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Sweat, sulfur and climbing volcanoes in majestic Nicaragua

TODAY NICARAGUA TRAVEL – When you see it from the ferry, you suddenly understand why this is a nation of poets. An inhabited island in the sapphire waters of Lake Nicaragua, Ometepe is composed of two side-by-side volcanoes.

Ometepe is an island in southwest Nicaragua’s vast Lake Nicaragua. It’s known for its twin volcanoes.

Maderas, the southernmost, is almost 1,400 meters tall. It’s been dormant since the age of mammoths and is home to the only cloud forest on the Pacific side of the country. But Concepcion is the real draw.

At just over 1,600 meters, it’s often wreathed in clouds of sulfur, and its gradual, jungle-clad slopes lead to a busy copper-colored cone that last erupted in 2010. A handful of years ago, for reasons that are hard to pinpoint, I decided to climb it.

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It was midfall, a month before a stacked election returned presidential incumbent Daniel Ortega to power and touched off a cycle of political violence and economic decline that’s still underway. The country was enjoying a period of relative calm and growth, and it was a privilege to travel its western corridor.

I landed in the capital of Managua before bussing north to Leon, the heart of the more than a decade-long Nicaraguan Revolution that saw the Sandinista National Liberation Front, of which Ortega was a leader, overthrow the violent, oppressive, and U.S.-allied Somoza dynasty.

Léon is a friendly, beautiful city: a student hub full of churches and cathedrals, narrow streets lined with rainbow-colored shops, and a busy market packed with handmade jewelry, mangoes, and beach clothes. But signs of the revolution linger throughout, from bullet-blasted walls to chilling torture chambers and stunning political murals, including a portrait of poet Rigoberto Lopez Perez. In 1956, after leaving behind a farewell letter to his mother, he fatally shot Anastasio Somoza García — then the country’s leader and the forefather of the Somoza family dictatorship — at a party and died in a storm of bullets immediately after.

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In a somber mood, I traveled south past Managua and down to Granada, the political counterpoint of Leon. Home to the country’s elite during the Somoza years, the city remains defined by colonial architecture — though its man-made splendor is easily eclipsed by nearby Masaya, another active volcano just 25 minutes away. Classified as a caldera, it’s a huge crater sloshing with lava and reeking of sulfur.

I took a bus to its rim and peered over the guardrails. It was like staring into a time capsule. I stood there imagining four billion years of violent planetary development, meteor strikes and spontaneous crystallizations.

I wondered if, with an estimated 100 thousand million stars in a universe that contains an estimated 30 quintillion galaxies, could it be remotely unlikely that an almost identical attraction exists somewhere overhead?

Feeling very cosmic, I took a bus to San Juan del Sur, another key draw in Nicaragua’s western corridor. A surfer town with an absurd party atmosphere, it’ll swallow you whole if you stay too long. Luckily, it’s only 40 minutes from San Jorge, which is where I needed to drag my desiccated husk to catch the ferry to Ometepe.

After all the bustle of Managua, Leon, Granada, Masaya, and San Juan, landing on Ometepe was like falling into a deep sleep. And I needed a bit of rest. Depending on how fit you happen to be, hiking Concepcion takes six to ten hours and swells from mellow to manageable to what-the-hell-am-I-doing in fairly short order. But, my god, is it ever beautiful.

I put several liters of water in a backpack and joined a group of tourists one mizzling morning as our guide led us into the jungle’s damp green thickness. Everything smelled fresh and flourishing. The terrain was rocky and washed out from recent rains, and I had to use my hands almost as much as my feet, grabbing at roots and tree trunks to pull myself up the steeps. Howler monkeys swung through the trees, and a family of white-faced capuchins, tails wound around branches, looked down on us with dark, uncertain eyes.

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We fell into a strangely athletic trance, a sweat-soaked, pain-infused zombie stomp, and after maybe four hours, we emerged from the jungle at the base of the cone. We could smell sulfur now, and the climb got even steeper, the terrain even harder. This is where the scramble really started. I had to watch for flying rocks kicked loose by other hikers, and the guide made sure we stayed on a pretty tight course. Too far to one side and we could’ve fallen off a cliff or burned ourselves on a vent.

The summit was a staggering thing. We all crowded onto a surface no larger than a dining room table. Clouds swirled around us, dizzying and sulphuric, with only occasional windows through the fog. The sun had come out, and the view of Lake Nicaragua thousands of feet below was mind-expanding. Known as Cocibolca to Nahuatl speakers, it’s the largest freshwater body in Central America, and much like the rest of the country, it’s the stuff of magical imagery: sharks call it home, and like salmon, they skip their way from the ocean up the San Juan River and into what must be an immensely satisfying buffet.

Because there’s relatively little daylight at that latitude, we couldn’t spend too long at the summit and quickly started to slog our way back down as the sky grew overcast once more. It was somehow harder than going up, a three-hour journey that ground the remaining cartilage out of my knees.

By the time we got back to the village of Moyogalpa, my body was an ancient ruin. But it was worth it. We sat together in a bar eating fresh fish, drinking beer, and staring into the pitch-black sky, knowing we’d been up there just a few hours before, volcanic overlords in a land of poetry.

Article by Paul Carlucci first appeared at Thestar.com. Click here to read the original.

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