When George Shankar attempted to climb the Nicaraguan volcano, he didn’t realise he’d be one of the last to do so
I woke at 3.30am in the only hostel in Puerto Momotombo. Unlike many places in Central America, it’s preserved its small-town Latin charm despite burgeoning tourism. Its people slept, peaceful and oblivious in the shadow of the volcano, beside the crumbling ruins of the Spanish colonial settlement Leon Viejo.
My friend Jackson snored quietly on the other side of the room and I had to prod him awake. We gathered our supplies and strode towards the lake to take a boat to the Reserva Natural Volcán Momotombo, nodding silently at the labourers and market vendors already heading to nearby La Paz Centro.
Dawn broke as we crossed the water — beams of orange light striking the mountain’s summit. Its symmetrical peak rose from the lake edge like a black colossus, a monument that has inspired Spanish journeys of discovery and some of Nicaragua’s finest poetry.
A guard stopped us at the reserve’s entrance, looked at our permit and shook his head. “This place is dangerous,” he said. “The paths are winding and the climb is hard, you will get lost. Go somewhere else.” There was a brief silence; Jackson and I grinned at each other — we wanted a challenge. Frowning, the guard opened the gate, but repeated his warning: “The mountain is dangerous.”
With these words lingering in our ears, we started walking through the forest at the base of the mountain, using our compass and the sun to navigate. The comforting preet-preet of Nicaraguan magpies accompanied the ascent, and we soon reached the edge of the canopy of trees. Ahead of us, 800 metres of black, volcanic scree awaited. Straight up seemed like the fastest route, so we took to our hands and feet and slowly, laboriously, climbed.
A strong smell of sulphur filled the air as we neared the summit: the mountain had started to smoke. We paused. We’d been told that the volcano hadn’t erupted for years, that the once-proud peak was nothing but a dormant husk, an empty shell. But Momotombo’s billowing breath warned us that this was not the case; our guts told us to go no further. We turned away from the volcano for the first time and the beauty of Nicaragua unfurled before us.
A forest of green skirted the blackened face of the mountain; the ruddy plains of Leon stretched out far into the distance; and the tropical sky reflected in Lake Managua, where Momotombo sat like a delicate emerald. The distant peaks of El Hoyo and Cerro Negro jutted out of this sea of green and brown and blue.
Jackson and I shared some peanut butter sandwiches and complained about how sweaty we were.
The journey down was much quicker, pushed on by the cloud growing above the volcano. I was given a brief introduction to scree running — dig your heel into the ground and lean back, hope the scree slides (but not too much), repeat until at the bottom or dead — and we set off. After our three-hour climb, the decent took a mere 45 minutes.
It was 3pm by the time we returned to Puerto Momotombo and the fumes from the volcano had concealed the summit. A group of young Nicaraguan mothers played with their children by the road, eyeing the two bearded travellers warily. We asked them about the rising smoke and they laughed. “The volcano is only sleeping,” they said
N.B. In November 2015, Momotombo erupted for the first time since 1905. Since then, it has been almost constantly active, spewing lava and ash up to 1.2 miles in the air. Though it is currently impossible to climb the volcano, Puerto Momotombo has become a safe (and welcoming) location for viewing the spectacle. At night, the crater glows red and the mountain grumbles, spilling lava onto the earth below.