Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Exploring the Ruins at León Viejo in Nicaragua

Photo by Helmut Haefner
Located approximately 37 miles north of Managua in Nicaragua is León Viejo, one of the first Spanish settlements in the New World. Although its ruins consist of mostly the three-foot-high walls of its original structures, it provides a unique example of its original layout and a glimpse into its storied past. In fact, few 16th-century cities are preserved intact and unaltered by subsequent rebuilding and this one of the reasons it was designated a World Heritage Site in 2000.

Founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, he was sent from Panamá by Pedrarias Dávila to conquer the Pacific zone northwards toward what is now El Viejo. The city quickly became one of the most important in the region with gold and silver from Nicaragua and valuables from other countries traded frequently by its merchants. But unfortunately, for Córdoba, he did not enjoy his thriving capital for long because he was executed on the orders of Pedrarias for treason in 1526.

The city reached its peak of development around 1545, under the leadership of Governor Rodrigo de Contreras. According to UNESCO, it was still relatively small and its Spanish population never exceeded 200. But after an eruption by the looming Momotombo Volcano in 1578, (combined with the raging inflation to drive the richer inhabitants away), much of the population had moved away. By 1603, there were only 10 houses left with the remaining ones abandoned and allowed to fall into ruins. Its final demise occurred in January 1610, when a massive earthquake destroyed most of the city. As a result, the population relocated approximately 20 miles west and established what is now known as the city of León. The older city was gradually buried by the continuous explosions of volcanic ash and it remained hidden until it was rediscovered in 1967.

Getting to León Viejo

Visitors to León Viejo can get there by taking the bus to the town of La Paz Centro, located between Managua and León. From there, a local bus departs for the site. But keep in mind that the last bus from La Paz to León departs at 2 p.m., so it is best to come as early as possible if you are based in León. For visitors with their own car, the site can be reached by turning right at a well-marked sign just before the town of La Paz Centro. After that, it is approximately a 20-minute drive to the site. The site is open daily from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and admission is C$12 for Nicaraguan residents and US$2 for foreigners. The US$2 fee even includes a guided tour.

Attractions in León Viejo
Despite its role as a thriving capital, the León Viejo was never more than a collection of rustic buildings, most of them built with the same material as those used by the area’s indigenous people: wood, bamboo, and mud. Only the church, convents, and houses of the governor as well as other richer citizens were stronger and more elaborate.

La Merced Ruins
The site itself covers an approximate area of 2,600-feet-by-1,600-feet and among the ruins excavated since the site’s rediscovery in 1967 are the Plaza Mayor, the cathedral (with a central nave and main altar at the eastern end), and the La Merced Convent, which includes five rooms enclosed by a wall that directly connects the building with the convent church. The La Merced church is noted as the site where the headless remains of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba were discovered next to his executioner Pedraris Dávila. In November 2000, the graves of Nicaragua’s first three bishops were also uncovered there and their remains are now interred in large coffins carved by the well-known Nicaraguan sculptor, Federico Matus.

Located just east of the main ruins are the remains of an old fort, which was built during the beginning of the settlement. It subsequently fell into ruins within two decades, which was an example of the area’s overall peacefulness. One of the largest buildings in the city was the Royal Foundry and Mint, which consists of 11 rooms and several private houses. But it too fell into decline after a series of devastating fires destroyed the structure, which was only built with indigenous materials.

The remaining structures include the foundations of several houses and visitors can explore the site with or without a guide. The history of the former city is also provided by many informative signs located throughout the site. For those who enjoy exploring historic sites, León Viejo offers plenty to see within a several-hour visit.

Tours of León Viejo

Oro Travel - This tour company, based in Granada, offers a daily combine León and León Viejo tour that begins with a visit to the ruins. The tour continues on toward modern-day León with a stop at the cathedral followed by a pleasant walk through the colonial streets and a lunch at a typical Nica restaurant. The tour includes roundtrip transportation, entrance fees, and a bilingual guide. More information can be found at their website: www.orotravel.com.

Nicatime Tours - Based in León, this company offers a León Viejo and Assosoca tour that begins with a tour of the ruins followed by a short hike to the Laguna Asososca, a volcano crater lake where guests on the tour can go for a swim and have a picnic lunch. The tour includes roundtrip transportation, entrance fees and a guide as well as food and drinks. More information can be found at their website: www.nicatimetours.com.

Va Pues Tours - Based in León, this tour company provides a four-hour León Viejo and Lake Xolotlán tour that includes roundtrip transportation, a bilingual guide, entrance fees, and a complimentary drink. The tours depart twice a day at 8:30 a.m. and at 2 p.m. More information can be found at their website: www.vapues.com.

Bigfoot Nicaragua - This popular tour company, based in León, offers a León's Three Greatest Attractions tour that includes a visit to the Cerro Negro Volcano, Laguna Asososca, and León Viejo all in one day. The tours depart at 6 a.m. and return at approximately 6 p.m. and includes 4x4 roundtrip transportation with professional driver, a bilingual guide, breakfast, lunch, snacks, and water as well as all safety equipment and entrances fees. More information can be found at their website: www.bigfootnicaragua.com.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Exploring the Momotombo Volcano in Nicaragua

For airline passengers on their final approach into the Augusto Sandino International Airport in Managua, the view lives up to Nicaragua’s slogan of The Land of Lakes and Volcanoes. Just south of the city is the steaming Volcán Masaya with its spectacular crater lakes and the northern side of the city includes Lago de Managua, one of the largest lakes in the country. Located on the lake’s northwestern shore is the towering 4,255-foot volcano known as the Volcán Momotombo. This near perfect, cone-shaped stratovolcano is one of the 21 volcanoes  that make up the Maribíos volcanic chain that runs northwest to southeast through the country. It is one of the country’s most famous natural landmarks as well as one of the most challenging to climb due to its sheer size and relentless incline toward the top.

Although it has been relatively quiet for more than a century, the Global Volcanism Program at the Smithsonian Institute states that the Momotombo Volcano has erupted 18 times since its first recorded eruption in 1524. The volcano is mostly noted for its eruptions that consistently threw ash on the town of León Viejo, which was dangerously located at its base. After a violent earthquake occurred in 1610, its inhabitants decided to relocate 19 miles away where they formed the beautiful colonial city now known as León. The older city was gradually buried in volcanic ash and stone and remained hidden until it was re-discovered in 1967.

(Photo by Ormat Technologies)
Today, this young volcano of only 4,500 years continues to vent gas with occasional plumes of smoke. But this quiet giant still poses a threat on the town of Puerto Momotombo as well as other small villages around its base. The volcano has been showing signs of activity over the past decade with gases measured at more than 750-degrees Centigrade with seismic activity ranging as high as 500 times a month. Currently, a geothermal plant, known as the Ormat Momotombo Power Company (headquartered in Reno, Nevada) has found ways to produce electricity from this high amount of heat despite the underlying danger. As of 2010, it provides more than 15 percent of Nicaragua's electrical power while offsetting more than 120,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year.

Getting to Momotombo

As strange as it seems, the Ormat Momotombo Power Company located at the base of the volcano, serves as the best staging area for the beginning of a climb. Since access to the power plant is usually denied for independent climbers unless they receive a rarely given permit, the best way to climb Momotombo is with a regional tour company. The company pre-arranges a time and takes care of everything from the permit, round-trip transportation, and other special amenities complete with a bilingual guide.

If you choose to take a chance and try your luck independently, then the most accessible route to the plant is through the village of La Paz Centro, located just off the Managua-León highway. There is no public transportation to the plant, although buses do go to León Viejo. From there, you can hike beyond the ruins and head north until you reach the foot of the volcano. Again, this is why a trek to the summit is best done with a tour company.

Exploring the Momotombo Volcano

(Photo by Frejim)
Unlike other relatively accessible volcanoes such as the steaming Volcán Masaya southeast of Managua, or the black, ash-covered Cerro Negro outside of León, Momotombo is an incredibly challenging climb. The trail begins with a graduated and manageable incline through a tropical and sub-tropical dry zone where there are approximately 57 different species of plants that range from quebrachos (with a bark used for its medicinal quality) to a variety of palm trees and shrubs. These lower tropical zones are also home to more than 25 species of animals that include coyotes, deer, iguanas, parrots and even butterflies.

But as you climb higher, the landscape changes dramatically. The lower tropical dry zone transforms into a combination of lava trails and volcanic sand and rocks complete with a final steep ascent at an angle of approximately 45 degrees. This can make it not only treacherous but extremely exhausting for anyone not in a minimum of above-average physical shape. Climbers in excellent physical shape can complete the roundtrip journey in eight to 10 hours but most choose to spread out the climb over two days by camping on the slopes of the summit and then completing the climb early the next morning. Staying overnight is actually a great way to enjoy the trip instead of pushing yourself to possible exhaustion. Just remember that it can become very windy and cold at the campsite, so bring layers and breathable, warm clothing.

After all of the exertion and danger comes the great reward. The crater itself is surprisingly massive, which includes a diameter of approximately 820-feet-by-1,120-feet. Within it are steaming fumaroles that provide other worldly views that reminds you of the possible danger of being there while the summit’s rim provides (on clear days) unforgettable views of the Pacific Ocean, Lake Nicaragua, the cities of León and Managua as well as Matagalpa (more than 60 miles away).

Momotombo Volcano Tours

The following tour companies each offer guided treks to Momotombo with some varying amenities. Again, this is the best way to climb this beautiful and spectacular volcano.

Quetzaltrekkers: Based in León, this company is a non-profit volunteer organization that provides tours and guided hikes in order to raise money for street children in the city of León. The one-day trek to Momotombo begins at 5 a.m. and returns at approximately 6 p.m. All hikes are lead by a minimum of two guides and include all transportation, food, water, entrance fees and a free t-shirt! After the climb, the tour concludes with a refreshing swim in the clear green waters of the Laguna Asososca. More information about the tour can be found at: www.quetzaltrekkers.com.

Fun “N” Sun Travels: Also based in León, this company provides a one- and two-day Momotombo Tour. The one-day tour includes a drive in a 4X4 vehicle to an altitude of approximately 1,400 feet followed by a six-hour climb on foot to the summit. For those who prefer to the entire climb on foot, it can be arranged. The two-day tour begins at 3 p.m. and arrives at the campsite by sunset. The climb continues before sunrise the next morning and concludes by 2 p.m. All tours include roundtrip transportation, two bilingual tour guides, and entrance permit. More information is provided on their website at: www.funnsuntravels.com.ni. 

(Photo by Julio Tours)
Julio Tours: Based in León, this company offers both a one-day (nine-hour) trek and a two-day Sunset/Sunrise tour that leaves at sunset and concludes the next morning after a night on the slopes. All tours include roundtrip transportation, an English-speaking guide, entrance and permits to the power plant, and lunch. Information about the tours is available at their website: www.juliotoursnicaragua.com.ni.

Tours Nicaragua: Based in Managua, this company offers a seven-day, Volcano Obsession Tour with guided treks across 21 volcanoes! This is only for diehard climbers who want to challenge themselves physically. The Momotombo climb includes one night of camping on its slopes near the summit while the rest of the trips are based in León with hotel accommodations for five nights. In addition to the guided hikes and lodging, all breakfasts and lunches are provided as well as roundtrip transportation and land transfers. As the company states, “All the climbs are non-technical, but not for the faint of heart.” More information can be found at their website: www.toursnicaragua.com.

(Photo by Bigfoot Nicaragua)
Bigfoot Nicaragua: Based in León, this tour company has been featured on Survivor Nicaragua and praised by the New York Times. It offers a one-day Hiking Momotombo Volcano tour that includes 4X4 transportation with professional driver, a bilingual guide, breakfast and lunch as well as snacks and water. All entrance fees are covered and the safety equipment and knowledgeable instruction is provided. The hikes departs at 5 a.m. and returns at approximately 6 p.m. More information is included at their website: www.bigfootnicaragua.com.