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Like moths to the flame
For those mesmerized by the power of volcanoes, Nicaragua is a rising attraction, writes Anne-Marie O'Connor. But demand by rim-seekers has outstripped the limited infrastructure, putting hikers at risk.

Anne-Marie O'Connor

Any local guide will tell you, a climber should not attempt an ascent of Nicaragua's Concepción volcano by its southern flank. It's too fragile, and volcanologists fear it will collapse someday, smothering the villages below and triggering a tsunami on Lake Nicaragua.

Instead, trekkers are directed to the stony road through the banana plantation to the sage meadows of La Sabana, and from there, they can safely begin hiking. But when it comes to climbing a volcano, nothing is particularly safe.

"How many people die in traffic accidents every year?" says Keith Herndon as he steps out of the pickup truck, hoists his pack onto his shoulders and begins the climb up Concepción's 5,280-foot cone. "I'm in no hurry to die. But I like risk-taking."

Herndon, a tall, muscular Marine turned marketing consultant, flew here from his home in North Carolina and wasn't about to let the prospect of slipping off wet boulders or breathing the sulfurous gas that seeps up from the volcano's flanks stop him.

Herndon is among a breed of adventurers for whom volcano climbing is both a physical and a mystical experience, and Nicaragua is a favored destination. The Central American stretch of the Pacific's Ring of Fire has other celebrated volcanoes, such as Costa Rica's erupting Arenal to the south. But access there is strictly regulated by the government. In Nicaragua, however, regulation has not caught up with demand. Here you can step right up to a steaming crater. This is a high-wire act with no safety net.

A five-hour boat ride from Granada, the double volcanoes that form the island of Ometepe beckon like sirens. When clouds gather around them, they hold up the sky, and on clear days, they emerge as lush green temples to the sun, joined by an isthmus where parrots shriek and wading birds fish.

The volcanoes have always seduced visitors. Mark Twain called them "magnificent pyramids," and the 19th century American mercenary William Walker called Ometepe a "vision of enchantment" after he marched past the island on his way to attack the town of Rivas, a "Venus from the sea" that "almost made the pulse stand still."

Herndon crawls up the trail with three other hikers and their 23-year-old guide, Oswaldo Gutiérrez. Gutiérrez shepherds them along as the trail grows steeper and the moss and lichens clinging to the rocks become more slippery. A ruffled pink sobralia orchid blooms in the lava gravel. The group wades through a dense green band of gunnera, a rubbery plant with leaves as tall and broad as a person.

"Don't go off this way, or you'll fall off a ledge," Gutiérrez cautions. In October, a young Salvadoran, tired from the ascent, decided to head back by himself. Eight days later, an iguana hunter noticed a cluster of buzzards in a boulder-strewn ravine known as the Witch's Point. Police say the young man had probably lain there injured for several days.

Near the summit, Herndon and the other climbers scramble up a sharp vertical tilt. The roar of howler monkeys splits the air. Herndon falls backward. Thirty feet to the rim, the wind pummels the cone. It can gust up to 90 miles an hour on these exposed flanks.

"Get down," Gutiérrez yells. "Get down!" The hikers creep to the lip of the crater and press their bodies against the heated rock of the cone. They peer into the abyss, making out shadowy ledges, cliffs and distant ravines. Sulfur blasts mix with the humid air.

Then, briefly, the clouds around them part. The lake shimmers in the afternoon sun, and far away, the church towers of Granada emerge amid the blue jungles of a distant peak.

And opposite them is Maderas. At 4,572 feet, it is shorter than Concepción and covered more thickly with jungle, its caldera filled with a lake. Campesinos describe Maderas as an enchanted mountain inhabited by legendary spirits who make hikers lose their way.
Timeless magnetism

Works of art as well as danger, volcanoes have always exercised a powerful hold on humankind, awing with their symmetry and scale, intimidating with their implacable moods. Many of the world's best-known volcanoes —Fuji, Tibet's Mt. Kailas, Maui's Haleakala —were (and are) considered to be the abode of gods.

Volcanoes don't just touch the sky; they penetrate the heavens. Most traditional cultures have seen the mountains as sources of mystical power, and some even find it sacrilegious, not to mention foolhardy, to climb to an active crater for sport.

Few people other than scientists and serious mountaineers bothered scrambling up volcanoes until the last few decades, when adventure travelers set out for exotic realms in search of active ways to experience the local scenery.
While most of the climbing is on dormant craters, such as Fuji and Kilimanjaro, more and more climbers have been scaling smoking rims for the elation of staring into the center of the earth. Young travelers dodge flying rocks on the flanks of Italy's Stromboli, which has been erupting for two millenniums. In Bali, backpackers peer through billowing steam into the molten core of Batur, a peak sacred to the Balinese, which has blasted off multiple times over the last century and as recently as 1994.

In geologically young Central America, volcanoes are something more: They are the fire of creation, the pulse of life that helped transform an archipelago into a land bridge as recently as 3 million years ago. Martha Navarro knows the mystique of these young volcanoes firsthand.

As a volcanologist for the Nicaraguan government, Navarro mapped Concepción and is intimately familiar with the most treacherous ravines and landslides of both volcanoes. In 1998 she was nearly killed at Nicaragua's Casita volcano when, as she was inspecting a mudslide that killed 2,000 people, she slid into a gulch, breaking both her legs and fracturing several vertebrae. Since the 1950s, nearly three dozen volcanologists around the world have lost their lives in the line of duty —but this doesn't dim her ardor.

"If I wasn't working in volcanoes, I might as well die," Navarro says. "It is the most exciting thing I could possibly do with my life."

During one eruption of Nicaragua's Cerro Negro volcano, "I felt as if there was a force there that corresponded to a force inside me," she says. "Volcanoes are very enigmatic. Anything could happen at any moment. It is fire, energy that you feel you need to breathe to give you force."

Nicaragua is among the most volcanic places on earth. Just off the Pacific Coast, the Cocos Plate is being thrust under the Caribbean Plate, forcing molten rock to the surface and creating deadly seismic jolts.

Concepción and Maderas are among some 200 volcanoes in the country, six of them active, and like all volcanoes in Nicaragua, their histories are woven deeply into regional myths and legends that go back to pre-Columbian times. On the island of Ometepe —whose name means "two peaks" in Nahuatl —many adults still tell children these stories, though often in the same spirit as the Santa Claus tale.

The forbidding topography of Central America's volcanoes has made them unique ecological islands. Chocoyo parrots build their nests in the warm craters of Nicaragua's Masaya volcano, just south of Managua, where toxic gases keep their eggs warm and safe from predators. Vampire bats live in its lava caves and pollinate the orchids. The nearby Mombacho volcano hosts orchids and butterflies found nowhere else in the world.

Today Ometepe's isolation is being eroded by regular daily ferry service from San Jorge and Granada, and some islanders worry about changes the foreigners will bring. Early visitors to Mombacho yanked its rare orchids out of the ground, and ocelots have been eradicated from the national park of Masaya.
Some ecotourism entrepreneurs on Ometepe have cleared tracts of forest near their hostels. A poacher-taxidermist is shipping stuffed deer, monkeys and parrots off the island, and black marketeers are trafficking in Ometepe's abundant archeological relics. Some dread the day the rutted main road is paved.

A flood of hikers

Until a few years ago, only a tiny trickle of volcanologists, botanists, archeologists and mountaineers climbed the volcanoes, but the end of the Contra war, expanded electricity and regular ferry service have brought a flood of hikers: college students, doctors, investment dvisors, therapists, professors. Most are from the United States and Europe. Most are novices.

Yet on Ometepe —where there are no well-tended trails, no rangers, no parks —these visitors threaten to overwhelm what little infrastructure there is. The new medical center that serves one side of the island has no phone.

The main hospital's connection to the mainland in case of emergencies is a battered outboard, and the frontline rescuers are $1.20-a-day farmworkers who risk their lives hauling injured hikers down the volcanoes on hammocks or horseback.
If Concepción is a volcano of fire, burning depths and sulfurous breath, then Maderas is a volcano of water, its crater a misty lagoon crowning a dense, orchid-laden jungle, home to monkeys and boa constrictors.
 The most popular trail to the summit of Maderas begins at the Finca Magdalena, a fair-trade coffee cooperative. José Santo López Rivera, its president, has lived his life in the shadow of this volcano and, like his father and grandfather, tends coffee grown in its forest. He has watched Concepción's eruptions, and eight years ago he had friends lost or driven from their homes in the lahar, or mudflow, that destroyed the village of Corozal.

López owes his livelihood to fertile soil and to the rivers that run down the volcanic slopes, but he has seen the destruction they can wreak. When asked about the power of these peaks, he recounts how Spanish priests in the 16th century tried to baptize Maderas, whose stone idols and petroglyphs suggest it was a sacred ceremonial place for indigenous Nicaraguans.
When the priests assembled, the ground shook, and a deadly mudslide poured down the mountain's flanks. "The priests fled," López said, "and the volcano remained pagan."

López and other islanders require visitors to hire one guide for every three people and warn climbers that if they get lost, they have to pay for their own search party. Island health officials are scrambling to train guides as paramedics and writing to guidebook publishers to demand that they stop telling backpackers it is safe to hike the volcanoes without guides.

Their concerns were vindicated by a police communiqué issued late last year after two climbers died on Maderas. Jordan Ressler, 23, the son of a prominent La Jolla attorney, and Londoner Nicholas Roth, 28, were caught in a torrential downpour during the rainy season on the peak and never returned to Hacienda Mérida, a backpackers' hostel where they were staying.

Scores of islanders searched for the young men. A helicopter and search dogs were called in, and the Ressler family hired an expensive Washington security firm. Again it was buzzards who signaled the men's location. The bodies of Ressler and Roth were found at the rocky bottom of a 300-foot drop.

Danger, $4 a day

Marlon GONZALEZ is a soft-spoken 22-year-old who works for the Magdalena coffee cooperative, guiding hikers for $4 a day —a good wage in a country where the majority live on less than $2 a day. Tips are rare. González is similar to other guides here and elsewhere in the world. He was forced to drop out of high school in order to support his mother and three siblings, who still depend on his income. Like many other guides, he can't afford hiking boots and negotiates the slopes in worn-out shoes, faded jeans and a T-shirt, in contrast to the water-repellent and micro-fabric shorts of some of his clients.
This morning, he carefully outfits six hikers with walking sticks made of tree branches, before leading them up through the forested coffee and cacao plantations on the lower skirts of the volcano. On the trail, he points to a pre-Columbian petroglyph, a tufa boulder carved with spirals and something that looks like a monkey. Across from the carving is a bathtub-size nest of leaf-cutter ants where red-and-black-banded, poisonous coral snakes make their homes. Overhead, an urraca —an 18-inch-long blue and white bird with a foppish 4-inch crest and a gracefully trailing tail —screams. Parrots and parakeets pierce the canopy with their calls.
As the trail climbs through a tropical forest, a tribe of howler monkeys roars from a stand of guanacaste trees. Humidity intensifies, and the foliage grows denser. González stops at a tree wrapped with a vine whose fleshy heart-shaped leaves hold dozens of perfect pale yellow orchid blooms.   He points out the voluptuous red flowers called "burning lips," and the velvety pink "elves' leaves." Orange and yellow blooms erupt from bromeliads growing in the trees, and blue morpho butterflies flutter on the breeze.

Across the trail lies a papery snakeskin shed by a boa constrictor. Later in the ascent, another guide finds a pencil-size baby boa that wraps its tail around his finger. He gently lays it back down on the jungle floor.
Soon the climbers scale a series of stony vertical ledges that grow more and more slippery. González points to an uprooted tree bisecting the path: Two months ago, he was guiding a group along the trail when it crashed down in front of them.
Up ahead, he parts the brush to reveal a ravine concealed from view, just three feet off the trail, a hidden trapdoor.

Last year, he says, two young men from Managua, hiking in the rain without a guide, plunged 150 feet down this drop-off. One managed to crawl up and get help, and González, with 19 other guides, rappelled down to rescue the other youth. They carried him down to the farm in a hammock and found a car to take him over the roads to a hospital two hours away.
A natural force

If González himself were seriously injured during the climb, it would be a disaster. He proceeds carefully. One climber, a Dutch pediatrician and a veteran of multiple volcano hikes worldwide, surprises everyone by announcing she is turning back.
By then the trail has degenerated into a soup of mud laced by thick roots, and the mud sucks at the boots of hikers who march on.
"The fascination of a volcano is the sensation of overwhelming natural force," explains one of the hikers. "It's partly the danger, the curiosity of what might happen. It's like the seasons: You love the waves and the force of the sea. In Nicaragua it's even more natural, more savage, because they let you go wherever you want."

The pediatrician's husband, Wilfred Landheer, and her adult daughter, Hanna Hondema, continue to the summit and the lake that lies in the crater —a place people compare to the dreamscapes of "The Lord of the Rings."

A guide pulls out a long rope from his backpack, and the hikers rappel down the wet boulders. At the bottom, father and daughter strip to their underwear and wade into the misty lake.

Then González checks his watch. It's 2 in the afternoon. Darkness falls quickly in the jungle, making the stone path more dangerous. Snakes begin to move in the twilight, and mist often deepens into drizzle.
"We've got to go," he says.
Night falls as González escorts the last hiker safely down, and the jungle comes alive. An owl flaps noisily overhead, and bats flit about. Several palm-sized butterflies seeking warmth follow a flashlight beam.
By now the Dutch pediatrician is eating dinner with her family. Just days ago, she scaled Cerro Negro, Central America's youngest volcano. But today she is afraid she might suffer a weak spell and hold back the rest of the hikers. There's a reason: Inoperable cancer has spread through her abdomen, and she has been told she doesn't have long to live. But she's going to stare down mortality on her own terms.
"Next week I'm going to try another volcano," she says with a smile.

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