Posted by: carogouin | November 21, 2009

the ring of fire

Volcano number 4 - Concepcion.

As we continue our journey through Central America, we seem often to find ourselves face to face with cone-shaped peaks spewing smoke, lava (if we’re lucky), and standing imposingly tall above the tropical jungle. Call it a fascination with the earth’s age-old mechanism of simultaneously destroying and rejuvenating itself, or perhaps the fact that we are smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ring Fire Circle (Costa Rica alone has 200 volcanic formations, with half of these showing signs of activity, and 5 “technically” active) and cannot avoid them even if we tried.  In any case, we’ve been hooked on this ring of fire ever since we set foot in Costa Rica.  The first one we visited and the most active in Costa Rica, Volcán Arenal near la Fortuna, started it all.  And although we didn’t exactly see the emblematic red lava at night, it only wet our appetite for more.

So we continue on the ring of fire, but first make a pit stop at Monteverde National Park to see another wonder of CR – the cloud forest, home to over 100 species of mammals and 400 species of birds. Because of its high altitude in the clouds, they say a light mist always falls on this wildlife refuge – to our misfortune, a great understatement. We were trapped in a terrible downpour for about 2 hours, which prevented any bird or animal sightings, or much visibility at the miradores (overlooks). We sought refuge in a makeshift shelter for about 45 minutes, but then realized it was a lost cause and braved the monsoon to finish our loop and exit the park.

A clouded vista after a long uphill trek - ugh.

The trail through the veritable cloud forest at Monteverde.

Seeking refuge under a shelter during a Monteverde downpour.

We quickly headed to Liberia for lower and dryer ground (I use “quickly” loosely, since we took a series of three local buses colectivos, which pick up passengers every 500 meters or so) to explore our second active volcano – Rincón de la Vieja. We decided to rent a car after realizing that a taxi ride from Liberia to the volcano is $20 per person each way – believe it or not, our 4WD Montero for 2 days was much more economical.  And of course, because we’ve been missing the Jeep terribly. It proved to be a great move, since upon arrival at the park on Monday morning, we learned that side of the park is always closed on Mondays (a fact that even the locals did not know). So we turned this into an opportunity to make use of the vehicle, and drove as far west as we could until we reached the Pacific cost at Playa El Coco. We spent the entire afternoon swimming in the 80 degree water, watching locals carry the fresh catch of the day over their shoulders, and ended the evening with the most fabulous whole fish we have ever tasted (it was drenched in some kind of garlic, onion and butter sauce).

A local fisherman with a dorado over his shoulder at Playa El Coco.

Colorful skies while eating the best fish ever at Playa El Coco.

The next morning we get an alpine start, feast on a hearty breakfast of cornflakes and warm milk, and head over to the park again. When we checked in with the guard and told him we were planning on going all the way up to the crater, he dissuaded us with talks of clouds, rain and no puede ver (can’t see). Having been robbed of well-earned vistas a little too often recently, we listened.  Our decision can also be attributed to the seismic activity discovered the week prior, and the missing poster we spotted of a gringo who attempted the climb recently. Probably for the best. However, we didn’t miss out on the adventure completely.  We instead followed a 2-hour loop around a series of fumaroles (holes in the earth that release sulphuric smoke), boiling mud pits and volcancitos (tiny volcanoes): definite clues that you are walking above geothermal activity.

A fumarole steaming in the early morning at Rincon de la Vieja.

Boiling mud pits - stay away!

Cascading waterfall at the base of Rincon de la Vieja.

Since we were so close to the border with Nicaragua, we decided to cross over and check it out.  We had been hearing lots of accolades from other travelers who were praising unspoiled territory, cheap prices, less gringos, beautiful colonial towns, etc. So we went, and after an hour and half at the border (which went relatively smoothly since a gracious Canadian acted as our guide), a chicken bus (there was a rooster), touts and vendors selling about most anything (our favorite – water in plastic bags where you rip off a corner and suck it down – very sanitary), and a short moto rickshaw ride (the bus dropped us off at an intersection of the highway, so we had no choice), we finally arrived in Granada – a beautiful colonial town indeed with impressive churches, Spanish architecture and courtyards hiding gorgeous gardens. A sort of silver lining over what is, without a doubt, still a developing country.  We spent three days exploring the city, sitting by these lovely hidden courtyards, and of course visiting nearby volcanoes.

On the moto rickshaw for the final stretch to Granada, Nicaragua.

The cobble stoned steets of beautiful Granada.

The Cathedral towering over Granada plaza central.

One of the many lovely courtyards in Granada.

We booked a tour with a Nicaraguan guide who had spent 20 years in Dallas and spoke English fairly well, along with three American girls, all fun-loving traveling nurses.  Our first stop was a pottery town known for its clay-rich soil where we watched local artists demonstrate ceramic making.  The number of steps and precision involved was astonishing.  It takes about 15 days to finalize a piece – but of course they produce about 200 pieces in this 15-day cycle. Next, we stopped at the Lago de Apoyo, a deep crater lake perfect for swimming and lounging by the shore with a cerveza.  Finally we made it to the Masaya National Park – home of the Nigiri volcano with one active crater – Santiago. It was breathtaking to stare down into an active crater – not to mention the sulphuric smoke that literally took your breath away.  We learned that during the civil war Sandinistas and Contras alike would drop their enemies alive into this burning chamber. What?!!?  What a creative and sadistic torture mechanism.  

A local artist demonstrating ceramic work - spinning the wheel with his foot.

Just some horses bathing in the lagoon, Lago de Apoyo.

The Santiago crater of the Nigiri volcano of the Masaya National Park

Pat standing next to the hot magma chamber - where Sandinistas and Contras dropped in their enemies - no joke!

The whole crew at the top of the hike to the crater rim.

Sulphuric smoke surrounding the craters of Masaya.

Next stop after Granada?  You guessed it – another volcano.  However this one – Volcán Concepción – together with its smaller neighbor Volcán Maderas connected by an isthmus, form the island of Ometepe in the middle of Lake Nicaragua.  We took an hour long ferry from San Jorge and reached this remote paradise with a surprisingly bustling and friendly community. For this volcano we were determined to make it to the top.  The last major eruption was in 1957, but we learned afterwards of a small pyroclastic eruption in August 2008, hmmm. Shielded from this information, we hired a guide to take us up the mountain.  Meet Yojan: a 26-year old local with incredible physique and stamina who has climbed this volcano over 500 times – and did so that day with a bit of a hangover.  The only thing that suffered was his English.

Without any idea of what we were getting ourselves into, we started our trek through the jungle with Yojan, a Swiss couple on a similar 6-month journey through Central and South America, and two 19-year old students from Norway and Holland with high-top converse shoes.  The first 3.5 km climb in the forest was pretty standard, passing banana trees, white-faced capuchin monkeys, and hearing howler monkeys in the distance. We climbed out of the tree line and arrived at the saddle, almost knocked over by the wind.  But my oh my did we have an awesome view of the island, lake and even the Pacific Ocean off in the distance. As we refueled, Yojan informed us that the next 1km would be very rocky and take about 2.5 hours. 

On the ferry to Isla de Ometepe - home to Volcan Concepcion y Maderas.

Steep scree, loose volcanic rock for the last 1 km to the top of Concepcion.

The final 1 km to the summit, in fact, took us 2 hours as we slowly pulled ourselves (often using our hands) up a 47 degree slope covered with loose volcanic rock. There were no trails, no switchbacks, just a steady climb straight up. At a moment of rest while I feared for my life just a little, I made the mistake of asking Yojan if it got any worse.  He informed me that it did, and that the first time he climbed the volcano when he was 14, he found a dead body.  Thanks Yojan.

We finally made it to the top, with a cliff on one side and the crater on the other.  We did not see a dead body, but we didn’t really see much else either since it was too cloudy.  We nervously congratulated ourselves for making it, but we knew it was far from over.  The downhill would be more treacherous. Every step had to be carefully calculated and tested, otherwise you’d knock off small or sometimes large rocks and threaten your fellow hikers below you.  I’ve never descended a mountain so slowly or rejoiced so much when we finally made it down.  We all made it down safely in the end, each with a minor slip and scrape, but with a true sense of accomplishment and relief.

At the top of volcano Concepcion! Crater on one side, cliff on the other!

Looking down on the isla on the slopes of the volcano at a 47 degree angle!

Pat and I spent the next 2 days doing absolutely nothing.  We retreated to a comfortable bungalow with a lake-side view, settled ourselves in hammocks reading books, listening to the tide, and nursing our sore muscles back to health. When we were strong enough to move on, we took a ferry back to the mainland and made our final stop in Nicaragua at San Juan del Sur – a lovely and popular beach on the Pacific with lots of good restaurants and surf shops. We quickly jumped on the bandwagon and tried our hand at surfing on another beach just north of San Juan del Sur called Madera. We spent all day playing in the water, catching waves (Pat did most of the surfing, I just body boarded a few times), eating fish tacos and talking to other gringos doing the same.  It was an extraordinary day and a perfect culmination to our sojourn in Nicaragua.

Treating ourselves to a comfortable bungalow on the Isla de Ometepe.

Our perfect relaxation spot for the next 2 days.

Madera - a beautiful, serene beach north of San Juan del Sur.

Which is a popular spot for surfers.

Pat rides one in.

Beaming after a day of catching waves.



  1. Dear Caroline & Pat,

    Thanks so much for sharing your journey. Your writing and photographs are beautiful. Several years ago Beverly and I took a similar journey through Nicaragua and also went to a shop where they were manufacturing pottery. I know its highly unlikely that you went to the same one, but just on the chance, did you happen to keep any contact info from the shop? We bought a piece for the house that was just broken and would love to replace it.

    Jealously back in Frederick,


  2. 14 days is a long between postings – maybe not for you but certainly for your “gathering” whose lives are far less interesting than yours, but I agree….. it is a choice we have made!!

    I am living a trip through yours and check your blog on a daily basis. It is like a good book that you don’t want to put down. Thanks for sharing your stories and Happy Thanksgiving – you must have so much to be thankful for!!

  3. Dang, maybe you can hit Rincon de la Vieja on your back south… Looks like things for you guys are just peachy down there in them Banana Republics. Awesome hiking, great photos! Keep on keepin’ on!

  4. It’s so much fun reading each new entry! Of course we’ve come to expect beautifully composed photography and wonderfully written prose. And you never disappoint! Have a Happy Thanksgiving, wherever you will be. You have so much to be thankful for!

  5. We look forward to each of your new entries with such anticipation. Your beautifully composed photos and wonderfully written prose never disappoint. It’s such a treat! We hope you two have a delightful meal somewhere for Thanksgiving. We’ll be thinking of you!

  6. hi cuz!
    pics look great!! call us when you get back! Wish I was there!

  7. Really beautiful! Makes me miss South America and want to hit up Central. If you guys need any pointers in SA, let me know. Have a great trip!

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