October 19, 2015
I moved to Leon, Nicaragua over a month ago to volunteer as a volcano trekking guide. My job: to lead tourists up the extremely active volcanoes along the Cordillera de Maribios mountain range.
All of the volcanoes I climb are active; one of them even erupted since I arrived.
It’s a thrilling job that has gotten me into the most precarious of situations. I’ve gotten hopelessly lost in the jungle; I’ve had large volcanic rocks hurled my way. I’ve gotten bitten by fire ants, and I’ve slipped down very steep trails without, miraculously, ripping my pants.
Volcanoes have become part of my daily routine. I breathe (and sometimes, accidentally eat) volcanic ash.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Never emphasize to clients that you’re on an extremely active volcano.
Unfailingly, there’s always a client who will ask whether or not the volcano will erupt on us during the hike. The key is to skirt the question and say, “We’ll be fine.” Never tell them, quite honestly, “You never know."
“Don’t they have trackers for these things?” they’ll wonder out loud. “I want to get out of here as soon as possible,” they’ll insist. “Will I die?” someone once asked me.
“Eventually,” I wanted to respond. “Eventually we all die.”
2. You will be climbing uphill, and it’s going to suck.
A walk up a volcano is not akin to a walk in the park. Volcanoes, by definition, are tall mounds of rock that explode every once in a while.
They form when magma is pushed up to the surface and continue to grow when more eruptions happen. While all volcanoes are far from equal, they all require a reasonable degree of fitness to climb.
One of our most epic hikes here, up the stratovolcano Momotombo, sees 45-degree inclines. It’s brutal on the calves, but the view on top is always worth it.
3. Don’t walk into a sulfur cloud.
That big cloud coming out of the ground? Those are sulfur fumes. Yes, it’s pretty but don’t walk into it.
Even if you don’t smell the classic rotten egg scent from where you’re standing, rest assured that you will when you walk into that cloud. A big dose of sulfur will temporarily blind you and make you cough and tear up.
I know this from the most unfortunate of experiences.
4. Volcanic rock is very light.
Volcanic rock is very porous. It’s the only rock that can float in water and because of how light the rocks are, walking downhill can be very dangerous. Keep calm and tread carefully.
5. Volcanic rock is crunchy and tasteless.
Volcanic rock, in case you were wondering, is crunchy and tasteless.
How do I know this? At this point, I’ve ingested a healthy dose of the substance. Fragments of it always get stuck in my Camelbak straw and when we’re cooking dinner at night — ash and dirt invariably ends up in my food.
It’s not so much of a problem as it is an inconvenience.
6. It’s great for cooking, though!
Lava rock is porous and makes for a fantastic heat-holding source. We use it to make our fire pits.
7. Volcano boarding is nothing like snowboarding.
Volcano boarding is the weird sport of sliding down a volcano while sitting on a wooden board, wearing long coveralls, goggles, and gloves. It’s our most popular tour at Quetzaltrekkers.
Now, volcanic sand is nothing like snow. The rocks are gritty and can seriously hurt you if you fall at high speed. It’s hard to control the board while standing up. Going down heel side is nearly impossible. But of course, there’s always the guy who requests a stand-up board and insists he can do it.
He never can.
8. Don’t forget your machete.
It’s usually protocol for guides to bring a machete. We use it for cutting through thick overgrowth in the forest. I’ve forgotten just once, and I’ll never forget it.
I’ve been lost many times but getting stuck in a jungle at a base of a volcano while leading clients is a bewildering experience that is both ghastly and embarrassing.
En route to a lake, I took a wrong turn, lost my co-guide and was forced to wander the Nicaraguan jungle with a client for 40 minutes before spotting the lake from a nearby hill. We got off the trail, cut through the forest and made a beeline for the lake. We eventually found the rest of the group, but things would have been easier if I had a machete to cut through the off-trail portion of my trek.
Expert Tip: Machetes are also useful for cutting up firewood and for propping up your cooking pot over a fire pit.
Also, don’t get lost.
9. If the volcano erupts, stay your distance for a while.
One of our local volcanoes, Telica, erupted during my time here. I was working the front desk when I found out. A client walked in, informed me of the eruption and asked if we were doing tours up there. We had to say no because of safety reasons.
Though a colleague of mine did make it up there to snap a photo, I’m convinced that it’s best to keep your distance for at least a week or two. While an explosion is cool in theory and can earn you some serious bragging rights, it can be quite dangerous even in the weeks following.
10. Humans are weird for wanting to hike extremely dangerous things.
It’s 90 degrees here in Nicaragua, and our longer hikes can go up to five hours without shade. Our volcanoes are extremely active, and quite a few of them are long overdue for an eruption. They’re constantly spewing sulfur dioxide, and we’re a long way from cities or proper medical care.
There have been plenty of times during my time here where I’m hiking an extremely active volcano and think to myself: “Why am I here?”
But then I look down into a crater or out to the horizon and see a range of volcanoes, all spewing gas and remember why. We hike for the view and it’s always a marvelous one.
Clarissa Wei is a Los Angeles-based writer who is spending six months in Nicaragua leading tours of volcanoes. She’s never been to Nicaragua and knows nothing about volcanoes – or Spanish. These are her stories.