Volcanos of Nicaragua
Nicaragua- a small Central American country of 6 million inhabitants, has an impressive collection of volcanos- a chain of more than fifty volcanic cones of which 19 are full size volcanos, of which seven are active. Rising off a flat coastal plain just above sea level, they are striking to look at and more accessible for climbers and hikers. These fiery creatures of immense power and beauty- some sleeping peacefully, others rumbling, smoking, exploding- are one of Earth’s most awesome natural powers, and in Nicaragua we have the unique chance to get up close and personal with a few of those sleeping, rumbling and smoking giants with enchanted “M” names: Momotombo, Masaya, Maderas; to go for a swim in a crater lake, and to do some volcano boarding.
The news, as we arrive in the country, is that one of Nicaragua most picturesque volcanos- Momotombo has just erupted. A symmetrical stratovolcano rising 1300 meters above sea level towering over the shores of Lake Managua, Momotombo is Nicaragua most famous volcano emitting only ash for the past century, until now. A strong explosion followed by incandescent ejecta and spectacular lava flow occurred in early December, 2015 and a few more times while we are in the country with more explosions and ash emissions in January 2016. For us, the most incredible part of this event is that for the local people it is almost like something normal. Their reaction to the volcano spewing lava and ashes right next to their backyards is like that of people in other countries reacting to a minor snowstorm: not a big deal, it will pass.
Only 25 km southeast of Managua, another volcano is constantly smoking, creating a white dense cloud over Nicaragua’s capital. This is one of the easiest volcanos to access on the planet. Our friend Rado takes us there driving on an asphalt road- right to the rim of the huge Santiago crater from where we can peek inside the depths of the earth. Surprisingly, in this toxic environment of sulfuric gazes live crater dwelling parakeets!
The Masaya Volcano National Park features a few cones and a crater lake. We hike to the rim of anther crater from where we can see the smoke of Santiago obscuring the sun- a mighty dramatic vista. Recently, the volcano has erupted in 2001 and in 2008 throwing huge rocks on the park’s parking lot and damaging a few cars. Strolling on the edge of an active volcano, bending over and looking inside a smoking rumbling crater is a unique almost spiritual experience, a bit scary and extremely exciting.
Of course, we also visit Ometepe island formed by two volcanoes- Concepcion and Maderas- rising from Lake Nicaragua, and we climb one of them. In the ancient Nahuatl language of the Nahua Indians who first inhabited these lands, Ometepe means “two mountains” from ome (two) and tepetl (mountain).
The two volcanoes of Concepción and Maderas are joined by a low isthmus to form one island in the shape of a peanut with extremely fertile soil and an area of 276 km2, where coffee and plantains are produced for export. The two volcanos rise to 1400 and 1600 meters above the lake making Ometepe the highest freshwater lake island in the world, considered one of the Seven Wonders. But this is not the only reason why you should not miss it while visiting Nicaragua. Ometepe has a few friendly very tranquil and authentic little villages, where backpackers and tourists are welcome, excellent beaches and some fantastic kitesurfing spots, many hiking trails, rivers, waterfalls, thermal pools, various sleeping accommodations from hostels to luxurious eco-lodges situated among organic coffee plantations, and more.
We spend an entire day getting there, changing 4 crowded chicken buses from Managua to Granada to San Jorge and one last one to the ferry pier, from where we take the ferry.
The ferry takes about one hour and a half and then- two more busses to get to our hostel near Maderas trailhead- El Jardín Del Buho, on the southeast half of Ometepe. It is a charming little hostel very secluded and picturesque, owned by an artist who has painted the large volcanic rocks in the garden, and his wife who is an anthropologist. We recommend this place to anyone who really wants to get away and relax undisturbed by the rest of the world on one of Nicaragua’s most beautiful and most appreciated by the tourists places- Ometepe Island. Only a dear, like a miraculous vision, may float out of the forest and sniff you while you are chilling in one of the hammocks on the porch, drinking coconut water in the shadow of two volcanoes…
Early the next morning, we meet our guide and head to Maderas At 1400 m, as Concepción is active and considered very difficult and dangerous for hiking. Maderas is a medium difficult hike, where the difficulty comes mainly from the fact that it is always extremely muddy and slippery, walking through a dripping wet rainforest home of howler monkeys and many tropical birds. By the time we get to the top we are covered with mud from head to toes. It takes about 3 hours to climb the volcano and then descend in the crater, where the small crater lake is enveloped in dense mist. The trail is straight forward and we regret bitterly that we took a guide, after everyone told us, that people got lost and died and that guides are extremely strongly recommended. With our experience climbing mountains and volcanos, with a trail that has no alternatives, and with so many groups hiking Maderas every day, it is absolutely impossible to lose your way. Our guide, who is a good person and we have nothing personal against him, was completely useless, and most of the time just walked ahead of us in silence.
Our next volcano experience is not with the volcano itself but the crater lake it created 20 000 years ago. Laguna de Apoyo is filled with beautiful blue ocean water (semi-salty) and is the biggest of the fourteen crater lakes throughout Nicaragua, situated near Granada. It is also a nature reserve and a popular weekend destination for the locals who like to swim, kayak, chill and organize picnics and BBQs on the shores and beaches around the laguna. One of those “locals” is our new friend Dinko Iliev who invites us to spend a day with his charming family and a few German friends at a private site on the lake owned by a friend of his. This becomes our most gourmet experience while in Nicaragua. When Dinko told us “We will BBQ some stuff and drink some beer” we didn’t realize he meant “a lot of stuff and lots of beer”. There are 4 or 5 different kinds of sausages, burgers, smoked chicken, and beef on the grill, plus salads and extras and a big cooler full of beer. And desserts. For many days after, we could still savor in our memory the exquisite meats prepared by Dinko by the lake…
While Dinko and Ivo are BBQing stuff with a beer in hand, Maya is playing with Dinko’s two blue-eyed super smart and cute sons, and I am chatting with the German guests and with Dinko’s beautiful Nicaraguan wife who turns out is a very adventurous person. And when it gets too hot we all chill in the strange volcanic waters of the Apoyo lagoon. Unforgettable.
Last but not least, ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you about Cerro Negro Volcano! Near the colonial city of Leon, in the middle of the Maribios Volcano Mountain Range, the small yet incredibly active Cerro Negro measuring only 450 meters continues to erupt with ferocity. It is Central America’s youngest volcano born in April 1850 with eleven heavy eruptions in the 20th century. But what Cerro Negro is even most famous for is its black volcanic ash slopes which have become the only place in the world where you can go volcano boarding!
We wake up early in the morning and pile up in Katia’s car- another new Bulgarian friend in Nicaragua. Katia owns and manages a few hotels in Managua and invites us for breakfast in one of her hotels before we head for Leon on our way to Cerro Negro. She is the funnest person you will ever meet and we have a blast listening to her hotel-stories while driving for an hour and a half to our destination. With us is another car- Rado and his older daughter Sophie (17) will be volcano boarding with us too! In Leon, we change vehicles. The agency organizing the Cerro Negro tours has 4×4 jeeps and we all fit in one of those, together with the driver and the guide. After another hour on a dusty dirt road, we arrive at the foot of a small black hill. The guide explains the rules, distributes small backpacks containing jumpsuits, protector glasses and construction gloves, and awards us with a long laminated board each. We start climbing up the black hill and the hike turns out to be the much more difficult and longer experience than the sliding down the slope. The black volcanic ash is soft beneath our feet and the wind as we go up becomes like a hurricane. We are climbing with the boards on our backs walking on the edge of a beautiful, smoking, mysterious crater. At times it is dangerous and impossible to continue. It is also super tiring and heavy. But we all make it to the top in less than two hours! From there we look down the western slope and the scary part begins. From up there the drop looks vertical and Maya is unsure if she is brave enough to actually sit on the board and slide down. I am terrified too, and our friend Katia, exhausted from the climb up is 100% sure she will not risk it. But Ivo, Rado and Sophie are here for action, ready to go! Somehow, Rado fits in the jumpsuit, Ivo installs a GoPro camera on his head, and Sophie is the first one to disappear down the black mountain! The guide convinces Maya and me that there is nothing really dangerous and explains once again how to control the thing, how to turn and how to slow down: “Just press your shoes down; your feet are your breaks!”
Here we go! Eventually, we all make it down alive. Rado, Sophie and Maya have perfect uneventful rides, Ivo manages to accelerate too much and turns over at the end (a fun GoPro video to watch), my board gets damaged right at the beginning and barley moves, so I am so slow, I have to push with hands and feet instead of stopping myself. Last arrives Katia WALKING! down the slope. The Walk of Shame, we joke.
The volcanos of Nicaragua are what defines our visit to this beautiful friendly country. But there are a few other places and adventures to tell about, which are not less interesting: our visit to the colonial sites of Leon, Granada and Managua; a road trip to the north of the country, where we met an old hermit and a stone-artist; and kitesurfing on the great Lake Nicaragua.