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Conquering the (Nicaraguan) Volcano!

May 15, 2012

The hike up Volcán Concepción on the Nicaraguan island of Ometepe was a day of extremes. The volcano stands 1610 meters above sea level, is one of Nicaragua’s highest volcanoes and is also one of its most active. With a starting altitude of 150 meters this would be the highest elevation change I’ve ever completed in one day – Kilimanjaro included. Of course I didn’t realize this until I was well on my way to the summit.

I admit that I wasn’t really feeling this excursion at the beginning. I have been going pretty steady the last 11 days and the hammocks by Lake Nicaragua were really alluring. The hike description provided to us made reference to the necessity for “excellent physical condition for the volcano’s steep and sandy terrain.” It also indicated that it would take us 8-10 hours round-trip. I had kind of skimmed this description and I didn’t give it much thought. I figured that the hike would be slightly more difficult than the Rincon de la Veija volcano hike I completed the week before. I was wrong.

Enthusiastic and naive at the base of Volcán Concepción

We began our day at 7:30am at the trail-head with two guides. The word “trail” is probably not the right word to describe the path we took up the volcano. During the rainy season (which started yesterday) vast amounts of water fall onto the volcano and travel downwards creating a trail. Water takes the path the least resistance and so switchbacks really didn’t apply here whatsoever.

The first hour was easy going and yet I still fell behind the group most times. I have always been slow in motion – slow walker, slow runner, and slow hiker. I had specifically requested a second guide because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to keep up. We began to hear the distinct call of the Howler monkeys [Listen here] as the trail took on a steeper ascent. I was feeling quite good, though a bit hot. My wish was granted and we were greeted with a short rain shower to cool things off.

At 1000 meters we reached the treeline and was met with views of most of the upper reaches of the volcano and some to the scenery below. The clouds were moving in and out quite quickly. Although I was wishing for some light rain I was worried about being caught out in the open in the monsoon-type rainstorm that occurred the night before.

The “trail” got quite steep at this point. We were given gloves by the guides for protection against the sharp volcanic rocks. The remaining 600 meters to the top of the volcano consisted of mostly loose rock. Two steps forward, one step back. It was tough, really tough! I busted out my ipod at some point in an attempt to get me through the grueling ascent. My legs were burning! The guides said that we needed to make it to the top by 1:00pm or we would have to turn back since we would risk not making it to the bottom by sundown. I did a little math and got quite discouraged. I figured there was a chance for the rest of the group and a slim chance for me to make it before the time cutoff. Climbing up a 45 degree angle slope of loose rock for essentially with no goal really sucks. I tried a little negotiation with the guides and tried to ascertain my chances in a percentage. If there was really no way then my life experience with these rocks was really complete and I would have really rather sat down, ate lunch, and waited for the rest to return. I was rather unsuccessful in my attempt to gather information and continued onward. I hate quitting.

Surprisingly, we reached the “almost top” of the volcano. The negotiations continued. There was discouragement to go to the top. “Only the fast ones should go” the guide said. “10 minutes up and 10 minutes down.” The view isn’t any better than this. The sulphur gas can be strong and we have to turn around anyways. In hindsight it was probably stupid to peer over the edge of this sulphur-gas-spewing active volcano but I really needed a win. I finished 3/4 of  marathon in 2009 and most of Kilimanjaro in 2010. Conquering most of this volcano was just not enough. I even brought my Team Diabetes shirt with me since we didn’t get to submit the Rincon de la Veija volcano last week.

Andres, our token adventurer, was game but the rest had conquered enough. Despite discouragement I left my bag to pick up on the way back and scrambled upwards. It took me 9 minutes because I’m awesome like that. Celebratory photographs ensued and we rushed down – not because of the gas but because of the dozens of sulphur-loving wasps!

Going down was a new experience on its own. I was thrilled to use different muscles but it was slow going. And frankly dangerous. Luckily for me my position in life – last place – left me in a safe place. Once or twice our smaller group of summit-happy hikers accidentally kicked up a melon sized rock which took on a life of its own as it sped down towards the other group picking up speed. One of the hikers from another group just had skater shoes on with minimal tread and fell well over a dozen times. I dramatically fell once while finished the sentence: “Finally something I excel aaaaaaattttt.”

We all made it to the treeline without major incident, only some scrapes and bruises – souvenirs from our adventure. My knee injury from last week flared up again and the way down from the treeline was quite painful. Walter – my new best friend and guide – stayed with me the whole way helping me down particularly high steps. When we finally reached the flat section it was heaven. I was certain that the rest of our group were already at the bottom and perhaps transported back to our home-stays but we came across them not too long afterwards. Everyone looked and felt like I did – a bonding moment I think.

I reached the bottom just before 6pm after the sun slipped behind the horizon. I had conquered the volcano and lived to tell the tale!

Happy but injured on the ferry leaving Ometepe with Volcán Concepción in the background.

Extreme Zip-ling in Costa Rica. Not for the Faint of Heart!

May 13, 2012

Remember my inner superwoman? When she saw was confronted by cables that were up to 2550 feet long and 450 feet height she freaked right out! The forest in Monteverde is very beautiful and at the heights we were traveling you could see far and wide. But it’s hard to admire the natural beauty speeding a million miles an hour hoping not to die. So I was grateful that I could complete a couple of the cables with a second person even though Martin totally forgot to break on the first one and we can crashing in! I practically molested one of the guides on the last cable gripping under his leg while screaming bloody murder.

I was really impressed by my group though! Not only were they not super huge wimps like yours truly but they all did the super(wo)man 180ft in the air over a 1km cable, completed the “rappel” – which in my opinion was a slightly slower free fall – and screamed like champs through a 30m Tarzan swing. All these activities I took a huge pass on. I figured I found my inner superwoman and rappelled down waterfalls last week. My life experience in those areas are complete. And the Tarzan swing? well fuck that!

Rafting in La Fortuna, Costa Rica

May 11, 2012

As we pass into the first rapid I am thrown two seats forward and my head smashes into Andreas’ shoulder. Filled with adrenaline he doesn’t even notice or flinch. Dazed I make pick myself off the raft floor and make my way back to my seat. Paddle sort of in the water just hoping for this rapid to end so that I can get my bearings. Ouch! I was rather surprised at this turn of events because this set of rapids are a lower class compared to rafting expeditions I’ve been to previously in Canada.

After a soothing break I compose myself and take the reins at the front of the raft as if I’m riding a bull. There definitely is some advantage to rafting down smaller rapids. There is a fine balance, literally, between falling backwards to the floor of the raft and falling forward head-first into the rapids. Subsequently I leaned towards the former and fall back on Melissa and Andreas one or two times. One of the plus sides of traveling with a group is that they catch you when you fall.

Canyoning in Turrialba, Costa Rica – Challenge Accepted.

May 9, 2012

One would think that rappelling down a waterfall would be challenge enough but it turns out that getting to the waterfalls was the most difficult challenge of this journey.

I booked last minute the evening before and was told that I would have to make my way to Turrialba from San Jose myself. After my uninspiring day in San Jose I would have done anything to get out of the city. I was to find the bus station and take the bus at 7am where I would be picked up in Turrialba at approximately 9am. Easy enough. In the morning I made my way in the direction of the bus station but still found that I had to ask for assistance since it turns out that the bus station was tucked around the corner. Some bad spanglish exchanges later at the ticket booth and I managed to pay in American dollars even though I was not supposed to and was booked on the milk-run 7:30am bus. Most likely because there was a loooong line of annoyed patrons behind me. Apparently there was no 7:00am bus and it appeared that I would arrive well past 9:00am. Taking a bus for over 2 hours for no reason seemed like a terrible idea and I was rather worried about this. More spanglish exchanges with a fellow passenger and I got to use his mobile phone to call the company who was rather non-nonchalant about the whole thing. Even though it was simple enough in the end to navigate my way to another city, I was still feeling quite proud of myself for doing in on my own.

Canyoning didn’t disappoint! I was shown the ropes – literally – and awkwardly lowered myself down the first waterfall. Since I’m not so much a fan of heights I didn’t lean back far enough. I ended up bouncing around a lot and getting a nice bruise/scrap on my left leg to take home as a souvenir. Nature planned out the waterfalls perfectly and they gradually increased in height and difficulty.  I felt less awkward on the second waterfall and by the third I looked fearless. I was not to grow complacent however since the last two waterfalls had huge initial jumps. The rappelling lines were placed over a horizontal rope above. The guides then tightened the rope as much as possible so when you let go you flew through the air. I had to count down from three twice. It was amazing!

30 By 30: Jump Off a Waterfall

May 9, 2012

Close enough!!

An Uninspiring day in San Jose, Costa Rica

May 8, 2012

To me, my hotel is beautiful. It isn’t a 5-star resort but it has character. I have a fluffy king-sized bed and a huge en-suite bathroom. There are 10ft ceilings, dark hardwood doors, and attractive tile. A common room downstairs has sun beaming down on two tables surrounded by tropical plants. Not bad for less than $50/night. The only thing this place seems to be missing is the social atmosphere of travelers in the common areas.

I’m hard-pressed to find anyone at the hotel to keep me company while I wander around San Jose so I leisurely eat my breakfast in the sun and head out alone. After some time I come across a park and spot a lone fellow traveler with reddish-blond hair carrying around his full-sized backpack. I introduce myself inquiring if he in fact speaks English. He does – he’s German. I invite myself to spend the day with him wandering around San Jose. He somewhat reluctantly agrees. He seems tired from his endless search for cheap and decent accommodations.  In a different circumstance I probably would have went along my way but he’s the first obvious traveler I’ve seen all day – and San Jose has been anything but exciting thus far. I walk him back to the backpackers hostel across from my hotel and he wearily gives up his search.

We pick a direction and head back out into the city. I find out that my new friend is a Software Engineer and that he’s even less excited about art galleries and museums than I am – which is a shame since it turns out the rest of the other “highlights” in the city centre are government buildings. There are a few small parks scattered around the city and make our way to every one.  The most entertaining of the parks has a centre dome with what I have determined is the unofficial training ground of busker wannabes. We stand in the dome for a long time waiting out the rain and watch the spectacle. There are three jugglers who are trying to master their craft – I dodge a baton or two. Two unicyclists fall over frequently. An aspiring magician shows us trick and I know exactly how he did it. When we lose interest in the buskers we brave the rain and continue our journey.

I impress my friend with my broken Spanish as I translate for him at shops. A Canadian assisting a European with a language – impossible! Apparently I continue to retain some Spanish from my days living in Mexico as a teenager. I can barely form complete sentences as the words don’t come automatically but I understand most of transaction-type conversations. Hopefully being in Central America for another 3 weeks will jog my memory even more! But for the time being I can’t wait to get out of San Jose!

Finding my Inner Superwoman in Costa Rica

May 6, 2012

“Are you ready?” asks the guide. I’m standing on a platform looking over a lush jungle valley strapped in a harness and secured to a wire. This is the highest zipline I have ever been on and I’m afraid of heights. I’m not ready but I go anyways. “What have I done?” flashes through my mind repeatedly until its interrupted by the guide shouting to let go of the brake.  I didn’t even realize that I had been holding the wire so tightly.

My fear leaves me as I look to the left and see a beautiful waterfall. This is why ziplines were made.

The group testosterone kicks in and Kris does the next line in “butterfly” position – upside down with feet pointing to the sky – while strapped to one of the guides. Matt inevitably follows on the next line with the same position not to be outdone. I am feeling surprisingly confident. Perhaps it was the tranquil surroundings or the support from my new friends but I volunteer to be the next one to do something stupid zipline in a different position. I choose the “Superwoman.”

Everyone ziplines to next platform and I am left alone with the guide. He  first asks me if I’m shy and then if my boyfriend is here with me and waiting on the other side. What have I volunteered for exactly? My back is strapped to the zipline, I am bent over and I am told to wrap my legs around the guide tightly. Well hello there. I let go of the wires and glide like an awkwardly positioned bird to the other side of the valley. Again, again!

I have forgotten all about my fear of heights as we travel from platform to platform. We even see some howler monkeys in the canopy. Two lines to go and I’m feeling sad that it’s almost over. I ask the guide for another way the traverse the zipline since I feel like a pro now. “Double Superwoman” – a menage-a-trois de zipline that can only be explained by photograph. The guide seems quite happy to become a “Reuban Sandwich,” and with that I zipline down backwards, hands-free, with my legs tangled with the other woman’s around the guide. One last short zipline upside-down brings an end to the canopy tour. Amazing!