Strange Hostels and Surviving Concepción
I watched as the perfectly symmetrical cone shaped volcano appeared in the distance. Isla Ometepe lay ahead as we rocked back and forth on the gentle waves of Lago Nicaragua. After I had hurriedly passed through Leon and Grenada, I was looking forward to spending a couple of days chilling on an island.
Ometepe is defined by its two volcanoes: Concepción to the north and Maderas in the south. There’s a road around each and a smaller road that connects the two. The Nicaraguans have turned large tracts of the northern island into arable farmland but much of the island still belonged to the jungle. As the rickety old wooden boat slowly plodded it’s way to the main port, I knew this wasn’t going to be an island packed with resorts and first world comforts.
No, this was going to be a bit more raw.
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The island had a Jurassic Park feel to it. The narrow roads were lined with thick green jungle while the volcanoes dominated the view towards the interior. We hopped in a van and made our way south in search of rooms. Word on the street was that there were two popular hostels on the island: Little Morgan’s and Zopilote. I ended up at the former… big mistake.
Little Morgan’s sits downhill from the main road. The rooms were all open air huts with grass thatch roofs. Being open air, each of the beds had a mosquito net. I picked a bed and when I went to go put my sack down, I noticed a lot of little black dots on the white sheets. Confused, I stuck my head closer and realized that the dots were in fact dead fruit (or related kin) flies. Gross, but not the end of the world. I picked the bed with the least amount of deceased flies, brushed them out, and headed to reception.
There are some hostels where the vibe is chilled out, others where it’s a rager, and others where it’s straight up weird. Little Morgan’s was definitely the latter. The common area resembled what I could only imagine a jungle drug den looks like. Some parts of the ground were paved with concrete but a lot of it was just packed dirt. Grass thatched roofs covered the entire area making it really dark even though it was the middle of the day. People lazed around in the hammocks and tables, some sleeping, some smoking, and some drinking. All of them seemed dazed and confused.
You travel enough and you’ll eventually meet people who have stayed in one place for far too long. Little Morgan’s was full of them. These were people who originally planned on visiting for a few days but ended up liking it so much that they extended for weeks to months or started working there. Inside jokes and banter are the only type of conversation amongst the old guard and as an outsider, you feel like you’ve stumbled upon some secret cult. For many of these people, their entire world had shrunk down to the hostel and the “regulars”, almost as if they were living in some fantasy land.
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I would’ve left Little Morgan’s sooner but I planned on climbing Concepción the next morning. At 5,280 feet, it’s no walk in the park. We woke up at the crack of dawn so we could start climbing by 6am. The hike began in an open patch of volcanic rocks. It was fairly flat to start but as I saw from the boat ride in, the volcano only got steeper the higher we went.
Within half an hour, we were in thick brush and trees. There were parts where you literally had to grab on to branches to pull yourself up. Without our guide, I would’ve gotten completely lost. This wasn’t Yosemite with well maintained paths, marked trails, and a park map. This was Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, in the middle of an island, climbing up a volcano where some guys had found a path up.
That’s not to say our guide wasn’t knowledgeable. He knew every twist and turn on the mountain but he was more or less on his own. You see, there is no such thing as government funds to maintain trails or facilities. They didn’t give a damn about the mountain and whatever tourism it may draw. This was just us versus nature, with nature trying to kick us off the mountain every step of the way. We could either push on and conquer the mountain or be pussies and give up.
Well I hadn’t come all this way to be a pussy. About half way through, I grew tired of the slog and jammed in my headphones to try and sprint the rest of the way, adhering to my philosophy of “might as well get it over with as fast as you can” when it comes to long climbs. As I ascended, I ended up completely enveloped in a cloud. I had climbed through the the morass of vegetation and a barren field of sharp volcanic rocks lay ahead of me. Not much grew up here and with thick fog in every direction, it kind of looked like Mt. Doom, minus the whole fire and ring parts.
I scrambled up further until I smelled sulfur. Not wanting to accidentally fall to my death in the crater, I stopped. I was well ahead of the group so I waited for the rest of them to catch up. We stayed at the top for 15-20 minutes to rest and eat our packed lunches. Then we started making our way down.
This is when I narrowly escaped serious injury. I had grown confident, even cocky, about how well I could navigate the rocks going down. I was moving at a pretty fast pace when my left foot hit a loose patch of rocks. The next thing I remembered was rolling over my left shoulder down the mountain. The sky and ground whirled past me and I felt the sharp stings of getting cut. Somehow, I caught myself standing up after two complete rolls and stopped, dazed and bloody.
The sharp rocks cut up my hands, arms, and legs. Combined with the moisture from the fog, my arm was a soaking mess of water and blood. The guide was in disbelief over what happened. He had never seen anything like it and luckily I had avoided injuries to my head or face. I thought about the time and effort it had taken to climb up the mountain and had I broken a leg or twisted an ankle, Nicaragua would’ve likely been a very different trip. After taking some time to bandage up the cuts, I started (this time a lot more carefully) heading down.
Five hours and fifty two minutes after we started the hike, we were back to the start. The tallest mountain on the island had been conquered and I could now go back and lick my wounds.