Battling the Black Hill

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Battling the Black Hill
Leon, Nicaragua

Leon, Nicaragua

Kind of lazy of us again but we had a bit of a ‘CBF’ moment when arranging transport out of the crater of the lake. $80 in a taxi between 3 of us versus waiting roadside for a bus to go backwards, then get off and change bus. So instead we flew through the streets at ridiculous speeds wearing faulty seat-belts in a banged up old taxi with neon lighting in the cabin. It had been dry the last few days and hot; so it was a sweaty, dusty ride, quite different from the humidity we’d been used to over the past few months.

We hit the outskirts of Leon, some 2 hours later. It’s Nicaragua’s university town, and has historically fiercely rivaled Granada in this kind of Liberal versus Conservative ‘this should be our capital’ ping-pong match. The old town actually existed some 15 or so kilometers out of town but was abandoned for unknown reasons in the early 1600’s. Given it’s proximity to Momotombo, one of the areas many volcanoes, speculation suggests that an eruption or near eruption sparked the move. You can see this site as a tourist attraction, we didn’t.. we elected for far more important activities as described later.

But Leon is not without it’s historical value, quite the opposite in fact, because there’s architecture here from the late 1600‘s. Many of Leon’s churches were built soon after and many of the homes still reflect the colonial architecture of the period. We arrived through the central market to some confusion about the location of ‘Latina Hostel’ where we were staying. Our taxi driver got another taxi driver to lead us there. He provided the tip, which was a nice change.
At first glance the hostel was a bit.. well.. basic. Not unlike some of the $10 cheapies we’d taken in South East Asia. Bed, Fan, Curtains. But we weren’t paying much more for this. $16 would do it. It was at very least clean. Staff we met initially didn’t speak any English either which was great practice for us.

So we hit the streets, wandered around the typical inner-city neighborhoods. Stubby concrete foundations of shops and houses that broadly open up into wide living areas. Typically with hand-painted signage, painted bright pastel colours and with iron gates and big wooden double-doors. Terra-cotta tiled roofs and typically some kind of looming cathedral or church nearby, peaking over the tops of houses. Roads are these kind of tiled, not quite cobbled bricks and highly elevated footpaths. Locals hang out in rocking chairs or if homeless, slumped in doorways. There’s activity everywhere; a collectivo mini-van chock full of people, beeping its horn, whilst a ticket guy shouts the destination from the side-door. Farmers wheeling fruit carts, kids playing soccer. Soon enough though, having walked back through the market, we’re upon the UNESCO heritage listed ‘Catherdral of Leon’ known as the largest in Central America. It’s described by Wikipedia as having blended both Baroque and Neoclassicism styles which don’t mean all that much to me, but it’s certainly striking, with it’s famous roaring lions out the front and that scruffed up, blackened white facade. The park in it’s immediate front is being renovated so it’s completely fenced up with corrugated iron, preventing us from getting and decent ‘from afar’ glances. But we were redeemed that evening when the sounds of choral music rang out from it’s open doors. Peering in we could see the shining white of the marble interior and a wedding taking place. We stopped and just looked in for a while.

We took in many of the cities famed churches, La Merced, San Francisco and the beautiful Church of La Recolección with it’s beautiful pastel yellow facade. We took many of these in by accident actually because not one of the 3 of us could make any sense of the map we were given to navigate. And you can’t whip out a map here, stand on a street corner and scratch your head because it further out’s you as a confused tourist, a big target for opportunistic muggers. So subtle glances whilst walking, from a folder map that is whipped right back into the back pocket is the best we could do. There’s a handle of charming eateries here that cater to tourists and a handful of local places too, but aside from that you could take in most sights here in a day or two. We spent most nights returning to the restaurant Barbario which seemed to get a mix of gringos and locals a like.

Leon is close to Cerro Negro which is one of the youngest and most active volcanoes on the planet. Which makes it crazy to even live near it given it’s propensity to explode, erupt and destroy cities. Add to that, scientists have said it could erupt any day now. So some crazy muffin came up with the idea that given it’s youth and fresh gravelly slopes, it would make a perfect platform from which to not only climb, but to sand-board down. Retarded! I know! But that’s what we did..

We’re picked up in the morning and hustled into a 4×4, collect a few other idiots and are soon on the volcanic, black gravel roads leading to the volcano. The road climbs some 400 meters giving us a climb of only 300m to the top of the volcano. We paid a small entrance fee at the park and waited for some U.K guy in our group whilst he spent a good 15 minutes or so in the parks bathroom. Hellava guy, he’d grace us with his inverted naked chest later in the day. We’re given backpacks full of protective equipment in front of which we slide the polished downhill boards. Looking like Buzz Lightyear we begin the ascension ‘to infinity and beyond..’ The black rocks sound glassy as we step over them and a lot of loose gravel trickles down the hill. By the time we reach the first resting point the wind has picked up a bit but it’s not until the second that we’re advised to carry the boards along side our bodies ‘to avoid being blown into the crater’. Now I copped a lot of **** for the whole ‘climb Maderas volcano on Ometepe’ debacle, but this was Rebecca’s activity and we could all squarely account the blame to her if one of us was killed, which given the circumstances was highly likely. Just seconds away perhaps.

We now began the walk around the lip of the caldera, at the top, to the downhill section. At times the wind was so strong I could feel my feet lifting and I looked back to see the rest of the group, some squatting down and crawling to avoid ‘being blown into the crater’. Sulfur wafted it’s way past our noses and we looked down into the caldera to see plumes of noxious gas emerging from the yellow-stained soil around them. ‘******* idiots’ I said to myself. ‘This is so stupid’.
But we arrived at the downhill section, dropped our gear and walked the caldera rim a bit further to take in the second, newer crater, spewing forth more gas, yellow, white and red stained soil surrounding it. From here we could look across to the horizon, past the hardened black lava flow leading down and across the ground from the crater. There was a clear line of volcanoes stretching as far as we could see. Leon was surrounded.

‘Sometimes I have nightmares’ our guide says. ‘About the eruption’.

Tactfully I say ‘Well, you work here everyday, so you’re probably gonna see it’.

And then I feel horrible. He goes to say something but doesn’t. Someone says ‘Don’t say that!’ and I wonder why I did. Sorry mate. But I make things up to him by being super friendly for the rest of the day. Which should have done the trick I’d like to think…

We’re suiting up in these bright yellow and green suits made of thick khaki type material. There’s also elbow pads, and knee pads, gloves and protective eye-wear. We all look like Mario Brothers when we’re done and are told to form
a line. No-one volunteers to go first, and it’s not surprising. It looks really ******* steep. But then, some dude with a mohawk jumps in line to go. We’re briefed. Use your feet to brake and lean forward. To go fast lean back and put your feet on the board. So this guy leans back and puts his feet on the board and there’s a puff of grey smoke, a scraping sound and he’s taring down the mountain. He tumbles off about halfway down. Signals okay and gets back on to finish his plow down the slope. ‘You don’t have to go that fast’ our guide says.

Damn right, so when it’s my turn I plow my feet into the gravel. Gravity takes it’s course though and soon enough I’m flying down the slope even with my feet embedded in the ground and leaning forward. I can feel my shoes getting hot and filling with rocks. I relent a bit, pick my feet up and lean back and like warp-speed on Star Trek the board picks up a massive amount of speed and gravel flies into my face. I could squint and see the bottom approaching and I’m reminded of the part on the water-slide where you’re no longer able to keep your eyes open. And just like landing into the pool, I hit flat soil with a cushiony explosion and it’s all over. I’ve survived. I have a face like Whoopi Goldberg but I’m alive. A few other people come tumbling down including an Irish girl who screamed the whole way.

Then I see Rebecca whose actually flying down at quite some speed. I tell you who went faster though.. the Brazilian girl behind her. The U.K guys are all freaking out because she’s approaching Rebecca in what appears to be an inevitable collision. The Brazilian girl has completely lost control, her arms and legs are flailing all over the place like a rag doll on a tumble-dryer. She scoots past Rebecca, plows into the flat ground, ends up some 20 meters or so away, board turned over, face in the sand. Rebecca putters down to the flats, picks up her board and walks over. A little shell-shocked. The Brazilian girls offers little in terms of consolidation or apology; but I guess it wasn’t her fault. How do you control something like that? Belinda came next. But it took a while. We all sat down, ate some lunch, watched a movie and read War &amp; Peace. But we’d all done it, and survived.

When we got back to the hostel, desperate for a shower; there was no water in the pipes. Work on the main cathedral meant the city’s supply was shut down for the next few hours. So we sat in the filth of the volcano dust and sweat for the next few hours until we could finally clean-up.

We’d had a horrible dilemma over the past few weeks in determining how we’d get to our next location. Roatan Island in Honduras. Honduras has a wonderful reputation as being the ‘most murderous nation on earth’ and it’s cities are particularly bad. We had to go through Tegucigalpa, (teh-goo-see-gal-pah) change buses, which meant getting a taxi to another bus terminal across town and then get into La Ceiba, the port city to the island, late at night. La Ceiba had a pretty rotten reputation as well. We’d looked into flights, private transport and even taxi’s but it was clear the only real solution, and probably the safest actually, was to take buses. And so we would. We had an early start and a long day ahead of us. And we would be kept awake that night by a wandering weirdo blowing into a sports whistle in the early hours of the morning.


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