Nicaragua (Volcano Hopping)

The fumaroles’ muddy molten flows bubbled and gurgled, as sulfurous white steam––warm and smelly––wafted in the breeze. A gaggle of children in their early teens and younger served as a collective guide and eagerly led me from one pit to another in this ravine of geothermal potholes at San Jacinto, a small town near Volcán Telica, source of the fumaroles and one of the country’s most active volcanos. A girl gave me a bag of mud from the pits––good for mosquito bites, she said. This small, humble park called Los Hervideros de San Jacinto, where Nicaragua vents its roiling underside, is roughly a 20-minute drive from country’s second-largest city, León. The entrance fee was $1, plus tips for the kids.

From its tempestuous volcanos to its tumultuous politics, Nicaragua is no stranger to turmoil. This is the land of Sandinistas and Contras, a place occupied by U.S. Marines in the early-20th century and briefly ruled by American filibuster William Walker in the 1850s. To many folks, the country’s legacy is of war and Sandinistas.

But as a travel destination, Nicaragua is essentially a blank slate. Because it’s not overrun with western tourists and the places that serve them, Nicaragua remains a rustic, authentic slice of Central America whose natural wonders can be discovered on their own terms.

This includes volcano hopping, of which there are 40 overall––six are active––in Nicaragua. They’re part of the Ring Of Fire volcano belt that lines the Pacific rim from Asia through the Americas. Eruptions through the centuries helped shaped the country’s history and created its fertile soil, and today volcanos provide a range of recreational activities from fumarole parks and forest canopy rides to vigorous hiking and a form of snow boarding on ash.

The country’s newest volcano, Cerro Negro, has become a go-to place for volcano surfing. The aptly named “Black Hill” is a 2,200-foot tall treeless round mass of black volcanic debris about an hour from León. The volcano first erupted in the 1850s, and has grown steadily after three 20th-century eruptions––the latest during the 1990s.

I signed up on a group tour with Tierra Tours in León, which supplied all of the gear and the van ride to the mountain along a barely two-lane dirt road past small farms growing corn, sugar cane, cashews and beans in the dark, rich soil.

The gear included a heavy wood snowboard with foot straps toward the front and back, thick gloves and goggles. The tour guide, Henri, led our group on a hike up to the top of Cerro Negro along an older section of the mountain that’s solid rock. We passed craters from past explosions until we reached the current top ridge. Looking down from the ridge, Cerro Negro’s wide face looks to be covered with soft, black sand. In reality, it’s comprised of countless small, gravely rocks.

There are two ways to surf down the mountain––standing up or sitting down. Henri provided a lesson in both methods. I tried standing, but the ride was slow because the pitch wasn’t very steep at the top and the board became covered with gravel and came to a halt.

Instead, I sat on the board, leaned back, and zoomed down the mountain as the pitch steepened. I used my glove-fitted hands to steer. Being low to the ground, gravel and dust occasionally shot back in my face and made the goggles a necessity. I heeded Henri’s suggestions to keep my mouth closed, but the exhilaration of the ride was hard to contain and a couple of times I stuck my hand in the air like a cowboy on a bronco and let out a loud whoop.

The board filled with gravel and slowed my descent a couple of times, providing a necessary break that kept my downhill momentum from getting out of control because steering is difficult as the mountain’s pitch steepens toward the bottom.

Looking up from below after my ride was finished, many in the group remained toward the top as they tried to master the stand-up method. They looked tiny on a mountain that seemed giant when seen from the bottom of its sheer, black face.

By the time everyone finished their runs, the setting sun was framed in an orange and mauve halo––perhaps the dust kicked up by the crunching snowboards added elements to the sky that enhanced the atmospheric sunset.

Providing a dramatic backdrop to the colonial city of Grenada is Volcán Mombacho, a 4,400-foot-high inactive volcano near the shore of Lake Nicaragua that blew its lid long ago. Today, its lower reaches host privately-held coffee and cattle operations. Above that, much of Mombacho’s cloud forest is a protected nature reserve brimming with flora and fauna and traversed by well-maintained hiking trails.

For a bird’s eye view of the forest, two outfits operate canopy tours that take thrill seekers from treetop to treetop along Mombacho’s slopes. I booked a reservation with Mombacho Canopy Tour’s office in Granada. I was too late for the company’s shuttle van ride to the mountain, so in my broken Spanish I negotiated a $12 taxi ride from Granada to the mountain entrance, walked up to the base area, and had someone put in a call for a 4WD truck to drive me up to the tour office where a team of guys outfitted me with a harness, gloves and helmet.

From there, I was handed off to a beefy, friendly guy named Milton, and a skinny, laconic guy named Frank. In good English, they provided clear safety instructions––the left hand holds the rope connecting the harness to the cable that would transport me across the forest; the right is the brake hand that must always stay behind the pulley wheel to avoid cutting off my fingers.

Milton went first and we waited for him to land at the next treetop platform. Then Frank hooked my harness to the cable and sent me on my way. The thrill of soaring over the forest was a rush, and I put on the brake by squeezing the cable with my right hand as I approached the platform, where Milton awaited to disconnect me from the cable. Once I was secure, Frank zipped along the cable and joined us on the platform.

And so the routine went as we traversed above the forest on 15 platforms and 13 cables, along with a brief jaunt across a suspension bridge. Some of the platforms were built on giant ceiba trees as much as 500 years old, and noises from the tropical forest lent an exotic air––a howler monkey’s distance cry sounded like a barking dog, and the loud, constant drone of cicadas sounded like they were rattling around inside a huge, hollowed gourd.

On one run, Frank instructed me to wrap my legs around his body and hang down. “Just totally let go,” he said. And so I did, and it was more exciting than disconcerting. Another time, I was similarly wrapped around Frank and flew like Superman.

We finished the circuit quicker than normal, they said, because most people stop often to take photos. I told them I didn’t bring my camera because I didn’t want it to fall out of my pocket.

I took the hour-long ferry ride from San Jorge to La Isla de Ometepe, a volcanic island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua that Mark Twain raved about. “Out of the midst of beautiful Lake Nicaragua spring two magnificent pyramids, clad in the softest and richest green . . . whose summits pierce the billowy clouds,” he wrote in a letter describing his 1867 trip from California to New York via Nicaragua. “They look so isolated from the world and its turmoil.”

Those volcanos––Concepción, still active, and Maderas, inactive––anchor the two ends of this barbell-shaped island. Concepción, the taller of the two at roughly 5,200 feet, is a stunning, conical mountain whose rumbling innards produce a perpetual cloud on top that resembles an ever-changing, ill-fitting toupee.

Guides are suggested for tourists who want to hike Concepción (due to past tragic accidents on its slopes), and I hired one from the island’s Villa Paraíso hotel. Concepción is a steep, challenging hike along a rough trail of scree and huge boulders that emerges above the tree line. A six-hour round-trip hike is considered to be on the fast side. My guide, Soya, said he climbed the volcano 500 times, a dubious claim considering he looked to be only in his mid thirties. Thin and wiry, and clad in jeans, black t-shirt and well-worn black army boots, Soya traversed the mountain with amazing speed and dexterity that treated this excursion like it like it was just another StairMaster workout at the gym.

I’m in very good shape and am a fast hiker, but the humidity was draining and we had to stop every 15 to 20 minutes for a water break and occasional snack. The mountain was kicking my butt, but that didn’t prevent me from absorbing the vivid sights, sounds and smells along the way such as vultures and the overwhelming aroma of guano permeating their low-level lair. And there was the sweet perfume of purple, white and orange orchids higher up. We heard the long trills of long-tailed magpie jays agitated by our presence, and saw iguanas as they darted about.

Close to the top, I broke out a snack of watermelon and pineapple provided for me by the owner of my lodging, and shared it with Soya. The fruit was refreshingly cool and provided instant energy, and at that very moment seemed like the tastiest fruit I ever ate.

“You have conquered Concepción,” said Soya after we reached the top and peered into the volcano’s crater of yellow and white rock as its bowels belched sulfurous steam. Perhaps, I said, but it felt like the mountain got the best of me.

Hotel La Perla, 1 1/2 blocks north of Iglesia La Merced, León (street addresses are rare in Nicaragua; directions are based on local landmarks). (011) 505-2311; Fifteen rooms surrounding a pool or courtyard in refurbished, 1856 neoclassical building. Provides transfers to and from Managua airport and several other Nicaraguan destinations, including Los Hervideros de San Jacinto

Hotel Casa San Franciso, diagonal from the San Franciso Convent, Calle Corral #207, Grenada. For U.S. visitors, (205) 282-7450; Located in the city’s colonial historic district, with an excellent Mexican restaurant on the premises. Small, comfortable rooms starting at $65.

Hotel Villa Paraiso, located on Santo Domingo Beach on La Isla de Ometepe. 505-563-4675; Thirteen private cabins interspersed among the trees overlooking the lake. Offers transport services from the island’s main port, Moyogalpa.

What To Do
For volcano surfing, contact Tierra Tours, 1 1/2 blocks north of Iglesia La Merced, León. 505-315-4278; Provides a range of guided tours throughout Nicaragua.

For canopy tours, call Mombacho Canopy Tour, in Granada. 505-888-2566 or 852-9483.

Tours Nicaragua, Centro Richardson, continue to Banco Central de Nicaragua, Managua. 505-2265-3095; Founded by American expat Richard Leonardi, this is a respected, go-to source for various nature, culture and adventure tours. They organized the portion of my trip involving La Isla de Ometepe and San Juan del Sur on the Pacific Coast. I give them a hearty two thumbs up.

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