The average commute of a tour guide in Nicaragua. Image courtesy of Paige Trubatch.
This time last year I was giddy with anticipation and nerves as I packed my bags to live and work in León, Nicaragua for half a year as a volcano-trekking guide with the nonprofit hostel Sonati. I clocked my final retail hours at the mall to return to a city I love for my fourth and longest stay. My time would be filled with challenges and vulnerability, balanced with a healthy dose of celebration rum and salsa music.
At the end of my time in the “Land of Lakes and Volcanos,” I came away with a unique knowledge base of the natural world. For you Go Girls who prefer your travels with an Indiana Jones edge, here are some of the most popular treks I led as a guide.
Sonati Hostel in León, Nicaragua. Images courtesy of Paige Trubatch.
Only One Way Down: Cerro Negro
Cerro Negro is an easy, half-day trip perfect for those on a tight travel itinerary and adrenaline junkies. It was my favorite trip to do as a guide.
As the youngest, most active volcano in Nicaragua’s Los Maribios volcanic chain, future eruptions may alter the “black hill” in such a way as to make this particular trip “a limited time offer.” You see, once you hike up Cerro Negro (an easy to moderate 45 minutes to the top), there’s only one way down. And that is to run, run like Forrest Gump, or to sled at full speed in a sexy protective volcano boarding getup.
As your guide, I loved the moment we’d finally see the volcano in the distance, with but a little scratch down the side, and I’d let you know that that was how we were coming down. Inevitably, several “What you talkin’ bout, Willis?” glances would shoot my way as we drew closer. I loved the moment I’d take photos of my group as they each whizzed past me on the side of the ashen volcano, so in the moment. I was thrilled to see they had overcome that twinge of fear to embrace this experience of a lifetime, dirt in teeth and all. It was wonderful.
Sinkholes and Swimming Holes: Las Pilas – El Hoyo
Moderate, Two Days
Las Pilas – El Hoyo is located in the same park as Cerro Negro, and, because of this, more experienced trekkers often like to combine the two trips into an overnight excursion to both volcanos.
El Hoyo (The Hole) refers to a collapsed magma chamber on the side of the volcano, which is to say an impressive and rocky sinkhole. Set up camp a bit further down from this point for sweeping views of Lake Managua and Momotombo, another more challenging volcano off in the distance.
The appeal of El Hoyo on a dusty trek during the dry season (January – May) is the promise of a swim in the cool, crisp waters of Laguna Asososca towards the end of the second day. From the crater lake, where you’ll stop for lunch and a dip before the final leg of the hike to the bus stop, El Hoyo is visible to give you some perspective on just how far you’ve come and how you’ve earned a refreshing break.
Sonati staff and volunteer trek to El Hoyo. Images courtesy of Finn Thompson and Paige Trubatch.
Lava Lights: Telica
Moderate to Difficult, One or Two Days
Last but not least, Volcán Telica is the most popular trip (in addition to volcano boarding at Cerro Negro) for many of the hostels that do bookings around the city of León. The main selling point of a hike to Telica is that you can see lava: extremely hot rocks that glow a gorgeous bright red hue as you stand over the crater’s edge after dark. You can schedule a hike for either one or two days, though each comes with different perks and challenges to consider before hopping on the bus to begin your journey.
The one-day hike can be rough, as you complete the same 4.5-hour ascent to the volcano to relax and check out the crater after dark before returning back to the city shortly afterwards. What I loved about this trip in particular was the view of the city lights off in the distance as we made our way down. You can never underestimate the physicality of such a hike in a tropical, dry climate. That climate, however, provides some fantastic wildlife and plant opportunities (creepy crawlers, tropical birds, and gnarly trees) for breaks to cool down with frozen pineapple and chat about the natural habitat.
Though the two-day walk requires a certain measure of mental grit to push through, the campfire dinner and looming volcanic crater overhead make for an otherworldly night on Earth, where the stars are magnified in their proximity. After a hard day’s trek under a beating sun, the rest is welcome, and the sense of awe for this wild and unpredictable place is enough to make your weary bones feel strong.
Telica campsite. Images courtesy of Paige Trubatch.
Check back in the New Year, when I’ll introduce you to the delicious honey of a trailblazing beekeeper, a family of artisan potters near a crater lake, and a distillery tour of Nicaragua’s world-famous rum!