. Day three was a day trip to the gorgeous completely litter-free beach named Las Peņitas for the sporadic rock outcrops that the surf crashes into during high tide. We practically had the beach to ourselves to top it off. The next morning, we were up early to meet our guides and hiking group over breakfast at the Quetzaltrekkers office. Another branch of the organization in Guatemala that we did a trip with way back when, Quetzaltrekkers (www.quetzaltrekkers.org) leads trips up various volcanoes in the Leon area and all of the profits support another group helping streetkids. After breakfast, we packed our bags and headed out to the bus station with our guides, Taylor and Janine, and two Swiss women, Claudia and Nadia. We rode a crowded (duh) chicken bus to San Jacinto to start our hike but first checked out some boiling mud pots that looked enticingly similar to Willy Wonkaīs chocoate river. We could see our distant destination of Volcan Telica as we began hiking up a hot dusty road that gave way to a hot dusty trail. This part of the country is different from any we have experienced thus far because it is so hot and dry, but not parched. There is still green in the landscape, fruit trees growing, and flowers blooming. After a particularly steep and stifling stretch of overgrown trail, we stopped to rest and eat lunch in a flat area, part of the ancient perimeter of Telicaīs crater. It was just another short climb up and over a ridge to our campspot, a grassy field that looked artifically planted and conveniently sheltered from the constant wind
. We set up camp at the base of the cone leading up to the current crater, then scrambled up a scoria field to peer over the rim. It was shockingly deep at 120 meters and dizzying to stand at the edge of the sheer drop off. The sulferous fumes burned our nose and made us cough, but we have never had so much fun hurling rocks into the giant cavity. After always telling students in our field groups with KSS that they couldnīt throw rocks under any circumstances, we were hypocritically quite entertained with counting the seconds until it hit with an explosion of powder far below. We relaxed back at camp for while, then went to a great viewing spot for the sun setting into the Pacific with brillant clouds streaking across the sky. We returned to camp for dinner around a campfire and dessert of roasted marshmallows, a first for the Swiss girls. Our last excursion from camp was back up to the crater to see lava glowing since Telica is still active, a minor eruption occuring the week before. Unfortunately, with a lot of smoke coming out of the crater and the strong moonlight reflecting off of that smoke, we could barely make out a tiny dim red glow at the deepest point of the crater, but the night sky was beautiful. We had a second dessert of "picos" (Nicaraguan sweet bread) warmed on the rocks of the campfire ring, then as always with camping, went to bed early. The next morning, we ate breakfast and packed up camp, then did the same hike down to San Jacinto where we ate lunch in a comedor blasting 80s hits sung in Spanish
. For the first time in Central American history, we are sure, we witnessed a bus too full to take on more passengers. There was simply no space to cram more people in to, so we waited for the next and only slightly less crowded one to return to Leon. We had decided to do another trek with Quetzaltrekkers, but they couldnīt run it for a couple of days, so we headed back to Las Peņitas beach in the meanwhile. We arrived filthy and sweaty to Hotelito Oasis (sadly) just after sunset, cleaned ourselves up, ate dinner and relaxed in their breezy second-story palapa (open air thatched roofed hut) until bed. As much as we enjoy our days on the beach, there is really not much to elaborate about them. Sunbathing, reading, eating, and the occasional stroll looking for shells for two days was the routine. One thing of note though is that after four months of beach visits, Matt finally has a distiguishable tan despite obsessively reapplying sunscreen all day. I also learned the hard way that crab claws can puncture the skin. Not expecting to actually be fast enough to grab it, I chased one down and reached for a big blue one, which promptly attached itself to my index finger until I screamed and shook it in to the sea. Anyhow, we returned to Leon for our next trek to Volcan Cosiguina. This trip rarely goes because it takes three days--two days of travel for one day of hiking--but we thought it was worth it in the end. Again, we met our guides Hannah and Erwin over breakfast and sorted out our gear. Then it was all day in chicken buses going through very rural areas where just the simplist of huts line the road, until we reached the Gulf of Fonseca
. We set up camp on the black sand beach with views of volcanoes across the bay in El Salvador as well as Honduras. We rejoiced to wash off the grime in the ocean, eat a late lunch, then wander down the beach to an artistic looking forest of dead trees. The sunset was beautiful as usual, and in keeping with tradition, we had dinner and roasted marshmallows around a driftwood campfire. Up early for a granola breakfast, we packed up our belongings for safekeeping at a nearby store while we hiked. The trail was not as dusty, steep, or long as Telica and soon we were peering in to the crater, filled with a tantalizing blue-green lake at the base of the steep walls far below. So close, and yet so far away. We had far-reaching views, although hazey from many brush fires burning in Nicaragua, as we walked part of the rim of the crater before heading back down. A random dog adopted us and followed us for the entire hike up and down, then trotted off to his house as we passed by it on the return. They prepared dinner for us at the house where we left our bags, which we ate while watching all the local boys carrying on a rowdy and fast-paced checker tournament. Some of the kids followed us down to the beach and watched our every move as we set up camp again. We ended up playing cards with them for a while as more and more kids showed up with curiosity about the travellers on the beach. Just before we were supposed to get up the next day at 5:30am, Matt and I watched our first ever moonset over the golf. The moon glowed red, like a sunset but not as bright
. Very cool. We caught a bus to a nearby town with a warm, clear spring that we soaked in before eating "pinto gallo" (beans and rice) at a little comedor. Then began the long bus journey in reverse. We were happy when we arrived in Leon and checked in to our third different hostel in the city (for some reason, there is a plethora of good hostels here...). We were planning on leaving the next morning, but heard about some of the Quetzaltrekkers volunteers making plans to tour the Flor de Caņa rum factory the next day. We decided to stay and go with them, so the next day we took a bus out to the factory and waited for a long time at the gate until the security guards decided we werenīt going to be discouraged and let us in. We had an interesting overview of the distilling process, seeing the vats where fermentation was happening, the white oak barrels aging rum for up to 18 years, and my favorite part, the semi-automated bottling line. What really blew us away was that for their extra big or extra small bottles, they have workers gluing the labels on one at a time by hand! For some reason, I am always fascinated by assembly lines in factories...We ended the tour with a tasting session and all agreed that the special reserve aged 18 years was amazingly smooth, not that any of us were big rum experts, but it was good! So after quite a while in the Leon area, we are anxious to see other parts of Nicaragua with our few remaining weeks of travel and will be heading next to Leonīs historically rival city Granada.
We had another long travel day from the capital of Honduras, crossing the border, and arriving in Leon in the late afternoon, feeling it get progressively hotter the closer we got. We checked in to our second-choice hostel (ViaVia - no kitchen), since the one we were aiming for right across the street was full (Bigfoot - with kitchen). Famished, we ate a snack at the hostel before setting out to see the historical cathedrals basking the warm light of sunset. The next day was very chill. We slept in, ate a late breakfast, and moved across the street to Bigfoot. We wandered through the central plaza and down some of the calmer streets farther from the center, better understanding why Leon has such an appeal to foreigners with its deteriorating and worn but still beautiful colonial feel. We sat in a trendy cafe through the stifling hot afternoon and caught up in our journals, then went to the market to buy fruits and veggies and the (air-conditioned!) supermarket for the rest of our dinner supplies, cooking up pasta and chicken back at the hostel