Consider the sloth, surely the most useless animal in nature. Present throughout Central America today, it seems little short of miraculous that with potential predators never far away, sloths have been able to survive for millions of years. Some quarry adapts to move faster, or hear more keenly; others develop toxins, some armour. The sloth hasn’t bothered with any of that – hasn’t bothered with anything really, save for some perfunctory camouflage in the form of an algae that grows on its thick, grey fur.
It’s hard to present the sloth as exciting, in other words, even when it’s sitting in a tree that’s on top of a gigantic dormant volcano. And of course, sitting in a tree is all it’s likely to do, even if Mombacho was to somehow spring to life for the first time in almost 450 years.
This enormous volcano on the outskirts of the old colonial city of Granada dominates the horizon, part of a vast network of peaks that have been, are, or will be due to explode. The east of Nicaragua is more settled, much of it is a coffee country where the beans are laid out in such massive numbers that they look like tilled soil, but the Pacific coast is a very active part of the fabled Ring of Fire. Volcanoes are so much part of life in this small Latin American country, that since it declared independence in 1823, its flag has featured five volcanic peaks.
The proximity to Granada is one of the reasons Mombacho is visited by a lot of tourists, but the other is that you can, in a 4x4 at least, drive to its peak. From the ranger centre up there, it’s possible to embark on three treks of varying degrees of difficulty, the most challenging being the Puma Trail. This unsealed, mulchy path leads through dense cloud forest for a couple of hours before emerging out onto the rim of the hulking volcano. It’s been centuries since Mombacho exploded, and it may never happen again, but from this condor’s vantage point, Nicaragua’s volcanic sculpting is plain to see.
To the north west lies the impossibly blue Apoyo Lagoon. Today it’s a yawning freshwater lake, a magnet for people who like to windsurf and fish and simply swim in its cold, deep waters. Despite the increasing amounts of tourists, at over 6.6km in diameter, there’s room for everyone. But it too was once a volcano, one that suffered a far more catastrophic eruption than Mombacho – while rain runs down the verdant slopes here, there it gathers as an extraordinary pool.
Apoyo is a good-sized lake by most standards, but further south east, the mighty Lake Nicaragua could absorb it several times over. The largest lake in Central America, it’s approximately the same size as the Greek island of Crete; or double the size of America’s Rhode Island. It has more in common with a sea than it does with an ordinary lake. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it also has volcanoes.
On clear days, from the top of Mombacho you can just about discern Ometepe island, perhaps the most striking geological phenomenon anywhere in Nicaragua. A single island comprised of two volcanoes – Maderas in the south, Concepción in the north – it narrows in the middle as though wearing a tight belt.
The tempestuous twin peaks are not equal, not in size (Concepción is 1,610 metres; its sister is 1,394 mts) nor in maturity. Maderas is smaller in part because it has already had its catastrophic event and now lies extinct. As though to underline that its fire and brimstone have been left 10,000 years in the past, Maderas is also covered in a cloud forest, with extraordinary flora and fauna smothering its once trembling slopes. The dominant bird is the white-throated magpie-jay, which is closely related to crows and ravens, but looks more like a pigeon dressed for a carnival.
Concepción, meanwhile, is very much active. A perfectly formed cone, it is treeless and bare and full of destructive potential. Like Maderas, it’s possible to climb to the summit, but here there’s no shade and little in the way of an established path. Only the most dedicated trekkers can attempt it, and even then they must pay close attention to any hint of seismic activity, the precursor to most eruptions.
Concepción has rumbled and grumbled periodically over the centuries, but one day it seems inevitable something cataclysmic will occur. If Maderas represents disasters of the past, then Concepción is a reminder that there are others still to come.
A few hours to the north, between Granada and Nicaragua’s current capital city, Managua, Masaya suggests that perhaps things don’t need to be quite so apocalyptic. Unlike other volcanic peaks around the country, here there isn’t a satisfying conical silhouette on the horizon – if you imagine a volcano to be like a geological pimple, a single blemish preparing to pop, then Masaya is more like acne.
A series of chambers and vents are dotted around over this area, meaning that the pressures from deep within the mountain are generally not allowed to build-up for too long. That doesn’t mean that it is dormant or even calm – quite the opposite, in fact. Every night, hundreds of tourists are bussed to the edge of the Santiago crater near the centre of what is now a natural reserve. From far and wide, it’s possible to see smoke rising in a steady stream from Masaya (ironically, this gets a lot stronger when it rains as the precipitation is turned into a vast column of steam) and the majority of it comes from Santiago.
Rising 500m from the mountain to the night sky, it swirls demonically from its source, often obscuring it altogether, but after sunset, there’s no hiding the volcanic viscera. Just a few years ago it wasn’t possible to see anything more than a faint orange glow, but a gentle eruption has swollen Masaya’s heart, making a spectacular lava lake visible to the naked eye. Looking into that impossible abyss feels like looking back through the ages to literal terraforming, molten rock angrily trying to decide which form it will eventually settle on.
Perhaps it’s the noxious fumes billowing from the caldera, but the mind strains towards the cosmic while looking into the core of Masaya. A three-hour drive to the north west, near the colonial city of Leon, people don’t seem to have such profound thoughts about the volcanoes that inevitably surround their city. And yet they must, of course, think about them. The first city of Leon built by the Spanish was destroyed by an eruption and so it was moved, wholesale, to its current location in order to avoid such a fate again.
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Almost 250 years later, however, Cerro Negro, the black mountain, appeared a few kilometres away when several weeks of eruptions sent it bubbling up from the Earth. In geological terms it is a volatile baby: only 168 years old with a record of frequent, if not especially dramatic, eruptions. Its blackness comes from that rawness – the slopes are still covered in a dark, dusty shale somewhere between coal and sand.
While other, older volcanoes nearby are covered in grass, Cerro Negro stands out, as do the brightly coloured tourists who slowly climb to its 500m summit. Dressed as though they’ve arrived to decorate a derelict building, the adventurers trek with boiler suits and face masks, huffing and puffing up the loose path.
Why bother with all this? Well on a sandboard it takes a lot less time to descend the black mountain. One of Central America’s most popular adventure pursuits, it’s over in just a few minutes and, despite the protective gear, leaves most of its participants looking like Victorian chimney sweeps. More than that, though, it’s a useful reminder that as well as being visible reminders of our planet in its most dangerous form, volcanoes can also be a whole load of fun.