By Karlie Marrazzo
Cloud forest – before deciding to go to Nicaragua I had never heard this enchanting term. I was immediately intrigued and knew I had to experience whatever it was. I imagined myself trekking up a lush green mountainside with perfect, fluffy white clouds languishing and floating past. Reality wasn’t that far off. Mombacho Volcano, one of Nicaragua’s 19 volcanoes, is the home to one of these rare cloud forests. Only 30km from Laguna de Apoyo and 10km from Granada, it is the perfect place for a daytrip when traveling between the two. I’ve always been intrigued by volcanoes. One of my favourite memories is hiking Italy’s Mount Vesuvius, and I would never pass up the opportunity to hike on one.
After spending two days easing into our Nicaragua trip by luxuriating at Laguna de Apoyo, a volcanic crater lake, it was time to get active. There are a couple of options for those who would like to reach Momacho’s peak. The easiest and more costly way is to take a tour with a local guide. The other two options are slightly more complicated but much cheaper. You can hike the whole way up, which is quite challenging and time-consuming on this steep mountain, or you can pay a couple of dollars for a ride in the back of a huge, military style pickup truck. You could also rent a car and drive yourself if you’re comfortable with it. For the sake of convenience, we opted to book through a local company who would pick us up at the Laguna, take us on the tour, and drop us off in Granada.
We climbed into the back of the Tierra Tours Land Cruiser where three others, plus the guide and driver, awaited us. Bench seats without seatbelts lined each side of the interior, facing each other like prison vans in the movies. It’s a good thing we were all friendly, because I grasped by neighbour’s arm and ended up in her lap more than once as we slid around corners and bounced over big bumps. There was one break on the hour-long drive, a coffee plantation three-quarters of the way up. It had already been hot and dry early that morning at the Laguna, but it was significantly cooler and more humid at this point. I was wearing a tank top and short yoga pants and took this opportunity to put on my windbreaker. There wasn’t much to see on our short stop. It wasn’t the right season for us to find any coffee beans laying out to dry in the sun. There is a gift shop there if you’d like to grab some coffee to take home, but it is also widely available in regular grocery stores all over Nicaragua.
Fifteen minutes later we were at the ranger station, very near the summit of the volcano. The wind was whipping wildly and everything was shrouded in white mist. The smell of the clouds was fresh and comforting. I threw my long pants overtop of the ones I was already wearing, and my husband Dave did the same. Our tour mates, clad in short sleeves and short pants, weren’t prepared for the change in climate and suffered for the whole day.
Our guide, whose name I didn’t catch, was fantastic. He was incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about everything he spoke on, from the foliage to the history and current affairs of the country and, of course, Mombacho itself. We made frequent stops along the paths so he could describe an orchid or help us try to spot a sloth in a tree. Of all of the tours I’ve done around the world, he was one of the best guides by far.
When most people think about walking up the side of a volcano, they likely imagine dusty, dry paths and scorching heat. Mombacho is the complete opposite. Tree roots and patches of mud interrupt the dirt paths. There was a near-constant mist in the air and occasional raindrops falling from leaves splashing onto our faces. The trees and plants are fragrant, dense and vibrant throughout. I couldn’t help but laugh as we pulled off at the first lookout point. All I could see was a solid white wall of cloud and couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me. The second lookout point was more rewarding. On a clear day it offers spectacular views over Las Isletas, a cluster of islands, one for each day of the year, in Lake Nicaragua, as well as the city of Granada. Even though the skies were clear from the ground, things change quickly on the side of a volcano. Between the clouds and trying to keep myself standing upright in the Iceland-force wind gusts, I soaked up as much of the extraordinary view as I could. It was awesome in the truest sense of the word. As our hike drew to its close, the path around us was filled with vibrant purple orchids and more yellow and orange flowers, set against the muted volcanic background and veiled in mist.