miércoles, 22 de febrero de 2012


I may have a new favorite trip. It’s hard to say- they’re all different. But this one, Cosiguina, is really different. it’s a three day trip, mostly because of how far away it is from Leon. Cosiguina is part of the Maribios chain, but far removed from the next nearest major volcano, San Cristobal. you can’t even see it from any of the vista points on our other hikes. It’s situated in the far northwest corner of Nicaragua on the tip of a lobelike Peninsula that pokes into the pacific, with the Gulf of Fonseca to the north. Honduras forms the opposite coast of the gulf, and the town of Potosi, in which we have lunch on day 2, is an international port and the only takeoff point to travel to El Salvador via boat. El Salvador forms the third side of the gulf, a straight shot from Potosi.

It’s an ecologically diverse area- the flora and fauna on Cosiguina are more varied than on the other volcanoes, and on the trip you experience jungles, beaches, mangrove forests, dry and dusty bare tree expanses, and chances to swim in the gulf, an ocean, an estuary and a natural pool. We sold the trip hard for a week, and still ended up with one lonely client. I couldn’t figure out why- it wasn’t because of any lack of business; we had 16 volcano boarding clients on the same day as Cosiguina. After talking to Andrew about it, I think I understand. Tourists come to Leon to experience what “Leon has to offer”, (this is determined almost exclusively by the Lonely Planet guidebook), and when it comes to hiking volcanoes, there are two draws. Volcano boarding and seeing lava. Tourists want to experience something definable; something they can bring back to their friends. I don’t think the meaning or depth or even level of fun of the experience is as important as simply participating in the events “you can’t miss” when visiting Leon. What would they say to their friends back home about Cosiguina? Cosiguina is a dormant volcano and we don’t even go into the crater. “It was an awesome trip, man. You just had to have been there....” Volcano boarding on the other hand, sounds and looks much cooler than it actually is.

You need four clients to run Cosiguina. We had four guides and one client. Andrew admitted to us that he hadn’t necessarily been anticipating much clientele; he had put the trip on the schedule more as a gift to the guides. So we decided to go anyways- at cost. It’s an expensive trip, but it’s definitely worth it. A strange experience for our lovely client, but I think he had a lot of fun.

Awake at 5 in the morning, and out the door at 6:30. No tents necessary for Cosiguina, so our packs were deliciously light. We took a camioneta to the terminal, a 45 minute van ride to Chinandega, a “cyclo”- bicycle powered buggie- to Chinandega’s main terminal, and the infamously chaotic 5 hour bus ride to the cusp of continental Nicaragua.

Chinandega central.

The bus terminal.

Although we boarded the bus quite early in order to get a seat, it was already packed, and I spent the first two hours sitting across the laps of Annika and Andrew. I brought a book to entertain myself, but it was clear that reading would not be an option. Around hour three, a farmer got on board with three or four piglet sin bags- they rolled around the bus floor in their plastic straightjackets, piercing squeals escaping from the one small nose hole they were thoughtfully allowed. Since it hasn’t rained here since early November, the dust has become almost unbearable, and thick clouds of it blasted through the open windows of the bus until I was covered in a layer of dirt before I even started hiking.

The road became bumpier and began to look less and less like a road as time went on. The bus slowly emptied. I got a seat to myself but couldn’t sleep because the views were so exciting- the Pacific ocean to our right and Cosiguina and the jungle to our left. Finally the road dwindled down to nothing, and the bus rocked t a stop. We were at the furthest Northwest point in Nicaragua, at the very end of the last road. We got off, peed in a random farmer’s outhouse, and started hiking.


The first several hours were long, hot, and exposed. We wandered through a dry yellow forest, with the lush green jungle canopy beckoning us ahead like an oasis of shade. Andrew lead at first, and then gave me a chance for the second half. If all goes well, I’ll be a future Cosiguina guide, so I kept a vigilant eye.

We started hiking around 1:30, so by the time we reached our first open vista, the clouds were a dusty rose and the sky had darkened over the gulf. The whole view was mystically veiled by a layer of mist seeping in from the sea. The islands of El Salvador loomed out of nowhere in subtle hues of deep pastel: They were the arched backs of sleeping water dragons, fantastical dreamlike mounds floating in a sea of fog. It reminded me of a scene out of My Father’s Dragon, a fairytale, a fantasy out of a child’s mind.

A couple minutes later at a very random spot, Andrew called out to me to stop. He scrambled up the small incline to our right, shouting over his shoulder that we should “watch our feet.” I shrugged and scrambled up after him, brushed the dense foliage aside to find- a drop off into thin air. I was a meter or so away from a terrific drop into Cosiguina’s crater. Beyond the sharp lop on which Andrew at, vertical cliff walls shot down into a deep blue lake hundreds of meters down. The sun was just sinking below the jagged crater wall to our right, and we were all bathed in a  yellow glow.

This crater is peaceful. It doesn’t scare me like Telica’s crater does- it demands a profound respect and awe, but emits an aura of tranquility. While Telica seems to embody the element of fire, Cosiguina is a water goddess. Instead of looking down into hot steam and lava, our eyes meet soothing blue.

In her prime, Cosiguina was a terror. At 4,300 meters high, this stump of a volcano was once the highest point in Central America, higher than Tajumulco, the highest point of Guatemala. Cosiguina must have been an incredible sight, rising straight out of the sea, into the heavens for kilometers. Cosiguina’s single, violent eruption occurred in 1835. It was huge- one look at the size of the crater will confirm this. Over 3500 vertical meters of rock exploded up and out into the sea. Remnants of the eruption- huge island like boulders- still sit miles out into the gulf and are visible from land. The eruption only killed 11 people; the peninsula was largely unpopulated at the time.

The last hour or so we hiked in the dark along a ridge. to our left, Cosiguina’s jungles sloped down into the ocean, and to our right, the crater wall rose up jaggedly with the sun’s last red rays leaking up and over as if the sun was setting into the crater of the volcano.

Our campsite was on the edge of the crater. It was at the sight of an old measurement station ringed by concrete strips the width of a sidewalk. It was weird at first to be sleeping next to this outpost of civilization, but the concrete was ideal for sleeping out- I needed a hard, clean surface because the pad I brought was about the third of the length of my sleeping bag and I wasn’t about to put my nice bag on a pile of dirt.

At the crater edge.

Beyond the crater to our right was the pacific ocean, and the gulf was to our left. Both were invisible to us.  The sky was tarry with new moon; we floated on the ridge in a dark universe of brilliant stars and blackness. We built our fire next to the concrete hut and spent a relaxed evening laughing and raucously recounting Quetzaltrekkers stories and mishaps, usually more censored in the company of clients. I expressed my excitement to see the sunrise the next morning with our vast view of the East; Andrew warned that it may be cloudy and that sometimes sunrises are subtle. I rolled my eyes and shot back that every day is different , and clouds only make the sunrise better because the light refracts off the water particles in the clouds and creates more dramatic colors and variety.

I had a wonderful sleep that night. The wind was subtle, my sleeping bag was the perfect temperature without a tent, and the stars seemed to wrap around me and my lofty perch. I opened my eyes around 6:00 to find myself swimming in swaths of soft white fog. I sat up in my bag and looked to the east- the sunrise was indeed subtle. On my concrete strip I felt as if I was poised on a diving board above a millennium pool of white. I saw no trees, no ocean- only rolling plumes of condensation licking at my toes. I had hung yesterday’s clothes on the roof of the hut to dry and they were all damp, as was my bag.

Andrew, Janet and Annika were already boiling water for coffee, so I scouted up and down the ridge with my camera, waiting for the clouds to burn off. They didn’t. The crater was filled with mist as well, and as I stood watching, an air current swept a thick white waterfall of fog up the side of Cosiguina, over the ridge, and then poured down into the crater. The airborne river completely obscured the ridge until it appeared to vanish into the white only 10 meters away from where I stood.

We started making our way down at 7:30, and cut straight into the jungle. About half an hour down we stopped at an old roofless concrete structure. Andrew explained that it was an old Sandinista base in the 60’s during the revolutionary war, was then reused in the 80’s during the US-Nicaraguan war. The US enlisted armies from El Salvador and Honduras for the contra, and because of this site’s proximity to El Salvador, it became a base for El Salvadorian guerrilla fighters. For an excellent (and blatantly liberal) article on the contra: http://libcom.org/history/articles/nicaragua-contras

Our next stop was at a tree. Not just any tree- the best climbing tree I have ever seen. It’s a Guanacaste, but unlike any other. The branches are somehow sharp, flat ridges, pocked with perfectly placed handholds and jugs, pockets to step in, and seats in which you can relax 50 meters in the air. It’s as if this tree was created for climbers, The wood is hard, smooth and bonelike; it looks like a twisted and deformed dinosaur skeleton. The base of the trunk is hundreds of vertical roots like fireman poles. We spent at least a half an hour inside the tree. As I climbed higher, I could see the Pacific in the distance. M brain sparked: this was the spot I drew in my jungle mural in the Seattle house! A tall tree overlooking a jungle canopy with the ocean in the far distance. I had Andrew take a photo of me out on a far branch- the spot where the leopard was in my mural.

Boots back on, we followed another ridge with jungly ravines on either side as signs of civilization began to appear, first with cows, then a straw hut, and all at once we were in a tiny farming community of maybe 50 people. We passed right through and soon were in Potosi.

This is the carnisuelo tree- ants live in the thorns and attack anyone who comes near.

Potosi is situated right on the gulf, and is a charming combination of jungle-farming and fishing village. We passed down from the hills through a baseball game, and then through the last trees onto the beach. I instantly liked Potosi. The people we passed were much friendlier than the city folk and ghetto kids I’ve become accustomed to. 200 years ago, Potosi was basically non existent. Today, it’s rural. But my prediction is that in another 20 years, Potosi will be a very different town. It’s the only port in Nicaragua by which you can travel to El Salvador by boat, across the Gulf of Fonseca. That’s a big deal- I’m sure that hopping straight from Nicaragua to El Salvador without having to cross through Honduras would be appealing to many. The problem is, during the heaviest months of the rainy season, the road to Potosi can become inaccessible. The road we traveled along by bus is paved until about halfway from Chinandega, and then is only dirt and liable to disappear. Imagine if the entire road was a paved highway- Potosi would become a key touristic port. The first step of development is acquiring transportation. As Andrew described it: You bring in one truck, you can have a small store. Bring in a couple big trucks, and you can have a supermarket. Mobility is essential to contact with the rest of the world. A road is the first step.

Sweaty, dirty and exhausted, we dropped our bags at the one hotel and restaurant in town, placed our orders for freshly caught fried fish, and ran off for a swim in the natural pool and bay. The natural pool is just a dammed off portion of a river by way of concrete retaining walls. It must be fed by a natural spring of some sort, because the water flows out of the pool and through into the gulf. Right outside of the pool, a group of women had a laundry station set up and were washing like real machines, cranking out load after load. We saw no tourists, and I don’t think the locals there had seen many either. I got a lot of awestruck comments on the color of my eyes.

Down by the bay, everyone else sunbathed on the one big dock while I cruised the beach. The locals sat on the sand waiting out the noonday heat to fish while huge flocks of bright white herons danced and dove about a rainbow of moored wooden boats. When I got to the end of the dock it was clear that the only option was to jump off of it, so that we did. Directly ahead you could see Honduras, and to the left, El Salvador.

Fresh fish for lunch, 1.5 hr. bus ride, 45 minute walk, and we arrived at the next major event: the mangrove tour. The tour takes us through the estuary, or Estero Padre Ramos, where the mangrove forests are found. Our guide was the friendly and knowledgeable Eddie, primarily an ecologist and environmentalist but who also runs tours in the area as a side job. As we cruised through the blue on the way to the mangroves, I asked Eddie about the park system in Nicaragua and whether rules were enforced- it seemed as if there were many communities within the “protected area” of Cosiguina, throwing trash about, cutting down trees, and hunting. I wasn’t sure what exactly was “protected” about it. Eddie explained that there are regulations for protected areas, but they aren’t enforced at all. Apparently, during la semana santa (spring break) locals come to the area around the bay and estuary, cut down mangrove trees (the wood is very strong) and create shelters for that week alone. Eddie said that after that week, thousands of plastic bottles and other trash litter the beaches. Mangrove wood is also cut to sell: as we see on our way to Cerro Negro and El Hoyo campesinos without work in the fields are forced to cut down trees and sell them for firewood. The trees are not replaced; there are no regulations for deforestation. But enforce environmental regulations, and these campesinos will have to find new work.

The mangrove trees grow out of thick mud and through several meters of water, creating what appears to be islands but are really just groups of trees with twisting spiderlike roots. Mangroves are found in tropical saline environments. Because they line the coast, they are said to help buffer hurricanes, tsunamis and cyclones. Much of the world’s mangroves were lost during the late 1900’s, and now there are many grassroots organizations, including people like Eddie, working to save the mangrove ecosystems.

Our boat passed through open water and through narrow tunnels of mangrove foliage where we had to duck under branches every few feet. The tour took us right to the town of Jiquilillo, where the hostel Rancho Esperanza is. We disembarked at the bank of the estuary and walked 15 minutes across a narrow spit to arrive at the Pacific Ocean. At this point of the trip, clients are released from our responsibility and can stay as long as they want at Rancho Esperanza.

The ranch is beautiful, serene, and set up in an artistic and outside-the-box manner. The complex is set up on a wide lawn peppered with one-room  straw roof cabins. Each is adorned with a bright mural on the front side- really beautiful images of nature and Nicaraguan figures. The main house has two big dining tables, hammocks, and a loft which serves as the dorm room, where we slept. I loved Rancho Esperanza right away. They hire 100% locally, and are working hard to support the community of Jiquilillo. Alcoholism is a major issue for the youth there, sot hey have initiated projects to keep youth engaged and give them skills and motivation.

Volunteers run a “Kid’s Club” at the ranch where kids ages 4 through 18 come to play and do homework after school. they have employed teenagers to teach coconut tree climbing classes, fishing classes and more, and my favorite is their surf camp: They have a group of local kids come every day to learn how to surf, It’s free, but they are required to check in and out their boards, repair them, and do chores around the hostel. Apparently Nica kids are natural surfers and pick the sport up quickly.

We dropped off our backpacks and went straight to the beach for sunset. All along the water, groups of Nicaraguans pushed their fishing boats along the sand towards the ocean, silhouetted against the orange sky. They fish at night for two reasons: To escape the heat of the day, and because of their illegal fishing practices. Nearly all Nicaraguan fisherman use bombs instead of nets or lines to fish. It’s easy and effective- you kill all the fish within the bomb’s radius. (And all living things for that matter). Obviously, it’s also extremely dangerous and extremely harmful to the environment. This generation of fishermen may be one of the last- overfishing is a major problem throughout the world and the practice of  bombing is exacerbating it hugely.

Relaxing is the only word to describe our stay at Rancho Esperanza. We were served a delicious group dinner, lounged in hammocks, and were lulled into a long and peaceful night’s sleep by the soft sounds of surf. The next morning was just as tranquil: free coffee, breakfast; leisurely conversations with fellow travelers. The bus back to Leon came 20 minutes early so we had to grab any belongings we could and run- I left behind my book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.” Guess I’ll have to come back soon!

2 comentarios:

  1. Fantastic photos, Emma. I'm so happy you've chosen the adventuresome route for your wonderful life!