With nostrils flared wide, the dragon exhaled one poof of smoke, then another. The steaming fumaroles spiraled upwards on a breath of wind, out of the crater’s mouth.
The local population, los nicaragüenses, had a name for the dragon’s fiery lair — Volcán Telica — an active volcano in western Nicaragua just 30 kilometers from Léon.
SETTING UP CAMP
And here I was, with my husband Gustavo and son Nicolas, setting up camp for an overnight stay in a meadow dripping with greenery, at the base of the caldera — only about a thousand meters from the growling belly of the beast.
No matter though…that serpent spawned from hell could have emerged from his hollow, shrieking in winged flight, and I wouldn’t have been able to muster the strength to move out of his way.
I collapsed onto the grass and languished against the pile of backpacks, every muscle in my body screaming in pain. To say it had been an arduous, torturous climb was an understatement.
Several times during the six-hour trek, I was convinced I was going to die right there on that mountain trail, somewhere in the remotest heartland of Central America.
I was just a 50-something, rather out-of-shape gringuita from Florida, trying to assure her aging limbs that she was still in her twenties, primed for adventure, and not a bone-weary travel writer trying desperately to reach Telica’s peak.
My husband had struggled with debilitating leg cramps during the final stage of the climb while I battled the sweltering warmth.
We’d already exhausted about a dozen liters of our water supply, two of which had been poured directly over my head to assuage the heat. Even coddled by rainforest we had sweat, in my mind, to the brink of dehydration.
Twice, Gustavo had wrung out his shirt as if he’d just jumped fully clothed into a swimming pool.
I kept dabbing at the droplets streaming from my forehead, while Nicolas, our 14-year-old son, barely showed the slightest symptoms of perspiration. The advantages of youth.
Luckily, as we neared the end of our climb, an unexpected rain shower dumped buckets of cooling water over our enervated bodies.
STANDING ON THE RIDGE
Though soaked to the bone, we donned our rucksacks with renewed vigor and primed ourselves for the final ascension.
Standing on the ridge an hour later, overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the incredulous chain of volcanoes in la Cordillera de los Maribios, I knew it had been worth the effort.
Nicolas and our guide Florian, from Sonati Tours, began buttoning down the canvas flaps over our tent poles, preparing our palace for the night.
Swaying coconut trees dotted the grass-covered knoll. After unfurling the sleeping bags inside our primitive shelter, we changed into dry clothes and set about hanging our wet garments over the nearby cluster of bushes.
Behind us the dragon emitted another burst of steam from a fissure in his nose, belched from the most conspicuous of Telica’s vents.
That night after sunset we would test our bravery and scale the craggy terrain along the slope of the volcano.
With only the lumens of our flashlights to guide us, we hiked the precipice, grappling for a firm foothold on the uneven rock.
The landscape was completely devoid of vegetation — naked, except for occasional boulders and scattered pebbles of pyroclastic rubble.
They were reminders of the dragon’s power and his ability to scorch the earth in eruptions of brimstone and ash.
We traipsed past a shallow pool of water, chock-full of bullfrogs. Their constant croaking added to the eeriness of our climb. Fog had settled over the stratovolcanic cone.
“Careful,” my husband warned, rightfully implying that I’d have difficulty maneuvering on the shifting slag. It wasn’t difficult, after all, to lose your bearings in the utter blackness.
We continued our ascent in silence, broken only by the unexpected whinny of a wild horse. In the beacon of our torches, the untamed equine looked pale and ghostly.
I wondered what other creatures lurked in the dark…crouched amongst the outcroppings of hardened lava rock. Were they lying in wait, just like the fiery beast ahead?
REACHING ON THE EDGE
I grabbed Gustavo’s arm, for protection, and together we clambered up the side of the mountain. “Stop!” Florian suddenly called out.
“We’re approaching the edge.” We halted in our tracks. Gently we spread our jackets over the sharp gravel, and eased onto our stomachs.
Lying prostrate on the ground, we peered cautiously into the abys and into the dragon’s nest.
Hardly over a hundred meters down, rivulets of lava snaked through the burning pit, red hot and glistening. Despite the cloud cover, we spied occasional evidence of the fire-breathing monster within.
Glowing specks of scoria — the eyes of the mythical beast — luminesced brightly for brief seconds at a time, then faded back into the river of molten magma.
We listened for the slightest sign of the dragon’s unease, for any indication of displeasure. Except for a distant rumbling — perhaps his snoring — I’m happy to report that all was quiet on the volcanic front.
Even at the witching hour, as the nighttime wind blustered around us, darting in and out of the crater, there was no other sound of life.
Nothing save our belabored breathing and the whirr of my husband’s camera lens. Apparently the dragon was content hibernating in his refuge of igneous rock.
HEADING TO THE TENT
We forged our way back down the cone, weaving through the boulders, back to our campsite. Back to the comfort of our bonfire and a long-awaited dinner.
Florian cut up fresh veggies — tomatoes, avocados, and onions — while we squeezed refried beans from a convenient tube and gobbled our tasty tortillas.
“I can’t keep my eyes open a minute longer,” I informed the others and headed to the tent. To my sleeping bag, still damp from the earlier rain.
At dawn, we arose early, took down camp and revved up for the descent. With only a casual backwards glance toward the dragon who still lay sleeping, the four of us began the long trek back to civilization.
Knowing that you couldn’t buy memories like the ones we’d just shared, no matter how much money you had in your pocket.
IF YOU GO
Upon arrival in the capital, continue to Léon via local bus, taxi or rental car. If you get the opportunity, be sure to try your hand at volcano boarding on Cerro Negro.
Rates run about US$ 30 from any of the tour agencies, including transportation and equipment necessary for ‘surfing’ down the volcano (protective gear, glasses/goggles, and board).
We suggest booking your tours through Sonati Tours, as it is a non-profit agency and all monies are used for environmental education for school kids in Léon.
Be sure to ask directions from Sonati to the fabulous street mural made by the local children from recycled materials, mostly bottle caps. It’s a Kodak moment.