By Karlie Marrazzo
Nicaragua, the Central American country that is sandwiched in an ideal spot between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, is home to lush tropical forests, long golden beaches, and over a dozen volcanoes, many of them still active. I am drawn to volcanoes wherever I go in the world, and I had already hiked through the idyllic cloud forests of Mombacho at the beginning of my weeklong trip in Nicaragua. Now, it was time to climb one of the most active of them all – Telica.
Telica is approximately 30km to the north of León, where we spent the final few days of our trip. There are many tour companies that offer volcano trips, but I booked a sunset hike directly through my hostel. My travel partner lazed in front of the hostel in the blazing midday heat, waiting for the tour guide to pick us up. They sputtered up to the hostel shortly after our 2pm meeting time in a beat up old Toyota Hilux pickup truck with wooden benches in the bed. We wearily climbed into the back of the truck, bouncing through the streets of León and praying that we would make it to the volcano before flying out of our seats. The driver stopped to pick up sandwiches and we clambered inside the truck, unsure of why they made us sit in the back in the first place.
Twenty minutes later the Hilux went off the main highway and hit the side roads. Dust flew up behind us and we bumped our way along the winding rural paths, dodging rocks, passing skeletal cows, men on horses and families walking or standing along the side of the road. We passed a few farms and houses, but were closed in by trees for most of the trip. We came upon a spot known to the guides where there was a clearing in the trees with a picture perfect view of Telica. We stretched our legs and took a few snapshots of the beast that we were excited to conquer. A few minutes later we arrived in the “parking lot,” a clear, dusty patch at the base of the volcano. A huge tour group – two vans worth – pulled up right as we hit the trail. I was glad to get a head start on them.
The hike was moderate for the first few minutes and I felt a false sense of ease. The path wasn’t steep or rocky, but that quickly changed. Soon I was panting and my place slowed. There were clouds punctuating the sky and a moderate wind blew around us. I counted my lucky stars. I couldn’t imagine doing that hike in the Nicaraguan heat that had permeated our trip thusfar. We trudged upwards and reached the crater about 35 minutes later.
Our small group made it to the top before the others and had the crater to ourselves. It was incredible to be at the lip of an active volcano, steam rising from the crater that was only inches from my toes. Telica’s crater is 120m deep and 700m across with absolutely no railing to protect measly humans from plummeting to its bottom. Gases and steam rose out of it that day, but we had to squint hard to see and glimpse of lava in it’s depths.
We had two choices of where we wanted to watch the sunset from. We could go to the left for a view over León, or we could go to the right a pass by a bat cave. I was in the minority in choosing the right, but somehow my vote won out. We heard the big group behind us and, luckily for us, they chose to go to the left. We hiked for another 25 minutes going around the volcano, not gaining or losing any elevation, picking our way over all sizes of volcanic rock. The light rocks clicked when they knocked together, the sound sharp and hollow. One by one we shuffled down a crevasse into the bat cave. The other members of the group quickly turned around but I took my time, my eyes adjusting to the almost pitch black, only one stream of light coming from a hole above. Hundreds off bats flapped all around me, the odd lighting making them look white. Only a few moments later, we moved on to the last stop.
Three large rocks waited for us on the side of the volcano, set almost too perfectly in place for watching the sunset. From that vantage point we could spy the Pacific Ocean and San Cristobal, Nicaragua’s highest volcano. There were a few grey clouds high in the sky, high enough that they didn’t obstruct the sunset at all. The sun was a blazing orange ball. I was entranced, captivated by every inch that it dropped towards the horizon. Clouds of smoke puffed out of San Cristobal, a sharp contrast to the bright sky. We all ate our sandwiches and watched in silence.
Traces of light still lingered in the sky as we turned around and began the hike back towards the crater. All of a sudden, everyone in front of me stopped. It took me a moment to see what everyone else was seeing. The remains of a young horse lay on the ground a few feet in front of us. His bones were exposed through his thin skin and his flesh had been picked over. His hooves appeared to float below the end of his legs as though they were disconnected from his legs. Perhaps my eyes were playing tricks on me. Normally very sensitive to death, the shell of this horse did not make me sad. Instead, I felt like I was witnessing nature in its purest form and that I understand the true meaning of the circle of life and death. For one moment, I felt at peace with death.
As we reached the crater, the final rays of sun disappeared behind me and the moon rose in the sky in front of me, something I have never simultaneously witnessed before. My walk back down was tediously slow and treacherous. We only had very weak flashlights to illuminate the trail in the otherwise pitch blackness. I doubled up with my cell phone flashlight in my other hand. The loose rocks caused me to slip and lose my footing and balance. Anyone behind me quickly overtook me and I ended up at the back of the line. Grateful to return to the truck, we then endured a nauseating two-hour ride before finally returning to León.