If you’re looking for a hiking challenge, I found it in Nicaragua. I’ve done a lot of hiking but the 16km hike up Volcano Concepcion nearly beat me – but it was all worth it for the views and the sense of achievement at the peak. How many people can say they hiked to the top of an active volcano?
About the Volcano and Ometepe Island
Volcano Concepcion is located in the northwest of Ometepe Island. The island lies in the 8000 square kilometre Lake Nicaragua. You can get a good view of part of the lake and some of the hundreds of islets from Mombacho Volcano near Granada.
Ometepe Island is accessible by boat from the port of San Jorge – about 90 minutes by public bus from Granada with a change at Rivas. It is the largest island in Lake Nicaragua and is home to about 50,000 people.
From San Jorge, it’s a 60 to 90 minute journey by ferry across to the island. Cost of the ferry is $US2 ($A2.80).
You can see the Concepcion Volcano from San Jorge – a dominating feature in the landscape. Nearby is the slightly shorter Volcano Maderas.
I went to Ometepe Island with a tour through G Adventures. During my stay, all members of our tour group lived with local families in the peaceful village of Puesta Del Sol and gained an insight into local life. The homestay is organised through G Adventures and the Planterra Foundation, a non-profit organisation working to provide benefits to under served communities through tourism.
There is also accommodation on the island near the port if you are travelling independently. From Puesta Del Sol, it’s about a 15 minute drive to the start of the Concepcion Volcano hike.
Hiking Concepion Volcano
A guide is mandatory to hike the volcano. It’s very steep with sharp, jagged rocks and there is a trail only part of the way up. If you’re caught without a guide, you will be fined. Remember it’s also an active volcano and has been known to expel magna rocks without much warning. You want someone knowing what they’re doing up there and the safe places to walk.
Prices for a guide vary depending on the number of people, but my group of seven paid $US45 for two guides. This included the $US3 entry to the National Park and a lunch pack. Our group quickly was split into two with some group members easily ascending, while others were a bit slower and a guide was assigned at the start and end of the group.
I was extremely glad to have guides on my group’s hike. Our guides Louie and Walter helped me through the hardest sections, which were mostly very slippery rocks and volcanic sand. It’s very easy to get fatigued, but these guides do the hike most days and are very experienced and have legs of steel!
For the hike, you’ll need to bring sunscreen, insect repellent, at least three litres of water, snacks, a windproof jacket, good hiking or trail shoes (you’ll want good grip on your shoes), sunglasses, and long pants – it can get cold at the top. Something to cover your nose and mouth such as a towel may also be useful to deal with the sulphur smoke at the top. If the sulphur smoke is strong when you ascend, you will only spend a maximum of 10 minutes at the top.
The peak of Volcano Concepcion is at a height of 1600 metres, and the hike starts at an elevation of 130 metres – so it’s quite a climb.
We started the hike at about 6.45am. The hike takes on average between 8-10 hours return. No hikers are allowed up after midday.
The first 2km is a flat but sandy and rocky path but will help warm you up for the steep climb ahead.
Once you reach the base of the volcano, it’s pretty much straight up from there without much reprieve.
The base of the volcano is heavily vegetated. It’s shady, but can be very humid. Be prepared to sweat. There’s seating along the way and your legs will thank you for a regular rest. On the way, you’ll pass a banana plantation and hear and hopefully see howler monkeys up in the trees.
The jungle section takes about two hours to get through and is a combination of formalised steps and tree roots. Your calves will get a big workout from the get go as you head up.
Once you get out of the jungle, the rest of the way is very exposed and can get windy.
Slap on some sunscreen and keep your wind jacket ready.
It gets even harder after the jungle and you’ll wonder how you will possibly get up to the top.
First up, it’s a sometimes muddy path winding up the volcano which quickly turns to sandy rock. I found the sandy rock the most difficult section to get up, as well as down, and I needed help from the guides as my calves were very fatigued at this point.
At the 1300 metre mark, you’ll have the chance for a rest stop to have a bite to eat and rest your legs and decide if you can go on. Only 50 per cent of hikers make it to this point – 25 per cent make it to the top.
At this point, the guide was concerned about my legs and if I continued up, if I would be safely able to make it down.
I wanted to continue – determined to reach the top as this was one of the hikes I really wanted to tick off my bucket list – and it was one of the main activities I came to Central America to do.
My legs were sore but I wasn’t exhausted, so I decided to continue and it did get easier on my legs as the hike turned into more of a scramble and I basically crawled up the rockface. From 1300 metres up, a strong wind swept over the volcano and I wanted to keep myself as close to the volcano face as possible.
It’s pretty close to vertical as you pass the 1400 metre mark and then get up to the 1500 metre mark. My rock crawl did the trick though as I covered the distance much quicker than the other sections. The hardest bit was getting over any nerves about how high up I was and the consequences should I slip. But I continued to keep my body low and kept on climbing up.
At the 1500 metre mark, I was so close and gathered all my energy to make the final push up.
It didn’t take me long to get tantalisingly close to the summit – but then you’re buffeted by very strong winds and tiny rocks stinging any exposed parts. This is where you will really need sunglasses to avoid getting the rocks in your eyes. The guide really helped me here to push through the wind and make it to the top.
All that effort was certainly worth it – we were lucky to get great 360 degree views over Ometepe Island, down the volcano and across Lake Nicaragua. You could even see Mombacho Volcano in the distance, and we got to see the sides of Concepcion’s crater as it belched a steady stream of sulphuric smoke. Many hikers don’t get to see the crater or the view due to the sulphuric smoke or cloud cover so we were lucky.
The hard bit is far from over once you’ve reached the crater – going down is not as strenuous but harder technically to make sure you don’t slip.
It’s a little scary starting the descent down – I couldn’t really do the rock crawl this time and you realise how high up you are. It’s slow going over the jagged rocks and then you reach the slippery part. This section was very hard. Even with the guide holding my hand and telling me where to stand, my feet slid out from under me about half a dozen times – but luckily the guide stopped me from falling too far. It took us about 90 minutes to cover the slippery section and we were all exhausted by the concentration. It was a relief to reach the mud and dirt trail and have the jungle section in sight.
Expect your knees to be aching once you reach the jungle and the descent will be slow and painful. I found the ascent harder, but many members of my group found the downhill harder due to their knees.
Including breaks and the time spent at the top, it was a 10 hour return hike and we got back to the start of the trail about 4.30pm.
Yes, the hike hurt – it was very challenging mentally and physically but the feeling of reaching the top was sensational and I have no regrets. It was definitely the hardest hike I’ve ever done.
The best bit about being on an island on a hike was the refreshing water so close by. Once we returned to our accommodation, we ditched our shoes, and ran in still clothed in our hiking gear into the waters of Lake Nicaragua – washing off all the volcanic dust and resting our tired muscles with a cold beer in hand of course!
Concepcion Volcano is not the only highlight on Ometepe Island. Other members of my tour group hired mopeds and rode around the island while I did the hike, stopping at pretty beaches along the way; and visited the cool springs Oje de Agua – which offered a reprieve from the heat on Ometepe and also a rope swing to test your back and front flip skills.