Climbing San Cristobal – Nicaragua’s Highest Volcano

Never have I felt more mortal than when I stood atop San Cristobal, looking down through its crater into the bowels of this great planet, smoke and gases sweeping up the slope to be collected in my lungs, not easily expunged even with a fit of coughing.

This was my first ascent of an active volcano. And though initially I felt that wisp of immortality that comes from summiting a particularly stubborn mountain, I admit that the feeling this time was shortlived. As I gazed down into the throat of this living entity, I felt quite small. Exhilarated to be sure, but small nevertheless.

I joined a guided group for the San Cristobal day trip for $55 USD through an organization called Quetzal Trekkers. They are a non-profit organization providing camping and climbing treks in Guatemala and Nicaragua. All of the guides are volunteers, and all of the profits, about 30 percent of the cost, is used to run schools that help street kids receive an education, as well as housing, counseling, medical care, nutrition, and rehabilitation. If you are traveling to either Guatemala or Nicaragua, please bring your slightly used rucksacks and hiking poles and donate them to Quetzal Trekkers.

These guys do good in the world.

There were six of us in the group, plus our guide, Chichiarra, a local from Leon, Nicaragua. We met at 4:00 am at the Quetzal Trekkers hangout for a breakfast of eggs, bread, watermelon, bananas, and hot beverages. I dipped my cup into a pot of boiling water and added some Nicaraguan instant coffee. With my first sip, I nearly spat the liquid out of my mouth in disgust. But I was not to be beaten by a cup of coffee, so I choked down every last drop of it. Even a day later, I can still imagine the horrible taste lingering in my mouth.

Chichiarra, our guide for the day.

Our transportation was a large 4×4, with two seats in the front for driver and guide, and two long bench seats running lengthwise in the back. The six of us jammed ourselves and our kit in there and, since it was dark and we couldn’t be distracted by the scenery, spent the next hour and twenty minutes shifting uncomfortably in our seats and staring at one another. The last half hour of the ride took us up a rocky mountain road that, in itself, was harrowing enough to be worth the price of admission.

Our transport for the day. Not very comfortable, but it got us through some difficult terrain.

At the trailhead, which is located at a coffee plantation, Chichiarra showed us a sign that indicated we were at an altitude of 721 meters, which meant we were to climb a little more than a vertical kilometre to reach the summit at 1,745 meters. With mosquitos biting, our guide led us up a narrow path through the jungle toward the base of San Cristobal, just as the sun was beginning to rise.

Climbing through mosquito-infested vegetation.

My first glimpse of our volcano came through a gap in the trees.  The top half of the slope was void of any kind of vegetation; only dead trees littered its slope. This volcano was once covered in tropical forests, but about 30 years ago, an earthquake caused the volcano to erupt, and since then, copious amounts of gas and smoke have been expelled, killing off the vegetation. The last big eruption occurred in September 2012, when San Cristobal spewed ash four kilometres in the air, resulting in about 3,000 people being evacuated from the area. Smaller eruptions occurred on Christmas Day and continued well into January 2013.

My first glimpse of San Cristobal.

Seven of us were climbing this volcano. And although the odds were in our favour, there would be no notice if the volcano decided to erupt once we were on it. How exciting!

The climb itself was not particularly challenging technically. But I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that it was a big grunt, from the base of the volcano all the way to the top. The thing about most volcanos is that the slopes are covered in scree, the soft bits of soil and stone that provides not a bit of purchase for tired feet.  So every step up is a half step back as your legs and feet try to gain even the slightest advantage on the slope. Combine the scree with Nicaragua’s seeming lack of knowledge of switchbacks, and you have yourself a workout.

One of our group climbing up scree, with the Pacific Ocean in the distance.


Emma resting while waiting for others in the group.

It became apparent quite quickly that, although the members of the group seemed to be all quite fit, there was a wide gap in the stamina of each. A few struggled, and at the final break before the summit attempt, two people dropped out. Chichiarra encouraged us to go at our own pace for the final push; he said the way was obvious, and that we would meet at the top. Chichiarra is a very fit fellow, and he pushed it, nearly breaking me a couple of times. But I managed to stay on his heels the whole way, stopping only once to take a picture of him as he reached the summit.

Our guide, Chichiarra, standing on the summit.


Looking into the crater of San Cristobal, with its constant spewing of gas and smoke.

After standing on the summit myself, choking on the gasses of the volcano, and taking pictures in a gale that tried to tear the clothing from my body, I joined Chichiarra in a shady spot on the lee side of the volcano to wait for the others. We snacked on nachos, cookies, and nuts. And when I had my fill and still no one else had summited, I suggested to Chichiarra that I take some food down to the two that were still waiting for us on the volcano slope. He agreed, so I grabbed the food and headed down alone.

Following the line of volcanoes north, with Honduras to the right and El Salvador to the left.


Members of the group climbing up scree slopes.

The thing that makes scree so difficult to climb is the same thing that makes it so easy to descend. It’s like skiing down dirt on your shoes. It’s fabulous! What took us half an hour to ascend the last stretch took me only four minutes to descend to our waiting friends. What a rush!

Once the others summited and came back down, all of us descended the remainder of the volcano together to the trailhead, where lunch was already served on a picnic table, with fresh coffee, made from the beans of this very plantation. Compared to the coffee I had in the early morning, this coffee was heaven.

Just before our ascent, a plantation worker shows us the beans he will use to make our coffee for lunch.

The return to Leon was uneventful, except for the constant fidgeting of my companions as they tried to keep their legs from cramping. Everyone was exhausted. We all needed a beer and a shower.

My first active volcano was a successful adventure. Thanks to Quetzal Trekkers, the excellent people of Nicaragua, and Mother Nature for giving me this opportunity.

Nearby dormant El Chonco Volcano, from San Cristobal.


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