Okay, so we’ve spent a lot of time on volcanoes over the last couple of months, but this was something novel. In the crater of the active Volcán Telica, at night, you can see lava. That’s right. Crazy. I never would have thought I would peer into a volcanic crater and see lava, but this was our chance. Walk into any tour operator in León and they’ll be able to take you up, either for an overnight mission or an evening one. (The evening option involves walking back home in the dark; I’d personally rather camp.) But, as I’ll explain here, it’s also perfectly doable with a local guide. In theory, you could also just walk up, but the trails leading through farmland have numerous turns and corners and it would be quite easy to get lost. We didn’t hear the same concerns about personal safety as we did with Acatenango in Guatemala, but that’s not to say it is safe to trot up with a bunch of gear you don’t want to lose. One of the guides at Quetzaltrekkers did say they had, once, drawn a detailed map for a pair of hikers who were dead set on doing the hike solo, so it can be done. Personally, I think our guide was well worth the cost, and you are then putting money directly into the local community, which I believe is a good place for it to go.
Alright, now on to the how-to’s:
We caught a taxi from our hotel to the main bus terminal in Leon, which cost 20 C per person. The majority of taxis in Leon (and in Nicaragua) are collectivo taxis, so they may already have someone in them, or may pick up an additional fare during your travels. You can pay more to have it to yourself, but I could rarely see this being necessary. Upon alighting from the taxi (as with any bus station, anywhere in Central America) you will be asked by a number of people where you are going. Generally these people are helpful and will point you to the right bus, but it’s always wise to ask a couple, as the bus you jump on may only take you part of the way towards your destination. Buses bound for Esteli or San Isidro will drive by the town of San Jacinto, which is where you begin the adventure to Telica. We jumped into a minibus that dropped us off exactly where we needed to be, and it cost 22 C per person. The larger chicken buses are cheaper (around 12). When we hopped out of the bus at San Jacinto, we gathered up our packs and looked around for a minute. Our brilliant plan had been to simply turn up and ask around until we found a guide. So this is what we did. We headed toward the largest restaurant along the highway, which looked like it was just on the verge of opening for the day. In halting Spanish, I approached one of the women, expressed our desire to hike Telica, and asked if she knew a guide. I hadn’t even finished my sentence before she was nodding. She told us to wait a moment as she headed to the roadside and started hollering in the general direction of the house opposite. After a bit more involved searching and some more yelling, she came back with Andrés in tow. Andrés said he would take us up Telica for a total of 25 USD. This may be a negotiable amount, but it seemed like a fair price, so we coughed up the cash and waited for him to prepare his stuff and change.
I could not imagine it being an issue to turn up in San Jacinto and not find a guide. In many of the local communities surrounding Volcán Telica, extreme poverty is the norm and much of the community exists on less than 1 US dollar a day. To earn 25 dollars or more for a day or two of work represents a huge sum of money in this part of the world, and I would imagine most shops know someone who would be able to jump on as a last-minute guide. We heard later on, from volunteer guides from another non-profit, Sonati, that most people who hire local guides pay 25 per person, so our rate did seem very fair.*
Due to the lack of roads leading to Telica (it’s mainly rough dirt paths used by farmers, horses, and alike), most of the hike was actually spent walking to the volcano rather than on it. With my aversion to hills, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It was extremely hot and in the beginning, at least, small sections were gloriously shaded. In the wet season, the landscape changes drastically and becomes much more lush. For us, it was dusty, dry, and steaming. We walked first along the dusty farm trails, and then along more open pastureland, with Telica rising up towards us in the distance. Before we started the real climb, we dipped down through a pretty, green valley and stopped for lunch underneath a massive mango tree. Then the real challenge began. The climb was pretty punishing, especially in the heat. Within minutes, every pore in my body was pouring out sweat. I attempted to drink as much water as possible, in a dual attempt to lighten my pack and stay hydrated. At some point, an extra bottle of water was moved from my pack to Tim’s, as my body struggled with the weight and the hill. I’ll have to remember this constant trend of shifting weight if I ever go hiking with a friend who is equally weak.
Eventually, finally, the path levelled off, and we were back in glorious shade. The level of growth so close to the summit was lovely and also rather reassuring, as it shows that there has clearly been life on the slopes of this volcano for quite some time. As we began our final climb towards the summit, the tree growth petered out significantly. It was becoming increasingly clear that we were treading on a still very active volcano. We reached the height of one side of the volcano, which rewarded us with amazing views of the steaming crater. We made our way down and across to where we could set up our tent for the night, and there were a few rudimentary structures and tables in place. As we emerged onto a sort of flat plain at the top of the volcano, the steaming crater before us and palm trees encircling us, it was a truly surreal feeling. It seemed as though we were someplace that simply shouldn’t exist in nature. In real life. Palm trees silhouetted against a background of volcanic, sulphurous gas seemed more like something out of a movie. Nevertheless, there we were.
At the “campground,” two park employees kept an eye on things. Andrés informed us here that he would go home that same day, and if we needed a guide for the way down, one of these two young guys would do the honours, for 4 USD per person. We probably could have and should have argued that we’d paid 25 US for a round trip hike, but for some reason neither of us seemed bothered. We figured we’d be fine with the hike down, and said our goodbyes to Andrés. Once he left, the park employees (after helping us to set up our tent) said we needed to pay 5 USD per person to camp. This seemed ridiculously high and we avoided saying yes or no for the time being. Another group had arrived, so we asked the guides about the alleged park fees. They said different companies paid different amounts (primarily based on their ability to negotiate and then stay firm with the negotiated amount) and that we shouldn’t pay any more than 40 cordobas each. This is what we did, and they seemed satisfied with that.
We went to a peak into the summit during the day, and were rewarded with a completely surreal experience. The sulphurous gas pouring out of the enormous crater was extremely strong. The crater itself was beautiful, with ragged edges and sharp drop-offs extending far below us. We crept as close as we dared to the edge to peer over and admire the unique colours of the rock and the dramatic beauty of this massive hole in the earth. The most incredible, surreal, and frightening part of it all was the sound. You could hear the innards of the volcano rumbling away. It sounded like an airplane engine. It was like wind rushing through a tunnel, but guttural and sinister and much, much more intense. I will never forget that sound.
We played around at the crater edge for a little while before making our way back down to our camp, and to lunch. A man with a cooler (chilly bin, eski, ice chest, depending where you come from) had made his way up on a horse and was selling cold beer and coke to hot, thirsty, hikers. Added bonus. The top of the volcano was incredibly windy, and would get windier as the day and the night wore on. We headed over with the tour group to the left-hand path, out towards a rocky outcropping to watch the sunset. Then the entire group headed back up the crater. We were ready to peer, once again, into its depths and see what we had all come here to see. The lava that, during the day, you can only imagine glowing from the holes visible in the crater.
And there it is. It’s not like a river or a lake or a pool of molten rock. You peer down into the dark abyss of the crater, but it’s not dark. In the spewing, smoking holes down in the centre of the crater is a deep and ominous red glowing. Sort of like embers of charcoal underneath the grill of a barbeque. And so red. Like someone had climbed down and started a fire there, but you know what it is. It’s one of the craziest things I have ever seen.
After a little while, the tour group headed off to begin their hike home, and we stayed to admire the amazing place we were. The stars were out in force. The sky had cleared entirely and as we sat there, on the edge, and listened to the rumbling jet plane, seemingly ready to explode beneath us, and looked up at the vast and brilliant sky above us, it felt like one of those moments. Those moments when you can’t help but get reflective and without question can’t help but take a moment and marvel at the wonders of it all, and where you are, and who you’re there with. Incredible.
After taking a few questionable photos of the lava, with Tim stretched out on his stomach with his camera over the edge and me holding on to his ankles, we headed back towards camp. We took a quick detour to roast a couple of marshmallows, which we sandwiched between chocolate chip cookies for makeshift smores, and then we called it a night. Sleep was mostly elusive, as we’d underestimated the wind and I spent most of the night waking up to our flapping tent and checking to make sure we weren’t blowing away. We’d opted to camp in the large open field directly in front of the crater, mainly for awesomeness factors and the ability to get blown away by the view first thing in the morning. I would perhaps recommend camping closer to the table and whatnot, a little further back, in the shelter of the rocks.
We woke up early. We wanted to catch the sunrise and get an early start home, to avoid the worst of the heat. Where the sun itself was rising could have been anywhere, but watching its heat slowly cast a red glow over the steaming Telica was amazing. We packed up our gear, ate a quick breakfast, sipped from our frighteningly dwindled supply of water, and headed down. We took a couple of wrong turns, but without too much drama managed to find our way back to San Jacinto in about two and a half hours. We ran out of water about 30 or 45 minutes before we got there, despite having hardly drunk all day, and it was a parched pair that arrived back at the shop that we had started form. After sculling a couple of bottles of water each, we treated ourselves to a deliciously cold ice cream, and then hopped on the chicken bus back home (12 cordobas each). From the bus terminal, we took at taxi back to our hostel (20 each) where we arrived completely covered in dirt, slightly sunburnt, and looking very pleased with ourselves.
What You Need:
- A good pair of shoes
- Clothes for hiking in the heat. (Shorts, singlet, preferably moisture-wicking fabric.)
- Clothes for a relatively cool evening. (Long pants, a long-sleeved merino top, and a rain/wind coat did it for me.)
- Food for 3 – 4 meals (Lunch, dinner, breakfast, and potentially lunch again, depending when you leave and how fast you go. It may sounds weird but a couple of extra-large pizzas have become our go-to hiking food.)
- Water. Lots of it. We brought about 4.5 litres per person, which was not enough. Quetzaltrekkers recommends 8 litres, which seemed a bit over-the-top, but the heat means you end up drinking a lot (it was around 38 degrees Celsius the day we did the hike up). The more you carry, the harder the hike, but it is not a good feeling or situation to run out.
- Tent, sleeping bags (it didn’t get too cold for us up top, summer bags or extra clothing will do), sleeping mats, etc.
- Small amount of extra cash
What It Cost (Total for Two People):
- Transport to San Jacinto (taxi & minibus): 40 + 44 = 88 C
- Guide: 25 US / 625 C
- Food (Pizza): 500 C
- Extra Water (we have a water filter, so rarely purchase water): 75 C
- Park Fees: 80 C
- Ice Cream: 18 C
- Transport to hostel in Leon (chicken bus & taxi): 24 + 40.
Total: 1426 C
Total in USD: 57
We managed to pull together our overnight volcano trip for a total of $57, or $29 per person. The vast majority of these costs were food and our guide. This is just shy of being half-price compared to a trip booked with a tour operator in Leon and has a good chance of offering private volcano crating viewing!
* As a traveller, particularly in developing countries, you are constantly confronted with situations that make you question what is and is not right and beneficial for the countries that you are visiting. Aside from the numerous environmental concerns constantly being faced, there are those about the development of a tourism economy, and who benefits from such development. For example, Quetzaltrekkers or Sonati are well-respected organizations that offer a service to tourists and also give back to the community. On the surface this seems ideal. Far more ideal, of course, than a party hostel owned by North Americans grabbing the money for tours and injecting only a portion of it back into the Nicaraguan community. However, they rely on (primarily foreign) volunteer staff. What will happen to the charities, people, and communities these organizations support if the volun-tourism trend begins to falter, or people choose another destination to invest their time? Would these non-profits not be better vested to assist with creating a more self-sustaining tourism economy for these increasingly popular destinations? Why not be training local guides and implementing programs that can be left in place for years to come, without the need for foreign volunteers or workers? There are obvious barriers; logistics, language … But somehow the German and Canadian guides hiking up Nicaraguan mountains with American and Australian tourists doesn’t seem quite right, even when the profits are going to worthy causes. There are obviously benefits to these organizations, and I’m not discounting that. Developing the tourism industry in the first place is greatly assisted by having responsible organizations involved. They do a good job, and good work, but it just seems, to me, that in places such as Leon and Telica, Nicaragua needs to start taking tourism back into its own hands. These points could be arguable for days, but it’s just some food for thought.