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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.