Hurtling down the side of Nicaragua’s youngest volcano dressed like an escaped convict on a plank of wood was never really on my bucket list… but now, having done it, I feel like it should’ve been. I can also say the same about peering down into a deep crater to see molten lava and camping under the stars on top of an active volcano with sunset views over the central american portion of the ring of fire. These are just a couple of the once in a lifetime things we experienced in León, Nicaragua.
Perfectly situated on the most thermally explosive portion of our planet, Nicaragua is home to 19 volcanoes, this makes the views around León rather spellbinding. Because we were after the experience behind the pretty picture we wanted to take on a couple of these explosive giants head on. After a bit of research and a great recommendation we decided to spend 3 days adventuring with an ethical and non-profit tour company called Quetzaltrekkers. fully run by volunteers, the profits go towards helping under-privileged children learn and develop, which meant that while maximising our volcano time we could also give back to the local community. In order to see lava, volcano board and camp on the side of an active volcano we chose the “1 Day Sunset Tilica Lava Tour” followed by the “2 Day Cerro Negro and El Hoyo Tour”.
The Sunset Telica Tour was a perfect introduction into our volcano adventures. At 2pm we were stuffed into the back of a ute for an hour and a half of bashing around in the back of a 4×4 to get to the bottom of the trail. From here, hiked sharply up, finding our footing on loose ground to the top of a volcano to look at molten lava. Thankfully the guide was kind to us taking plentiful opportunities to stop and explain to us stories about Telica. Apparently it is one of Nicaragua’s most active volcanoes and erupts with some regularity, which is why its base is basically free of vegetation. “In fact she actually erupted as recently as 2015” she said as she pointed out a nearby restaurant that had been hit by a shower of falling rocks just before its grand opening. Now with a roof like swiss cheese it had been abandoned due to funding running dry and tourism slowly drying up in the area.
When we made it to the top the wind felt like it had a strong grip on us. It tried it’s hardest to blow us off the top of Telica but we made it around to the other side of the crater and the sunset was lovely, not jaw dropping, but lovely. After sunset we walked back up to the crater in order to see the lava. As the last of the suns light disappeared from the sky we began to make out red splotches in the deepest reaches of the crater. It was just little red patches pulsating with light before disappearing completely when the sulphuric steam got too thick. Apparently one week earlier it was clear and you were able to see right to the bottom of the crater, and it was so bright you could even see the lava during the day. On one hand I wish we could’ve experienced this, but on the other hand… puffing steam means the pressure is escaping from the depths of the volcano, so it was not going to finish the job the wind had started by blowing us off the top. Although we couldn’t see giant lava bubbles popping as I’d hoped, I was humbled by this napping giant. The steep journey back down was completed by torchlight but under the most amazingly clear night sky, it made me look forward to camping under this view the following night.
2 Day Cerro Negro and El Hoyo Tour We arrived to the Quetzaltrekkers office a little late so felt a bit panicked when we were told our little packs wouldn’t be big enough and we would need our main big backpacks. Little did we realise we would be carrying a tent, food, 8 litres of water and a sleeping mat… crap. My pack now weighed approximately 20kgs and it was all mine to lug up a hill for 4 hours to our camp spot at El Hoyo.
After a much needed hot breakfast we all piled in the truck with our packs and our bags for volcano boarding. The truck was packed to full capacity with about 20 eager volcano boarders sardined together on our way to throw ourselves down the side of a mountain. By 9am we’d unloaded, signed into the national park and were making our way up the side of Cerro Negro, the youngest volcano in Nicuragua.
The walk up took a bit over an hour and it was tough. Traipsing up through loose black volcanic sand and rock we felt like we were taking one step up and two steps back. But the views from the top were epic, we could see the craters from the recent eruptions and the contrast of where the black lava had smothered the green trees and foliage as it oozed from the earth was a dark reminder or the damage this bad boy could do.
After taking some time to appreciate the views (and trying not to get blown off the mountain before we could get to our volcano boards) it was time to suit up. I say boards but really they were pieces of plywood with a rope attached and the safety gear wasn’t any more state of the art. Our denim bags contained the prison style jumpsuit, gardening gloves and plastic safety goggles which were all that would come between us and the volcanic gravel spitting back at us on our rapid decent to the bottom. Record speeds are said to be around 91kms per hour and it sure feels close when you’re on that board. They tell you to slow down by leaning forward, but every fibre of my being was urging me to lean back, so it’s lucky the Mitre 10 safety gear did the trick. All 5 of us absolutely flew and had huge smiles plastered on our faces as we walked back to have a bite to eat before embarking on the next part of our mission.
All niceties aside part two was tough and sweaty and not much fun. We had our huge 20kg bags and had to walk for an hour up a steep sandy slope and it was hard. Once that bit was over though I appreciated the next couple of hours, which mainly consisted of meandering through the woods appreciating the flat ground. On a 5 hour trek, I’ve never in all my days downed so much water just to lighten my pack before. We arrived at the campsite hot, dirty and ready to chill, but as we approached the ridge the wind had its boxing gloves back on and was shoving us so hard it actually blew one girl over. Setting up the tents represented round three in the ring, but we came out victorious and were able to enjoy the most impressive views I’ve ever been lucky enough to pitch my tent in front of. We were positioned directly under the hole that was blown out of the side of this particular volcano and gives it the name “El Hoyo” or The Hole.
That night the wind did not cease, the sunset was spectacular and watching the landscape change to pastels under the fading light made us forget about it’s relentless gusting for all of a few minutes. Our wonderful (Volunteer) guides cooked us a tasty pasta dinner over a campfire which we huddled around and scoffed. We all slept with our tent-flies off to lessen the drag, minimise the racket of the tent and reduce the risk of having to chase it had it been sucked from over our heads. This also meant we could see the stars over our heads through the mesh and the full moon was shining strong and bright.
We all awoke pretty early after very little sleep. Steve and I braved the ever raging gusts to watch the sun rise over Mombotombo and Lake Managua. The night before we could see the lights of the capital shining brightly at the lake’s edge, but now it was invisible in the early morning light opening it’s eyes before us. The only one obviously awake was Mombotombo with her little puff of steam leaking from the top.
Compared to trying to keep dry oatmeal in the bowl in gale force winds, the walk back down was a breeze. Our bags were all about 6kgs worth of water lighter and there was not an uphill in sight.
After 5 hours tramping we were rewarded with a tasty lunch and a swim in the cool waters of Lake Asososca. My skin was so thick with dust from the volcano boarding, then the hiking, the wind, and the camping that I think I changed the quality of the water in the lake. It was the most welcome and soothing swim I have ever had.
Feeling revitalised and refuelled we only had an hour and a half left to the end. When we arrived at the main road I could have kissed it, but then I found out we were waiting here for the next chicken bus, a detail I had not been aware of. I let this sink in and got myself a delicious cold drink from the vendor near the bus stop. When the bus pulled up the annoyance melted away and I sunk into my seat to enjoy the ride back to León.
We loved our time with Quetzaltrekkers and I would highly recommend them as an agency. They didn’t know I was writing this so all opinions are my own (as usual) and I was in no way swayed or influenced by any freebies. Telica tour:$45usd El Hoyo and volcano boarding: $69usd