We tackled Maderas’ 1394 metres from the Hacienda Mérida. At sunrise we were tramping down the road with our guide, about to embark on the most gruelling thing I’ve ever done. Starting out through gently rising plantation fields, the hump of Maderas loomed large but surprisingly, not all that intimidating. We climbed through the thickening forest to the strains of growling howler monkeys and throbbing insects. At 8.30am it was already steaming, and the humidity began taking its toll as we rose further up the volcano’s flanks.

A couple of hours in and we had risen quite high, enough to afford an amazing view across the isthmus to Concepción when we stopped for one of the numerous breaks to catch our breath. I was by far the least fit of our group, and if I wanted to make it in one piece that meant taking it nice and easy. By this stage it was hard to judge how far up we were, but we agreed we must be about two thirds of the way up. Our guide just laughed.

On and on we pressed as the trail became steeper and muddier, and we began swinging from tree to tree to avoid tumbling down ravines or twisting ankles. Entering the mysterious mists of the cloud forest, I felt like an extra on a Lord Of The Rings movie. An eerie, lifeless quiet descended with the clouds, as the weather cooled rapidly, and I began to wonder whether we’d need, or even want, that dip in the lake after all.

Finally, after a good four-and-a-half hours, we crested the lip of the crater, but it wasn’t over yet. Our guide had the perfect lunch spot for us; it just so happened that we had to traverse the rim for a further hour to get there, clambering through something reminiscent of the planet where Luke first meets Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back.

The trees and roots were the only things keeping us from the swampy quagmire that ostensibly made up the path. If ever I’ve had an Indiana Jones moment, this was it – swinging from branch to branch in an attempt to avoid the inevitable plunge into ankle-deep sludge. It was simply the most ludicrous situation, as our borderline hysterical laughter could attest to. But it would all be worth it when we reached the gorgeous crater lagoon.

Or not. The clouds, which I’ve since heard cover the top of the volcano something like 90% of the year, completely obscured all but about 10 metres in front of us, robbing us of even a glimpse of the water, let alone a dip. ‘Not happy, Jan’ would have been the understatement of the year.

What goes up must come down, and when you know exactly what sort of perilous trail awaits, it doesn’t get any easier. Mind you, you don’t expect it to be any harder either, but torrential rain does not cooperate with those expectations, turning an already ridiculously difficult descent into one knee-wobbling, bum-sliding challenging time.

Ten hours after we departed, I finally staggered into the best shower of my life, and I didn’t even care that it was cold. Barely able to stand up long enough to wash off the mud that was coating me from top to toe, I was nevertheless feeling pretty pleased with myself.

At this point you’re probably thinking you’ll give Maderas a miss. I urge you not to. While at times it was somewhat hellish, and although it’s true that I would never do it again, this trek was possibly the best experience of my four months in Central America, and certainly the most unforgettable. What a sense of achievement: I climbed up a volcano through rainforest, cloudforest then an improbable swap. It was insane. And I’m so proud that I made it. •