Nicaragua is a hotbed of volcanic activity. A total of 19 active volcanos run north to south along the western side of the country, spanning from the northern border to the island of Ometepe in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. Over the millennia an abundance of eruptions have led to both catastrophe and the creation of stunning natural beauty.
On my second day in Masaya I joined up with a tour that would scale the nearby, very active Masaya volcano. I was told the best time was to go at night; the active lava flow under darkness was said to be epic.
I am scooped from Bernardo’s house by truck and am joined by several other gallivanters. I am happy to find the group to be filled with gregarious and friendly folk. I meet Rhian and Robin, a couple from the UK on a trek through Central America. I meet Tarjei, Maty, Madeleine and Tora, Norwegians who are on a teaching internship in the northern city of Estelí. And I meet Baris, a young man from Turkey who has lived all over the world and been in Masaya for two months.
We all hit it off immediately. Along with our guide, Nuno, a local Masayan, we make our way to the volcano’s base and take off on a short 30 minute hike to the meeting point, where a truck would take us the rest of the way.
Nuno gives us some brief history of the volcano and surrounding national park.
Over the past 9,000 years, the Masaya complex has seen a flurry of eruptions, but the lava fields above were created by two principal eruptions in 1670 and 1772, the second of which wrought destruction on the surrounding villages, launching massive rocks and plumes of sulfuric smoke throughout a radius of several kilometers.
These days Masaya is still very much active, but eruptions have been limited to the immediate area. The last eruption of consequence was in 2001, when the crater exploded and sent rocks with diameters of up to 60cm as far as 500m from the volcano. Vehicles in the area were damaged and one person was injured.
I ask our guide if we’re overdue for one and he just shrugs. Real comforting.
Nuno moves with a bit of a limp; I ask him if he hurt his leg. He explains to me that he has Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Knowing full well how debilitating this disease is, I immediately view him in a different light. Everyday he wakes up and has less use of his motor functions. I can’t imagine the kind of urgency he carries with him day-to-day. Despite his condition, he has a positive vigor to live his life to the fullest. He loves painting and shows me some of his artwork, including some impressive body painting. He tells me he wants to be an innovator, and that his idol is Steve Jobs.
“I want to do something great for my country”
I tell him that by showing travelers his homeland’s natural wonders, he already is.
And man, does this particular wonder really pack a punch.
After some waiting at the meeting point, we are scooped by our truck and taken the rest of the way as the sun sets behind us. Pretty soon we are at the crater, overlooking a fiery inferno under darkness.
My eyes are wide with awe and I can feel my pupils dilating. It is a spectacular sight. The crater gives way to a relatively small gap, enough for us to peer through and see the lava river below. This is the stuff that is constantly churning deep below the ground we walk. The substance that has destroyed and created lands across the earth.
We only get 10ish minutes to take our pictures and admire the activity, but it is enough. Plus the smell of sulfur is overwhelming.
It was my first time seeing flowing lava.
The next day I reunite with most of the group and set off for a volcanic creation of a different variety: Laguna de Apoyo.
Located between Granada and Masaya, the lagoon is a nature reserve that occupies the caldera of an extinct volcano that collapsed some 23,000 years ago. The resulting caldera stretches almost 7 km in diameter and reaches depths of 175m.
After a 30 minute taxi ride, we arrive at the lagoon. While approaching we see wild howler monkeys jumping overhead and hear a variety of bird sounds echoing through the surrounding forest. Later I would learn that the lagoon is home to over 230 species of birds plus iguanas, anteaters, and boas.
I’ll have to return and do a proper animal sightseeing hike someday. That day our group was content to sit by the water around drunken locals, enjoying delicious food and drink, going for a dip, and walking along the black sand beaches.
That is not to say we didn’t have some friendly animal company, however.
It was a wonderful day filled with relaxation and great conversation. Over beers we talk of our travels, share experiences, and discuss our future ambitions. Just strangers a day before, the dynamic was fluid and fun, like we’d known each other for years. I’m thankful to have linked up with them for a few days.
The next day I said goodbye to my excellent Masayan host, Bernardo, and set off for my final destination in Nicaragua: Léon.
My first activity in this new city would be to attempt the famous volcano boarding down Léon’s nearby volcano, Cerro Negro. I had heard from many other travelers that this was a worthy experience not to be missed. Barreling down a volcano on a wooden plank, how could I pass that up?
I am scooped from El Jardin Hostel at 8am and am joined in a van by a Canadian couple, three Swedish men traveling together, and our guide. We drive about an hour to volcano’s base. Once given our gear and wooden sleds, we begin our ascent.
Cerro Negro means “black hill” in Spanish. A fitting description. Born in 1850, it is the youngest volcano in Central America, and the most active in Nicaragua. It produces frequent eruptions of nominal consequence, the kind that don’t endanger you even if you’re looking into the crater. However, powerful explosive eruptions occur every few decades, the last one being in 1999. Seems like this one is overdue as well, I think to myself. Nevertheless, we charge ahead up the volcano side with our sacks of gear and sleds in tow.
The hourlong hike itself is a bit of a challenge. The steep slopes, scorching heat, thrashing winds, plus carrying the heavy plank, make for a tiring trudge. Thankfully we take a few breaks and admire the stunning views of green, red, and black tinted topography.
The wind gets especially vicious as we approach the top. When we finally reach the summit, I am fully spent.
The group settles into a heap of exhaustion as we gaze out over the beautiful landscape. Our guide bends down and picks up a handful of the black sand. The remaining hole begins to smoke, it is searing hot as I wave my hand over it. A testament to how active the volcano is.
We walk around the summit a bit and snap pictures.
After admiring the scenery and pounding some water, we are ready to board our way down. We awkwardly finagle our way into the jumpsuits, put our goggles and gloves on, and wrap bandanas over our faces to avoid particles flying into our mouths when we inevitably scream.
Our guide gives a haphazard explanation of how to sit, steer, use our feet to brake, and lean back to go faster. Then he jumped down the volcano about 50 yards away, so he could film us, and signaled us to start hitting the slope one at a time.
I am the fourth to go. I watch the three Swedes begin their descent one by one and disappear over the edge into a dusty mist. Their screams trail off as they plummet down the sandy slopes.
Then it was go time. I sit down and ready myself on my metal-enforced plywood plank, knowing it is the only thing separating me from the sand that is, quite literally, smoking hot.
After the guide’s signal I am off.
I start off slowly. I lean back to pick up speed. As I get going faster, sand starts to kick up all around me. I’m cruising now and loving it. I steer a bit back and forth, too and fro, and am in full exhilaration mode. I think to myself that I could brake, but bugger that. I lean back further. I’m now going really fast. Still no braking. The slope gets even steeper as it drops off. I’m now going uncomfortably fast. I hit a few bumps. The bottom is rapidly approaching. I dip my feet into the sand a little to slow down. Big mistake. I was going way too fast. At the bottom I fall off my board go for a bit of a tumble.
But I pop up quickly, on a total high. I just barreled down a 1,600 foot active volcano in 30 seconds on a wooden board. Such a thrill. No injury to speak of. 10/10 would do again.
Indeed, Nicaragua’s volcanic activity has brought the world a plethora of amazing and humbling opportunities: Seeing lava flow, swimming in a caldera, and even trying a new adventure sport. Just a small piece of the backpacker’s haven that is this country.
Check out the video from the beginning of my descent below! Enjoy my “woo”-ing.