This year, our summer excursions started with a two-week exploration of Nicaragua. Why Nicaragua? During our 2015/2016 world adventure, we completely avoided Central and South America. There was no particular reason for the avoidance other than we were tired after 7 months on the road and wanted to go home – we just didn’t make it there. After a year of rest, we decided it was time to hit the road and visit a new part of the world – Central America, here we come! In typical Dailey fashion, we also wanted to go somewhere that was a little off the beaten path. With volcanic landscapes, natural beauty, beaches, and charming small towns that have not been overrun by the tourist industry, Nicaragua promised to hold plenty of adventure for a fraction of what we would spend in neighboring Central American countries.
León City Tour
Our first stop was the city of León, the second largest city in Nicaragua. When setting off in a new city, one of the first things we like to do is take a walking tour. Lonely Planet guidebooks include walking tours of most major cities along with a map and a detailed history of the area. The tours get you out into the city, introduce you to the architecture, buildings, parks, and other meaningful landmarks in the city, and generally get you comfortable with your new surroundings.
The first church on our tour was the Basilica de la Asención, the largest cathedral in Central America, which sits on edge of Parque Central. Rubén Dario, a celebrated Nicaraguan poet, is buried within the cathedral’s crypt. Built between 1747 and 1814, the cathedral has withstood earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and bombings during civil wars. There are tunnels that connect the cathedral with other temples that were once used as hideouts and escape routes during terrorist attacks, but these are not accessible to the public. However, you can pay a small entrance fee ($3/person) to climb the tower and access the roof of the cathedral (image at top).
Even though skies were mostly cloudy, temperatures were in the high 80s and the heat was doubly hot due to the reflection off the white rooftop. Raspado vendors know that once you are down from the roof top, you will want to cool off and they line the walkway in front of the cathedral with their brightly colored carts. Inside the cart is a large block of ice that is scraped into a dish similar to shaved ice. You can choose from Tamarind or Dulce de Leche (essentially caramel) topping. The ice was refreshing, but the topping was far too sweet.
Three blocks north of the cathedral, the Iglesia de la Recolección, a monument to passion, is considered the city’s most beautiful church. We had hoped to tour the interior of the deep-yellow church, but it was not open and we never quite made it back that way. Apparently, the interior is decorated with slender mahogany columns and the ceilings are painted with harvest motifs. I’m sure it’s worth a look if you happen upon the church during open hours.
Finally, at least as churches are concerned, we hit the Iglesia El Calvario. The two flanking towers are painted red and are painted with white lines to resemble bricks. The central section is decorated with reliefs of the passion of Christ. A locked gate surrounded this church, so again, we were unable to view the interior. We had to stick with reading about the soft white interior highlighted by red and yellow shapes of crosses, leaves, and flowers on the ceiling.
Our next stop was El Museo Entomológico. The museum contains an interesting and colorful collection of insect species. Along with the three permanent exhibitions (scarabs, diurnal butterflies, and nocturnal butterflies), the museum also frequently exhibits species from the different natural reserves throughout Nicaragua. The museum sits in the entryway of the entomologist’s home, so the door is often closed to prevent people wandering in from the street. Simply knock the door or ring the bell and someone will open it for you.
Cerro Negro (Black Hill) is a relatively new active volcano at only 161 years old. Although quite young in volcanic terms, Cerro Negro has erupted at least 23 times, which makes it highly active compared to most volcanoes. The last eruption was recorded in 1999, so most Nicaraguans think another eruption is due any day. The cone is primarily made up of small penny-sized grains of volcanic rock making it a perfect venue to sled or surf down on a wooden board. Volcano boarding is an obscure sport that can only be done in Nicaragua and on Mt. Yasur in Vanuatu, which is far more dangerous with eruptions occurring every day. It is also a potentially dangerous sport with risks of falling off and getting cut by the rough lava rock, breathing poisonous gasses, or even being hit by flying molten lava. Potential imminent eruption… extreme sport with risk of injury… let’s go!
After a 45-minute ride in the back of a covered truck, the adventure starts with a hike up this black mountain of loose rock, which takes about an hour. The hike is steep at times and your balance is often thrown off due to the pack and board that you are carrying on your back. The pack includes the protective gear that you must wear on your way down the hill. It includes a full jumpsuit, goggles, and gloves.
Once at the top, we dropped our packs and walked along the caldera to a place where we could see the sulfuric fumes escaping through vents. Our guides instructed us to dig just a little under our feet and touch the ground, where we could feel the heat of the volcano. It was impossible to keep our hands in the dirt for more than a few seconds.
After a look into the crater, we donned our bright yellow jumpsuits and protective gear and got ready to slide down on wooden sleds. The bottom of the sleds are covered with a thin layer of metal for maximum speed. There is a rope to hang on to, but will do little to control your direction. The only way to slow down is by digging your feet into the rocks. Get going too fast by leaning back and you’re likely to take a spill and cut yourself up – which one girl in our group found out the hard way.
Looking over the edge of what we were about to slide down was intimidating. I had thoughts of turning back more than once, but as the mother of two teenage boys, I knew that I would never hear the end of it if I chickened out. The hill is so steep that you can’t see all the way to the bottom. Eventually becoming a 41 degree slope, a spotter must stand half way down and give the signal to go once the run is clear.
Visibility became even more limited as the clouds rolled in and the rain started pouring down. Lava rock is not as fast as snow and the visibility and rain slowed things down even more, but that didn’t stop a young woman in our group from going as fast as possible and crashing near the end of the ride. She cut up her arm a bit and caused the rest of the group to have to sit in the pouring rain while she was patched up at the bottom. I took over for the midway spotter and stood watch half way down directing others at the top.
Eventually we all took a turn sliding down and reached the bottom with blackened faces, wet and dirty clothes full of black muck, shoes full of rocks, and no injuries!