Sulfur, lava and something like jet engines

Ever wondered what a live volcano sounds like? Well, I can tell you it sounds like a loud rushing of wind, almost like a jet engine. I can tell you because not too long ago I stuck my head over the edge of a live volcano. It’s an experience.

You would think that given my past experiences hiking up vocanoes, I would not be hurrying back to scale another one. I admit to having reservations, but once assured that the altitude would not be a factor, I was eager to find out just what a live volcano actually looks, sounds and smells like.

After a day or so in Leon, A and I signed up for a two-day trek to Telica, a 1000m high stratovolcano not too far from the city. It was advertised as a moderate hike, and I was fairly confident of being up to the task. Turns out that this time, my confidence was not misplaced.

There were about 16 of us on the tour, including the English couple with who we shared a cab with on that infamous first night in Nicaragua (Oh how we laughed about the cockroaches!).The tour began with us strapping on a 20kg pack each (8L of water each plus food, sleeping bags, tents and other camping equipment) and me doing my absolute best not to whine about it. We then had a cramped collectivo ride to the outskirts of Leon, followed up with a very cramped chicken bus ride to the beginning of the trail.

The trail itself was incredibly dry, and those at the back (myself among them) found themselves hiking through plumes of sand and dust stirred up by those ahead. It wasn’t too long before I was coughing and wheezing, but tough little me soldiered on.

The trail wound through farmlands, and often our team of trekkers would pull over to let the local farmers with their wagons drawn by impressive looking bulls pass by. Each one of them had a curious smile and a friendly wave for us, and we in turn met every one of them with a cheery “Hola” or “Buenos Dias”.

It took close to six hours to reach the base of the volcano, but the great company and beautiful scenery meant it really wasn’t a drama. Even the weight of the backpack was soon forgotten as we tramped along, swapping travel stories and itineries and plans for back home.

At the foot of the volcano we stopped to collect firewood, and I was determined to do better than a handful of pinecones this time. So our team scattered through the forest foraging for half and hour, at the end I which I proudly dragged back a sizeable tree branch. Which we ended up leaving behind because it was too big too break into useable pieces and too big to drag up to the volcano. Well done me.

The hike up the volcano slope was not easy. Or rather, not easy for me. At one point I realised, to my utter shame, that I had been overtaken by the Swedish woman who had most of her left leg and knee in bandages. She had had an accident a few days prior but was determined to do the hike and had limped along at the back. She was now ahead of me. I decided I couldn’t possibly lose to her (no, nobody declared it a race, but let’s face it, everyone knows who finishes last) so I sucked it up, overtook her and one other slow poke and then collapsed at the campsite.

With the gear dumped at the campsite, it was off for a daylight glimpse of the main attraction. We were a 10 minute walk from the crater, which Wikipedia says is 700m in diameter. I concur – it was big. Before getting close to the edge we were given a lecture about safety by our guides; we were to approach the edge on our hands and knees and then to lie flat on our stomach to look in. And there were to be absolutely no practical jokes such as “pretending” to push anyone in. Which I felt took the fun out of it a bit, but there you go.

You could smell the sulfur of the volcano well before you approached the edge, it was strong and not pleasant, but not enough of a deterrent to stop us looking into the crater. One by one we inched over to the edge, and looked down into the mouth of the volcano. In the daylight, you could mostly see the yellow and white volcanic rocks, and the red glow of the lava was hard to spot. At that point it was the noise of the volcano that made the biggest impression of us; the loud rushing was unexpected. It was actually difficult to hold any kind of conversation near the edge, you just couldn’t hear each other.

We headed back down to set up camp – which proved to be remarkably easy – and make dinner. After dinner, it was back up to the mouth to view the lava in the darkness. This time, it was you couldn’t miss the lava. Peeking over the edge we could instantly make out the red, red lava churning and oozing down below. It was quite mesmerising, and we spent a good deal of time attempting to capture the glowing lava on our cameras. Personally I think my shots will someday be gracing the cover of National Geographic…

Then it was back down for Smores (toasted marshmallows on chocolate biscuits) and then bed. We got up just before dawn to see the sunrise. It was lovely, but standing up on the ridge, stamping my feet to keep my toes warm, I did debate whether the chilly 4.45am start was worth it. I’ll be optimistic and say it was, if only because it meant we were packed up and on our way home by 6am.

The hike back was much easier, the trails we took were less dusty, and the fact that we had eaten our food and drunk our water meant my pack was weighing in at less that 5kg. The trail back took us past some of the other volcanoes in the area – Santa Clara and Motombo among them – which gave us more gorgeous scenery to take in.

We crashed early that night in Leon, but despite our weariness we were already making plans to get back out into Nicaraguan countryside. More volcanos beckoned.

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