understand how these twin Nicaraguan peaks have held visitors in awe for centuries.

Towering above one of the planet’s largest freshwater lakes, the almost perfectly conical Concepción blew its top as recently as 2010, but is now acting all angelic (“it was Maderas mom, honest!”), a halo of cloud encircling its stony peak for almost my entire stay. Meanwhile its twin looks on knowingly from the south-east, slightly smaller but wizened with age, having spurned the scantily clad cover model figure for a sprawling jungle overcoat full of mystery and intrigue.

Huckleberry Finn author, Mark Twain passed this way in 1866, pausing to gush about these “two magnificent pyramids” that “look so isolated from the world and its turmoil.” It’s hard to disagree and I can’t wait to get closer.

Touching shore, I jump on a rickety local bus to the remote eco-retreat at the base of Volcán Maderas where I’m hoping to hire a local guide for my trek. Following the deaths of several tourists over the years, a guide is now a legal requirement for Maderas, and reading the news reports about those who got lost or fell down ravines, I’m more than happy to oblige.

Sure enough, I’m soon shaking hands with my new friend Ramon. His lack of English will test my Spanish, but he’s quick to smile and comes highly recommended, making him well worth the $20 fee.

"Chugging over to Isla de Ometepe aboard the ramshackle ferry, it's easy to understand how these twin Nicaraguan peaks have for centuries held visitors in awe for centuries."

The immaculate Concepcion

Happily doused in mosquito repellent and with a backpack full of drinking water, we hit the trail early the next morning. Starting by the lake’s lapping waters we cross the island’s gravel ring road, taking note of the ‘eruption evacuation’ sign that points the opposite direction. Making our way up the lowlands, Ramon leads me through the coffee plantations that thrive on the fertile volcanic slopes until; soon enough, we reach the end of man’s visible mark on the ancient volcano. Stepping into the trees, we exchange farmland for jungle.

The change is immediate and drastic. The steepness of the faint, overgrown track and the stifling tropical humidity both go rapidly up several notches. My all-too-fair skin welcomes saying goodbye to the sweltering direct sunlight, at least until it recognizes the sticky, biting replacement, and I’m quickly sweating profusely.

Up into the cloud forest we clamber. Every now and then the canopy gives way to offer views across the island, a spectacular vision dominated by Concepción, the postcard-perfect volcano framed in a window of vegetation. It seems only fitting to celebrate the view with some guttural “ug, ug, ug” hellos to the surrounding howler monkeys.

After almost four, unrelenting hours we reach the crater’s rim and look down to the muddy lake within as clouds power past at breakneck speed. It’s a timeless, primordial scene. Many people, Ramon tells me, choose to call it a day here and head for home. Having made good time, however, and with the promise of a swim, we push on into the crater, where the going gets tougher.

" Every now and then the canopy gives way to offer views across the island, a spectacular vision dominated by Concepcion, the postcard-perfect volcano framed in a window of vegetation."

Monkey Men

Until this point, I’ve been wary of getting too hands-on with my surroundings, slightly fearful of what may choose to get hands-on with me in return (Ramon: “No, there’s no dangerous snakes up here. Oh, except for the red and black one…”). However, I’m now left with little choice. Extremely muddy at the best of times, I’m tackling Volcán Maderas in November, at the end of the rainy season. It’s not so much muddy as an all-out swamp, and after seeing the ground totally devour my hiking boots several times, I follow Ramon’s example and take to the trees, swinging through the vines to deny the mud more easy meals.

Concerns over snakes and spiders are now long gone as I grapple with the branches, blindly hoping my lack of Tarzan-like stealth will mean any lurking creatures have plenty of time to roll their eyes and edge out of my path. It’s at least another hour before I stumble from the trees, caked in sweat and wet volcano, like the love child of Indiana Jones and Bear Grylls. That just leaves some slippery rocks to negotiate until we finally reach the lake for a refreshing, if unnerving, dip. After all, it may have been 3,000 years, but who knows when Maderas might wake, and splashing around the lake does feel a little like poking inside the mouth of a sleeping giant.

But floating within the volcano’s crater is a spellbinding experience, made all the better for not having seen anyone other than Ramon all morning. Surrounded by the crater’s rim and the din of the jungle, it’s hard to imagine a better way to end a tough hike.

"It's at least another hour before I stumble from the trees, caked in sweat and wet volcano, like the love child of Indiana Jones and Bear Grylls."

Downhill dash

Our day is far from over, however, and it’s a long way home, meaning the cool-off is a short one. All-too-soon we’re pulling our hiking boots back on for the second leg.

Back at the top, my energy has been truly sapped by the swamp. The answer, suggests Ramon, is to pick up the pace for the downhill, so off we run. Whizzing past armies of leaf-cutter ants, orgies of caterpillars and boisterous gangs of monkeys, I try not to think about what else might lurk on the trees we’re passing through.

Finally, nine hours after setting off and having only seen two other people all day, we emerge from the canopy to collapse dutifully in the bar, completely exhausted but glad to have made it through one of Latin America’s most exhilarating daytrips.

Plan your travel

When to go
The climb is possible at any time of year, but will be far muddier during the rainy season (September to November).
How to get there
There's a twice weekly 4-hour ferry to Ometepe from Granada, while 1-hour boats leave all day from San Jorge, a couple of hours south of Grenada. Once on the island, it's about an hour's drive east to Merida.
Visa
Nationals of many countries, including the US, can stay for up to 90 days with a tourist card obtained on entry.
Gear
Deep mud is a certainty, meaning sturdy boots, such as Phaser Peak Waterproof, are preferable to shoes. Opt for lightweight, quick-dry clothing, ideally pants and a long-sleeve top to cut down on mosquito bites.
Length of Trip
A full day of 7 to 10 hours, dependent on fitness levels and whether you go all the way to the crater lake.
Difficulty
Moderate to hard. Guides are a legal requirement on this very muddy, steep and tricky-to-follow trail. The descent into the crater is particularly challenging.
Accommodation
Eco-hotel Hacienda Merida, at the base of the Maderas Volcano, makes local guides contribute two bottles for their recycling project before being allowed to take guests up the volcano.
Food and Drinks
Nothing will be available on the trail so take a packed lunch, snacks and plenty of water.