Working to bring water to a remote Nicaraguan community

Last year I decided to take a little time out from the cruising life and spend 10 weeks volunteering in Costa Rica and Nicaragua with the youth and sustainable development charity, Raleigh International – and at long last, I’ve finally got around to writing about my experiences!

Raleigh has its roots in a project called Operation Drake. In 1978 Colonel John Blashford-Snell and HRH Prince Charles launched a two-year project running youth projects from a sailing ship circumnavigating the globe. In addition to sailing the ship, the young volunteers worked on land-based projects in 16 different countries. After the success of the project it was followed by the longer-term Operation Raleigh. This evolved to become Raleigh International, a permanent organisation focusing on land-based expeditions performing community development and environmental protection projects in countries all over the world.

Looking out on a fantastic view after a hard trek

A 10-week Raleigh expedition consists of three parts: an environmental project, a community project, and an epic cross-country trek. Though the trek is often considered to be the highlight of the expedition – since Raleigh’s primary focus is as a youth-development charity – I was most interested in the community project and the environmental work.

The countries in which Raleigh works change over time, but at present they run projects in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Borneo, and India. Not knowing any of the countries, I chose to travel to Costa Rica and Nicaragua; largely because I already spoke some Spanish and wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to improve it – and also because Central America was rather closer than Asia to where we were anchored, meaning cheaper flights and a smaller carbon footprint.

A delicate toadstool in a Costa Rican rainforest

Costa Rica is not a poor country, and is not at all in need of community development projects, but it has an astoundingly rich biodiversity. After suffering extensive deforestation due to cattle farming (amongst the most harmful activities ever to have taken place on this planet), which reduced the rainforest coverage from 75% to 25% of the country, the start of ecotourism initiatives prompted the government to preserve what was left. At present nearly 25% of the country is protected by national parks, and reforestation efforts are underway. Raleigh’s environmental work in the region takes place in some of these parks, helping to build up and maintain the infrastructure.

A Sandinista election poster in Nicaragua

The neighbouring country of Nicaragua, on the other hand, is the poorest country in the Americas (and the second-poorest in the western hemisphere, after Haiti). Until recently the country has continually suffered under repressive US-backed dictatorships, with repeated revolutions and a bloody civil war. Now that it is no longer in the United States’ financial interest to maintain control over what was previously an important potential route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the country is slowly recovering under the popular Sandinista government.
Raleigh’s community projects take place in the poorest areas of the country, installing small-scale gravity-feed water systems in remote communities, and building schools and community centres.

The volunteers on Raleigh expedition 11G (photo: Kat Mammone)

The expedition I took part in included 84 ‘Venturers’ – volunteers aged 17-24 – and 27 ‘Volunteer Managers’, or ‘VMs’ – aged 25 and above – who had spent some time getting to know the projects before we arrived and who would be guiding us throughout each phase.

Around a third of the Venturers were from Costa Rica and Nicaragua. These ‘Host Country Venturers’ were supported by part of the funds which the ‘Fundraising Venturers’ such as myself had to contribute. A lot of the remaining Venturers had just finished university and were taking advantage of a graduate bursary supported by the British government.

For each of the three phases (community, environmental, and trek) we would be divided into groups of around 12-15 people, each group including two or three VMs. Each group would then set off on the project assigned to them for the next 19 days.

Phase 1 – Environmental – Parque Nacional La Cangreja, Costa Rica

A deadly snake in the rainforest at La Cangreja

The first phase for me was the environmental one. My team was to begin construction of a wheelchair path in the Costa Rican Parque Nacional de La Cangreja, a relatively new park in which Raleigh regularly works. Most of the trails in the park, in fact, are built by Raleigh, as well as a viewing platform and three bridges.
Before we could start construction of the wheelchair path we would need water on-site in order to mix the concrete, and so we were to start by digging up an old, obsolete water pipe from another area of the park and re-laying it where we needed it. It would serve as a permanent water supply to the site where the wheelchair path was to be built. Digging up and re-laying this pipe was expected to take most of our 19-day phase, probably leaving the actual construction to the next group.

The Team: ‘Alpha 5’ on the future site of our jungle camp

My team consisted of 14 young people aged between 16 and 25. We were a pretty varied team. Roughly half were from various parts of England. We also had one volunteer from Hong Kong, two Nicaraguans, two Costa Ricans, a German, and a Northern Irishman.
Our leaders were Connor, the Irishman, who had previously taken part in two Raleigh expeditions in Borneo and thus knew what was involved in setting up a camp in the jungle; and Veronica, from Costa Rica, who was working as a rainforest tour guide after studying environmental tourism at university.

Basha beds in our Jungle Camp

Arriving at La Cangreja by minibus with all of the tools, food, and camp equipment which we would need over the next 19 days, we began by setting up a temporary camp under a shelter near the ranger station. We spent the following four days constructing and moving into our “Jungle Camp” in the rainforest in the valley below, where we would be living for the duration of the project.
A Raleigh jungle camp is made up of “basha beds”; each consisting of a pipe-cot type bed supported by bamboo tripods at either end. Above the bed is a tarp to keep most of the rain out. Besides the basha beds there is a group area under a large tarp, where cooking, eating, meetings, and other group activities take place.
We made a circle of most of the basha beds around the edge of the clearing, with the remainder in the centre of the circle. Our group area and kitchen were to one side. We were camping beside the Rio Negro, a small river, and thus had plenty of water for drinking and washing.

Our des-res in the rainforest: the communal area…
…and the toilet

WIth the camp constructed, we were able to begin work by starting to dig out the old water pipe which was to be relocated. Fortunately the pipe had been badly buried before and was not very deep, but nonetheless the digging work was extremely tiring in the hot sun, and even worse in the heavy rain which would inevitably begin around midday and make the loosened clay stick to everything. However, with 14 people work proceeded fairly rapidly, and after a few days we had dug out the 2km of pipe and brought it all back to the rangers’ station. Now the work of re-laying it could begin. This would take far longer, since we were to bury it at least 40cm deep in hard, rocky clay.

Hard at work in the rainforest
Taking a well-earned break after a morning of hard digging

Unfortunately once we had dug out the pipe it turned out that, due to an administrative mistake, the park management hadn’t obtained permission to modify the park, and so we wouldn’t be allowed to start work on the wheelchair path or even lay the water pipe! Needless to say, this was rather a disappointment for us – but there was nothing that could be done about it. So we were set to work for the remainder of the phase doing some much-needed maintenance on the main path through the park; a trail created by Raleigh some years before. This trail provides important access to the park for naturalists, and also enables the rangers to traverse the park by quad-bike when necessary.
The maintenance work which we were performing consisted mainly of digging, since we were improving the drainage to stop the path being washed away, and so it was rather similar work to what we had originally been going to do – but probably more interesting since we got to work in a different part of the forest each day. Unfortunately, it did mean that we had to walk further and further each day to get to and from our work site, until by the end of the phase we were walking 5km each way, up and down steep hills and through streams, carrying our spades and pickaxes and mattocks.

This huge tarantuala ran up my leg and across my back!

The experience of living and working in the rainforest made up for any hardships. True, the work was tough, the camp was basic, and everything was permanently wet – all our clothes and rucksacks were mouldy after 19 days. And true, our beds did sometimes fill up with water in heavy rain… But the wildlife made up for it all. There were coatis, colourful parrots and hummingbirds, tree frogs, strange lizards and geckos, every kind of insect imaginable (including, unfortunately, billions of vicious mosquitoes), scorpions, tarantulas, deadly snakes (and harmless ones), a strange earthworm-like amphibian endemic to the park, even freshwater crabs in the streams… not to mention of course, the toad who lived in the long-drop (latrine)!

A beautiful glow-in-the-dark fungus

And animals weren’t the only fascinating things in the park. There were fungi which glowed in the dark, colourful flowers, plants which folded their leaves up when you touched them, and a huge, straight tree endemic to the park, the wood of which is apparently worth millions of dollars per tree due the fact that there are only a few hundred specimens alive.

Relaxing in the Jacuzzi after a hard day’s work

Then there were stunning waterfalls, and at the end of a hot day of work there was the so-called ‘Jacuzzi’; a series of natural pools and short waterfalls in a stream 15 minutes’ walk from the camp.

It was with mixed emotions that we left La Cangreja after 19 days. We had all thoroughly enjoyed the phase, but by the end most of the team had had enough of living in the damp jungle. Personally I would have loved to stay longer – but we had two more phases to go!

Phase 2 – Community – gravity-feed water system in Quebrada Honda, Achuapa, Nicaragua

During the two day ‘Changeover’ at Fieldbase, we were able to chat with the other groups about their adventures over the last three weeks. Some had been rescuing turtles eggs on the Pacific beaches of Costa Rica, some had been trekking across one country or the other with huge packs on their backs, and some had been working with villagers in poor Nicaraguan communities. The latter was to be my next phase, and it was the phase I’d been looking forward to. In fact, it was pretty much the reason I’d come on a Raleigh expedition.

A typical house in a poor rural community in Nicaragua

There are two areas of Nicaragua in which Raleigh works at the moment – Miraflor, a nature reserve within which various small villages are dotted about the hillsides, where Raleigh build community centres; and a much poorer area called Achuapa, where they build gravity-feed water systems.
Achuapa is, in fact, the poorest region in Nicaragua (and thus in the Americas). Some years ago Raleigh made a promise to the farmers’ cooperative in Achuapa that they would install small-scale water systems in every community in the region, and now there are only a few left without running water. I was to help install a gravity-feed water system in one of these communities; Quebrada Honda.
Quebrada Honda is a small community, with around 10 houses, but it is spread over a fairly large area and divided up by valleys, streams, and hills. This made our work considerably harder since we had to bury over 2000 metres of pipe, much of it in terrain which was incredibly difficult to dig due to the number of rocks.

Romeo 7 – in front of the (completed) water tank

Work had already been started on the previous phase. The previous group of volunteers had tapped the spring which was to provide the water for the village, digging into the mountainside where the water surfaced, filling the hole with rocks and sand to form a filter system, and capping the spring with concrete. They had also started construction of the 3,000 litre tank which would form a buffer in the supply system to the village. We had 14 days to finish the project; completing the tank, laying the water main throughout the community, and installing the branches to each house. This was a rather tall order!

Working with the locals on the constuction of the buffer tank

During most of Raleigh’s community projects, including this one, the volunteers live in the community in the houses of the locals. This is an incredible experience, putting us in a situation which would be almost impossible under any other circumstances. These remote communities are completely isolated, and the Raleigh volunteers are usually the first people from outside Central America that the locals have ever met.
The locals also worked with us; part of Raleigh’s agreement with the community is that one member of each family which will benefit from the project must work with the volunteers, whenever they don’t have other commitments such as tending their crops.

Making traditional maize tortillas

The group was divided into pairs, and five of the local families took care of us during the time we were working there. Food was provided by the local farming cooperative (and paid for by Raleigh), since the locals had hardly enough to survive themselves, let alone feed us too. The food consisted of the local staples – maize, beans, and rice.

The couple Vejuna and I stayed with, and their daughter and grandchildren

I stayed with an elderly couple in a tiny house on the edge of the main part of the community. Most of the pairs of volunteers included a native Spanish-speaker, since most of the British volunteers didn’t speak Spanish. However, both I and Vejuna – the Lithuanian girl staying with the same family – spoke a little Spanish, so we didn’t have a local volunteer staying with us. Unfortunately the couple we were staying with spoke with a very thick accent which even the Nicaraguan volunteers had trouble understanding, so we didn’t manage to communicate very well at first!
Nonetheless, we got along well and I learned a lot about the local people and their way of life. Our hosts were keen to teach us about their lifestyle, and in the few hours of free time after each day’s work on the water system we were able to participate in activities such as making tortillas and harvesting maize. The couple I was staying with had a large area of land on which they grew maize and beans. Most years they were able to grow more beans than they ate, allowing them to sell the remainder to the Achuapa farming cooperative and use the money to buy rice, sugar, and coffee.

Drying a crop of beans and maize in the sun

When I first heard that I was to be working in one of the poorest communities in the Americas, I imagined it being much poorer than it turned out to be. In terms of quality of life, I found Achuapa to be fairly similar to parts of the Cape Verde islands, in particular the island of Saõ Nicolau.
The life of the people of Quebrada Honda illustrates the fact that income is not always a good indicator of quality of life. Though Achuapa may technically be the ‘poorest’ area in the Americas, most of the people are very happy with their lot. The income of the couple I stayed with was well under $500 per year, and there were other families with far less income, but they had no desire to move to the nearby cities in search of jobs. “We wouldn’t leave if you paid us,” said the couple I was staying with. “The people here are good and the lifestyle is laid-back; why would we want to live in a city?”
On the other hand, one particular family was rather less well off than the rest, and said that they often didn’t have enough food. They owned no land, and so the man worked on a family member’s land in return for a share of the crop. His wife, in her early twenties, was worried that were she to become pregnant with a third child she might die of hunger.

The village well to which the people currently walk to fetch water. The cubicles in the background are for showering, using a bucket of water filled at the well.

Being in Nicaragua during an election year, it was interesting to discuss politics with the locals. The socialist Sandinista government, currently in power, enjoys almost universal support. The government has many projects to support the people in poorer communities throughout the country. Government aid projects had installed the well which our water system was to replace, as well as the latrines near every house throughout the community (and, as I later learned, throughout the entire country). We were told that the government provides beans and maize to those wishing to start a crop, and anyone with enough land to support them is even entitled to a free cow, a pig, and a pair of chickens! A recent government aid project had donated 10 square metres of corrugated roofing to every house in the Achuapa region, enabling the poorest families to replace their leaky roofs made of plastic sheeting.

Vejuna learning to make tortillas

Unfortunately, the time we got to spend living with the locals was very short – or at least, I found it so. I felt that we were only just getting to know and to understand each other by the end of the phase, and that both sides would have enjoyed and benefitted from a second fortnight even more than the first two weeks. Strangely, however, most of the other volunteers were tired of living with the local people by the end of the two-week phase. Everyone was complaining about the monotony of eating rice, beans, and maize every day – though personally, I loved the local food and found it to be reasonably varied bearing in mind that the same ingredients were used every day. There was the staple, maize tortillas served with rice and beans, of which I never tired. Then there were the tasty guerillas; a variant on the tortillas made with fresh instead of dried maize. There were tamales, and atol, and of course the most basic form of maize – elotes, or corn-on-the-cob. I thought it was far better than the Raleigh food we got on the other two phases! But by the end of two weeks, the only thing most of the venturers could talk about was the hamburgers they would eat at MacDonald’s on the bus trip back to Fieldbase…

Tucking into a delicious lunch, sent to the worksite from our respective houses

At least nobody in my team was as bad as one girl on the previous phase. Apparently, when she quickly tired of the local food, she told her hosts that she would not eat anything else except chicken. The poor family were obliged to kill chicken after chicken from their small stock – until a week later, the girl had the nerve to inform them that she was fed up with chicken and would not eat another meal of it!
I think most of the venturers, coming from a city lifestyle in England, felt rather more culture shock than I did. They felt uncomfortable in the poor community, and had had enough by the end of two weeks. Having seen a lot of very poor communities I didn’t feel this way at all, and furthermore my lifestyle aboard the boat is far closer than that of most Westerners to the way in which the people of Quebrada Honda live. Personally, I would love to have had the opportunity to stay longer.

At last, this couple have clean, safe, drinking water on tap outside ther home.

Unfortunately we didn’t quite manage to finish the project during our phase – due to village politics, a certain amount of our time was redirected towards the renovation of the community leader’s own, private water supply… – but we managed to get running water to all but the furthest three houses from the spring, and so there were only a few days’ work remaining.
Raleigh promised that another group would be sent in the future – though not on the next phase – to finish the project.

On our way back from Quebrada Honda we were able to stay for a couple of days in the nearby town of Achuapa, capital of the region, where the annual Achuapa International Music Festival was being held. The festival features groups from all over the country performing various strange shows, but I think the term International can only refer to Raleigh’s input! Nicaraguan ex-Raleigh volunteers help to run the event, and any Raleigh group in Achuapa at the time traditionally performs a song or two, any musicians on the expedition being sent on this phase. Unfortunately we didn’t have much in the way of musicians, but having spent some time practising during the phase, we managed an appalling rendition of Help (by The Beatles). We were treated as the stars of the show, and got the biggest applause of the evening – but only, I imagine, due the ex-Raleigh staff egging the audience on!

Phase 3 – Trek – Miratombo (from Miraflor to Momatombo, Nicaragua)

Trekking across Nicaragua

The trek is the phase everybody talks about throughout the whole expedition; it’s the phase everyone’s nervous about. It’s the toughest phase, both physically and mentally – and it’s meant to be that way. It’s meant to be character-building, stamina-testing, and generally challenging – because Raleigh isn’t just about community and environmental work; it’s about personal development, and the trek is a big part of that. Of course, it’s also rewarding, and at times great fun. They say trek is the phase everybody enjoys least while they’re doing it, but the one they have the best memories of afterwards.
Opinions differ as to which phase it’s better to do your trek on, but most people would rather not be thrown in at the deep end by having the trek as their first phase – and certainly, those who had it as their first phase seemed to enjoy it less. I was fortunate in having the trek as my final phase; which was what I had hoped for.

Stunning scenery on a cool morning hike in the northern hills of Nicaragua

Raleigh do various different treks, and they are always changing and tweaking them. In the third phase of my expedition there were two treks; one in Costa Rica and one in Nicaragua. I was undecided about which I wanted to be on (not that I had any choice in the matter) – both sounded fantastic, in different ways. I had a slight preference for Nicaragua, because after my taste of the country during the community phase I wanted to get to know it better. On the other hand the Costa Rica trek would have much more wildlife, and wouldn’t be quite so hot – and all of the Nicaraguan friends I’d made on the previous two expeditions would be on the Costa Rica trek (since they couldn’t go to Nicaragua and then return to Costa Rica for a third time, due to visa complications).
In the event, I was assigned to the ‘Miratombo’ trek in Nicaragua – walking from Miraflor in the northwest, to Momatombo; a large and iconic volcano on the north shore of Lake Managua, a little over half way down the west side of the country.
In actual fact, despite the name, the trek does not quite end at Momatombo – it actually ends at a small lagoon in a volcanic crater nearby, called Asososca. The Miratombo is unique amongst Raleigh’s treks in that, rather than ending on a Pacific beach, the destination is this lagoon. It is a new trek, which Raleigh hadn’t done before this expedition.

One day’s rations for 11 people

The start of the phase was rather depressing. Most of the people in my group were upset about being in it for one reason or another, to the extent that many were crying about it! Some seemed not to have realised that they were going to have to do a trek at some stage, and were absolutely dreading it, whilst others would simply rather have been on the other trek. It seemed I was almost the only one looking forward to the trek, and I had been put in a group of manic depressives! Even the project managers weren’t very reassuring – I think they were a little overwhelmed by the group’s negativity.
The trek is the phase which involves most preparation, and whilst the people on environmental or community phases had a day off before the start of the phase we spent our day frantically sorting food and packing kit. Rather than carry all our food with us for the whole trek, we split the food up into a few separate “food drops”. These would be dumped at different points along the way for us to collect as we went past. This meant we only had to carry food for around 5 days at a time.

Muddy feet!

The trek itself didn’t start well. We had heard, from the people who did Miratombo on the first phase, that the first few days were going to be hell – but we hadn’t quite realised what we were in for…
On the very first day – or ‘Day 0’, as we called it, since it didn’t really seem to count as part of the trek – we walked only a couple of kilometres, from the place where the bus dropped us off to a building where we would be spending the night. The following morning we rose early, and set off on what we knew was going to be the longest day of the trek – 24km. The previous group hadn’t managed to reach the intended destination on Day 1, and as a result had had to walk further on Day 2, and not reached the intended destination on that day either. We were determined not to do the same. Looking at the map, we could see that there was a shorter route than the one the other group had followed, and so we set off in that direction.

Magical scenery in an ancient pine forest

The scenery was beautiful, and the early-morning chill refreshing. We all thoroughly enjoyed the morning, despite getting stuck in deep mud and going the wrong way a couple of times. As the day wore on, however, we all became hot and tired. Repeated steep ascents and descents were exhausting and we were pushing ourselves to the limit to ensure we kept up to schedule. Nonetheless, it soon became clear that our progress was far slower than we had hoped for, and as the day wore on we could see that we were not going to make it to our intended destination. To make matters worse, there was one particular member of the team who had not initially been allowed to do a trek due to heart problems but who had absolutely insisted that she was up to the challenge. From half way through the day, she kept having heart palpitations and collapsing… (The following day one of the project managers had to leave temporarily to take this girl to meet the ‘road trip’, who were driving from project to project and would transfer her to one of the community projects nearby.)
Fortunately, just before dark we came to a small house, and the friendly owner allowed us to spend the night on the floor of his shed. The remainder of the day’s walk would have to be completed in the morning, in addition to the next day’s distance.

Finally arriving at the Pan-American highway, a day late…

If we thought the worst was over at the end of Day 1 – well, we couldn’t have been more wrong. Apart from the considerable extra distance left over from the previous day, which took us into the late morning, Day 2 had far more ascents and descents than Day 1. Our lowest and highest points were over 2,000 metres apart in height, and that was by no means the only climbing – the whole day was ups and downs.
Aware of our need to make up for lost time, we pushed ourselves even harder than the day before. By lunch time, however, everyone was exhausted – and we had covered only half of the distance we needed. Furthermore, we were uncertain as to whether we were going the right way, as the track we were on went up and up, and became less and less clear until it finally turned into a shallow, muddy stream.

Helping each other cross a river

Fortunately we were on the right track – but it was far, far longer than we expected. Everybody we asked told us that our final destination – a military base where the previous group had been able to spend the night – was only a couple of kilometres away, but each time we had walked those couple of kilometres the next people we asked would tell us it was a couple more. By the time it got dark we had lost all hope of ever arriving at the military base, if it existed at all, and we could hardly walk any more. One of Raleigh’s rules is that the team must reach their destination before nightfall, but we didn’t want to have to stop and camp in a place where we would have no water and so we kept pushing ourselves to go a little further. Finally, a little after dark, we stumbled into the military base – exhausted and hardly able to stand up.
The military, however, were not at all pleased to see us. They phoned their superiors to ask what this was all about, and if we could stay there, and were told that we certainly could not. Fortunately the soldiers in the base were kind-hearted, and, furthermore, could see that we were not physically capable of walking any further, and so they allowed us to sleep on the floor of an old shed, on condition that we leave before 5am and that we take no photos.

Another great start to the day: by 8am we have already been walking for three hours.

The two harder days of the trek were over, and we were able to enjoy almost every day after that. Every day was difficult, and we would always arrive at our destination exhausted, but on some days we would only walk for 7 hours and arrive in time for lunch at our destination, allowing us to spend the afternoon resting our weary legs and nursing our sores. On the shortest day we walked for just 5 hours.

Stuck in the mud…

Often we would be walking in the hot sun or the pouring rain (we could never quite agree on which was worse), and often the track led through deep mud, which slowed our progress as we tried to find a route through or round it. But the beautiful scenery made up for everything, particularly early in the mornings.

Exahusted after hours of trekking in the midday sun

We passed through many extremely remote settlements, and every day we stayed at a school in a small village. We were a great curiosity – most of the people we met had probably never seen foreigners before. Most of the Nicaraguan people were incredibly friendly, helpful, and generous. We would always be given water (a precious commodity) if we stopped at a house to ask for it, and we were often offered food, too. However, it was often a little uncomfortable being continually stared at and harassed by the local kids in the communities where we spent the night. It was always difficult when they would start to ask for our food or equipment, and we would have to try to explain that this was all that we had for the whole three-week period.

Local kids sometimes made it hard to relax and unwind upon arriving at our destination.

Often when we wanted to rest after a long hard day the local kids would hang around rattling the windows of the school and generally making a nuisance of themselves, and in a couple of communities we actually had some (fortunately unimportant) things stolen.
I think that being the centre of attention in these third-world communities was more uncomfortable for the rest of the group than for me – partly because most of them spoke no Spanish, but mostly because they had never been to a third-world country before, whereas I was in a situation fairy familiar to me after visiting other countries where the locals rarely see foreigners.

Taking a short break during an exhausting trek along level roads in the baking midday sun

The second half of the trek was not as interesting as the first. We had come down from the northern mountains into the central plateau of Nicaragua, and we were walking many kilometres along flat tracks and roads, in the baking sun, with little in the way of scenery. We covered ground quickly, but it was uninteresting and we found that walking along flat roads was far more exhausting, and more hard on the knees, than the continuous up and down of the first half of the trek.
The end was in sight, however – quite literally. For the last three days we could see the huge Momatombo volcano, on the shore of lake Managua. Our destination lay near the foot of this volcano.

X-ray 2 celebrate our emergence onto the lunar landscape surrouding Volcán Cerro Negro

As we approached Momatombo, the scenery changed dramatically. We spent a full day walking through a sparse wood, to finally emerge onto a breathtaking lunar landscape – the foot of the famous Volcán Cerro Negro, one of the world’s main “volcano boarding” locations. Cerro Negro is the youngest volcano in Central America, having first appeared in 1850, and it is very active – erupting every six years on average. The surface of the steep cone is a loose scree of black gravel, and people come from all over the world to slide down on boards. We saw people doing this and it looked like great fun.

Looking into Volcán Cerro Negro: one of the most ethereal places I have ever been.

After spending the night under a shelter at the park rangers’ centre at the bottom of the volcano, we got up even earlier than usual the next morning and hiked up the volcano to watch the sun rise from the top. The combination of the bleak crater, the steam and sulphur rising from the volcano, and the early morning mist gave us a feeling of walking on the surface of the moon, which was greatly enhanced by the strange weightless feeling of walking without our rucksacks. The views of the country we had trekked across were incredible, and the steam rising from the volcano gave an ethereal atmosphere to the sunrise. Even on the rim of the crater, the ground was too hot to comfortably sit on, and a few centimetres down into the gravel you could certainly have cooked an egg.

Raleigh’s safety regulations prohibited us from boarding down the side of the volcano, but we were allowed to run down, which was also great fun. It was somewhat like running down an immense sand dune 700m high. Whereas we’d taken a couple of hours waling up the volcano, it took well under 10 minutes to get down.

El Hoyo

After collecting our packs at the ranger station at the base of the volcano, we continued on to our penultimate stop – a camp site on the side of a nearby, but much older, volcano called Volcán El Hoyo. ‘El Hoyo’ refers to an incredible cylindrical hole which was blasted out of the side of the hill by a volcanic eruption. A smaller hole nearby has a column of sulphurous steam permanently rising from it, and on the ridge near the flat area where we were camping two small holes no bigger than 5cm across also have small columns of steam rising from them.

The end is in sight! Looking past our camp towards Laguna Asososca.

From our campsite at El Hoyo we could finally see our destination, the Laguna de Asososca, to which we would be walking the next day. We also had amazing views over the surrounding countryside, including Lake Managua and even the Pacific Ocean in the far distance. To the northeast we almost thought we could see the hills of Miraflor where we had started our journey.

Relaxing on the shore of Laguna Asososca

The next day was the final day of the trek, and was a relatively short hike – though further than it had looked from the summit of Volcán El Hoyo. Around midday we arrived on the shore of the beautiful Lake Asososca; a fantastic ending to a trek we had all thoroughly enjoyed despite all hardships.

X-ray 2 leaving the lagoon: the end of an incredibly rewarding expedition

The final day was spent relaxing on the edge of the lake beginning our recovery from the trek, swimming in the warm volcanically-heated waters, and reflecting on the incredible journey we had just completed. We all felt that the magical setting of the last four days made a fantastic ending not just to the trek, but to the whole Raleigh experience. But when someone asked: “Given the opportunity, would you do it all again tomorrow?” Everyone shook their heads. I was the only one crazy enough to say that I would – without a shadow of doubt.

This child can look forward to clean, safe drinking water and the better health and improved quality of life that comes with it.

I would like to thank those generous people who helped me to meet my fundraising target and thus enabled me to go on this expedition.
The people of Quebrada Honda are also grateful to those Westerners who made it possible for us to bring clean, safe drinking water to their community.

Thanks also to the fantastic people of Nicaragua and of Costa Rica, and of course to all the other Raleigh volunteers who helped make this expedition what it was.

One Comment

  1. Ahoy there, thank you, GREAT report!! We can learn a lot from your experiences, advantures…. Good wind, fine weather, follow the sun
    and BE WATER! Cheers from Liguria

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