My Barefoot Volcano Hike (and Why I’m Glad My Shoes Broke)

I couldn’t tell whether the dark matter oozing from my feet was mud or blood, but I took in a deep breath of crisp air and let out a laugh that came all the way from my stomach.

I was in Nicaragua, 4,500 feet up Maderas Volcano on Isla Ometepe, facing a six-hour descent barefoot. Somewhere between bad planning and bad footwear my shoes had broken as we approached the summit, leaving me with no option but to climb down using only the soles of my feet.

It hadn’t been my intention to find myself in this curious situation, but it wasn’t entirely a bad thing that my shoes broke. Here’s why:

1) It was a lesson in better planning

I spent the first hour of my barefoot hike cursing my stupidity. I’d sent my hiking shoes home after I trekked Machu Picchu and I had nothing more robust than trekking sandals.

They were not a good choice for the particular climb that lay ahead, which I would have known had I done any research beyond just showing up for the climb. Mud, no formal hiking trail and a late start got me off on the wrong foot (in every sense).

Now, before I do any kind of trek, sometimes including to a distant supermarket, I check out my route, know what terrain I’ll be covering and, vitally, make sure I have the right equipment for the job.

The trekking sandals that failed me.

2) I got to practice my Spanish

“Lodo,” the guide said before we set off. I nodded, not having a clue what he was referring to.

It turned out to be the Spanish word for mud, a word I will never forget. I was up to my knees it in, had fallen over in it, created a face pack out of it and pointed at it many times repeating the word back to my guide.

For six hours, slowly and steadily we eased down the volcano, chatting as we went, me teaching him English for blood, toes, sunset, moon and beer while I got to practice my Spanish, thanking him for his patience, telling him when we could speed up and how much I was looking forward to dipping my feet in a bucket of ice after my ordeal.

Lodo—a Spanish word I will never forget.

3) I took time to stop and smell the coffee

If a hike’s worth doing, it’s worth doing quickly . . . or so I used to think. Until Ometepe, walking and hiking was all about the end destination for me and I took on each walking challenge like it was a race to the finish line or summit.

However, there is nothing like sharp volcanic shale and bare skin to slow you down. Stopping every ten minutes to assess my wounds and scope out the land ahead, I got a chance to stop and smell the coffee—literally, we were walking through land that grew coffee beans.

I’ve not hiked at speed since and I’ve seen far more as a result.

Going slower, we stopped and explored our surroundings.

4) I realized the importance of keeping spirits high

“This is how people die.” It was a thought that occurred to me more than once during the descent.

We were four hours in, I had severe foot pain, untold injuries and the sun was staring to set, spelling darkness within the hour. My spirits couldn’t have been lower and a quiet threatened to settle over the group, until I told a joke.

There was barely a beginning, a botched job of a middle and a completely forgotten ending, but there was laughter nonetheless.

So I told another joke and another knowing that time passes more quickly when you’re kept from dark thoughts, and with spirits high, even the most difficult of tasks (four of us walking in a lone spotlight for the last hour) seems more possible.

Keeping spirits high was vital.

5) I pushed through my pain barrier

I used to take pain medication at the slightest hint of a headache and would spend half an hour complaining if I stubbed my toe.

But during my climb, I lost three toenails, had lacerations on my feet that lasted for weeks and suffered swelling that took days to go down.

Without any pain relief during the hike, I had to rely on my mental will power alone. I learned that I have more natural capacity for dealing with pain than I thought and that I don’t need to rush to the pain medication pack as quickly, or sometimes at all.

This volcano taught me that I have a higher pain threshold than I thought.

Have you had a challenging experience that you gained a positive experience from? Let me know in the comments below.

If you liked this article, you might also like: 7 Life Lessons I Learned Trekking the World’s Deepest Canyon.

All photos are author’s own.

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