If you like volcanoes, as I do, and you like walking, as I do, then it's hard to visit the area around León without climbing at least one of the peaks in the nearby Maribios chain. The problem is choosing which one, as there are an awful lot of volcanoes along the spine of southern Nicaragua.
Most travellers tend to head for 726m-high Cerro Negro, a small but relatively new cone that only appeared in 1850, and which is almost pure volcanic ash; as such it is a popular venue for the new sport of volcano surfing, where you ride a modified snowboard down the steep slopes of an active volcano, getting volcanic ash in every orifice, if reports are to be believed. We'd talked to people who'd done it and they weren't that impressed, comparing it unfavourably with boarding down snow and sand, so it was an easy choice for us to avoid the hordes and instead head for the 1061m-high Volcán Telica, some 30km north of León. The attraction here is that you get to peer into the crater of a still active volcano and look at the hot, glowing lava at the bottom. Count me in!
We set off in the afternoon as part of a group of eight, and getting there was a journey in itself. Four of us sat on the back of the flat-bed truck (with the other four inside), and after whizzing along the highway with the hot wind in our faces, we turned off onto a dirt road and the fun really began. My back isn't too good these days, and after a few minutes of bumping and grinding along the dirt track, I realised that the rickety wooden benches down the side of the truck weren't going to give me the support I needed, so I stood up and looked the track full in the face. Eventually we all stood up, and had to duck and dive in unison as we ploughed along an increasingly potholed road beneath low-hanging branches that kept us on our toes. It was a thrilling ride, and by the time we arrived at the road end, halfway up the volcano's slopes, my hair looked like an advert for gravity-defying hair gel and I couldn't wipe the grin off my face.
The 40-minute walk up the northern slope of the volcano is relatively easy, and we stopped a lot as the heat from the sinking sun was still fierce, so it didn't take us long to reach the crater rim. You can see smoke billowing from the summit from miles away, but I hadn't been expecting the roar of jet engines that hits you as you approach the knife-edge of the crater. As you slowly sidle up to the lip of the crater, a 700m-wide vista opens up beneath you, shrouded in sulphuric clouds of noxious gas that pump up from the 120m-deep chasm beneath your curled toes. It's an exercise in barely controlled insanity to creep towards the edge, and although the the clouds hide the bulk of the crater, the immensity is breathtaking – quite literally when the wind changes and the sulphuric stench of the bowels of the earth blows up into your face.
Awestruck by the crater, we walked east to a viewpoint from where you can look all the way along the east-west Maribios chain of volcanoes, some of them still active, some of them quietly reclaimed by greenery, but all of them serenely beautiful in the dusk light. For the sunset we stomped over to the southern slopes, where the southern plains of Nicaragua open up beneath your feet, with the Pacific Ocean glowing in the distant sunlight as a small horde of tourists appears out of nowhere to share the sight of the sun sinking into the sea.
On the way back to the car we visited the crater rim again, this time on the southern edge, and peered into the depths of the volcano, the jet engine noise as strong as ever. But this time, with the sun down and the stars beginning to poke their way through the night sky, the heart of the volcano glows a hellish red, and you can make out the hot holes through which the clouds of gas howl. It's unnerving to be perched on the thin lip of such a massive crater with certain death lurking below; this is not a place to linger for a long time.
As we wound our way by torchlight back down the way we came, the stars put on a beautiful show, and under their warm glow we climbed up into the back of the truck, ready for the journey home. This time the stand-up drive was even more thrilling, heading down a dark desert highway, the cool wind in my hair, the warm smell of volcanoes rising up through the air... and ducking the branches as they jumped out of the darkness. And when we arrived in León, the driver took us to our individual hotels, so we got a fascinating tour of the town at night from the back of a flat-bed truck, where light spilled out into the streets from the pool halls, bars, restaurants and shops, lighting up the locals as León shook off the heat of the day and started gearing up for a night on the town, while we went home to sink into a well-earned and very cold bottle of beer.