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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Telica at Night

As quickly as I had gotten out of the taxi, a woman from Latina Hostal came out to unlock the front gates. Located in a quieter section of the city, Latina locks the door and front gate each time a traveler enters or leaves. Though it doesn't have a pool, the hostel opens out to a large courtyard with hammocks, chairs, a bar, and a kitchen. Behind the rear wall of the courtyard lies an even larger yard, where the laundry is hung to dry.

The day prior to leaving the States, I learned that Quetzaltrekkers, the non-profit that I was going to use for camping at one of the volcanoes, was closed for relocation. They recommended Sonati, another non-profit. 

So, with a map in hand, I made my way towards Sonati, partially wondering whether I would be able to find my way back. The streets of Leon, a former capital of Nicaragua and the second largest city after Managua,  switch between tar and cobblestone. Lining the streets on either side are Spanish colonial homes and tiendas selling everything from home improvement materials to shoes to baked goods. 

The sidewalks are also noticeably high off the ground by at least a foot, and in some places as high as two feet. I assume there's a historic reason for this if not as a flood prevention mechanism during the rainy season. 

Once at Sonati, I was informed that they had no treks heading out in the next couple of days. My hope wasn't dashed yet. I figured I should go local to figure out what my options were back at Latina. 

Slightly lost, my nose detected the aroma of freshly baked bread. Like a dog on a hunt, I traced the source back to El Leoncito, a corner bakery with walls painted in pastel yellow. I walked up to the counter, pointed at what looked like a sweet, and uttered "uno y una botella de agua pequena." That was a mistake. As has happened multiple times since, most locals will automatically assume I speak Spanish fluently and a stream of syllables will flow from them to me, except I don't even know when one word ends and another begins. After some SSL, Spanish as a second language, I walked out with my water and what turned out to be a savory pastry filled with a mystery meat - all for 22 Cordobas, less than one USD. 

I headed back to the Latina, where Silvio greeted me and let me in. Having taught himself English using Google translate, Silvio listened as I told him about my luck with Quetzaltrekkers and Sonati. Afterwards, he picked up the phone, spoke to someone on the other end in too quick of Spanish for me to pick up on anything, and handed me the phone. Within five minutes I was on track to head up Volcán Telica in the next hour with Tierra. There were unlikely going to be any multiple day treks since the rainy season pretty much precludes a happy camping experience out in the open. 

My arrival had interrupted Silvio's attention towards what apparently was Top Chef. I sat with him on the wooden bench and watched as Tom and Padma told another chef to pack their knives. Then, I went on packing my own gear for the hike up Telica. 

At a little before two, a gentleman in sunglasses covering a sunburned face came and picked me up to meet the rest of the group. We were introduced to Miguel, our guide, Roberto and Alex, guides-in-training, and Julio, our driver and our lifesaver. With the introductions over, we hopped in a 4WD, heading first to the market to pick up snacks. As we waited for Miguel at the market, I chatted up the other two hikers, Warren and Katy of Canada, and Roberto, originally from Leon but had a two year detour in Iowa for school. 

With Miguel back from the crowded mercado, we took off for a smooth half hour drive passing by sugarcane and peanut fields. Cotton used to be a staple crop in Nicaragua, but the entrance of larger nations into the cotton market a couple decades ago brought prices down too low for it to continue to be a viable livelihood. Peanuts then took over. 

At one point, Miguel asked us if we knew who the president of Nicaragua is - we admitted ignorance and was informed of one Daniel Ortega. Warren then proceeded to ask what Miguel thought of Ortega. Katy and I both looked at him, silently asking what the hell he was thinking. I guess if we were going to approach politics it was better coming from a Canadian since one of his fellow countrymen didn't lead a rebellion and declared himself President of Nicaragua nor did his country occupy Nicaragua for a period of time. After a short silence, Miguel made a joke and the topic was dropped. 

We then went off road.  For a full sixty minutes, we drove over rocks that made the cobblestone roads of Leon look like pebbles.  At times, the trail had the trifecta -  giant rocks, fallen branches, and 45 degree sideway inclines. I am sure if we had all shifted our weight toward the direction of the incline, the car would had flipped.  

We finally arrived at the base of Telica, a volcano that stood at >1000m above sea level and last erupted in 2011. Our objective was to head to the crater near the top. At 700m wide and 120m deep, the crater was where we were hoping to find lava. 

I was glad I brought along hiking shoes with good traction. The slopes were steep and strewn with rocks large and small. Miguel solemnly informed us that once we were at the top, a sacrifice had to be made. I volunteered Warren since it would had been suspicious for the only American to go missing. 

The view was breathtaking even only half way up the hike. Around us were several volcanoes, the highest of which was San Cristobal, with it's tip reaching >1700m into the clouds. I had to put my phone away in case of rain so all the pictures are on my camera. You'll have to take my word for it for now. 

With about 15 minutes left till we reached the crater, the presence of volcanic gases became apparent - not through our olfactory senses but from the irritation it caused, and the subsequent coughing as our bodies sought to rid us of the gases.  

Looking up, we saw dark clouds looming in the horizon and fast approaching towards us. Not knowing how big the storm was going to be, Miguel suggested we wait and see. It wasn't long before the first drop of cool rain hit me. I had forgotten my rain jacket at the hostel, but the rain was a rather welcomed relief to the heat generated from the hike up. The wind was gusting in one direction so I stood with my back away from it, keeping my front side as dry as the desert sand and the wind whispering fast past my ears. 

Once the rain slowed to a drizzle we decided to continue onwards. With our faces covered by bandanas like bandits, we marched up an increasingly rocky slope. The proximity of the crater was inversely proportional to the intensity with which our noses were assaulted by the volcanic gases. It didn't help that the wind was ushering the gases in our direction. 

Once at the crater, the combination of fog and volcanic gases reduced our visibility to less than 5 meters in front of us. What was the base of Telica was now hidden by a blanket of white. We laid on our stomachs, with our heads perched over the edge of the crater trying to catch a glimpse of lava. Though we couldn't see it at first, the sound of the lava flowing - similar to that of white water rapids - made it clear that the crater was not empty.  

We stayed there for another twenty minutes, making sacrifices of rocks and listening intently to hear when they reached their fiery immersion into the lava down below. But, it was getting dark, and perhaps darker than we thought since the white that enveloped us made it difficult to tell if the sun had even set yet. 

Before heading out, Miguel asked if the orange buckle on my daypack doubled as a whistle. I answered in the affirmative. It would be useful if we got lost and couldn't find the markings that Alex had made on our way up, he said.  With darkness descending upon us, we began our way back down. I was once again glad my shoes had excellent traction against the wet rocks that offered anything but certain footing. Eventually we had to switch to flashlights, and with the intermittent lightning in the distance, we went down in silence.

Once we got back to the 4WD, we backtracked the way we drove in, except in the dark. Along the way we shared the road with bats, wild dogs, and cattle. Though my confidence in Julio's driving never wavered, the same could not be said of the car whose belly was persistently attacked by the debris in our path. 

And so that was nearly the end of Day 1 in Nicaragua. Next up, Leon at night...

-posted from Leon-
-excuse the mobile formatting-


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