The students of SFS Costa Rica spent the past week in the field in Nicaragua! After a brutal 3am departure to begin a day of travel by bus and ferry, we arrived at the beautiful Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua. Everyone went to bed early in preparation for a 5:30am breakfast to sustain us for our day working with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in the field, either hiking up Volcán Maderas or at a local farm, Finca Magdalena. I was able to hike the volcano where the students were using handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) devices to track our trail and record any relevant points along the way.

Maderas serves as an interesting contrast to the protected areas we have seen in Costa Rica.  Though it is technically a national park, there is no government involvement, there is no entrance fee, the trail maintenance is poor, and there is no official system for hiring guides, though they are required for hiking. At Finca Magdalena, students learned about cooperative organic coffee production and agroforestry before mapping a trail and documenting petroglyphs—3,000-year-old rock carvings by the Nahuatl people—along the way.

The volcano-hiking group left right from our hotel, walking through farms on a gentle incline. We saw farmers planting beans and spraying fields next to old plots that had been slashed and burned. Upon entering the forest, the climb became very steep. We were grabbing tree trunks and roots for stability as we made it into the cloud forest elevation, and finally to the ridge along the crater. Unfortunately, there was not a satisfying view, but the accomplishment of reaching the top and descending into the beautiful crater lake was enough. The way down was treacherously muddy, slippery, and seemingly endless, but upon finishing, we were rewarded with a visit to a water hole to swim before catching the sunset en route back to the hotel.

Now that we are back at our home base in Costa Rica, the students are using GIS software on computers to create maps of the trails we hiked. On the volcano there is currently no governing body of protected areas so we are still investigating with whom we can share the Maderas maps. The maps from the farm will be passed on to Finca Magdalena so they can contribute not only to trail maintenance and land preservation, but also to tourism materials and information. Overall, our time on Ometepe Island provided a fascinating experiential learning opportunity and it was a beautiful, yet physically challenging, start to our travels in Nicaragua.