To the Top of Nicaragua – Part 1

Nicaragua is sometimes known as ‘The Land of Lakes and Volcanoes’. And looking at a map of the country, it’s easy to understand why. There are numerous lagoons and lakes (including the two largest ones in Central America), and a chain of over 20 volcanoes, including 6 active ones. Some of them have huge, smoking craters; while others erupted centuries ago, leaving behind tranquil crater lakes. Like Guatemala, Nicaragua is perfect for volcano bagging, with activities like hiking, swimming, jungle-trekking, wildlife-watching, and just gawping at the views (when there are no clouds, that is). You don’t have to be a geologist to appreciate the power and beauty of these natural beasts, and the fertile volcanic soil around them is one of the reasons for all the diverse flora and fauna here. And like Guatemala, the convergence of all these tectonic plates causes plenty of instability (there are 10 seismic fault lines under Managua alone, which probably accounts for all the earthquake-ruined buildings in the capital).

My first volcano is the easy-to-climb-but-hard-to-pronounce Cosigüina, located at the very northern tip of west-coast Nicaragua, far from any city or town of any size, but very close to the one-hotel-and-one-shop village of Potosi. In 1835, Cosigüina blew half its height in the biggest eruption in the Americas since colonisation, scattering ash over Central America, and covering everything in darkness for days. What’s left today is only 900 metres or so of mountain, and it’s a gentle climb through the forest to the top (albeit one which has me sweating like a pig exercising on a treadmill, due to the blistering heat). As with many of these volcanoes, the lower slopes are covered in small, cultivated patches of land (some, or all, of which may, or may not, be legal – if you have a family to feed and an opportunity to plant some crops on an empty piece of land, I don’t suppose the words ‘Natural Reserve’ are going to mean that much to you). As a result, there are trails everywhere, most of which lead into other people’s farms and not to the summit. Fortunately, I have my guide to follow (and to blame when he goes wrong). And as if to underline the importance of knowing where you’re going (or having someone with you who does), on the way up we meet a search party who’ve been looking all morning for a missing Israeli tourist who went up the volcano alone yesterday (they found her unharmed later that day – she probably used her Israeli Army training to survive the night). At the summit is a view that stretches north across the Fonseca Gulf to El Salvador and Honduras, and south across Nicaragua from the Pacific Ocean to San Cristóbal, the country’s tallest volcano. Cosigüina’s crater is at least a kilometre across, and at the bottom there’s a huge lake, 500 metres below the crater rim. We have neither the time nor the equipment to climb down into the crater, which is a shame, because the water looks perfect for swimming. But there aren’t too many mountains where you can see three countries and an ocean from the top…

One of Nicaragua’s most active volcanoes is Telica. At 1,000m, it’s not the tallest volcano in the country, but it takes one very long day (or two average days with camping at night) to climb and return. Because it’s so far from the trailhead village of San Jacinto (where you get dropped off the bus and start hiking), you spend most of your time walking to the volcano, rather than actually up the volcano. But at least it’s a gentle walk, through farms and fields. At the top, there’s a wide area that’s been affected by volcanic activity, with a large field of black volcanic rocks to scramble over in order to get to the crater. And at the rim, a sheer vertical drop of over 100m into a large, steaming and smoking crater means that I don’t get too close to the edge. And being slap-bang in the middle of the Maribios chain of volcanoes, from Telica you can see the all the main peaks in both directions. To the north are the 1,800m San Cristóbal and the 1,400m Casita (which released a huge landslide in 1998, that buried thousands of people, after the torrential rains of Hurricane Mitch). And to the south, Cerro Negro, El Hoyo, and Momotombo. Being close to the popular tourist town of León, it’s un pedazo de pastel to arrange overnight camping tours to Telica (or you could do it in one long day, but that would require the kind of early start I’m not a fan of).

The most popular volcano to visit in the Maribios chain is Cerro Negro. The name means Black Hill, and that’s exactly what it is – a treeless, black-and-grey mound slowing growing out of the surrounding fields. At less than 500m tall and less than 150 years old, it’s one of Central America’s smallest and youngest volcanoes. The intense sun and lack of shade means that, while the walk up is short, it’s also uncomfortable. The views are good (but not as great as at other peaks), and the crater is active (but not as active as others). All in all, it’s not the most amazing volcano in Nicaragua. So why is it so popular? Because the fine, volcanic sand and short, steep slopes are perfect for the deranged sport of volcano boarding. Volcano boarding is done on a piece of laminated board with handles at the front, although I imagine it’s also possible on a snowboard. First, everyone puts on their bright orange jumpsuits and safety goggles (jumpsuits for safety, and orange for, well, I don’t know why – that Guantanamo Bay look perhaps?). And the safety goggles are to ward off eye injury from all the volcanic sand you’ll throw up on the way down. You hold on to the front handles and gravity does the rest. According to the guide, you can speed up by leaning back, and leaning to the side changes direction, but the main aim of everyone seems to be to just stay on the board. And apparently, it’s possible to reach a speed of 60 km/h, with the unofficial record reportedly being over 90 km/h. The one thing I wish the guide had provided (in the addition to the jumpsuits and goggles) was a face mask – because, if you don’t want to hurtle down the steep gradient like a lunatic, you need to keep your feet on the ground, either side of the board. This acts like a brake and slows you down, but it also means you get a constant shower of fine volcanic sand in your face the whole way down. Like Telica, Cerro Negro is close to León, and every tour operator and his wife runs volcano boarding tours, it must be the most popular excursion from the city (if not the most relaxing).

The southernmost volcano in the Maribios chain is also one of Nicaragua’s biggest and most active – the 1,300m Momotombo. It’s one of the country’s most famous landmarks, has inspired a poem by the country’s most famous poet, and the image of its perfectly-symmetrical cone is printed on everything from tablecloths to chocolates to coffee. Its name, appropriately, comes from an indigenous word meaning ‘big burning mountain’. It’s also responsible for producing 10% of the country’s electricity, via a geothermal plant at its base. Momotombo’s not really near any big towns or cities, so to climb it, I’m forced to stay in the one-hotel village of Puerto Momotombo. The only other thing near the village is the ruin of the old city of León, León Viejo, Nicaragua’s first capital, which was buried, in one of the volcano’s many eruptions, in 1610. Apart from some very modest ruins (it’s not Tikal or Chichen Itza), and some very friendly deer (who spend most of their time following me around trying lick off the salt from my sweaty arms), there’s not much to the ruins; but it’s an opportunity to find a guide among the locals.

Climbing Momotombo is a challenge. After the trail gently winds its way through the forest for the first hour, it disappears completely (along with the trees), and for the next three hours it’s a 45° climb in the hot sun. The terrain alternates between jagged volcanic rocks and soft black sand, and on more than one occasion, I’m forced to clamber up on my hands and knees. But at the top, in return for all the hardship, is one of the best views in the country – to the north are volcanoes from San Cristóbal and Casita to Telica and El Hoyo; plus, almost at the foot of Momotombo, are the jungle-wrapped crater lakes of Asososca and Malpaisillo (Asososca is especially good for a post-volcano swim). And to the south, the whole of Lake Managua opens out, 1,000 sq km of not-very-clean water that nonetheless looks ok from up here, and with views all the way to Managua to the south and the Pacific to the east. Now all I have to do is get back down…


6 thoughts on “To the Top of Nicaragua – Part 1

  1. Ren,

    Nice pictures as always. Surely as an ex-pat of Essex, not only did you take part in the volcano-boarding but actively encouraged racing other people?

    Are you back at Xmas?


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Stimps.

      Absolutely. And being an Essex boy, I also stole all the volcano boards afterwards, and then blamed the crime on immigrants.

      I’m not planning on being back at Xmas, but sometime in the New Year. I’m waiting for you to go back to Australia, and then I know it’s safe ;-)


    • It really was not pleasant. I was spitting small black bits of volcanic sand out of my mouth for the rest of the day. And the only other choice is to lift your feet out of the sand completely, at which point you careen down the slope like a nutter. I’ll wear a balaclava next time…


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