When we hiked the dormant Acatenango Volcano in neighbouring Guatemala, it was one of our highlights of our entire time in Central America.
Setting up camp for the night while looking out for a clear and close up view or the erupting Fuego volcano in the near distance was amazing.
Now it was time to step things up a notch.
By this point, we had continued our travels around Central America and were now down in Nicaragua, enjoying an easy life of fresh fruit, beaches and no worries.
The thing about relaxing though, is that it’s just too easy.
We decided to push on for the next challenge.
It was time to have a crack at hiking an active volcano.
And not just any active volcano.
But one of the most active volcanoes in Nicaragua.
Travelling To Ometepe Island
The island of Ometepe is actually just two volcanos that rise clean up out of the middle of the largest lake in Central America.
There’s the 1,610m high volcano Concepcion and the smaller 1,394m tall volcano Maderas.
These two towering volcanoes are linked together by a small isthmus of rock and rubble expelled over the course of several thousand years of irregular and unpredictable eruptions.
Access to the island is by boat only (unless you have a small fortune to spend on a charter flight), and to do that you need to first find your way to San Jorge on mainland Nicaragua.
San Jorge is the main port town for Ometepe Island and is little more than a 5 minute shuttle bus or taxi ride from the main public bus terminal at Rivas.
This post has a really good breakdown of exactly how to get there and if you’re looking for more details on what busses and boats you’ll need to get, you should check that out. You can also keep scrolling down this article for help on getting around Ometepe Island once you get here.
Should You Hike Concepcion or Maderas?
This is the biggest debate most people have when they visit here.
On paper it might look like these two sister volcanoes are pretty similar.
In reality though, they’re completely different.
While smaller Maderas volcano is still considered active, there hasn’t been any confirmed activity there for around 3,000 years.
Over time, the crater at the peak of the volcano has filled with water to form a lagoon and most of the volcano now sits inside a UNESCO biosphere reserve.
Due to its relatively inactive recent history, the slopes and peak of Maderas are covered in thick cloud forest and play home to a whole host of wildlife and diverse plant life.
In contrast, the tops of neighbouring Concepcion volcano are comparatively bare and devoid of much life. While the lower 2/3rds of Concepcion’s slopes support similar cloud forest terrain to Maderas, the top section close to the cone is rocky and barren.
This is due to Concepcion’s near continuous activity.
While fumes and plumes of smoke can nearly always be seen billowing from the top of Concepcion, frequent minor eruptions of rock, debris and small amounts of lava make the volcanoes top 1/3rd completely inhospitable to almost any form of life.
The Ometepe Nicaragua website also has some awesome aerial shots of the two volcanoes so you can see exactly how different these two volcanoes are.
We called it.
In for a penny, in for a pound, as the saying goes.
We were to hike the big one.
Hiking Volcano Concepcion
Having made the call to hike Volcano Concepcion, we were stoked to get started on what promised to be a really unique hike.
Truth be told, we were probably equally excited for the chance to get up close to some of the howler monkeys we’d heard inhabit the lower slopes of the volcano, as we were for the actual hike itself.
As I mentioned above, the lower two thirds of Volcano Concepcion is something of a flora and fauna haven.
The lush, highly fertile soil is packed full of nutrients and vital plant energy that comes from years of built up volcanic deposits.
In it’s eruptions, the volcano spits out ash that’s high in important minerals like phosphates, nitrates, potassium and calcium among many others. When this concentrated ash mixes with the soil on the slopes below, the conditions for abundant plantlife are perfect.
With a healthy forest to work with, the slopes of Concepcion support a vast array of wildlife.
And that includes the famously loud howler monkeys that can be heard calling all over Ometepe Island.
After hearing their calls for the last few weeks, this was our best shot yet at seeing them, and another big reason for taking on the hike.
We’d just about managed to make our way across to Ometepe Island after a fairly hairy ride on a ‘ferry’ that looked like it has been recently dredged up from the depths of the lake and patched up. Poorly.
Normally if I’m on a boat and they hand out life jackets, I know it’s nothing more than an overcautious health and safety measure. On this boat though, it’s just being practical.
The crossing to the island is notoriously sketchy and there are stories (although I’ve never actually found anything to back up those stories) of numerous boats getting into trouble and occasionally sinking on this crossing.
But we’d made it. We were there and we were ready to hike Concepcion!
We made the call pretty early on to hire a local guide for this demanding hike, figuring that the few bucks would be money well spent if it meant us making sure we were sticking to the safest possible route up the volcano.
After all, this was an active volcano and the last thing we needed was to accidentally end up in the middle of some fresh hot lava, or worse, pick a day where the weather would come in an spoil the view.
Luckily the owner of the little hotel we were staying at (more on that below) was amazing.
He couldn’t do enough to help us and that extended to finding us a great local guide with years of experience hiking both Concepcion and Maderas.
The guy doesn’t really have any contact details and as far as we could work out he just gets sent business by one or two of the local hotels and hostels when their guests start asking about hiking one of the volcanoes.
If you’re keen to get in touch with him, just ask around at the hostel or hotel you’re staying at or go down to the Lazy Crab hostel and sign up there.
As it turns out, we were here in the peak of the rainy season.
Not really ideal.
It was going to be a long day and we had to get a head start on it if we wanted to try and beat the clouds.
We set off from our hotel at first light.
After a few phone calls and lots of translation help from the owner of our small hotel (Los Cocos – check it out if you need somewhere to stay. The owner is brilliant and very helpful), we had arranged to meet our guide at the bus stop outside the front of the hotel at 6am.
Told you it was going to be an early start.
After meeting up with our guide for the day, we jumped on the chicken bus and made our way to the other side of the island. We were staying on the Maderas side and needed to get over to the other end if we wanted to hike Concepcion.
The public busses are really easy here, since there’s only really one road.
It just makes a figure of 8 around the two volcanoes.
So you can’t really get lost. You just have to make sure you’re going the right way around the loop or things are going to take a lot longer.
Luckily though, our guide had lived here all his life, so we were in pretty good hands.
We eventually got off the bus in what looked like the middle of nowhere.
Now we were ready to start the hike.
Without any hesitation at all, our guide picks up the beginning of the trail, and we start tracking along a small farm track cut through the forest.
After about half an hour of cutting through inbetween forest and small patches of cleared farmland, we reach a small wooden building that marks the entrance to the volcano.
Apparently this is the point where the “entrance fees” are collected.
We’d heard about this before, so it was no surprise.
But getting up there and seeing the setup does kind of make you wonder just exactly how legitimate the entrance fee is.
The building is just a little wooden hut on the hillside that doubles as a tuck shop selling drinks and snacks to hikers on their way up/down the volcano, and the small family that run it also seem to have cleared some small patches of land around it to set up a small farm.
It hardly screams official, but then again, we’re in Central America. And I’m not going to begrudge anyone a couple of dollars.
We pay our fee and enjoy the view for a quick snack break.
Then it’s onto the hard part.
The steep uphill through the forest continues.
We break regularly for water and a hurried handful of trail mix, spotting more howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys, birds and even a couple of snakes poking out through the branches and rocks around us.
Just don’t ask me what type of snakes they were – there was no way I was getting close enough to find out.
Eventually, the trees give way to encroaching rubble and everything gets a little bit more grey.
Including, the sky.
Our guide points at the giant leaves of a big furn type plant that suddenly seems to make up most of the vegetation around us.
“Por agua. Por agua, si?”
Literally, what he’s saying is, “for water”.
What he means is…umbrella.
I think that means we’re going to get wet.
When we get to the top of the cone, it’s a soggy scramble across loose stones and big boulders.
The going is tough, and it shows in the pace.
Eventually though, with the aid of a few strategic chocolate energy boosters, we make it to the top and peer over the rim of the crater and into the deep void below.
The sulfur smell is huge, and it’s difficult to tell where the volcano fumes end and the rain clouds begin.
Either way, we can’t see much.
We try to gauge the depth of the volcano’s crater by throwing rocks into it and counting the seconds before we hear them land with an echoed thud.
I’m sure there’s a formula for working that out, but I’ve no idea what it is.
Physics was never really my strong point.
When we Google’d it later, we would find out that the crater is 250 meters deep, and almost 300 meters in diameter.
More than enough to spell trouble for us if we loose our footing or have a slight lapse in concentration.
With that thought in our minds, and rain soaked clothes on our backs, it was time to start our decent back down to a hot shower and a cold beer.
The way back down is made a lot easier, when our guide tells us about a “quick route”.
A loose finger of sandy, ash type material that would have been a nightmare to walk up, makes for a pretty cruisey way down.
It’s exactly like running down a giant sand dune, and at least twice as much fun as you’d expect it to be.
The trick is to zig zag it so you don’t build up too much speed.
And keep your legs bent and ready.
It’s kind of like snowboarding. You’re going fast and leaning back, digging your feet in to slow yourself down, but if you take your eyes off of what’s in front of you, you’re going to hit that big rock that’s poking up in front of you and have yourself a problem.
After a bit of skidding and semi-controlled falling, you’ve cracked it.
In a matter of minutes we’re back in the forest and half way down the volcano.
The clouds aren’t lifting, but that’s OK.
We hiked an active volcano and that’s good enough luck for me.
Once our easy ash finger ended, we rejoined the main trail and finished off our legs with another hour of uneven downhill.
Almost back out of the forest, we’re treated to our closest view of the howler monkey family yet.
They’re playing in the trees right above us and we quickly snap off a few blurry photos.
Then it’s back on the chicken bus and straight into a hot celebration shower.
What To Pack For Hiking Concepcion Volcano
If you’re thinking of taking on the Concepcion hike, here’s what you’ll need to pack:
- Water – at least 3 litres. It’s hot here and there’s nowhere to refill.
- Snacks – trail mix, nuts, fruit, chocolate.
- Sandwiches. PB is a good choice. Packed full of protein and it’s not going to go off.
- A waterproof bag – a good dry bag to keep your essentials and any electronics and cameras dry is crucial.
- Shoes you don’t care about – the ash will pretty much ruin them.
- A light, windproof layer – it’s open and exposed at the top and you’ll want something to keep the breeze off.
- A guide – You can do this on your own, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The guides are cheap and well worth the 15 or so dollars for their experience, knowledge and expertise.
- Some small change for the bus there and back – don’t expect the drivers to have change. If you take a local guide, you’ll be paying for his bus too.
Getting Around Ometepe Island
The island is a fair size – bigger than I had expected – but getting around it is super easy.
As I mentioned above there is one main road that forms a figure of 8 loop around the island and busses make regular laps of it.
Check out this map to get your bearings and get a feel for what I’m talking about:
Once you arrive off the ferry, you’ll have the usual crowd of hopeful taxi drivers all waiting to take you wherever on the island it is you want to go.
A better tip though, is to use the bus. It’s easy and costs a fraction of what the taxi guys will charge you.
From the ferry port, walk out and back up to the main road and wait. There will be a bus along in a couple of minutes.
You literally can’t go wrong.
Just make sure you’re heading in the right direction, or things are going to take a bit longer than you’d hoped. Saying that though, you’ll still get there, so it’s not the end of the world.
Due to a hectic day of busses and missed boats, we docked in Moyogalpa about half an hour after the last bus of the day.
So, to try and save a little bit of a headache (and because we knew the taxi drivers at the port would be adding zeros left right and center) we decided to pre-arrange a collectivo type shuttle bus to take us to our planned accommodation once we arrived at the port in Ometepe.
I’m trying to remember how much we paid for that…I think it might have been around 5 USD, but don’t quote me on it.
In any case, it was cheaper than it would have been to arrange a taxi on the other end.
And a lot less hassle! After a few months in Central America constantly trying to barter with the hustle and bustle at ports and terminals, it’s kind of nice to not have to think about that for once.
Renting Mopeds & Scooters On Ometepe
Most people also rent scooters or mopeds for a day or two for some self guided touring of the island.
Be warned though – most of the roads aren’t great. And at some points the tarmac completely gives way to gravel and dirt. If you’re an inexperienced biker, take extra care to make sure you don’t end up with a “gringo stamp” moped injury.
You can get day rates for about $20 US from most of the rental places around the islands. Gas is more expensive on the island than on the mainland, but you’re in Nicaragua, so it’s still pretty cheap.
Here’s some of the main spots and sights to check out if you do decide to rent yourself a moped for the day:
- La ojo de agua – A natural hot spring in a river. It’s been developed into a small resort and has all the facilities there you’ll need. Entrance is 2 USD and last entrance is 4pm. Great place to cool off on a hot day.
- San Ramon Waterfall – aka The Waterfall. Located over on Maderas side, just past San Ramon. It’s a beautiful 35m high waterfall located on the South end of Maderas. This post is great for more info and pics.
Where To Stay On Ometepe Island
Most people who comes to Ometepe come with the intention of hiking one or the other of these two great volcanoes.
And there’s a small community of people who live and do business here to service that small but steady stream of eager adventurers.
The island is a decent size, and there are several different villages and developments that have sprung up on its shores and on the flatter ground at the base of it’s two main attractions.
If you came in on the ferry from San Jorge, which is what most people do, you’ll likely have arrived into Moyogalpa on the Concepcion side of the island.
Moyogalpa is the largest town on the island and there are heaps of accommodation options around here as well as shops and food and drink places.
The Concepcion side is also the much more developed and built up side of the island, and while the Maderas end does still have it’s fair share of people, the majority of people choose to stay over on Concepcion.
We headed straight for Maderas.
We stayed in Santa Cruz at a very small place called Los Cocos and I highly recommend it.
When we were driving here, the guy driving our little shuttle bus was convinced we’d made a mistake.
“Los Cococs…only food!”
And until quite recently he’d have been right.
Cococs started out life as a restaurant, but the guy has recently added a small building at the back with about 8 rooms, which he has just started to offer as a hotel.
It’s fairly standard as far as the rooms go – on the upper end of basic. But the owner is one of the most helpful hotel owners I’ve ever met. He’s one of those guys who just can’t do enough for his guests. And he makes an awesome coffee!
Here’s the link if you want to check it out for yourself.
Here’s some other good accommodation options listed by town.
Accommodation on Concepcion, Ometepe Island
Accommodation on Maderas, Ometepe Island
Truth be told, it doesn’t really matter too much which place you stay in in terms of the location. The islands small enough and easy enough to get around that it’s all much the same either way. The only thing I would say is to maybe try and stay on the same side as whichever volcano you intend to hike. But even that’s not too much of a biggie…we stayed on the Maderas end and hiked Concepcion. It just means you need to get one extra bus.
Ometepe Quick Facts
| Cool Ometepe Facts:
- Ometepe is the largest island inside the largest lake in Central America.
- The lagoon at the top of Maderas Volcano is a lagoon on an island in a lake.
- The island was a 16th century pirate stronghold before the Spanish invaded and settled there.
|Things To Do:
- Hike a volcano!
- Beach time at Punta Jesus Maria ($1)
- Cool off at Ojo de Agua ($3)
- Check out Charco Verde nature reserve
- Rent a motorbike and drive the island loop
- Hike the other volcano!
| Where To Stay:
$ – “I’m on a budget” – Lazy Crab Hostel
$$ – “I want my own room” – Spicy Mango
$$/$$$ – “I want to be comfy and have a enjoy it” – Los Cocos
$$$ – “Gimme the good stuff” – Finca San Juan de la Isla
Take a bus to the main terminal at Rivas, on the mainland.
Take a collectivo/shuttle bus/taxi to San Jorge – the ferry port.
Ferry to Moyogalpa on Ometepe Island. Buy tickets from the big blue office building before entering the port area, or walk into the main port complex and look for the crowd of shouting guys selling tickets and book there. You can’t miss them.
Are you heading to Ometepe? Do you plan to hike the volcanoes? Let me know in the comments below!