Camp on an Active Volcano

Venture to the Ring of Fire to see geology at work on Nicaragua's Volcán Telica.
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The meadow is perfect. Coconut palms sway in the breeze, revealing flat-topped peaks behind them, the ground so plush that the sleeping pads stay rolled up. After a 6-mile trek through a rainforest, I’m happy to be inside a tent, the ocean breeze rustling through the mesh and a chorus of bullfrogs serenading me. I lie back and enjoy the peaceful moment, wondering why I was so anxious about camping on
an active volcano.

That’s when I feel the earth move. I sit up and see a narrow plume of smoke twist into the sky from the crater of Volcán Telica, 300 yards away.

It’s nerve-racking, but this is what we asked for. My husband, son, and I wanted to hike on living earth. Unlike Hawaii’s strictly regulated lava zones and Indonesia’s danger zones, Volcán Telica offers a middle road: backpacking up to the edge with low risk of a violent eruption. So we headed to Nicaragua in June.

More than 20 years removed from civil war, Nicaragua, the second-most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere, still lacks the infrastructure to lure tourists beyond its storied surfing beaches. Most of the country remains relatively primitive, a patchwork of virgin rainforests, fertile lowlands, and white-sand beaches. That it’s also a geothermal hotbed seems too good to be true.

But one night on the rumbling beast makes me a believer. The first morning, hefting overnight packs, we set out for 3,481-foot Telica. Locals driving ox carts nodded to us as we walked through bean fields toward the steaming summit. Then, we ducked beneath flowering guanacaste trees, spiky bromeliads decorated with red blooms, and overgrown strangler figs, the humid air thick with the smell of photosynthesis. When the dense vegetation gave way to open meadows peppered with rock outcroppings, we could feel the breeze off the Pacific.

Near the top, our guide said we could ditch our packs and crawl on our bellies to the edge of the crater. From afar, it looked like a cone of red clay, but then, my face inches from the surface, I saw life: roots and green tendrils spidering out of the ground. Occasional poofs of steam clouded my vision.

Telica last blew its lid in May 2015, giving rise to an ash plume that surged nearly 3,000 feet into the sky. No one was hurt because the tech down here is advanced enough that the guides can predict the eruptions before they occur (you can, too, at their weather watch site). Nevertheless, when I peered over the lip to see red veins of 1,000°F magma oozing through the caldera, an explosion did cross my mind.

After, we set up camp in the highest grove of palm trees and faced our tents toward the Cordillera de los Maribios, a smoldering chain of 1,000-foot-tall mountains. That’s when I felt the rumble. The image of those lava-red veins flashed in my head, but instead of fear I felt excited to know what lies beneath me. It was nature’s heartbeat. 

DO IT See into Telica at the midpoint of a 12-mile out-and-back from Los Hervideros de San Jacinto, a field of boiling mud pools, on the volcano’s southeastern flank. Set aside six hours for each leg. GET THERE Rent a car or take a bus to San Jacinto from Léon, 12 miles away. Certain guide services provide transportation. SEASON Year-round: December to April will be hot and dry; May to November will be rainy. Aim for shoulder season. GUIDE Sonati Tours offers this trip for around $55/person (includes gear and food), and all profits go toward conservation and education.

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