Tag Archives: volcano

Salar de Uyuni – Bolivia – Part 2

Day 2 of our trip through the Salar de Uyuni had us exploring the Tunupa Volcano.   This was the bit that turned the regular 3-day trip into a 4-day trip and I was super-keen to get out and do a bit of walking again.

We first of all visited the mummies of Coquesa – with a short tour by a local guide who was actually very difficult to understand.  These mummies date to around 700 AD and have been preserved by the cold, dry climate.

Coquisa Cementery - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

Then we headed up on a short hike (not difficult at all) to the two viewpoints on the Tunapa volcano.   Actually – there is a higher mirador as well, but you needed a specialised guide for that one.

Tunupa Volcano - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

From these viewpoints you get an amazing view out over the Salar, and a decent idea for how big it actually is.  It is absolutely enormous!  And to be honest, the photos don’t do it justice!

View from Tunupa Volcano - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

Of course, you also get an amazing view of the super-colourful Tunupa volcano.  In my opinion – this was much more impressive and colourful than the Rainbow Mountain outside of Cusco in Peru.  And I didn’t have to get up at 3am to do it!

Tunupa Volcano - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

From there we headed south across the Salar towards Incahuasi Island but, rather than joining all the other million tourists having lunch at the island, we decided to have lunch out in the middle of nowhere on the salt flat.  A much better idea ūüôā

Lunch - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

Lunch on the Salar – served out of the back of our 4WD

There was also a point as we were driving along where the heat haze made some reflections that vaguely approximated the awesome reflections that are possible when the lake is full of water.  I had to jump out and take a picture of the “floating island”, even though it was not a patch on what I’d seen in 2001.

Floating Island - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

We ended up with 2.5 hours to explore Incahuasi Island, which is famous for its large amount of enormous cacti (Trichocereus pasacana according to Wikipedia).

Incahuasi Island - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

Given the island is pretty small, this is actually a lot of time.  So I headed up the main track to the top of the island and then did a bit of a choose-my-own-adventure to try to find a place where I couldn’t hear the impromptu concert put on by a visiting school band, and could sit in silence and contemplate the landscape.  Eventually found it on the far side of the island, well off the beaten path and in an area that was full of fossilised algae and coral.

Fossilised Coral and algae - Incahuasi Island - Salar de Uyuni -Bolivia

From there we headed across to the western side of the Salar and, just before leaving the salt flat, stopped and waited to watch one last sunset across the Salar.   Cold thanks to the wind that was howling a gale, but absolutely stunning!

Sunset - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

Stayed in another Salt Hotel this night in the small town of Aguaquiza, and headed out to the Galaxy Cave as a night excursion.  To be honest, this was a little underwhelming – the cave is very small though I do admit the structures in the cave were the most delicate I’d ever seen.   What was fantastic was how excited the guy who found them was about showing them to us and to relate the tale of their discovery ūüôā

Cuerva de Galaxias (Galaxy Cave) - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

Very delicate structures in the Cuerva de Galaxias. Can you spot the elephant in the top image?

He then took us to another cave that was full of ancient tombs.   Nothing in them (all looted long ago) but really quite impressive the sheer number of them in this one small place.

Tombs near Aguaquiza - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

Then it was up onto a platform to freeze to death while looking at the stars.  Unfortunately, it was fairly cloudy so this wasn’t exactly the success it could have been, and I admit I became an impromptu guide as I pointed out various constellations to the group, and expounded the virtues of visiting SpaceObs in San Pedro de Atacama if they were heading that way.

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Quito’s Telef√©rico and Volc√°n Pichincha

One of the things I had¬†been¬†ummming and ahhhing about doing since arriving in Quito was¬†going up the¬†telef√©rico and climbing Volc√°n Pichincha. ¬† ¬†What finally decided me was a) signing up to do the 3-day Ecuadorian Inca Trail hike (I figured some hiking preparation wouldn’t hurt) and b) an invitation from Charlotte.

So off we headed at 9:30am to join the queue at the¬†telef√©rico. ¬†This is an enclosed cable-car that whisks you from ~2,950 meters above sea level to 4,050 meters above sea level in about 10 minutes. ¬†Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait very long (only about 1/2 hour), though waits of up to 2 hours are not unusual – best to get there early!

Quito teleférico

The teleférico delivers you to Cruz Loma Рa wonderful viewpoint over Quito with a couple of cafes to keep you snacking.  If you are lucky Рyou can also see several of the large Volcanos near Quito Рagain, try to get there as early as possible to have the best chance of seeing them before the clouds roll in.  We were only semi-lucky.

Quito teleférico view

View over Quito from Cruz Loma. Volcanos starting to be lost in the clouds in the background.

Getting to this point satisfies the majority of visitors.  However, on the day we visited (Ecuadorian Independence holiday), there were not an insignificant number (most of them locals) who decided do the 3 hour climb to Rucu Pichincha.

Volc√°n Pichincha trek

Rucu Pichincha – that’s the path going up the right.

Now, normally when a hike is advertised as 3 hours, I can usually expect to make it in a faster time. ¬† Not this one! ¬†It took every minute of 3 hours to do it (even though I was semi-acclimatised) and, in the immortal words of Egg Chen in “Big Trouble in Little China” it “wasn’t easy”.

(yes, those that know me very well know this is one of my favourite movies and one of my favourite quotes from it ūüôā )

It is a seriously, seriously steep climb starting at 4,050m above sea level. ¬† For the first couple of hours you struggle up a very obvious track, stopping every so often because you just have to take another photo of the gorgeous view (not because your heart is pounding out of your chest and you can’t breathe).

Volc√°n Pichincha trek

But then the fun really starts!   The path suddenly stops at a rock, which you have to climb (with a very steep drop off to the other side) in order to continue.

Volc√°n Pichincha trek

Where did the path go? The first rock obstacle to be overcome on the climb to Rucu Pichincha

This is where Charlotte had to turn back – her vertigo finally got the better of her – and I have to admit it was extremely tempting to forgo the rest of the pain and return with her.

But I decided I would regret it if I didn’t make the top (especially given that I had to be much fitter than many of the people I saw descending the mountain – ok admittedly some of them were in tears – really!), so onward and upward….

Volc√°n Pichincha trek

The path skirts the side of the volcano with a fairly steep drop-off – that’s Quito down in the valley.¬† These guys are actually descending as I’m ascending

If anything, it just got worse.   The path degraded into a track and then into nothing but a sandy 45-50 degree slope that you somehow had to get to the top of.   I could see where people were clambering on the rocks above me near the summit, and aimed for that general direction.

Volc√°n Pichincha trek

The 45-50 degree sand climb to the top, with Quito in the valley far below. These guys were descending as I was ascending

Finally made the top of the sand, and then climbed my way up through the rocks  (some signs would have been really helpful), and ultimately stood on top of Rucu Pichincha at 4,696 metres above sea level.

Volc√°n Pichincha summit

I have to admit, the views were absolutely spectacular! ¬† And I was fortunate enough that the clouds stayed away until after I’d started descending so I could see clear across to Guagua Pichincha – the active part of the Volcano.

Volc√°n Pichincha summit views

Top: View towards Quito; Middle: view towards Guagua Pichincha; Bottom: view to the right of Guagua Pichincha

It’s quite cold and windy at almost 5,000m so stayed at the top for only about 20 minutes and then the fun began again – trying to get off¬†the mountain without actually falling off! ¬† ¬†Initially at least, this involved lots of bum-sliding to descend the rocks to¬†arrive at the top of the sandy descent.

Volc√°n Pichincha trek - descent

Fortunately, the sandy descent was much more fun than the sandy ascent – you could essentially run down the sand freely without much fear of falling because the sand was quite deep ūüôā ¬†Then it was back along the narrow path, around the rock and then back down the wide path that cost so much energy going up.

Met up with Charlotte at the cafe and celebrated with this¬†fabulous reward ūüôā ¬†No, I didn’t eat all of it – turns out Charlotte loves fairy floss too!

Pichincha reward

Then it was an hour in the teleférico queue before coming back down to Earth in Quito.  Thank you to the silver fox who gave us a lift back to the Ecovía!

For those of you who have been following my volcano climbing exploits, I still can’t figure out whether this hike was tougher than the hike up¬†Volc√°n Maderas on the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua. ¬†They were both really tough – but for different reasons ūüôā

 

Recommendations if you want to hike to Rucu Pichincha:

  • try to take the¬†telef√©rico as soon as it opens to have the best chance for great views
  • make sure you are reasonably fit and relatively well acclimatised if you want to enjoy any part of it.
  • think twice¬†if you suffer from vertigo, as you will most likely only get 2/3 the way to the top

Cost:

  • Taxi= ~$5 from old Quito
  • Telef√©rico ticket = $8.50 (more if you want to bring a pet, bike, etc)
  • Trek to Rucu Pichincha = free (though costs a lot of effort!)

Time:

  • Telef√©rico = 10 minutes ascent, 10 minutes descent. ¬† Depends on number of people how long you have to wait in line, but up to 2 hours is not uncommon
  • Trek to Rucu Pichincha = 3 hrs ascent, 2 hrs descent.
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Biking Dutchman – mountain biking Ecuador

What is the most obvious thing to do when you’ve spent 1 day at altitude in the last 18 months, haven’t been on a pushbike at all for about 9 years and have never mountain biked?   Do a 3-day mountain bike tour of the Ecuadorian altiplano with the Biking Dutchman of course!

I came across the Biking Dutchman website while I was rapidly planning my first few days in Ecuador once I finally had internet access again in Canc√ļn.¬† They had a 3-day trip to Cotopaxi – Quilotoa – Chimborazo starting the day after I arrived in Ecuador and I figured it would be a really great way to get out in the countryside, get some exercise and see some of Ecuador the slow way.¬† ¬†Acknowledging I hadn‚Äôt done that much exercise in about a month, and having not spent a lot of time at altitude, I knew this was going to hurt me, but I figured what the heck ūüôā

Day 1: Cotopaxi

There were 3 other people on the 3 day trip:¬† Mark from Malaysia, and a couple: Sean from New Zealand and Rachel, originally from Wales, as well as Luke from the Netherlands who was only with us for the first day.¬† ¬†Esteban, our guide, rocked up with the Land Cruiser all ready to go with the bikes on top and off we headed towards our first sector ‚Äď Cotopaxi ‚Äď Ecuador‚Äôs most famous volcano.

Biking Dutchman - mountainbiking Ecuador

It‚Äôs about a 1.5-hour drive to Cotopaxi and there is no mucking about getting to altitude.¬† Our first stop was the Laguna Limpiopungo at 3,800m where we did a ‚Äúwarm-up‚ÄĚ hike around the lagoon.¬† Unfortunately, the weather was not the greatest and we didn‚Äôt have the most spectacular views of Cotopaxi, but it did eventually peak out briefly.

Laguna Limpiopungo Volcan Cotopaxi - Ecuador

From there it was helmet and gloves on and time to get on the bike for the first time.¬† After some instruction on braking and gear changing (almost exclusively for my benefit ‚Äď it turned out Sean and Rachel did a lot of mountain biking in New Zealand and Mark commuted each day on a bike), we started off riding along the dirt road towards Cotopaxi.¬† Turns out, sandy dirt roads are actually a little nerve-wracking for a novice mountain biker who hasn‚Äôt ridden at all for 9 years, and an adrenaline rush doesn‚Äôt help your heart-rate when you are exercising at 3,800m.¬†¬† Fortunately, I managed to keep my seat and slowly got used to being on a bike again.

Volcan Cotopaxi - Biking Dutchman - Ecuador

Riding towards Cotopaxi, which is peeking out from behind the clouds

Esteban was really fabulous and led us off-road after a while and through a gorgeous meadow with flowers (the other bikers we saw just stuck to the road).

Volcan Cotopaxi - Biking Dutchman - Ecuador

New challenges here were crossing dry creek beds and our first ‚Äúdownhill‚ÄĚ, which looked pretty daunting but I managed to navigate successfully.

Volcan Cotopaxi - Biking Dutchman - Ecuador

We didn’t ride down the bit in the middle – we came straight down the steep part on the right hand side!

We rode about 7 km to the north gate of the Cotopaxi National Park and then loaded up the bikes again to drive to the next biking route.¬† Unfortunately, Cotopaxi has been more active than normal recently and we couldn‚Äôt actually do part of the regular trip because parts of the park were closed.¬† So we drove down to the main entrance, had lunch and then got back on the bikes for a downhill along the paved road to the main road.¬†¬† ¬†There were plenty of signs to remind us that we were biking down an active volcano, and Esteban again took us off on a short ‚Äúsecret‚ÄĚ route through the pine forest to break up the tarmac section!

Volcan Cotopaxi - Biking Dutchman - Ecuador

The great thing about this trip (and all the different options the Biking Dutchman offers) is that there is very little uphill and, if you are really struggling, the 4WD follows along as a support vehicle so you can jump in and take a break if you want.  Fortunately, none of us had to take advantage of this during the 3 days.

Support Vehicle - Biking Dutchman - Ecuador

Once we reached the bottom, we loaded up again and drove for another 2 hours to reach Quilotoa where we would begin the next day‚Äôs adventures.¬†¬† ¬†Actually, we stopped a little before there in Zumbahua because there was a whole-of-community party happening and everyone was out and about and rolling drunk.¬† ¬†Traditional music on the stage, lots of indigenous people dancing and drinking, and a couple of enterprising guys who came and asked Rachel and I to dance.¬†¬† The problem with traditional music is that the ‚Äúsongs‚ÄĚ never end ‚Äď they kind of all just roll from one to the next without a break, so Rachel and I danced for about 10 minutes and then pleaded off that we had to continue on our journey ūüôā

Party in Zumbahua

Arrived quite early at Quilotoa (given we couldn‚Äôt do one of the biking legs at Cotopaxi), walked up to the viewpoint to have a look at the gorgeous crater lake, and then headed indoors (yes, it is freezing cold at 3,800m!) for some pizza and Canalazo ‚Äď a hot drink made of passionfruit juice, naranjilla juice, cinnamon, sugar, and a local sugar-cane alcohol which is served on the side.¬†¬† We all quickly became fans of the Canalazo (both with and without alcohol) and ended up scoffing probably way too much sugar thanks to this fabulous drink.

7:30pm was dinnertime at Hostal Alpaka ‚Äď a set meal of potato soup and popcorn (you put the popcorn in the soup ‚Äď it actually works!) with the main dish of chicken with rice and vegetables.¬†¬† We asked for extra helpings of broccoli for me – it was soooooo good to have broccoli after the dearth of vegetables I‚Äôve been suffering!¬†¬† Sat around the wood fire for a while before heading to bed ‚Äď ready for Day 2 of the adventure!

Total distance biked:  28km (normally about 40km)

 

Day 2:¬†Quilotoa¬†–¬†Urbina

After a fairly restless night for all of us (altitude often affects sleep), it was up at 7:30am for breakfast and then off for a hike into the Quilotoa crater.   Mark wasn’t feeling well and Esteban had to wash up the lunch gear from the day before, so Sean, Rachel and I headed off.   The trail starts at the top of the crater (3,930m) and descends very steeply about 400m Рit was going to hurt walking back out!   It was a cold and dusty descent thanks to the really strong wind, but some gorgeous views of the lake that changes colour to a deep jade when the sun is out.

Laguna Quilotoa

Sean braved the cold water and went for a (very quick) dip and then we started the hike out, determined to not take one of the donkeys from the bottom and at least match what Esteban had claimed was a good-paced time ‚Äď 45 minutes.¬† ¬†I ended up doing it in 50 minutes ‚Äď but then again ‚Äď I had to stop to take photos!

Back at the hostel it was onto the bikes for the first ride of the day ‚Äď downhill on the paved road from Quilatoa to Zumbahua, where the party was yesterday ‚Äď admiring the scenery and stopping off at the Ca√Īon del R√≠o Toachi.

Mountainbiking from Quilotoa to Zumbahua

Esteban prepared lunch in the back of the 4WD and then we drove for about ¬Ĺ hour to somewhere in the middle of nowhere (Kilometre 25) at 4200m for our next downhill along a dirt road to Latacunga.

Preparing lunch - Biking Dutchman

Esteban preparing wraps for lunch in the back of the 4WD

This road descended through rural areas with amazing views over the valley to Cotopaxi (had it been clear in that direction).

Middle of nowhere to Latacunga - Biking Dutchman

There was a sandy, holey diagonal that we took and that I successfully managed to navigate without falling off ‚Äď getting more confident.¬† Esteban decided to follow us in the 4WD and then showed us another ‚Äúsecret‚ÄĚ sandy road to keep us off the main drag until the town.

4WDing

We then drove for another 2 hours to Urbina near Mount Chimborazo, stopping along the way at Salcedo, which is famous for its icecreams.¬† This one is the traditional one, but I can attest that the coco one is just as good as the Sarita Cocos of Central America ūüôā

Helado de Salcedo

More Canalazo and a meal of Locro soup (one of the best soups I’ve ever tasted) and beef stew with more broccoli in front of the wood fire before turning in for another night.

Total distance biked:  40km

 

Day 3: Chimborazo РAmbato

Drove for about an hour to arrive at the entrance to Chimborazo РEcuador’s highest (6,310m) Volcano.   First up was a Mate de Coca tea before heading out on the hike from Refugio Hermanos Carrel at 4,800m to the highest refuge in the world: Refugio Edgar Whymper at 5,014m.

Volcan Chimborazo

Looking at Refugio Edgar Whymper (5,014m) from about 3/4 the way up the path from Refugio Hermanos Carrel at 4,800m.

Although this walk was significantly higher, it wasn’t as difficult for me as the hike out of the Quilotoa crater yesterday (though Rachel really felt the altitude difference), and in the end Sean and I climbed further to the Laguna Condor Concha at 5,100m.   Really gorgeous views!

Laguna Condor Concha - Volcan Chimborazo

Once we were all back at the lower refuge, we were back on the bikes for the 8km downhill along the dirt road to the entrance to the park.¬† It really does help to hit those corrugations at speed ūüôā

Volcan Chimborazo - mountainbiking Ecuador

We then drove for about another ¬Ĺ hour and descended into drizzle on the Carretera V√≠a Flores.¬†¬† This valley is as green as you can imagine and absolutely gorgeous, even in the wet ‚Äď it must be truly spectacular with bright blue skies!

Had lunch in the back of the 4WD out of the cold and wet and then back on the bikes for the descent through the valley to the city of Ambato. ¬†¬†The first part of the valley is absolutely gorgeous ‚Äď really, really beautiful ‚Äď but it becomes drier and more populated the closer you get to Ambato. ¬†You also get to ride through quite a few eucalypt groves … I was breathing deeply, drawing in the scent of home (not because I was out of breath ūüôā )

Carretera Vía Flores - mountainbiking Ecuador

Loaded up the bikes one last time and then it was 2hrs back to Quito and the end of the trip.

Biking Dutchman - heading back to Quito

It helps to have a small group!

Had a really awesome time with a great small group.  Thanks to Sean and Rachel for their patience with me, and a million thanks to Esteban for being a fun guide and helping me with everything from slipped chains to complicated bike helmets!

 

Recommendation:  I really, really, really loved this trip with the Biking Dutchman!   A really fantastic way to explore some of Ecuador’s most popular volcanos while getting a bit of exercise at the same time.  Would do it again in an instant.

Cost:  US$280 + ~$20 for dinners and other snacks.    The cost of the trip includes accommodation, 2 breakfasts and 3 lunches.  You have to have your breakfast before you start the first day and pay for the 2 dinners while on the trip.

Time:  3 days.   Check the schedule at the Biking Dutchman website for trips that already meet the 2 people minimum requirement.

 

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Antigua‚Äôs Volcanos ‚Äď Guatemala

Antigua in Guatemala really is a gorgeous city. ¬†The entire place is UNESCO protected, it has been really well restored, and although it is very touristy ‚Äď it actually works (this coming from a person who doesn‚Äôt generally go in for really touristy places ‚Äď hello Granada, Nicaragua).¬†¬† It also has a really lovely climate (I escaped the heat finally!) and is surrounded by 3 amazing volcanoes.

The most photographed of the three would have to be Volc√°n de Agua, simply because the city sits right at its base and you can get a shot like this through the Arch ‚Äď one of the most famous landmarks in Antigua.

Volcan de Agua - Antigua, Guatemala

The other two volcanos are Volc√°n Acatenango (right) and Volc√°n de Fuego (left).

Acatenango and Volcan de Fuego - Antigua, Guatemala

Acatenango is the most popular volcano hike in the area (no, I have stopped climbing volcanos for the moment because the views are not great at this time of year during the rainy season) as it has the best view of the very active Volcán de Fuego next to it.   When I come back to Guatemala (hopefully next year) I’ll come at a different time of year and do the overnight camping trip to Acatenango.

A couple of days after I took the above image, the view looked more like this:

Acatenango and Volcan de Fuego - Antigua, Guatemala

Yes, Volc√°n de Fuego had put on a spectacular show the night before, gushing fresh lava, ash and sundry.¬† As luck would have it ‚Äď that was the night I decided to hang out on the rooftop terrace of the Airbnb I was staying at (highly recommend staying with Evelyn at Taanah) ‚Äď and I even captured a lightning strike to top it all off ¬†ūüôā

Volcan de Fuego - Antigua, Guatemala

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Volc√°n Santa Ana – El Salvador

The main reason most travelers come to Santa Ana in El Salvador (apart from staying at the best hostel ever –¬†Casa Verde) is to visit Cerro Verde National Park, the starting point for hikes up¬†Volc√°n Santa Ana and Volc√°n Izalco.

If you don’t have your own car and/or if you don’t want to pay for your own private guide, you have to leave Santa Ana on the 7:30am bus (fortunately only a few blocks from the Casa Verde) in order to join the once per day hike up¬†Volc√°n Santa Ana. ¬†Now normally chicken buses in Central America leave from a dusty dirt lot in the middle of a swarming marketplace, so you can imagine my surprise when I turned up to find a proper terminal and waiting room!

bus terminal to Volc√°n Santa Ana

The trip out takes about 1.5 hours which gets you to the National Park¬†(US$3 entry)¬†at about 9am. ¬†Having done the calculations back in Santa Ana, I made sure I took a book so I wasn’t bored while I¬†waited around for 2 hours for¬†the tour to start – turns out there isn’t really that much to see around the parking lot. ¬† Made some good progress reading Clive Cussler in spanish while I waited and hoped that the thick fog that I was sitting in would dissipate before we set off.

There ended up being 8 of us hiking the volcano on this day (6 gringos and 2 El Salvadoreans) and after a short spiel and payment of another US$1 to Cecilia, the guide that would accompany us, we set off into the mist with our 2 policemen protectors.

No, it didn’t clear ūüôĀ ¬† and although this meant that we didn’t get any wonderful views of the Izalco Volcano, it¬†did make for a nice and moody hike that was a little cooler than normal. ¬† ¬†We also got out of paying the recently introduced US$6 to do the climb because the guy who should have been there to collect it was nowhere to be seen!

Volc√°n Izalco from Volc√°n Santa Ana

Best view we had of Volc√°n Izalco (just visible behind the clouds) on the way up Volc√°n Santa Ana

The walk itself is actually relatively easy (though the El Salvadorean girls turned back after about 10 minutes) and it only took a little over an hour to get to the top.  Word of warning Рthe guides tend to think it is a race and will set a cracking pace!   In the upper reaches of the walk you cross quite barren landscape that is the result of the most recent activity of the volcano.  But there are plenty of desert-like plants to add interest.

Volc√°n Santa Ana

However,¬†the reason you climb¬†Volc√°n Santa Ana (apart from walking off some of the pupusas you ate the night before) is for the view of the spectacular turquoise crater lake. ¬†It really is amazingly beautiful and fortunately the clouds didn’t spoil our view of it.

Volc√°n Santa Ana crater lake

We could even see areas of the lake that were bubbling and gasses rising off the surface thanks to the ongoing activity in the volcano.

Volc√°n Santa Ana crater lake

We hung around at the top for about 1/2 hour to eat (I bought my lunch with me) and admire the view, but then it was time to head back down – partially because the guide and policeman were keen to get going and partially because we were suddenly beset by bees!

Volc√°n Santa Ana

Not much of a view beyond the crater of Volc√°n Santa Ana this time

I spent the walk down chatting with one of the policemen about everything from El Salvadorean food (yes, this is a common theme with me) through to politics. ¬† Glad there weren’t any panoramic landscape views to be had as I was engrossed in our conversation and otherwise only paying attention to where I was putting my feet so I wouldn’t fall over.

Got back to the main road and then it was a bit of a trudge back up to the carpark where the bus would leave from.  Then another hour sitting around waiting for the bus (seriously, take a book with you) and then back to Santa Ana.

Volc√°n Izalco next time!

 

Recommendation:  Its definitely worth hiking up Volcán Santa Ana, especially since the walk is relatively easy.  Bring a book or something with you to do as there is a lot of waiting around if you use public transport and join the 11am tour.   Also bring snacks/lunch to eat on top of the volcano.

Booking:  Just show up before 10:45am in the carpark of the Cerro Verde National Park.

Time Required:  About 3-3.5 hours for the actual hike, but depends on how fast you walk and how long you stay at the top.  To do the trip using public transport Рyou leave at 7:30am and return at 5:30pm.

Cost:  The bus is US90 cents each way.  US$3 to enter the National Park, US$1 for the guide, US$6 for the hike.

 

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Jiquilillo and Volcan Cosig√ľina

After another week in Le√≥n (how I love that place!) I started heading towards El Salvador.¬†¬† Although I‚Äôm not a beach person, I decided to spend a couple of nights at Rancho Esperanza in Jiquilillo.¬†¬† It is basically a surf spot and a gateway to the Padre Ramos Reserve ‚Äď one of the most important mangrove estuaries in Central America.

jiquilillo

Surfing Jiquilillo

I actually didn’t do anything while there (most guests come to surf) except read my book, hang out with some awesome people and watch the sunset. Yet again, the Rancho Esperanza fostered that community spirit that I love so much.

jiquilillo

Horses at sunset – Jiquilillo

Then it was on to Potos√≠, which would have to be the dirtiest town I‚Äôve been to in Nicaragua.¬† There is rubbish strewn absolutely everywhere!¬†¬† And it is seriously hot!¬† I had hoped that by staying at the Hotel ‚ÄúBrisas del Mar‚ÄĚ (Seabreeze) it would live up to its name, but no.¬† Well, not unless you count the hot breeze you get if you sit directly under one of the many fans in the restaurant!¬† I really don‚Äôt know how people live here.¬† And realistically, I had to stay at ‚ÄúBrisas del Mar‚ÄĚ.¬† There are only 2 places to stay in town, both right next to each other and owned by the same family.

The reason I was here was twofold.¬† I decided to tackle my third¬†volcano ascent in Nicaragua ‚Äď Volc√°n Cosig√ľina before catching the boat across to El Salvador ‚Äď I figured all my other border crossings will be by bus or plane, so take the opportunity to do something different.¬† Cosig√ľina used to be the tallest volcano in Nicaragua at more than 3,000 metres, but in 1835 it exploded in what is considered to be one of the 3 biggest recorded eruptions (ash travelled as far as Mexico and Columbia, the sky was obscured for 3 months and one of the rocks ejected is big enough to form its own island in the Gulf!), and is now only 872 metres above sea level.¬† It also has a really pretty crater lake ūüôā

Headed off with my guide, Bismark, at 5am to beat the worst of the heat, which meant we got to see a beautiful sunrise over the Golfo de Fonseca (Gulf of Fonseca).¬† This is the Gulf that is borders Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador and from Volc√°n Cosig√ľina you can see all three countries.

Volc√°n Cosig√ľina

Despite sweating like there is no tomorrow because of the humidity and heat, it’s actually a pretty easy hike, infinitely easier than hiking up Volcán Maderas on Ometepe!  It’s really only the last 10 minutes that feels like a bigger effort.  We hiked up directly from Potosí (9km from the crater), which meant a 3-hour ascent and 2-hour descent.  There is another trail though where you can drive the majority of the way with a 4WD (or ride a horse) and only walk the last half hour.

The other advantage of leaving before dawn was that there were plenty of birds around and Bismark was great at spotting and identifying them.  Turns out the vegetation on the volcano is pretty open so great for birdwatching. In addition to my old friends, the Mot-mots, the Chocoyos (parakeets) and the Woodpeckers, we saw: Common Pauraque (nocturnal bird), Violaceous Trogon, Elegant Trogon, Squirrel Cuckoo, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Streak-backed Oriole, Thicket Tinamou and the Plain Chachalaca.  It was brilliant!

The volcano was also used during the civil war in the 70s/80s to keep an eye on boats coming from Honduras.  This lookout was on our way up and apparently there are 2 more like it at other points of the volcano.

Volc√°n Cosig√ľina

The view from the top of Volc√°n Cosig√ľina is fantastic and the crater lake is beautiful.¬† The crater is 2km across and there is a path around it but it takes 5 hours to complete ‚Äď you‚Äôd have to camp at the campground just below the summit to do that one (or be crazy)!

Volc√°n Cosig√ľina

And although it was very hazy (definitely going to have to come back to Nicaragua in Nov ‚Äď Feb for the water in the R√≠o San Juan and the good expansive views), it was possible to make out El Salvador, Honduras and the prawn farms, the Pacific coast and Volc√°n San Cristobal in Nicaragua.

Volc√°n Cosig√ľina

El Salvador (top left), Honduras (top right) and Volc√°n San Cristobal and the prawn farms of Nicaragua (bottom)

Hung out up the top for about an hour and then started the descent accompanied by the constant scurrying of lizards in the undergrowth.¬† It was incredibly hot and I was very grateful that I was not one of the two tourists + guide we passed heading up the volcano in the heat (they still had 2 hours to go to the top)!¬†¬† Bismark spotted a Mexican Porcupine (bit of a blob in the tree), squirrels and a family of 3 Coatis (really great view ‚Äď unfortunately I didn‚Äôt have my long lens with me) as well.

Glad I took the time out in Potosí to do the hike, despite the heat and humidity!

 

Time required:¬†¬† From Potos√≠, it is a 3 hour hike up and 2 hours to come back down Volc√°n Cosig√ľina. ¬†Leave at 5am!

Cost:  Bismark is part of a local cooperative of guides in Potosí and cost US$25.

Volc√°n Cosig√ľina

Mi amigo, Bismark

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Hiking Volc√°n Maderas – Ometepe

If you do not enjoy:

  • unbelievable heat
  • stifling humidity
  • drowning in your own sweat
  • steep inclines
  • using your arms/hands as much as your legs/feet when you hike
  • getting muddy

hiking Volcán Maderas on the Island of Ometepe is not for you!

Volc√°n maderas ometepe

Volc√°n Maderas from the access road to Finca Mystica

Started out at 8am (much later than I would have wanted, but that was the schedule) with 19 year old Orbin as my guide. ¬†We took off from Finca Mystica¬†on the Merida access at what I thought was a fairly fast pace (I was a little worried for what this meant when we got to the steep part), and after about 20 minutes came to another example of the island’s petroglyphs.

volcan maderas petroglyphs

Very cool one I thought – in the bottom left you can see the concentric rings that seem to indicate the two volcanoes the make up the island of Ometepe, top middle (and a little hard to see in the photo I admit) is an outline of the Maderas Volcano as it appears from this spot, and just below that to the right is what we could assume might be a picture of the crater lake that you can see from the top of the Volcano.

It didn’t take too long for the path to start to incline noticeably, but the nice thing was that when it did, at least it was almost completely covered in cloud forest. ¬†It was still incredibly hot and the sweat was pouring off, but at least the sun wasn’t beating down as well.

Maderas Volcano

Orbin and I were talking ten-to-the-dozen for the first part of the hike but when it really started to get steep, my talking noticeably dropped off… ¬†Thankfully Orbin (who does this hike often) was of the firm belief that it wasn’t a race to the top and chattered away¬†happily telling me about his life, his hopes and his dreams, as well as snippets about¬†Volc√°n Maderas itself. ¬†For example, how the adults fled to the upper reaches¬†during the times of Somoza and their children used to hike the volcano twice a day to bring them food.

There were a couple of decent views on the way up, and the last 1/3 of the way to the top was really much more of a scramble than a hike. ¬†Here’s where it started to get muddy, and the going was a lot slower as¬†you had to spend¬†more time looking for ways to pull yourself up over roots and boulders. ¬†Well I did – Orbin it turned out was half mountain goat!

Volc√°n Maderas

One of the many, many sets of obstacles to negotiate on the hike/climb to the top of Volc√°n Maderas.

I actually prefer this type of hiking rather than just an uphill slog on a reasonable path – I find that the constant¬†figuring out of how I’m going to get up to the next set of obstacles distracts me from the fact that my¬†heart feels like it is¬†going to leap out of my¬†chest. ¬†The Brewster’s Hut hike in New Zealand was very¬†similar.

Finally, after 4 hours, we made it to the very small clearing at the top of¬†Volc√°n Maderas. ¬†To the south was the view of the crater lake (now much reduced because of the drought). ¬†Apparently on a clear day you can the Solentiname Islands, but unfortunately there is such a lot of smoke haze around at the minute from all the fires we couldn’t see that far.

Volc√°n Maderas crater lake

To the left, a view across the whole island of Ometepe to¬†Volc√°n Concepci√≥n – the active volcano that makes up the other half of the island (and which you can also climb). ¬†That’s Playa Domingo in the middle on the right – one of the more popular tourist destinations on the Island. ¬†Remember, this is an island in a lake, not the ocean. ¬†It’s just a very, very, very big lake!

Volc√°n Maderas view from top to Volcan Concepcion

Had lunch admiring the view and when we decided to head down,  I asked Orbin whether there were other tracks leading to the summit.  He said that there were 2 others and if I wanted, we could descend the Santa Cruz side and then catch a bus back to Merida.  Absolutely!

This side was equally steep and much, much muddier and again, the top 1/3 was more a climb down than a walk down.

Maderas volcano Ometepe

I ended up getting extremely muddy, Orbin only marginally so, but at least¬†I was able to pick up my end of the chatter again now that I wasn’t sucking in such deep breaths. ¬† We covered a lot more ground including families, relationships, importance of education and food (amongst others) – he really was a fabulous hiking companion and wise beyond his years. ¬†Again, have I mentioned how wonderful it is to be able to speak spanish ūüôā

Maderas volcano Ometepe

As we got to the lower slopes of Volc√°n Maderas and the number of tracks increased, we had an ongoing “tease” about whether or not we were actually lost. ¬†He’d only descended this side of the volcano a couple of times and ended up calling one of his mates (who hikes this side more regularly) at least twice¬†to determine exactly which of the numerous tracks we should take. ¬† We did eventually make it to the road and celebrated with an ice cold “Fresco” (lemon soft drink) while we waited for the bus to take us back to Merida.

Bus arrived about on time (old US school bus of course) and to travel <10km it took more than 1/2 hour – the world’s slowest bus ride. ¬† Then it was another 15 minute walk back along the road to the Finca and the end of our journey.

Really awesome day Рbut make no mistake Рhiking Volcán Maderas is hard work!  Orbin was really fabulous and I highly recommend him as a guide (he also speaks English).

 

Time required: 7-8 hours.  We reached the summit in 4 hours, spent about 45 minutes at the top eating lunch, and took 3 hours to come down the Santa Cruz side.  About an hour extra waiting for the bus and the bus trip back to Merida.

Cost:  US$30 because I was the only person hiking.  If there are more people in your group the cost goes down enormously.

Recommended place to stay: ¬†If you are after a peaceful and “remote” place to stay on Ometepe away from the main tourist crowds – I can highly recommend the Finca Mystica. ¬† Their staff are amazing! ¬†Both this volcano hike and the horseback riding I did was arranged through them and the guides were local people. ¬† I stayed in the Communal Cob (got the whole thing to myself because I was the only guest at the time), which is very cheap. ¬†It’s an extremely large room (not like a regular cramped dorm), and the shared bathrooms (which are¬†just outside) were also large and very clean. ¬†The food is also incredible (best pineapple and passionfruit smoothie I’ve had in Nicaragua) and included things like Thai soup and Indian curry – fabulous if you have been in Central America for a while and¬†are hankering for¬†something a bit different to beans and rice! ¬†They also offer 2 vegetarian options each night. ¬† Or you can walk the ~25 minutes into Merida for other food options.

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Volcano Boarding Cerro Negro РLeón, Nicaragua

For many¬†tourists, volcano boarding down the active volcano¬†Cerro Negro is the biggest drawcard of¬†Le√≥n¬†in north-west Nicaragua. ¬† Think snowboarding, but then replace the snowboard with a slightly larger and more rudimentary slab of timber, replace the snow-capped mountain with the black cinder-cone of one of Central America’s newest volcanoes, and replace the cool briskness of a winter day with the scorching heat of one of the hottest places in Nicaragua.

It was lots of fun ūüôā

There are several companies that offer this experience Рall for about the same price Рbut I specifically chose Quetzaltrekkers because at least 30% of the cost of the excursion is donated to local projects they support.   Also, you have the choice with Quetzaltrekkers to volcano board twice if you would like (most/all others only allow you to do it once).

After a hurried breakfast at Pan y Paz (the French bakery in León РPedro highly recommends the espresso, I highly recommend the cheese-tasting plate), we were at the Quetzaltrekkers office by 7:45am for the trip out to the volcano.   There were 14 of us plus our 2 guides (in contrast with the 50-odd people at a time who do this through Bigfoot), some of whom were going on to do the El Hoyo overnight trek after their first run down the volcano.

The back-of-the-truck ride out to the volcano took about 45 minutes and we were greeted with this sign that reads:¬†“Don’t Pass. ¬†High Risk Zone for Volcanic Eruptions”.

volcano boarding cerro negro leon

Of course, once we’d signed into the visitor’s book (Pedro and I were the oldest¬†by a good 15 years), we walked straight past the sign to get our gear and start the hike up the volcano.

volcano boarding cerro negro leon

Although the volcano is not very high and not ridiculously steep, it is very, very hot and you have to carry everything with you for your descent Р2L water,  very-heavy-duty overalls and gloves, your volcano board, and anything else you have decided to bring with you.

volcano boarding cerro negro leon

The guides give explanations along the way and there are some wonderful vistas out over the large crater (complete with sulfur-exuding fumeroles and very warm ground!), and north-west Nicaragua to the other 5 volcanoes that are part of the Ring of Fire in this region.  Behind me in the picture below is the Telica Volcano (which is very, very active at the moment and unfortunately closed to the public) and San Cristobal Volcano (also active).

ring of fire cerro negro leon

From there it was time to suit up and slide down the volcano. Donned the massive pair of heavy-duty, full-body overalls (designed for whatever weight and body shape so they were absolutely massive on me) and had to tuck the backpack with the water and the few things I’d brought with me down the front of them before closing the buttons and tying the sleeves around my wrists, the legs around my ankles. I looked just like a Teletubby ¬†in denim¬†(though fortunately you can’t really see that in this picture)!

volcano boarding cerro negro leon

After handing out goggles and a final briefing – feet go alongside the board and are used for braking; get out of the way of the runs once you get to the bottom; everyone put their goggles and gloves on and cover your face with your bandanna; if you want to go slow sit up or lean forward, if you want to go fast lean back and lift the front of the board; if you end up going really fast, better not to brake – it was time to start.

The volcano runs are very steep – probably about as steep as a red or black snow-ski run in Chile. I went in the middle of the group and once I’d hoisted my Tellytubby “belly” up so I could actually sit on the board I went down – FAST!

volcano boarding cerro negro leon

Absolutely out of control and with volcanic stones flying around me left, right and centre (thank God for the goggles!) I heeded the advice of not braking if you are going too fast, and so had to ride it out to the bottom. I made it without falling off – just! It was a very near thing, especially when I hit a few bumps towards the end!

volcano boarding cerro negro leon

Watched as the others came down – most looked to be going slower than I did (and some of the girls actually stopped dead and had to get going again) but they didn’t clock our speeds (unlike they do at Bigfoot) so we’ll never know.

Once everyone was down we headed back to the Ranger’s station to say adios to the El Hoyo hikers, have a snack (banana and some really great¬†biscuits) and decide whether we wanted¬†to go down the volcano again. Only 2 guys elected to. I reckon had I gone down slowly the first time, I definitely would have done it again so I could go faster. But having absolutely fanged it down the first time, I felt I had already gotten the most out of the experience, and there was the danger of doing¬†myself some real damage on the second go.

Once the guys got back (one with a forehead full of gravel-rash), we had lunch – tortillas with refried beans, diced vegies, crushed corn chips (inspired idea!), and both Lizano Salsa (a really common sauce here in Nicaragua that spices things up a bit and makes everything taste just that little¬†bit more interesting) and hot sauce. ¬† ¬† Another advantage of going with Quetzaltrekkers! ¬†I didn’t see any of the other companies stopping for lunch at the volcano.

Recommendation: If you are interested in going volcano boarding, why not help out the local community at the same time and do it through Quetzaltrekkers.

Booking:  You can email them, call them or pop into the Quetzaltrekkers office in León the day before you want to go volcano boarding.  While you are there, you can also check out the other treks they offer.

Cost: ¬†The cost was US$30/person which included¬†transportation, equipment, 2 goes down the volcano, snacks and lunch. ¬†It’s an absolute bargain!

Thanks: to Pedro and Quetzaltrekkers for the photos used in this post. ¬†It pained me enormously but I didn’t take my camera with me in case I ended up breaking it!

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Volcan Masaya – impressively active!

Nicaragua is a country of volcanoes and right now, 5 of them are a lot more active than normal.   The closest one to the Spanish school is Volcan Masaya Рsomewhere between 5 and 8 km away (as the crow flies) depending on whose map app you choose to believe (we had a couple of people on the job after dinner one night).

This is Volcan Masaya as seen from the lookout behind La Mariposa at dusk.

Volcan Masaya at dusk from La Mariposa Escuela de Espanol

Doesn’t look too active… but apparently it has been churning away steadily for over 170 years. ¬†But when taken at night (facing a little more towards the left to where¬†it dips down):

Active Volcan Masaya at night from La Mariposa Escuela de Espanol

Parque Nacional Volcan Masaya is currently closed due to the increased activity but aparently the whole bottom of the Santiago crater is full of lava. ¬†There has been¬†at least one video taken from directly above the volcano — pretty impressive!



Part of me would LOVE to see this in real life! ¬† Then the other part of me reminds me that I’m scared stiff of volcanoes and they give me nightmares ūüôĀ ¬†Besides – it’s illegal to go near the volcano at this point…

Bit of a difference from when I was here 2 years ago and visited the Volcan Masaya on the night tour as one of the school activities! ¬† This was the view from the rim of the Santiago crater – lots of gas but no lava…

volcan masaya in 2013 when it was less active

 

volcan masaya towards end of day in 2013 when it was less active

I’ve felt one earth tremor ~4 on the Richter scale due to the activity (nothing like what I experienced in Chile). ¬† Fortunately the main flow of lava (if it happens) will be away from where I’m staying, though we would be heavily affected by ash fall if such a thing were to occur according to this diagram that was in the paper.

Volc√°n Masaya

Even so, fingers crossed the Volcan Masaya doesn’t actually erupt while I’m here!

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