"How many glasses of wine would you like to drink tonight?" the waiter asked in a mix of Spanish and English.
"Three," I said, then paused. "Make it four."
It was not even 7 p.m., but the sun had long ago dipped into the dark waters of Lago de Nicaragua. It was going to be a long night.
The receptionist had left at 4 p.m., and the restaurant staff was itching follow his lead. They had asked us to order our dinner before we set out in our rented canoes for a sunset paddle. By the time we got back our table was set. Traveling in Nicaragua in low season, which stretches from May to November, we were often the only guests at the hotels where we stayed. Here, on the side of the small lagoon of Charco Verde on the island of Ometepe, we felt like we had a whole island to ourselves.
By 7:30 p.m. the restaurant staff had wiped down the kitchen and the outdoor seating area and lined up four pre-paid glasses of wine for me and an assortment of whiskeys for my boyfriend on the bar. They waved goodbye, got on their scooters, and drove away into the darkness, their taillights soon impossible to make out. Then we were alone. You'll never see darkness like you see it on an island in the middle of a lake in Nicaragua. The only lights were the flickering overhead lights in the outdoor seating area behind us. Many people on Ometepe live without electricity, and we had fumbled in complete darkness many nights after the electricity had gone out.
We dragged our Pepto-Bismol pink plastic chairs away from the light and into the sand, facing the water. Somewhere in front of us the black water met the black sky and only the stars offered some guidance on where one stopped and the other started. Sinking into the chairs we stared up into the stars until the distance between them and us became all distorted.
The only other human presence on the premises was a lone security guard and as he approached the marimba music from his transistor radio would grow louder, overtaking the soft voice of Charlotte Gainsbourg coming from our iPod speakers. The light from his flashlight danced in the sand in front of us for a moment and then it disappeared again. When you're used to the city, silence is sometimes more unsettling than the sound of sirens. And the sound of the unknown is even more unsettling than silence. The cry of a howler monkey carried over water from the nearby lagoon is enough for a city girl to sit straight up in her plastic chair, every hair sticking straight up like a bad 80s hairdo.
We had arrived in Ometepe a few days earlier and settled into a hotel in Charco Verde, a nature reserve around a green lagoon separated from the lake by a narrow strip of land. Formed by two volcanoes joined by a narrow isthmus, Ometepe resembles an hourglass from above. Nineteen miles long, the island measures six miles across at its widest points and three miles across on the isthmus. The perfectly symmetrical and still active Concepción dominates the northern half of the island, and to the south, Maderas rises through a cloud forest. With an altitude of 5,282 feet, Concepción is the taller of the two and by far the more volatile, erupting as recently as 2010. When we were there, Concepción was spewing gas, making the decision of which volcano to climb -- something it seems every tourist to the island must do -- an easy choice. At least for me, the choice between donning a face mask to climb an active volcano and breathing naturally while ascending an extinct volcano is pretty straightforward.
We set out at 7 a.m. -- me, my boyfriend and a 22-year old local guide who does the climb three times a week -- in slip-on shoes, no less. Yep, I was definitely going to be the weakest link.
We walked for an hour through banana and tobacco fields before reaching the foot of the volcano. And then began the ascent, moderate at first and then increasingly steep. It didn't take long before I started slipping behind and for most of the climb I was so far behind the others I could have been completely devoured by snakes before they even noticed.
When I asked the guide if there were snakes in the forest he said, "Obviously," in the same way he would have if I had asked if there were trees in the forest.
After four hours of climbing a steep, narrow, sometimes completely overgrown path, grabbing on to slippery roots and branches and sliding backwards in the mud as we inched ourselves up, we reached the crater rim. It was rather anticlimactic. Then the clouds cleared and exposed the crater lagoon, a dark green, watery eye into earth's interior, and the payoff increased slightly. We told our guide it was very beautiful and took the mandatory photos before beginning our slippery descent with the lines "Life's a journey, not a destination" from "Amazing" on auto-play in my head.
I had thought the descent would be quicker, but rain made the rocks even more slippery and we were forced to slow down. We finished in eight hours, which I was told was dead center of all the tourists that have done the climb. Average is all I can ever hope to be when it comes to any sport, and in any case it's not about winning, but about taking part -- or at least that's what my mom used to tell me when I stumbled and fell just short of the finish line.
Aside from the guides, no local we spoke with had ever climbed either of the volcanoes, deterred by either local legend of what lies within the volcanoes or the senselessness of climbing eight hours for a scenic outlook when the view from the ground is pretty good too. A few young guides, however, have found a way to make a living out of guiding tourists, charging around $15 per person. Although it seems like a pittance to us, guiding a small group adds up to a pretty decent daily rate in a country where the average annual per capita GDP is $3,000 (State Department estimate, 2010) and it makes up one of few opportunities, aside from agriculture, on this rural island. The volcanic ash makes the island very fertile, and most of the island's 42,000 inhabitants live on raising livestock and growing crops such as coffee, sugar, bananas, and tobacco. Our guide was an engineering student on the mainland before he had to drop out of university because he couldn't afford the $60 monthly tuition. Trained and certified through Union Guias de Ometepe, he now does the climb with tourists an average three times a week. Aside from making sure we made it down the volcano in one piece, he offered some insight into the hopes of young people in the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (after Haiti), which, no surprise, weren't all that different from those of people everywhere -- finish school, run his own tourism company, buy a house. Incredibly steadfast, he did the climb without looking at the path while continuously texting his girlfriend and keeping up a conversation with us. Struggling to keep up, I couldn't help but being impressed.
The next day I could barely make it up the steps to our room. My boyfriend suggested climbing the other volcano, and then, in response to my deadly glare, he added, "Or we could just go for a walk around the lagoon." At the lagoon we waited underneath a tree for a full hour, trying to get a clear camera angle of a troop of mantled howler monkeys through the thick foliage, dodging the fruit peels they were throwing on the ground. In a noisy, busy world far removed from nature you learn to be grateful for complete silence and for wildlife that lets you get so close you get the leftovers from their lunch thrown on your head. And, as you wade back barefoot through two feet of water along the flooded path, you learn to be grateful for the fact it's been a few years since crocodiles were last spotted in the lagoon.
Karin Palmquist is a writer, designer and photographer. She is a contributing editor to several travel guidebooks.