The northwest half of Ometepe island is formed by the domineering figure of Concepción Volcano. At 1610 metres, Concepción is Nicaragua’s second highest volcanic peak, and with 26 confirmed eruptions over the last century, its most active. The last major eruption was in 1986, when explosions over a two-month period destroyed all vegetation west of the volcano for 3km and forced residents in the village of San José to evacuate their homes. Today, the volcano is continuously emitting gases, often filling the crater with sulphuric smoke and steam.
In order to hike Concepción, a guide is mandatory and an early start is required in order to get a lead on the heat of the day, so plan ahead. The tour company will provide minibus transit to the trailhead, a short drive north of Moyogalpa. The beginning of the trail is marked by a stilted, wooden cabin, here the $3 entry is payable and there are bathroom facilities.
The initial leg of the hike is on a shaded cattle trail, which cuts through fields of sesame, beans, and plantains. The incredibly mineral-rich and fertile volcanic soils found on Ometepe are ideal for agriculture and provide 60% of the population with employment. The path is a mixture of mud and volcanic rock made soft underfoot through regular tamping by the hooves of oxen and cows, and in the bordering trees noisy green parakeets and magpie jays have their early morning arguments whilst playful squirrels chase between branches. Hawks are residents here too, using these trees as a crow’s nest where they can keep watch over the neighbouring fields.
As the gradient begins to increase, the forest around the trail thickens. Underfoot, the gravel path is now littered with large volcanic rocks, subtle, early reminders to the violent and explosive power of the volcano. These forested lowlands are humid, but thankfully rest stops are common and many even display information specific to the stop. Of particular interest is La Ceiba Anterrada, an enormous 500 year old ceiba tree, whose trunk was buried by 15 metres of earth during one of the frequent landslides that impact these slopes. The result is a canopy layer protruding directly from the ground, rendering the once towering primary branches into a comfy, convenient bench.
Some 45 minutes into the hike and the trail gets even steeper. Now the farmland which comprised each side of the track is replaced by dense forest, moving with life. Above the path troops of howler monkeys scour the canopy, feeding from the dragonfruit cacti which hang from the canopy, and white-faced capuchin monkeys creep through the lower branches of the understory. Hummingbirds and butterflies flash between trees on the hunt for nectar, all amongst the deafening racket of cicadas and magpies. The plant life too is spectacular. An array of vibrant orchids spring from the enormous trunks of emergent trees. Wild coffee plants with their distinctive green and red berries occasionally line the path beneath giant avocado trees and guineo banana palms. At its most steep, the trail is replaced by crude steps and at others, extensive root systems span the path, turning the hike into a clamber. Although progress is demanding, rest stops are frequent and often provide glimpses through the forest to breathtaking shots of Ometepe’s fields and coastline and Lake Nicaragua beyond.
The dense jungle that blanket the lower slopes of Concepción stretches up to 1000 metres. Above this height, regular volcanic activity prevents any permanent coverage from forming. In the uppermost section of forest the change in foliage comes quickly and dramatically. Gone are the large ceibas, instead the trees here are a great deal younger and shorter. The ground layer of shrubs is less cluttered and noticeable is the surprising addition of many agave cacti. Without the blanket of dense thicket, temperatures quickly drop along with the once deafening calls of exotic jungle birds, creating an eerie stillness. Nestled into the slopes here is a wooden cabin, a safe haven to rest when weather conditions are adverse. Just beyond the outermost stretch out of the forest is the viewpoint, a small plateau of volcanic rock atop steeply sloping heathland. On a very clear day, views from here can stretch over the lake, beyond the mainland to the pacific. Many hikers decide to use the viewpoint as an endpoint if they do not wish continue to the crater.
Above the viewpoint the landscape undergoes a complete transformation. Again, the gradient of the slope increases and now the muddy trail is replaced by a rough track of loose volcanic rocks. Mossy banks either side provide no protection from the sun and the wind, but despite the exposure some small, pretty shrub flowers are able to thrive here, clinging to the last vestiges of soil. As the altitude increases however, the green starts to be completely removed from the palate, leaving only a picture of red and black sand and rock. The trail doesn’t seem to be a specific route but does occasionally traverse or run alongside, deep gullies formed by historic lava flows that have periodically shaped and scarred this barren landscape.
At around 1300 metres the landscape shifts once again and anything remotely earthly is replaced by monolithic basalt boulders and rusty tephra. Dense clouds regularly reduce the visibility to just a few metres, only contributing to the otherworldly desolation. By now, the trail is constantly shifting and moving underfoot, demanding total focus in order to steer a firm path through the scree. It is good practice to treat the larger, more stable boulders as stepping stones, as missteps can often send an avalanche of rubble streaming downhill. Above the boulder field, the final 100 metres are the steepest. The approach is an almost constant 45° incline but here the ground is firmer and path more obvious. By now the rotten egg stench of sulphur commands the wind, billowing from fumaroles that open up beneath the path, an incredible reminder of how active Concepción is. Guides often take advantage of the heat released by these vents, leaving food or coffee here when ascending in order to enjoy a warm feed on the descent.
The summit is located on the western rim of Concepción’s enormous crater. A clear view into the crater is usually prevented by clouds of sulphuric smoke, but standing at its peak, the sense of achievement from conquering Concepción’s hostile slopes is astounding. The inhospitality of the crater is unmistakeable, the air is thick with fumes and surrounding rocks are painted white by sulphuric deposits. Amazingly, life does exist here, certain species of insects and spiders feed directly on the sulphur and are able to thrive in these exposed, harsh conditions. In the months of April and May, when the volcano is at its most active, it may only be possible to spend one minute here due to the emission of noxious gases.
Hiking Concepción is incredibly challenging, but with correct preparation, very achievable. A decent pair of walking shoes are essential as the loose stone trail offers almost no grip. Sunscreen, a waterproof jacket and a sun hat are important too, conditions can change very quickly on the volcano and the upper-third is totally exposed. Every climber should also bring at least 3 litres of water and enough food for a full day of actvity. Hiking to the crater takes 7 to 10 hours, alternatively allow 4 to 6 hours to reach the viewpoint.