Today was the longest and most irritating day of my life. Today was also our 5 year wedding anniversary. Coincidence? Haha!!
Today began early, we met with our group to hike Volcan Concepcion at 5:30am in the hotel restaurant. Our guide arrived (you will see over the course of this post why we´re not a fan), and told us to get going so we would make the bus. So out we went, six of us in total. Ryan and I, two guys from England, a Frenchman, and our German friend from the night before. And Guillermo. We got to a street corner and stood, and waited, and waited. No bus. After the rest of the day happened, we´re pretty sure there never was a bus – rather a way for Guillermo to score another $1 a piece which we later refused to pay.
No bus meant more walking. Now, walking isn´t a bad thing, but when you are about to do a 10-12 hour hike up the steepest volcano in Nicaragua and, as one of our earlier tour guides said, on of the hardest climbs in Central America…avoiding an extra kilometer or so kind of counts. We set off, the Brits and Frenchman setting a quick pace that made me a bit nervous for the rest of the day. As we meandered, Guillermo begins to tell us about his night last night, where he apparently drank 24 litres of beer along with his nephew and a buddy. Awesome. Oh, and he mentions that his nephew took the money the rest of the group had paid him last night (we were the only ones who refused to pay in advance, thinking him a bit shady) and “lost it”. He says this as though we are to feel bad for him. Even better.
We walked to the outskirts of town and started up a rocky dirt road (as most of them are on this island it would seem). Our fearless leader Guillermo stopped at a house and spoke with the couple of men standing out front. He came over and said “they won´t let me take a group this large without another guide, so I have hired this guy to come with us” – he says this as though he is doing us a tremendous favour for which we should repay him later. Fat chance.
So on we go, now with Guillermo and Nelson – Nelson speaks almost no English, which makes later in a journey a bit more interesting. We finally get to the park entrance which is a good 3 kilometers from where we started at the hotel – not one as Guillermo had said. At the hut we meet a young Australian woman who has hired her own guide, planning on only going part way up the volcano. Her guide, we later discovered, speaks Spanish, English, French, German, and Japanese. He said he learned mostly from movies…not sure I buy it but he was entertaining and knew a lot about the flora and fauna on the volcano. As we walked, our group amassed with the Aussie and her guide – and we quickly became a group of 7 with 3 guides.
The first bit of the hike wasn´t so bad – mostly in the trees, and early enough in the day that the heat hadn´t set in yet. This was a bit deceiving. We took several long breaks along the way, and Ryan and I paced ourselves well behind the rest of our gung-ho group to ensure we could maintain through the day. The longer we walked the more I came to think we should be paying the Aussie´s guide, as he was doing most of the guiding – telling us all about the plants that gather water and pointing out certain flowers and bugs.
Finally we reached the treeline. This was not a welcome thing, as the rest of the volcano (about 5/6ths of it) would be hiked in full sun. I re-applied a healthy layer of sunscreen, tightened my hat on my head and on we went. Not long after reaching the sunny bit, Guillermo makes an announcement – he will wait here. That´s right. Our guide has decided that he would rather nap at this point than actually guide. Perfect. So we leave Guillermo behind and continue up the steep, rocky path.
Here´s the thing about climbing a volcano. The path is basically where lava once flowed – now a bunch of volcanic rock. Volcanic rock is not like rock back home – it is very light and porous, so it just scatters under your feet rather than dig into the ground beneath it. A large portion of the climb feels like a scramble, and the rest involves hauling yourself over large boulders. As the incline continued at it´s severe angle, my back started to hurt. Great. All the twisting from scrambling and slipping and catching myself had taken a toll and I was in pain – a lot of pain.
We pushed through. Then the next twist in the story. We reached a point where we stopped to catch our breath and take in the view. It was beautiful – you could see the whole side of the island and the lake. But then the Aussie´s guide mentions that he will have to turn back here, as she had only hired him to go part way and he had a doctor´s appointment scheduled for the afternoon. The Aussie had decided to continue with us to the top. So now we have 7 people and one guide who speaks almost no English. Excellent. Oh, and I haven´t yet mentioned that Nelson is part mountain goat, climbing the volcano in rain boots with his machete in hand. He set a grueling pace, and I couldn´t keep up.
Ryan and I persevered but continued to fall further and further behind. The group would wait, but as soon as we caught up they would be off again. We tried to explain the situation with my back to Nelson – a difficult feat. But he gathered that we needed to go slower, and he tried to accomodate. The group was great, they decided that we started together and we would finish together. On we went. Finally we reached a point where there was no more vegetation at all – just rock. Slippery sliding rock. It was a scramble to the top, and as we neared it the rocks became intensely hot. I went to reach out for on to steady myself as I lost my footing and nearly burned my hand – who knew volcanoes were hot??
We made it. The top was covered in cloud – we had anticipated this as apparently it is always covered in cloud, but we had hoped against hope that it would be clear. We sat and the top, looking into the crater which was also covered in cloud and snacked. My bum was hot. The group was getting a bit restless to get going again – Ryan and I were not. We convinced them to relax a few more minutes, and thank goodness we did as about 3 minutes later the clouds cleared. This was fantastic in that we had a spectacular view of the island, the lake, and the other volcano, as well as a great view into the crater and the smoke and steam emerging from it – a view few have witnessed. The down side was that the cloud went away and didn´t come back…this meant a hot trip down.
The down began – luckily after I had a chance to pop a few painkillers for my back. This made things much more pleasant, at least for the first few hours. About a half an hour into the down portion, we asked Nelson how long it would take to get down. At first we thought we had understood him wrong, as he said it would take longer to get down than it had to get up….this couldn´t be possible, could it?? Turns out, that´s exactly what he said. Bummer.
Down is aweful. It hurts everything, and thanks to the loose rock, you never feel steady and are constantly catching yourself from a near fall. I had one good fall, which was unfortunately broken by a very pointing stick to my behind – a sweet bruise to remind me of that one. Ryan had a few good stumbles too. In addition to the brutal work of going down a path such as this, was the added heat. I was re-applying sunscreen every hour or so, but had quickly noticed that it didn´t seem to be absorbing into my skin thanks to the dripping sweat. Eventually I pulled out my long sleeved shirt – the one we were told to bring because “it can be cold at the top” and put it on to try to keep my arms from burning any more than they already had.
Nelson did a great job leading us, despite his lack of ability to communicate with us very effectively. After what seemed like a long long time, we re-discovered Guillermo. I was ready to push him off the volcano, and little did I know that my irritation with him had just begun. Nelson had, at some point, called down on the radio to tell the hotel and Guillermo that the chica had a problem with her back – so once we met up with Guillermo he stuck pretty closely to us. Kind of nice in a way, but completely annoying as he would bound ahead with all his energy (seemed like he had a good nap), and then seem annoyed that he had to wait for us.
Soon after Guillermo was back in the picture, we began noticing that the Brits were having a bit of trouble. The one guy was not looking so good. We plowed onward, struggling to balance and noticing our legs not wanting to respond the way we wanted them to. Have I mentioned this was our anniversary?? Hours later we came out at a rest stop with a couple benches, just below the treeline. Guillermo said it would take another hour or so to get back from here. It didn´t. I probably should have, but then comes the next twist.
The group leaves the rest stop. Ryan and I, in back as usual, get up slowly and start walking. As we do we notice Rob, the one Brit, looking very woozy and stumbling a bit as he gets up. He has heat exhaustion and doesn´t look good at all. Turns out he´s almost out of water. The group at this point, is gone. We decide to stay with Rob and see if we can cool him off a bit and continue on. So we lay Rob down on a rock, I use Ryan´s baseball cap to fan his face for about 10 minutes and we try to talk with him to keep him conscious. I´m pretty sure if we had left him, he likely would have passed out.
After a while, Rob decides he can try to walk a ways. So we walk, very very slow. This was actually kind of nice for us too. We kept Rob talking and shared a bit of our water while keeping on the lookout for that plant we were told about earlier that stores water. No luck, it grows higher up. But we reached the hut that is the entrance and, while there was no one there, I did spot a pop bottle with water in it. I was not confident that this was drinkable, so we used a bit to pour over Rob´s head to try and cool him down, and we kept going at a snails pace. Later, Ryan found a few leaves from a banana tree that had collected some rain water and dumped those over Rob as well.
We walked and walked. Surprised that we at no point encountered anyone from our group. They didn´t even wait, or send someone back in case one of us had been hurt. See why we´re not fans of Guillermo the guide? It wasn´t until we got well down the dirt road that we finally saw him. He whistled at us, as in “pick up the pace slow pokes”. I could have punched him. I probably should have. We told him the situation and he said to keep walking and he would get Nelson to get his motorbike to take Rob back to the hotel a bit faster.
We later heard from our German friend, that the only reason Guillermo stopped and waited there was because she, and eventually the others, insisted as they were worried. We later discovered that Guides on the island are part of a union, and any guide worth their wage is one that comes clearly marked as part of the United Guides Association (including a T shirt). That would have been good to know. Luckily we all made it back alive, most of us sunburnt and exhausted from the heat. We paid Guillermo reluctantly, and shorted him a few bucks due to the lack of bus and for leaving us behind. He wasn´t pleased but kind of laughed it off. I´m still kicking myself for not punching him.
We made quick work of stripping our warm hiking boots off and hopping into the cold shower. We then made a beeline for a nearby store to buy a bottle of cold water, and walked to Hotel Centrale (our intended hotel for this part of the trip – and it was way nicer, we´re kicking ourselves for this too) for dinner in their restaurant. Turns out, when you eat a few cookies and a bag of chips and drink nothing but water while hiking for 11 hours (yes, 11 hours was the final time) – you don´t feel so good. So we´re sitting in the restaurant, luckily the only ones there, and I feel kind of woozy…Ryan asks if I need a bathroom…I nod…Ryan get´s up…I stand and puke pure water…Ryan looks at the lady who runs the restaurant and says “donde es el baño?”…I puke again…Ryan gets a mop while I sit outside. Hmmm…not quite the romantic anniversary dinner/volcano conquering celebration I had in mind. Thankfully the rastaurant lady looked as though this was nothing new, Ryan brought me a glass of orange juice and we sat out in the air until dinner was on the table. I had pasta, it was not so good. Ryan had fish – apparently the best fish he has ever had. Our friend Peter from New Zealand and our German friend joined us part way through and we recounted the tale of our hike to him. Ryan and I left, I puked in the bushes two more times before we got back to our hotel. Ryan wouldn´t let me drink anything else…probably a good plan. My sunburn is pretty intense, and Ryan´s farmers tan is brutal. We learned a lot today about ourselves, and Ryan promised that next year we can be laying on a beach for our anniversary – you may be required to bear witness to that a year from now. Happy 5 years to us!