The Epic Journey to Volcano Telica

Trip Start Jul 21, 2012
Trip End Aug 09, 2012

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telica volcano

Flag of Nicaragua  ,
Monday, July 30, 2012

Those of you who knew my travelling plans for this trip know that pretty high up on my list of must-sees in Central America was volcanoes.  There are lots of volcano options in central America - the destructive plate boundaries of the cocos, caribbean and north american tectonic plates all come to a fiery collision right about at Nicaragua and where you get the friction caused by subduction, you get volcanoes.  

After arriving in Leon. I sussed out volcano options - lots of people go to Cerro Negro to participate in volcano boarding - it is meant to be up high on the adventure sports list of must-do along with that bonkers bike ride in Bolivia.  I have no interest in whizzing down volcanoes at speed, value my legs and arms ungrazed and didn't relish the idea of dragging a snow board up the volcano.  There were long hikes encorporating many volcanoes but I opted for what sounded like the easiest option, a two day trek up Volcano Telica, camping in a currently dormant second crater just below the main crater.  Telica is amongst the more active volcanoes in this region - a bit of t'internet research reveals it was a bit frisky in May last year leading to evacuations but not a full-on eruption and before then, the last major eruption was in 2007/8 . The volcano is closely monitored for seismic activity so I was confident that wasn't going to be a safety risk of the journey so slightly apprehensively signed up for the voyage.

A quick note on Leon - not particularly enamoured by it as a city - all the streets look the same and it is hard to find eateries here.  Its full of loud, seedy looking bars full of drinking latino men, seemingly at all hours.  I wandered around and couldn't get a sense of identity from the place - it all kind of looks the same, a bit dirty and depressed.  It is a big student city for Nicaraguans and is meant to be like Granada, but I much preferred Granada.  The hostel I'm staying in is lovely though - lots of interesting folk to talk to.  The hostel and the trip I went on are both part of a not-for-profit organisation that funds environmental education such as teaching the community about the effects of deforestation and plastic waste, so am kind of doing my bit as an ethical traveller staying here. I signed up for the 2 day trek.  The man doing the signing up looked as apprehensive as me about my suitability for the trip!  With memories of the trip in Peru, I asked if the others going were all sporty, long-legged types and he said yes, which didn't help!  But this was something I wanted to do and knew I would survive the experience.  He said for an extra $10 I could have a carrying horse for most of the journey on the first day.  I quickly took him up on his offer - I feel slight sorrow for the horse, but they are beasts of burden at the end of the day and it is much harder to drag a cart full of papayas between villages than one rucksack, so I rationalised use of the carrying horse.  I would have to take two days worth of water and camping stuff so the horse was key to success.

Saturday morning arrived.  I woke early and rearranged my luggage so that I had minimum in my big bag - little first aid kit full of plasters, toothbrush, change of clothes, spare socks, bug spray, suncream, camera...  and put my other gubbins into storage for the night,  I filled up 7 litres of water and picked up a bed roll.  I was to share a tent with a Dutchman called Gary so he took that.  We had a lovely buffet breakfast prepared for us, so had a good feed of omelette, fruit, bread, ham, cheese...  to and a big cup of coffee stock up voyaging energy.  Rucksack fastened and we set off at about 8am.  First part of the journey was a 15 minute walk across Leon to the bus station.  We past a education centre of Sonati's which was covered in a lovely recycled mural - armadillos crafted in beer bottle tops and the like.  We walked through the bustling market and into the bus station and hopped onto a rather full chicken bus.  Rucksack stowed above the seats, thankfully I got a seat next to an old fellow who kept trying to talk to me about stuff.  We drove for about 45 minutes out of Leon, getting out in a small town called San Jacinta.  We took a road off the main road and went to collect the carrying horses.  We got three and thankfully they were pretty healthy looking with a bit of meat on them.  Two white horses and a brown horse.  The brown horse was given my rucksack to carry for the day.  

Next to where we met the horses, there was an area of bubbling mud pots and fumeroles, just to remind us of the tectonic activity in the area.  The village has a small geothermal power plant too.  We took in the lovely sulfurous fumes, took a few pics and then continued onwards.  The first two hours of walking was relatively easy....nice and flat, winding between woodland and forest.  We were walking in the opposite direction to cow central, so the biggest trauma was having to step aside everytime a cow or multiple cows tried to pass.  We also passed a few local farming types wielding their extra large knife machetes.  We passed fields of pinto beans growing and corn amongst other crops - staple nicaraguan ingredients.  We also saw lots of birds and butterflies.  We got a glance of a motmot - the wonderful blue bird that is the Nicaraguan national bird with a fantastic tail made of two thin feathers flanked with little triangles at the end, looking like little flags.  We saw a couple of  bright green lizards (iguana verde)  and lots of beautiful butterflies, including the large bright blue ones.  Eventually we reached a large mango tree where we stopped for lunch.

Our guide unpacked the lunch - bread, ham and processed cheese.  The others on the tour had the audacity to call the cheese 'cheddar cheese' so I educated the europeans about real Cheddar and explained that it is on a par with Brie or Roquefort and defintiely not the plasticised orange stuff in plastic wallets that we had for our sandwiches.  On the tour was Gary from Holland, our guides, Frances who is a volunteer from Germany and also Gerunt, a Nicaraguan plus a Slovenian girl and an Austrian chap who were colleagues travelling together (I didn't pick up their names and was too embarrassed to ask after 2 days....).  They were all nice interestng travelling types on longer voyages than me.  We ate some fruit too then packed up our waste, had a big drink of aqua and trundled onwards.  This is where the walk got harder - the next two hours was a steep upwards climb to the summit of the volcano.

Back to the carrying horses - they had a nice lunch stop too.  My carrying horse seemed particularly greedy and spent the whole time with a large mouthful of greenery, looking most content.  

We wove our way through some dense undergrowth.  My spider/snake/scorpion sensor was switched on and I had to tell myself that we wouldn't be walking this way of it was dangerous!  Luckily the path opened out again and I survived without bitings.  Unfortunately the path started to incline steeply.  My poor short, fat little legs were most unhappy.  It wound up and up, round and round as we got higher and higher up the mountain.  The carrying horses were bringing up the rear and must have been so frustrated with me as I was stopping and starting every other minute.  The rest of the group were being nice and patient and were waiting for me to catch up regularly.  I think they were having a happy time spotting birds and butterflies, whereas I was having an unhappy time panting my way up the damn mountain.  

We passed a tree that had a poor injured squirrel up it - one of its legs was hanging paralysed.  There was nothing we could do for it though, so kept walking.  The walk flattened put somewhat until we reached a barb wire fence.  This was the point where we had to say adios to our carrying horses and do the rest of the journey ourselves. To show their lack of appreciation for the whole experience, they left us a spectacular leaving present by peeing all over the Austrian's sleeping bag and bed roll!  he looked most unimpressed!!  As I was the most problemsome one, I had a lucky escape and next time I get a carrying horse I will endeavour to bribe it with carrots as they seem to have a malevolent side to them!

So we were left to carry on the journey sans hoss. I had  drunk about 3 litres of water by this point, so my load was already much lighter.  I strapped on my rucksack and psyched myself up for the last part of the journey.  We were approaching the top of the volcano by this point and we had to stagger up a steep rocky face.  Again, step by step with careful footing on the uneven surface I panted and puffed my way up the hill, this time being able to see that the end was in sight.  When I got to the top it was amazing - a stunning view of the smoking, angry crater only metres away now.  We could see most of Nicaragua!  there were views across to the lakes in the east and plains out towards the pacific in the west (it was too hazy to actually see the sea though) and a view up and down the volcanic range we were on.  With a pleasantly cool wind blowing through my hair, I felt satisfied with my efforts and proud that I had succeeded in reaching this pinnacle.

We walked down into the eden-like fertile bowl of the second crater that we were to camp in.  Lush green grass, palm trees and other greenery were littered in amongst massive boulders and bomblets and debris from past eruptions.  We found a good spot, next to a previously built fire pit and then collapsed. The others embarked on setting up camp.  Gary the Dutchman was a pro-tent erector and didn't seem to need my help (I did offer...)!  The one thing missing from this experience which I shall defnitely bring next time was a lovely cold beer to celebrate with.  I had to make do with some more water instead.   I lay out in the sun and had a good rest after the tents had been put up.  The Serbian girl fell asleep and the others went off exploring.  After a brief recovery from the long walk, it was time to finish the journey and to go and peer into the crater of Telica. 

We walked from our campsite across the fertile crater until we reached the steep banks of the main crater.  This was littered with pumice rocks and boulders, spewed angrily from the volcano in days gone by.  Careful footing was needed but I cautiously made my way up the slope to the lip of the volcano.  The noise was incredible - like jets taking off or aircraft landing, a massive roar coming up from the centre of the Earth.  A noxious mixture of steam and gases was rising out of the opening.  It was still daylight so we couldn't see much down the crater, just decending into a smokey gloom 250m or so deep.  We walked around the crater, took in the power of the volcano and observed the 360 degree views.  We could see Nicaragua's tallest volcano, San Cristobel steaming away in the distance with th sun beginning to set behind it.  Light was beginning to fade, so we made our way back down the uneven slope.  We past a huge boulder that looked like it was made of just iron and sulfur, the raw ingredients of the Earth just ejected in anger by the volcano.  

The side of the volcano into the second crater would make an excellent line transect study - no plants grew up near the lip of the crater, but going down the hill, plant species began to grow, sparsely at first - hardy plants like thyme creeping up between the rocks then more densely then grasses and trees.  

On return, it was just about dark.  Gary the Dutchman set to work building a fire.  He liked fires.  he went off on a wood hunt - fairly difficult in an area that gets wiped out completely every few years so there wasn't a massive amount of wood to be found.  Enough was gathered though and soon a sizeable fire was burning.  We settled down and ate the pasta meal the guide had prepared that morning.  Again, a beer would have been really good to accompany it, but water had to do.  Once we had finished eating, it was time to voyage back up the volcano, with torches this time to peer inside.  

The second trip up the crater was a bit more perilous.  Lit by torch and by the gibbous moon that was already high in the sky, we scrambled up the rocky debris.   At the top we could hear the angry roar of the volcano again.  I lay on my stomach and edged toward the lip of the volcano to peer down into its belly.  Inside I could just see the lake of lava, bobbing up and down slightly and glowing red hot.  I think volcanoes particularly intrigue me as a chemist.  To an early alchemist, they were the ultimate force to be reckoned with, powerful enough to melt rock and reform it to give new materials.  The lake of lava made me think of the plate tectonics demo I do with the syrup and the biscuit.  It also made me think about the fact that we did not have the science to explain this phenomenon until the last 40 years, which never ceases to amaze me.  Looking down the crater, hearing the volcano roar, seeing the red hot lava pool inside it, inhaling the noxious gases rising from its innards and I can understand where the idea of hell came from, the devil in the centre of the earth.  Amazing.  Definitely worth the hellish walk up here!

We walked back down again and returned to our fire, which had kept burning as the Dutchman had found some decent logs ( who knows from where!).  We then tucked into that international favourite, toasted marshmallows!  Such a good end to the evening!  As the fire began to die down, everyone was weary and with the promise of an early start in the morning, it was time to go to bed.  

It was really windy, so we were a bit in fear for our tents during the night which didn't make for a good nights sleep.  The Dutchman was okay tho - no snoring or anything.  He was very tall so only just fit lengthways in the tent, but managed to keep his long legs to himself.  I tossed and turned uncomfortably for hours though, listening to the wind blow and wishing I had a pillow.  The wind died down in the early hours and I got a little bit of sleep, waking with a sore neck.  The others went up for a sunrise look at the volcano, but I deemed this to be unnecessary and had a little more snoozing.  When they returned, we ate some cereal and fruit for breakfast, discarded uneaten food for the horses and cows to munch on, packed up our things and prepared for the return journey.  

We left camp at about 7am and started the descent.  I failed to mention until this point that I didn't bring my crap walking boots travelling this time - they are uncomfortable and heavy and take up too much space and I'm too unfit to climb up volcanoes anyway.  Therefore I was wearing the ultimate hiking choice of converse trainers with absolutely no grip at all!  This hadn't been a major problem on the way up and my feet were in good shape with no blisters, but it was a different matter going down over the slippery volcanic sandy soil and rocks.  Every step I took needed planning and consideration so that I didn't tumble down the steep slopes.  Two hours of downward descent followed, slowly, slowly...  I slipped and fell on my bottom once and nearly slipped lots of times, but no damage was done.  I did see a pair of parrots fly past at one point. I'm sure the volcano face was even longer going down than up!  By the time we reached the mango tree again, my ankles, calves and knees were in agony.  We stopped and rested - the chaps all went straight up the mango tree but I found a nice spot at the bottom, drank some of my remaining water supply and had a biscuit snack readying myself for the last couple of hours of walking.

The rest of the walk was painful, fatigue had set in and my poor, under developed muscles were oxygen starved and unhappy and just wanted to go to bed.  The path was good on the way back, nice and wide and not too slippery and the rest of the journey was pretty flat, but still it was a struggle.  The last part of the walk, we were followed by an old man riding a horse, carrying a large bundle of wood who was being escorted by his pack of hounds - about 5 of them all with angry snarly dog faces.  They were the main driving force keeping me moving! The last few kilometres I was running away from these nasty possibly rabid Nicaraguan biting dogs.  They were of course, harmless, but it was a good motivator.  The old man showed us a short cut across some fields.  I was so happy when I started to be able to hear the main road!  The last kilometre of hiking across the field was done and we popped out in a farm by the main road.  There was a lovely heap of piglets!  We popped through the fence and onto the main road to the bus stop.  We had time to have a drink of water and rub aching muscles and swap my converse and double socks for flip flops, releasing my poor sore (but pretty unblistered) feet.  

The bus journey home went in a blur.  The best part of it was......there was a bucket of roosters!  They were sat at the back of the bus to my right.  Chickens on the chicken bus :-).  On arrival in Leon, I took the executive decision to get a taxi back to the hostel, leaving the others to walk the last bit.  I checked in and got a key for my room then tried to have a shower to wash off two days of volcanic dust from my skin, but alas, in the ways of developing countries the water was off!  I fell onto my clean sheets instead and slept.  Volcanoes....done.
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