The weight of my backpack at 5:00 AM was brutal: 9 liters of water, 1 sleeping bag, and sundry other camping bits and bobs. And I was one of the lucky ones. Dan carried all that plus an old school (read: heavy) four-person tent.
Even at this hour, it was steamy. Under the weight of my pack, I was glazed in sweat before we reached the crossroads for the chicken bus to the trail head. I looked around at the young, energetic faces – mostly in their early 20s – and wondered, “Am I too old to be doing this?”
A few hours later we were scaling the black ash base of Cerro Negro, an active volcano in northern Nicaragua. As we neared the rim, a crater emitting eggy plumes of sulfur dioxide fumed on my right. The black volcanic gravel of our climb yielded to iridescent mineral deposits, boulders, lava chunks and white ash. On my left, it was a surprisingly long way down to where Mother Nature had drawn a stark line between the slope of black volcanic gravel and the lush, electric green canvas of pastures, rich soil and rolling hills surrounding the cone.
In this moment of relative tranquility, it occurred to me that this volcano had given and — as recently as 1999 — it had also taken away.
How NOT to Run Down a Volcano
At the edge of the volcano, a slope of fine volcanic pebbles descended to a base almost 200-300 meters down.
“You should really run as fast as you can…all the way to the bottom.” John, our ebullient guide, implied anything else would be an epic waste of an opportunity. He even took everyone's cameras halfway down to capture our folly.
“Is this really a good idea? Will our insurance cover this?” I wondered, my age again revealing itself.
As the first of our group began their run down — arms and legs flailing and voices cracking in terrified delight — my adrenaline kicked in.
Someone in the remaining group suggested Dan and I run down hand-in-hand for the camera.
“OK, c'mon,” I said, grabbing Dan's hand.
He was too willing. A split second later, we were off to the races, bounding and sliding down the cone. Dan's strides were a little too much for me though. Our fleeting moments of coupledom were quickly followed by Dan unknowingly dragging me down the volcano.
“This isn't fun anymore. STOP!!” I yelled.
After I took stock of the raspberry gravel wounds down my left leg, we opted to part ways. As in life, some undertakings are more fun as a couple while others are best pursued alone.
Volcano Number Two: El Hoyo
Two volcanoes, one day. That's the trick and the treat of this particular trek.
It was midday and I was drenched only minutes into the steep two-hour climb through the gap at Las Pilas. Fearing heat exhaustion, I slowed and focused on one foot in front of the other. Meanwhile, most of the group bounced Tigger-like up the steep path in the oppressive heat.
One rain storm and a few water breaks later (I was so thankful for each and every one), we arrived at the top of El Hoyo volcano, our campsite for the night. Dazed and exhausted, I barely registered that we and the mountain were enveloped in clouds. Nearly 12 hours of movement had taken their toll.
Early Bird Gets the View
“Guys, you have to come out here and see this rainbow!”
It was 5:20 AM. My first thought: “Ugh.”
My second thought: “This is John's ploy to draw us out of our tents.” Dan concurred.
I went outside just to be sure.
And there it was: a rainbow (which multiplied to two – Alexander's Dark Band) and a rapidly clearing sunrise view of Lake Managua, Momotombo Volcano, Lake Asososca (our destination later that day) and the vast, awesome green valley that lay among them.
Those bruises on my hips, the muscle ache in my legs. It was all worth it.
I decided I'm not too old for this after all.
A Word about Quetzal Trekkers
We did this in 36 hours with Quetzal Trekkers in Leon, Nicaragua. We will write more about them later. For those interested in this hike, it's referred to as El Hoyo. It's really three-in-one (Cerro Negro, El Hoyo and Lake Asososca). It's kicks your ass, but it kicks ass.
For those interested in trekking in Guatemala or Nicaragua, Quetzal Trekkers is a fantastic social enterprise. They not only deliver a unique experience, but 100% of their profits goes towards helping street kids. Their prices are reasonable and they can lend you virtually all the equipment you'll need. All their guides are volunteers who give a minimum of three months of their time to the organization. Their jobs are not easy, but somehow they make it look so. These guys and gals are some of the most dedicated and passionate we've had the pleasure to meet on our travels.