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The Sunshine Underground

I’m standing in a cloud forest on Mombacho, an active volcano in Nicaragua. Far below lies the colonial city of Granada from which the mountain’s ragged, blasted peaks make a hazy silhouette. It may not have erupted since the days of the Conquistadors, when this land was known as the Captaincy General of Guatemala, but from a distance Mombacho still looks like a gigantic embodiment of fire. It feels strange, then, that the lush forest encircling its peak is so incredibly damp.

Hiking the mossy Puma Trail, the idea that I’m standing on a fiery geological bomb seems laughable. Yes, technically an eruption could be send me into the stratosphere, or immortalise me in ash from a pyroclastic surge, but in this thriving forest it’s just as easy to believe that the trees would reach out and protect me. 

The destructive potential of Mombacho – and all of Nicaragua’s 19 active volcanos – may seem apocalyptic, but the eco-systems that have developed on their slopes and peaks are amazingly complex and varied. Listening to my guide Fernando Flores list things we might see on this trail, I feel a little like a Victorian homebody, disbelieving the insane exoticisms out in the wild world. There are orchids that bloom for just a day, ferns armed with poisonous spines, endemic salamanders capable of regenerating lost limbs, red-eyed tree frogs, two-toed sloths, and a whole appendix of things that slither and crawl and bite and sting. The one the Puma Trail does not have, however, is not, however, is an actual puma. 

“Long ago, probably,” says Fernando Flores a little doubtfully, “a farmer found some tracks, but the cave where the cats lived has collapsed and now they have gone away.” Or possibly, he concedes, they were killed by farmers.

Today the approach to ecology on Mombacho is much more reasonable. Farming and even visiting are strictly regulated, and during our four-hour hike, the only damage I see to the environment has been caused by the volcano itself. So toxic are the emissions from the active chamber that around its vents the mountain’s moisture turns to acid rain, making eerie black skeletons of trees that unwisely chose to set up home so close to oblivion. 

This is my first volcano in a week of visiting them around Nicaragua. Some are covered in trees, some filled with water, some are smoking, many are tranquil, yet wherever I go they always seem to be there, not just part of the country but literally shaping it. 

Twin peaks

Romel has a wide grin and a wild eye. The 44-year-old guides people up Maderas volcano every day, either to a viewpoint, which is almost two sweaty hours from base, or all the way to the 1,394m summit and a lagoon which has formed in its extinct caldera. Even though he’d make more money by taking me to the top, with the peak enshrouded in cloud and rain forecast for later, he advises me against trying to make that ascent. 

While climbing Maderas undoubtedly has rewards, the idea of scrambling up and down muddy slopes for six to eight hours with no guarantee of being able to see anything at the top seems wholly unappealing. We agree to go to the viewpoint instead.

Maderas is one of two volcanos that comprise Ometepe Island in the heart of Lake Nicaragua. Together, they form a sort of figure 8, an astonishing prehistoric centrepiece in a sea-sized body of water – you could fit Hong Kong, Singapore and Mexico City into it, and still have room for almost two entire Greater Londons.  

Like Momacho, Maderas has magnetised clouds to its peak, but at lower elevations it’s a ferociously sunny day. The humidity seems to bounce off the dusty ground and even the initially gentle slopes squeeze sweat from my brow like moisture from a pregnant sponge. Then we make it into the forest and while the direct sunlight disappears, so too does the breeze. 

I watch a sweat patch develop and expand across Romel’s back, soon darkening his entire shirt. He wears no specialised gear: the damp shirt is open at the neck, his trousers are dusty, his shoes battered. He carries nothing more than a bottle of water. Meanwhile, I’ve got Vibram soles, isotonic gels, sweat-wicking materials, electrolyte-enhanced water, carabiners, quick-release straps… What for? Why bother with all this junk? Perhaps only as some kind of mental armour to convince myself it would be worse without them. Ahead, Romel, 10 years my senior, makes a mockery of it all as the climb intensifies. 

He doesn’t speak a word of English, but perhaps because of the extra blood my heart is forcing into my skull, or more likely because he uses slow pre-school Spanish for me, I can understand most of what he’s saying. When the woods clear and we stand at the viewpoint, the whole of Ometepe opens up below us, with the marvellous Concepción volcano ahead. “We have the pure air,” says Romel. “Not like in the cities with all the cars.” He’s not wrong. I breathe it in, wait until my heartbeat isn’t the loudest thing in my ears, then point to Concepción. “Muy bonito,” is all I can offer. 

On the lower slopes of Maderas we passed enormous, charred boulders presumably unmoved since this mountain exploded and died. That happened 10,000 years ago, when Neanderthals still roamed the Earth, the Ice Age was in its final throes, and people still used CDs. The long-term extinction of this volcano makes Concepción’s vitality all the more remarkable. It’s not currently smoking, but it is active and one day its 1,610m-high, satisfyingly conical, beautiful form will be ruined. For now, though, if someone asked you to sketch a volcano, Concepción is what you would draw. 

It dominates the horizon, its slopes rising steeply from Ometepe’s black beaches where children make Mordorian sandcastles. On a narrow, relatively flat strip of land between the shore and the volcano proper, villages have found a way to thrive, thanks in part to a single ring road that circles Concepción, making it the world’s most spectacular roundabout. 

It draws my eye endlessly. I kept snatching glimpses of it through trees on the way here, but this view is uninterrupted. Today thin clouds gently rotate around its peak, as though commanded by a spell. Between this volcano and that, Ometepe narrows, the middle of the 8, with thick jungle in between. From some unseen point in the canopy, the orkish roars of howler monkeys are carried on the scant breeze.

“It’s more difficult from here,” says Romel, reiterating how unwise it would be to continue further. “Too much mud. Too warm.” He’ll find no quarrel from me. 

Instead of pushing on from this side, I head to the south of the volcano and embark on another short trek to a waterfall. Starting in San Ramón, a rocky path follows a valley before emerging a breathless 45 minutes later in front of falls at the bottom of a cul-de-sac of cliffs. The weather has been dry enough of late that the water is reduced to little more than a trickle bouncing into a shallow plunge pool. The lack of spray is good news for the Instagram crowd, who pose in the knee-deep water and take selfies until they feel sated. 

The gentleness of the water is also optimal for dozens of plants that have made a vertical garden of the nearby cliff-faces. Trees, ferns, vines, shrubs, mosses, lichens and flowers have all made this quiet place their home, as though living in an enormous verdant cupboard. As peaceful as it is now, this huge hole, gorged from the side of a mountain, would only have been possible thanks to some extraordinary volcanic violence and, as I start to make my way back down to sea level, I can’t help wondering when those same forces will one wreck perfect Concepción.

The Black Mountain

A 90-minute ferry and and-three-hour-drive north west from Ometepe Island, the city of León knows as much about volcanos as any in Nicaragua. In 1610, the entire colonial settlement – then capital of the region – was destroyed when Momotombo erupted. 

One morning at breakfast 408 years later, I hear a terrible alarm go off, a city-wide alert something like an air-raid siren. The restaurant staff seem unperturbed and I assume it’s some kind of drill for a potential eruption, only to be told later that it’s nothing more than a workers’ call that it goes off at 7am every morning. There are others at noon and 5.30pm, too. I scribble an instruction to myself to start thinking about volcanos a little less.

That’s easier said than done here. The modern incarnation of León sits 30km to the west of its original site, but inevitably in Nicaragua, moving away from one active volcano simply meant moving towards another. 

In defence of the Spanish town planners, when the new city of León was created, the super active Cerro Negro didn’t even exist. It first appeared 25km north east of the new city in April 1850, emerging from the ground over six weeks of dramatic seismic and volcanic activity. Since then, it has erupted at least 23 times, but not in any significant way since 1999. Perhaps it is due, perhaps not, but like most volcanos, Cerro Negro ordinarily has the decency to announce its intentions with a series of earthquakes before it blows. Because of this, and because it’s in a sparsely populated, it’s not regarded as especially threatening. 

It does look menacing though, a treeless black dome in a wide valley populated with other, greener volcanic peaks. Many of those are extinct, but Cerro Negro looks otherworldly, like an angry boil, the insides of the Earth turned out. Nonetheless, it’s still climbed daily via half an hour of relentless hiking, first over blood-black boulders, then onto a ridge of coal-like shale. 

When I reach the volcano’s rim, a surprisingly stiff wind carries up the dusty slopes and whips over the edge like a poltergeist trying to knock me off my feet. In the calmer caldera, half a dozen vents release sulphurous gasses into the warm air.

Underfoot, every step kicks up fine dust which is immediately carried away by the wind, giving the impression that the ground is smoking in protest at each incursion. It’s quite hypnotic to watch these little plumes, but on reaching the summit, I can’t help but look up and out. Despite being just 728m tall, Cerro Negro offers spectacular views in every direction. All around there are other volcanos in various states of geological disrepair – it’s not so much a land before time, but a land of time.

If the point in being here was just to have this view, the trek would be absolutely worth it, but Cerro Negro is also home to one of Central America’s most famous adventure pursuits: sandboarding. The express way down involves sitting or standing on a wooden plank a little larger than a snowboard, then shooting down the steepest face of the young volcano. Participants are given a boiler-suit, goggles, and a bandana giving them the look of someone attending an illegal rave in 1992.

Being surrounded by volcanos pulls the mind towards large thoughts, about creation and destruction, the formation of the world and amounts of time so vast as to make a person feel insignificant. But watching the boarders nervously creep to the edge of the rim, then begin their wild, dusty ride to the bottom, I realise something else: for all their godlike characteristics, volcanos can also be a lot of fun.

Underneath it all

I first came to Nicaragua as a grizzled backpacker in 2011. By the time I got here, I had been on the road for almost a year; funds were low, my ability to feel awe diminished. Still, I made a point of coming up to the Masaya volcano, almost halfway between one of Nicaragua’s old capitals, Granada, and the incumbent, Managua. On that evening, a little smoke gently puffed out from the caldera, and, once the sun was well down, our group could just about discern an orange glow, reflecting off chamber walls from deep within. It was absolutely thrilling to see that far-off light.

From a distance Masaya still looks approximately the same today, but up-close things are now markedly different thanks to a significant eruption in 2012. There’s no conical peak here, but a complex series of chambers and vents that have been in a state of near constant agitation for millennia. Of these, the Santiago crater is both the most accessible and most active, sending up a permanent column of smoke that can be seen from miles away. When it rains, doomed raindrops fall into the fiery core and become steam, making this cloud all the larger.

As I’m driven up towards the viewing platforms on what must be the smoothest roads in Nicaragua, the sun is already low in the sky. Through the window I see that close to the rim little vegetation has found a way to survive in this poisonous environment; with no soil and the permanent presence of noxious fumes, only the hardiest shrubs can eke out a living.

And yet, to my surprise, it’s not only shrubs – two thin white horses are also here, their prominent ribs testament to the harshness of the conditions. If they are an omen, these spectral beasts, then it is surely not a good one. 

Ignoring the strange creatures, I make my way to the edge and see that since my last visit, Masaya has become altogether more hellish. The fumes aren’t too pungent, but they do irritate the eyes and throat as they dance up the sheer cliffs some 500m before hitting the dusky sky. Each time a new pillar of smoke envelopes me, it feels immediately 10C warmer. 

At this time of day, tourists are allowed up in tightly controlled groups, each afforded five minutes to gaze at the Netherworld and take what photos they can, before a whistle blows and the next lot arrive. This is partly to reduce visitors’ exposure to the volcanic vapours, but also to cope with the incredible demand.  

The reason it bottlenecks at dusk becomes increasingly obvious. As night falls, so the orange from below projects further, deepening, bleeding into the gaseous tower. It’s as though the galaxy is seesawing, this subterranean light rising, while the celestial descends. And there, at the bottom, the source of this tremendous glow is revealed, hidden, then revealed again. Where years before I had seen only a faint glow, now there is a bubbling, churning lava lake; magma, our planet’s unquiet blood, the sunshine underground.

A version of this piece was published in National Geographic Traveller UK in 2018.

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