Sunday, February 22, 2015

Nicaragua's Fire Mountains

Greetings All,
Our next destination is the Central American country of Nicaragua.  We visited Nicaragua in 2010 as Earthwatch project volunteers on Masaya Volcano.  We decided to return to see more of the country.  Here is a map of Nicaragua showing the places we plan on visiting.

Map of Nicaragua (places we'll visit are circled in red)

We flew from Mexico City to Managua, Nicaragua on February 9.  Our flight was delayed by 6 hours so by the time we arrived in Managua and drove 2 hours northwest to Leon it was after dark.  The following morning we had a few hours to explore this Spanish colonial city.  Unlike Managua it was not destroyed by the 1972 earthquake and many old Spanish churches and buildings remain.  We visited the Cathedral of Leon, the largest cathedral in Central America and now a UNESCO world heritage site.

Leon Cathedral

The cathedral was built between 1747 and 1814 with a blend of architectural styles.  We climbed to the roof where the dazzling white-washed domes nearly blinded us. 

Roof of Leon Cathedral

From this vantage point we could see over Leon to a chain of volcanoes, some of which we were to climb over the next few days.

View over Leon & Maribios Volcano Range

This map shows the Maribios Volcano Chain.  Our first week in Nicaragua would be spent climbing four of these volcanoes: Telica, Cerro Negro, San Cristobal and Momotombo.

Map of Nicaragua's Volcanoes

Our guide Flávio picked us up in the early afternoon and we drove via Land Cruiser to the village of San Jacinto.  Here a number of bubbling mud pots and volcanic vents are located.

San Jacinto Volcanic Vents 

They are connected to Telica Volcano, 9 km away.  We drove to the base of the volcano on a bumpy, rutted dirt road where a short 800-foot climb took us to the low point on the rim of Telica Volcano (3481 feet).  This active volcano last erupted in 2011.  The sun was setting below the high point on the rim which we didn't climb to due to the unstable walls of the crater.

Sun Setting over Telica Volcano

We waited until after the sun set to get a glimpse of the magma in the caldera 400 feet below.

Magma in Telica's Caldera

We made our way back to our vehicle with our head lamps spotting some night creatures along the way like this scorpion and gecko.



On the drive back to Leon, our vehicle headlights caught the eyeshine of a Common Opossum (Didelphis marsupialis), also called the southern or black-eared opossum.  They are different from the opposums back home which are technically Virginia Opossums (Didelphis virginiana).

Common Opossum

The next morning we headed out to climb Cerro Negro, Central America's youngest volcano formed in April, 1850.  We were the first at the trailhead and the first to reach the summit of one of Nicaragua's most active volcanos at 2388 feet.

Cerro Negro

Most opt to run down the steep ash slopes on the south side but we chose to climb down into the crater floor to get a closer look at the vents.

Vents in Cerro Negro's Crater

Steam and gas were billowing out leaving bright yellow sulfur crystals and what looked like lichens around the vent openings.

Sulfur Crystals and Lichen

We climbed back up to the rim and went down the same route we climbed up.  Along the way we passed by large groups of young tourists carrying boards strapped to their backs.

"What on Earth are they doing?"

"What on earth are they doing?" I wondered.  It turns out they climb the volcano to ash board down the south slope!  Some didn't look too happy hauling up the heavy board and weren't convinced that they were doing a sane thing.  Some wore T-shirts stating "conquer the fear".  Flávio told us a young woman broke her back while volcano boarding when her boyfriend careened into her!  I was happy to be making my way down standing on two feet.  We drove around to the base of the volcano to watch them come down.  You actually lie on the board feet first and slide down.  The flatter you lie, the faster you go, up to 60 mph!  You have to use your feet as brakes.  The first couple of guys flew down while the others were more tenuous.

Volcano Boarding!

We drove to the Laguna El Tigre for lunch before returning to Leon.

Laguna El Tigre

Early the following morning we left to tackle San Cristobal Volcano, the highest volcano in Nicaragua and the country's second highest point at 5725 feet.  We climbed 3400 feet in 2.5 miles straight up the north face of the volcano!

Climbing San Cristobal Volcano

The view inside the active crater was spectacular.  The volcano was spewing gas and smoke and we could see the impact craters on a lower shelf from the 2014 eruption.  

View of San Cristobal's Crater

Us on the Summit of San Cristobal Volcano

On the way back down I felt like we were skiing (ok, more like snowshoeing).  Instead of snow there was volcanic scree or rubble.  The deeper the scree, the easier the descent, like skiing in deep powder.  Spots with less scree felt like skiing on ice, slippery with little control.  We had to make our way around the dead trunks of trees killed by the volcano's many eruptions.  It took us 3 and a half hours to climb the volcano but only 1 and a half hours to come down!

Descending San Cristobal Volcano

The next day we were to conquer our fourth and most challenging volcano, Momotombo.  We left Leon in the early afternoon and drove about 2 hours to the trailhead where we parked the Land Cruiser.  We were given a nylon hammock to sleep in and Flávio asked if we needed a sleeping bag.  He told us it gets quite windy and cold at camp.  "How cold?" I asked.  Flávio replied 30 to 35.  "Heck," I said "that's downright hot!" and we passed on the sleeping bags.  We didn't have room in our day packs for them anyway.  We climbed 500 feet (about 3/4 of a mile) to the first camping spot. 

Our Camp Site with Momotombo Beyond

Flávio asked if we wanted to hike another hour to a higher camp.  We opted for the lower camp since our assistant guide Christian hadn't caught up to us yet.  About 30 minutes later he came huffing and puffing into camp.  In all fairness he was carrying a lot of water which we never used.  

Flávio hung our hammocks in the trees and we climbed a low ridge to watch the sun set over Lake Managua.

Sun Setting Over Lake Managua

We ate sandwiches for dinner before turning in around 7:30.  As predicted by Flávio, the wind picked up and it was difficult getting settled into my hammock.  We had silk liners with us and a few clothes but not much else.  The wind was whipping the nylon hammock and I had to wrap myself inside like a caterpillar in a cocoon.  A couple of hours later I still lay awake.  The wind was creating a racket and I was cold.  I finally convinced myself to get up and put on all the clothes I had.  As I was crawling out, the wind caught my silk liner and blew it away!  Fortunately, it got snagged on a tree nearby.  With difficulty I put on my nylon pants, socks and a lightweight rain jacket with a hood.  I crawled back into my cocoon and tried to sleep.  Around 11:30 Marc got up and asked if I was warm.  "Warm enough", I replied.  What else could I say, I had ALL my clothes on.  Around 3AM, we couldn't take it anymore.  We weren't getting any sleep so we woke Flávio to get the keys to the Land Cruiser.  We told him we could find our way to the truck with our GPS but he insisted on coming with us.  We didn't wait and headed down with our head lamps to light the way.  We reached the Land Cruiser and climbed in the back to get a few hours of sleep.  Ahh, quiet and warm at last!

I was awakened at 6AM by voices.  "Were Flávio and Christan already up?" I wondered.  No, they were still snug in their hammocks.  A group of young people walked through our makeshift camp with a cheery "Buenos Dias!".  I groaned, got up reluctantly and climbed out of the back of the truck for a breakfast of bananas and pastry.  We left around 6:45 AM and climbed back up to our abandoned camp.  Flávio and Christan were behind us but it was easy to follow the tracks of the group ahead. Flávio caught up to us and we traversed around the slope of the volcano on a narrow path through the scree.  The wind was still whipping and was blowing rocks down on us from above which we had to dodge.

Watch Out for Rocks!

As we approached the shoulder of the volcano we caught up to the young group.  We stopped to regroup, emptying the scree out of our boots and finally putting on our gaiters.  We tied bandanas around our heads to keep the dust out of our eyes and ears.  We were hoping that the wind would abate but it only became fiercer.

Approaching the Shoulder of Momotombo Volcano

The slope got steeper but we decided to climb to a set of rocks below the summit.  The other group had not moved and we were now blazing the trail.  We took one step forward and slid or were blown two steps back!

Marc Nearing our High Point on Momotombo

We finally made it to the rocks where the summit looked tantalizingly close.  The last pitch was steep and covered in slippery scree and the wind had not let up.  A cloud of sulfur gas had built up over the crater and we were now catching whiffs of the acrid gas.  We decided to turn back instead of making the treacherous climb.  I was disappointed but sanity prevailed.  We headed down as the other group reached the rocks.  It turns out one of the guys is from Long Island was was visiting friends in Managua.  The descent proved easier than the ascent but we still had to watch out for rocks falling from the slopes above us.

Descending Momotombo Volcano

We could see Christan far below waiting for us.  He wisely decided to stay behind.  We made it back to the Land Cruiser where a big chuck of watermelon cooled us off.  We had survived Nicaragua's Fire Mountains!

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc


Marian said...

You guys have WAY too much energy. You're missing ice in Nashville and snow in VT.


Shelley Walters said...

I take my hat off to you. You do have far to much energy and no I dont think I will try that trip. I would like a bit more protection when it comes to heights then what you had. Cheers Shelley