We were seated at a long, worn table in the courtyard of a building 10 minutes from the center of Leon. Serving bowls of breakfast potatoes, eggs, and bread were being passed between hands. Awareness of the finite time we had in Nicaragua motivated us to tackle as much as we could in a few short days. We decided to summit two volcanoes…in less than 36 hours. Neil, Tim, and I were sitting with two other hikers, Ali and Alex, at the main hub of Queztaltrekkers, the outfit with whom we had planned the two-day hiking extravaganza.
What is Queztaltrekkers?
Quetzaltrekkers is a nonprofit company that raises money to provide school supplies, educational programs, and addiction mental health treatment for local kids in need. The organization is fueled by the work of volunteers who travel from around the globe to serve as hiking guides and to devote their time and energy to the program. A very small handful of staff receive any type of stipend for their service and most of the volunteers even pay for their own lodging and food, allowing the money earned to go almost entirely toward fulfilling the program’s mission.Summiting a cinder cone
Our first trek of the day was Cerro Negro, which erupted most recently in 1999 and holds the title of being Nicaragua’s youngest volcano. While many volcanoes may look like nothing more than a mountain to the naked eye, Cerro Negro has a distinct appearance. It is a cinder cone volcano, black as black in appearance, and one side is comprised of billions of miniature cinder crumbs, making that side impossible to ascend. No vegetation grows on the volcano, and the climb to the summit is tough. A formal trail is nonexistent, and the climb is over rugged boulders and up a steep rim. In addition to being the youngest of Nicaragua’s volcanoes, it also bears the distinction of being the only place in the world where you can go volcano boarding!
We arrived at the base of Cerro Negro while there was still a twinge of cool in the air. Not a crisp type of cool, like you might experience in the greater latitudes. Rather a twinge of cool; as in not sweating while standing still. Only five of us were foolish enough to climb a second volcano later in the day, hence the reason we had been offered breakfast, but a slew of travelers intended to summit and sled down Cerro Negro.We were each handed a jean backpack and what appeared to be an old-fashioned snow sled that had a skid of tin tacked to its underside and an upwardly curved front edge to which a rope handle was tethered. Our group began the 1,500-foot ascent. Queztaltrekkers offered hiking shoes for those of us who lacked them. The shoes were ragged and most should have been retired long before our feet ever found their way into them. The sole of Tim’s shoes had to be duct taped back on twice during our hikes. The ground was broiling such that well-soled shoes were necessary to tolerate the heat of the earth that was hot enough to melt the tread! We saw people doing this hike in Keen style sandals and winced at their misfortune.
An hour later, we were sweaty and standing proudly at the apex overlooking two large, steamy craters and the vast plane of flatland that stretched in three of the four directions. We pulled out the contents of our packs. Each contained a pair of plastic goggles; a pair gloves; and an oversized, heavy-duty jumpsuit. Within minutes, we were suited up like Mario and Luigi and getting a tutorial from how to properly sled down a volcano.
Things to do before you die
Neil’s excitement was practically bubbling over! He’s an adrenaline junkie to his core and conquering the #2 item on CNN’s bucket list of things to do before you die was definitely in his wheelhouse. I, on the other hand, began to wonder how long it would take me to walk back down instead. Neil hopped in line for the “fast lane”, while Tim and I scooted toward either of two slow lanes, awaiting proof that people actually survived before we were willing to blast down the slopes ourselves.
I watched my husband the daredevil tip over the edge and disappear, our GoPro camera jutting to his right to catch the action. Then it was Tim’s turn. When my turn came, I had lost all interest in actually sledding down the volcano and decided the whole idea was idiotic, especially without a helmet. Why hadn’t they provided us with helmets?!In our two-minute lesson on how to effectively luge down Cerro Negro, I’d learned that to slow down you must stick your feet into the ground on either side of the sled. Yes, you have to foot-brake your way down 1,500 feet. So I did just that for nearly the entire way down the volcano. This meant I never went very fast, as the moment I began to accelerate, I dug my heels firmly into the earth, which subsequently sent me into a semi-controlled ass-over-tea kettle tumble. This strategy minimized the degree to which I feared for my life. Within minutes, I was at the bottom injury-free but very dirty and with ears chockful of cinders. I found Neil among the crowd at the bottom, sure that he’d had the time of his life. Well, he had, and he was bleeding. While I could barely manage myself and the sled, Neil had zoomed down the steep slopes holding onto the rope with one hand and the GoPro on a selfie stick with the other. A slight bobble in balance had set him flying into a somersault that ended when we slammed face first into the gritty cinders! Somehow he was still grinning…and he had captured it all on film (check out the video below)! We tromped the quarter mile back to the pavilion where our climb had begun. Fortunately, there was a water spigot. I helped Neil wash the cinders from his wounds, and we prepared to summit volcán numero dos.
Ahoy El Hoyo!
The eight of us, five hikers and three guides, started our ascent at around noon, smack dab in the heat of the day. The first hour was a severe incline, and we were each toting heavy packs that contained supplies to camp atop El Hoyo, including two gallons of water, tents, sleeping bags, food, and cookware. The temperature ticked to around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and frequent breaks were necessary in order to tolerate the heat. The safety of embarking on such a hike in the middle of the day was dubious, and we found ourselves questioning whether this was an irresponsible decision on the part of our guides. Neil’s sweat stung his fresh, open wounds, and it became clear that for at least a couple of us, heat stroke was a real possibility.
We stopped for a baguette and veggie lunch after the most arduous portion of the hike was behind us. The rest provided much needed relief, but before long, it was time to resume our trek. In the late afternoon, we reached our campsite at last. We caught our breath, shed our packs, pitched our tents, and set out the final mile to the summit.
El Hoyo is a part of a larger complex of volcanos called Las Pilas, which consists of a series of cones and craters situated around the main vent, Las Pilas. El Hoyo is the most grand of the complex’s cones. Its apex stands 3,150 feet tall and is crowned by a crater that is 450 feet deep. Just below the crater is a gigantic mysterious sinkhole and a large fumarole, or rotten-egg scented, gas-seeping vent in the earth’s crust.
The apex was windy and cool, making us all forget just how thoroughly scorched we’d felt only hours before. It felt like a real achievement to stand atop a volcano and watch the daylight dwindle. There wasn’t a proper sunset that evening; rather, the day faded into ashy clouds caused by sugarcane burns in the farmlands along the horizon, turning the bright, colorful day into a kaleidoscope of monochromatic tones. We made our way gingerly down to our campsite and settled around the campfire for dinner.
Oh the vista
Neil had been told there would be a meteor shower that night and asked one of the guides to wake him at 1:00 am for the show. True to her word, she did just that. Neil sat outside stargazing alone for over an hour but nary a shooting star did he see. It was still beautiful, or so I’m told. I slept through it all.
We awoke at 5:30 am to our guides voices outside our tent. Dew hung heavily in the air, and the dampness clung to our sleeping bags. I could hear the crackle of the campfire being rekindled. It took a fair amount of willpower to extract ourselves from our uncomfortable but cozy abode, but anticipation to see dawn stretching before us drew us from our tent.
I stood atop El Hoyo and stared southward, where Volcán Momotombo towered like a guardian above Lago Nicaragua. My eyes gazed down to the lazy crater lake where we’d swim later in the day and then all the way to the hazy blue of the ocean. What a spectacular gift to behold a vista such as this. ~Jessie
What goes up must come down
Thankfully, we started our descent early, before the Nicaraguan furnace heated the day. We had several hours of comfortable hiking, before sweat drenched our clothing. I spent most of our trek down the mountain doing by best to stay off my ass. My shoes were slippery, and I was particularly clumsy that morning.
By noon, we had reached a crater lagoon that neighbors yet another volcano, Asososca. We strung our grimy clothing along the tree branches and atop a picnic table and plunged into the sweet, cool water. Oh what a refreshing reward it was to rinse Cerro Negro’s cinders from the crevices of our bodies and wash away to layer of sweat that from our skin! While we luxuriated in the water, dozens of Brahma cows appeared from the woods and joined us in the water, unconcerned by our presence, as a crotchety local farmer shepherded them from one of his pastures to the next.Several sweaty hours later—after a few more miles on foot and two bus rides—we were back in the heart of León, exhausted from trekking nearly 14 tough miles in less than 36 hours.