Spectacular Smoking Volcano
Started by catching a chicken bus (C$12 - less than US$0.50) towards Santa Rosa/Malpaisillo from the terminal in León at about 11:30am, got off in the pueblo of San Jacinto about 30minutes later. Walked down towards the mud springs, paid a $2 US fee, declined the services of a guide and started out on the hike. I was following a .gpx file that I had found on another website and converted to a .kml for use with the google earth app on my Android phone - to do this hike without a guide it is absolutely essential that you have a GPS file to follow, the trail is not always obvious.
I walked past the bubbling, steaming mud springs, crossed a pipeline and walked over a stile in a barbed wire fence onto the trail. The first section of the trail follows a rough 4wd track, I passed several local farmers on horseback - all were friendly and seemed surprised to see a gringo on the trail alone. I greeted them in my best Spanish and kept on my way. There were a couple of turns during this part - without my GPS file I would have gotten lost, although I probably could have asked a local for directions when I encountered one. This part of the trek had only a mild incline and was mostly shaded, the ground was a bit rocky, but nothing too challenging.
After about 45minutes-1hour I crossed a dry creekbed and walked out of the shady forest into an open plain. There were different crops growing on either side of the now narrow path and the afternoon sun was beating down on me. I could once again clearly see Telica smoking in the distance and another, dormant, volcano was visible to my left. The GPS file again helped me out here when the track split in two a couple of times and I passed a large straw-roofed hut used by the locals to take a break or take shelter from the elements.
The trail eventually descended into a large creek bed area, becoming overgrown and very difficult to follow. I took a wrong turn and spent about 10minutes finding the correct path. Eventually I was hiking on a good path again and there were red paint markers on a few trees as the trail became steeper and I ascended towards Telica's smouldering peak. I was back in the shade again, although the weather had clouded over anyway. There were some nice views over the countryside from a few points on the hike up.
After about 45minutes of steeper ascent I reached the end of the forest and a small hut missing half its roof. I following a barbed wire fenceline to a set of steps up to a vantage point and fantastic view of the summit cone. I could also see off to my right a couple of thatched buildings, so walked along a ridge towards them. In the first of the buildings there was a local man asleep, I ignored him and continued towards the crater rim. There was an excellent grassy campsite near the two thatched buildings, but I hadn't brought a tent or food for an overnight hike.
As I walked across a grassy field full of horses to a set of stairs towards the rim a couple of local guys who were a few hundred metres away on top of a hill to my right spotted me and started shouting, offering water and running towards me. I shouted back (in Spanish) that I didn't need any, I had two litres left and ignored them, continuing up to the crater rim. I never spoke to the men up close, they gave up about halfways towards me as a massive thunderstorm had rolled in. Just as I reached the crater (a 5-10minute walk from the campsite), the heavens opened.
Nevertheless, the view was spectacular. I took some photos in between the torrential rain showers and hiked up to my right towards the higher side of the crater rim. This was a pretty steep and difficult climb with plenty of loose rocks, but worth it for the view from the summit. I could see Lake Managua and all the other nearby volcanoes. I continued around, attempting to do a loop of the crater rim, but gave up just before I could complete it as the slope was now about 60º and too difficult and dangerous. I slid down the side of the volcano on the 60º slope (not really recommended) and made it safely down to the grassy area.
The three local guys had obviously expected me to return the way I had came and were waiting at the top of the steps near the crater rim, but I had outflanked them and had a clear path back to San Jacinto. One of them shouted at me repeatedly saying I need to pay an entry fee, but I told him I had already paid it in San Jacinto (which I had) and was in a hurry back. I'm not sure whether these guys were legit, they didn't look very official, one was wearing an Argentinian football jersey, another's first words to me was offering to sell water, the third just asked if I was alone (I told him my friends and a guide were coming, but a bit behind). Anyway, I was too fast for them and quickly set off back down the trail, jogging a bit to get a head start on the three stooges should they decide to follow me.
I had a cracked rib (I think from volcano boarding at Cerro Negro a couple of days before) and my shoes (Converse-style Adidas - definitely not hiking boots!) were soaking wet, full of volcano pebbles and cutting my feet, so I wasn't that fast. The last half hour or so along the 4wd track shaded by trees was very dark, I needed my torch to light the way. Still, I made it back to San Jacinto at 5:45pm and asked when the next chicken bus was leaving to León (6:30pm), so I got a meal from a comedor in the village and waited. The bus showed up bang on time and I was back in León half an hour later.
On the hike I carried 4litres of water and drank 3. I ate an apple, a couple of chocolate bars and some cookies. The distance from San Jacinto to the crater rim was about 10km (each way) and the elevation gain about 800m. Time taken was 2hrs30mins from the trailhead to the crater rim, 1hr20mins to walk around the crater rim and take pictures, and 1hr45mins to hike back down to San Jacinto. This is definitely on the fast side, I took very few breaks, for no longer than a couple of minutes - allow an extra couple of hours if you plan to do this hike. I would suggest leaving earlier as well, or at least getting a weather forecast - often the weather is better in the earlier part of the day. If you plan to do a night hike to see the lava glow and hike down the same day I would definitely say a guide is a good idea.
All in all this was an excellent, surprisingly challenging hike considering the low elevation (but maybe only because of the weather and because I had a cracked rib and didn't know it yet) and perfect for my backpackers budget - but I would also recommend doing it with Quetzaltrekkers, a non-profit based in León who offer overnight trips (including tents, sleeping bags, 8litres of water and food) for US$55. Other for-profit outfits offer a guided sunset tour where you set off about 2pm from León and return at 9pm for US$50 - they claim the hike is only 2hours, so must use a 4wd to get closer to the volcano or take another trail. The .gpx file I attached is the one I found online and followed using my phone, I don't have a GPS myself. Only attempt this hike on your own if you are in pretty good shape, and either have a GPS or know how to use google earth with a .kml file and are not worried about potential hassle from locals near the top (the local farmers at the start of the trail were nothing but friendly). Enjoy!