Volcano Hikes in Central America
Let's catch up with Journey Latin America's reporter in the field, James Tennet, who is travelling around Central America on his way south towards the Andes. James's journey across the isthmus has seen him develop a fiery passion - for volcano trekking!
Cerro Negro, Nicaragua
Cerro Negro is the youngest volcano in Central America, having only formed in 1850, and it's a rather stroppy adolescent, boasting 23 documented eruptions in its short life so far. But, there's no need to worry – a 48-hour warning system is in place and, besides, you’ll be spending less than an hour on the mountainside. This is because Cerro Negro isn’t really for climbing, it’s for descending. It takes 45 minutes to reach the smoking crater at the top, and that’s where the fun really begins. Most visitors to the volcano have come on a ‘Volcano Boarding’ tour and descend by 'surfing' back down the slick, black, ash-covered slope. Perched on a specially-designed piece of wood, the descent can take as little as 30 seconds, climaxing with a sharp incline where it’s possible to reach speeds of over 80km/h. Obviously, wipeouts are frequent and can be quite painful if you’re travelling fast (luckily, there is the option to brake and take it slow if you prefer). A very unique and bizarre volcano-related activity: exhilarating, memorable and highly recommended.
Back to Guatemala for this one, but a distinctly different offering to Tajumulco. Volcán Chicabal is diminutive in stature when compared to its bigger brother, and can be conquered in a couple of hours. However the attraction here isn’t the climb, or indeed the views from the top. Instead, 615 steep steps lead down from the summit deep into the crater. Hidden here you’ll find Laguna Chicabal – a pristine lake, shimmering peacefully atop the volcano. The focus of a hugely sacred Maya pilgrimage route, many religious ceremonies are held here (and tourists aren’t always welcomed – check before you leave). Arrive early for the best visibility.
Quite literally a blast from the past – Volcan Cosigüina was once Central America’s tallest peak, but a massive eruption in 1835 obliterated much of the mountain and reduced it to only 859m. As such, the top can now be reached in four hours or less. However, the location is beautifully unique; perched on the edge of the Cosigüina Peninsula (right at the north-western tip of Nicaragua) the peak allows fantastic views over the Gulf of Fonseca. On a clear day, three different countries are visible: Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras. Additionally, the deserted beaches, wildlife-filled wetlands and welcoming village communities of the surrounding area make it one of Central America's undiscovered gems.
The undisputed king of the peaks, Volcán Tajumulco is head and shoulders above the rest – at a towering 4222m above sea level, it is the highest point in Central America. The best way to reach the summit is on a 2-day hike from Guatemala’s second city, Quetzaltenango. It’s by no means an easy trek, but less daunting when you realise that the bus will take you all the way to the 3000m mark. It’s technically possible to reach the top and descend in one very long day, but a better method is to climb to base camp (4000m) on day one, spend a night there, and rise very early on day two in order to catch sunrise on the summit. If the gods grant you a cloud-free sky, the vistas don’t get much better than this – as the sun slowly appears above the distant horizon, it’s possible to see across Western Guatemala and all the way into Southern Mexico. Just make sure you wrap up warm!
Volcán Telica is one of Nicaragua's most active volcanoes and frequent eruptions have kept its steep sides bare of vegetation. There are actually six different cones, with the tallest topping out at 1061m. It's easiest to scale the volcano on a 2-day tour from nearby León, with one night spent camping just below the summit. Make sure you reach the top in time to watch the sun setting over the pacific ocean; an incredible vantage point for this spellbinding spectacle. The highly active nature of the volcano means that intrepid visitors are often treated to visible lava flows, 130 metres down inside the huge main crater. The barren landscape, smoking crevasses and perfect cone shape make Telica a 'classic' volcano trek, but one that's not too arduous to master. Great for beginners and those who want to experience a volcano that feels.... well, very volcanic! For the extra adventurous, time your visit to coincide with the monthly full-moon night trek.