What to expect when volcano boarding on Cerro Negro, Nicaragua

What to expect when volcano boarding on Cerro Negro, Nicaragua

28 June 2018 Update: in the 3 times i have visited Nicaragua, I have always felt safe. Yes, I am aware of crime issues (especially petty crime, and especially in bigger cities such as the capital), but I have never encountered any real issue. But starting in April 2018 civil unrest and protests against the government have caused the situation to worsen.

I still think that Nicaragua is safe for travelers, but I know that a lot of hotels, restaurants and places that work with tourists are shutting down, at least temporarily. I hope things can get sorted peacefully as soon as possible, especially for the people fo Nicaragua. Should you decide to visit despite everything, you should not skip Cerro Negro. This post explains why.

If anybody had told me that one day I’d go volcano boarding, I would have laughed at them.

I have recently revealed my passion for volcanoes, of which I became fully aware of only once I traveled to Central America. Coming from Italy, I grew up with the news of volcano eruptions of Etna or Stromboli. But that’s what it was to me: just news material when a big eruption occurred.

I didn’t realize I was really interested in volcanoes before I found myself literally surrounded by them, first in Antigua Guatemala, and then in Lake Atitlan. They looked so mighty, so imposing, that they obviously caught my attention.

That’s how I ended up on my first ever volcano hike in Guatemala. I enjoyed it so much that I vowed to hike more volcanoes during my backpacking trip. After all, I was traveling across Central America, and it would be silly not to make the most of it, right?

Then I made it to Nicaragua, and ended up having one of the most fun, adrenaline packed adventures of my travel life.

volcano boarding

The incredible sight of Volcan Momotombo in Nicaragua

Nicaragua and its volcanoes

I didn’t know much about Nicaragua before visiting, and had close to zero expectations about it. I ended up falling in love with it, with its incredible vibe, with its welcoming people, to the point that I have been there three times, and I have vowed to go again.

To read more about my love for Nicaragua, check my post “The day I fell in love with Nicaragua.”

One thing I had no idea of before going, is that Nicaragua is known as the land of lakes and volcanoes. It isn’t by chance: there’s 19 active volcanoes scattered around the country. Of these, a few surround Leon, my favorite city in Nicaragua. Some are close to Granada, Nicaragua tourist hot spot. And two make up Ometepe Island.

Pretty much any time one looks around in Nicaragua, there is a volcano in sight. Eventually, whether one likes it or not, it is inevitable to get on a volcano. I walked on the crater of volcano Masaya, not far from Granada, and explored the lava fields. I hiked Maderas, in Ometepe island. But it is Cerro Negro that gave me the most thrilling experience.

The following is a recollection of my experience on volcano Cerro Negro, with a few tips on how to make the most of it.

volcano boarding

One of the many volcanoes of Nicaragua

Volcano Boarding on Cerro Negro, Nicaragua

Cerro Negro is close to Leon, Nicaragua most interesting city. It is the youngest and smallest volcano in the country, reaching an elevation of around 750 meters, yet among the most active ones. Its last big eruption occurred in 1999.

Just knowing these facts, I was curious to learn more about it, and possibly hike it. After having hiked Volcano Pacaya, in Guatemala, I was really keen to go on a similar experience in Nicaragua. After all, I love hiking, I love volcanoes and even more so, I love the thrill of hiking an active volcano.

To read more about my experience on volcano Pacaya, check my post “What to expect when hiking volcano Pacaya.”

volcano boarding

The stunning view from the top of Cerro Negro

It was only when I started enquiring about the possibility of hiking a volcano near Leon (and possibly Cerro Negro), that I learned that it is possible to go volcano boarding on Cerro Negro. Needless to say, as soon as I found that out, I signed myself up. I was incredibly curious to experience this: after all, it was considered one of the most fun things to do in Nicaragua.

To find out about all the other fantastic things to do in Nicaragua, read my post “The most awesome things to do in Nicaragua.”

What makes volcano boarding on Cerro Negro possible is its soil, made of tiny grains of volcanic rock. To date, I haven’t actually heard of other countries that offer this activity – possibly due to the terrain of their volcanos.

Sliding down Cerro Negro implies a short but somehow tough hike to its top. The path isn’t hard in and of itself, actually. What makes the climb difficult is having to carry the wooden board all the way up, and fighting the strong wind which, although providing a good break from the almost unbearable heat of Leon, literally swipes away – especially when the wooden boards act like sails!

The landscape that surrounds Cerro Negro is lush: the vegetation at its bottom is thick, thanks to the incredibly fertile soil. The view from the top is simply splendid: it is possible to see as far as the Pacific Ocean. Needless to say, sunset views from there are simply breathtaking.

volcano boarding

Gearing up for volcano boarding – photo courtesy of Andrew White (flickr)

Once at the top, everyone in the group is handed a pair of overalls, leather gloves and goggles to wear for the descent. These are supposed to protect against the dust and to reduce the impact if falling down. Needless to say, anyone who goes volcano boarding, regardless of any protective gear, is bound to get covered in dark dust at least on the face and hair. It took me a few showers to get rid of the dust and tiny dark pebbles from my hair!

People slide down one at a time. The descent is more or less fast, depending on the actual weight of the person going, on how many people have paved the track beforehand, and – obviously – on how one manages the board. I tried to catch as much speed as possible, but I was by far the lightest in my group, yet went before everyone else, with the result that I went down terribly slow, while the rest of the group went very fast.

Between the hike, the actual volcano boarding, and the gorgeous views, the experience is a lot of fun: it is worth every cent and I would totally do it again (sending someone to slide before me, so I manage to catch some speed this time).

Volcano boarding on Cerro Negro isn’t dangerous per se, though I know of a few people that fell and got injured (that’s a good enough reason not to go alone: here’s a post I wrote that explains why I don’t hike solo). Once again, it is all a matter of choosing the right balance between fun, adrenaline, and safety: it’s up to each and one of us to decide the speed to which we are sliding down, and to break when going too fast. Some people simply choose to go too fast and then lose control of the board.

volcano boarding

Finally, volcano boarding! – photo courtesy of Garret Ziegler

Practical facts

Cerro Negro is at about one hour drive from Leon. There is no public transportation to goes all the way to the base of the volcano, and the road is quite bumpy, so the best way to get there is on a 4WD truck. The entrance fee to the protected area costs $5 USD.

There’s no place to rent the boards used for volcano boarding anywhere near Cerro Negro, so the most time and cost effective way to enjoy this experience is on a guided tour departing from Leon.

There’s various companies that offer volcano boarding. The cost is always the same – around $35 USD. Some tours can even be booked online. Usually, the more people in a group, the cheaper the price.

Tours generally depart from Leon at around 2:00 pm, giving the possibility of experiening an incredible sunset from Cerro Negro.

volcano boarding

Gorgeous sunset view from Cerro Negro, Nicaragua

Gearing up for volcano boarding

  • Wear a good pair of hiking boots, with proper ankle support. The soil is thick and sandy, and the strong wind makes it already hard enough to walk.
  • Carry a wind jacket: it does get really windy and chilly, which is a novelty in Leon.
  • Wear sunglasses to protect the eyes against the thick dust.
  • Pack a small daypack with plenty of water for the duration of the hike.
  • Carry some dollars or cordobas to pay the entrance fee to the protected area.
  • Carry a camera to take amazing sunset shots: it can be left with the guide when sliding down, and he can use it to film the experience.

Care to know what’s normally in my backpack? Head over to read “My Packing List.”

Have you ever been volcano boarding? Did you enjoy the experience?

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Discover how to prepare for volcano boarding on Cerro Negro - via @clautavani

Eleven places I would like to visit in 2016

Eleven places I would like to visit in 2016

Canada

One of the places I would like to visit in 2016: Banff National Park in Canada – photo courtesy of davebloggs007 (flickr)

“Where do you find inspiration for your travels?” people often ask me.

“Anywhere,” I say. “It can be a book I am reading, a story I have heard, a conversation with a fellow traveler, a documentary I have seen on tv.”

But I would lie if I didn’t say that, as of late, my biggest inspiration for my travels came from a number of other blogs I follow and a few good Instagram accounts who post stunning picture after stunning picture. Talk about the power of blogs and social media when marketing a destination! Yes, I admit it: reading a bunch of posts and seeing some fantastic pictures of some destinations has been influencing my travel plans.

Furthermore, I have lately come to terms with my obsession for volcanoes. There is something about them that draws my attention and if I can express one wish for 2016, I’d say that I wish to hike many more volcanoes. The good news for me, in this case, is that I don’t have to travel too far to find them. Italy itself is home to at least 10 active volcanoes.

Drawing from my old passion for adventure travel, hiking and archeology and for the curiosity instilled in me by travel blogs and social media, I have been thinking that I should really narrow down the number of places I would like to visit this year (“Keep it realistic!” I keep telling myself). The fact that quite a few of them are close to each other (and not too far from where I live) gives me hope that I will manage to visit them all.

So, let me cut the chase and name 10 places that I am really keen on visiting in 2016, divided by continent.

Asia

The Maldives

I am in a bad need for a holiday and I really want to go to the Maldives. I want to forget my phone at home, forget internet exist and just relax, hopping from beach to beach, snorkeling, relaxing, drinking a cocktail and eating all the seafood I can manage to stuff in my mouth, and working on my tan. Rumor has it that the Maldives are incredibly expensive, but apparently it is also possible to visit the Maldives on a budget, so I am not too worried.

what to do in Maldives

Snorkeling is among the top things to do in Maldives

South East Asia

South East Asia has been on my radar for a while now. Last October I have visited the continent for the first time, going on a crazy 3 weeks trip across Indonesia that left me longing to visit more of this incredible part of the world. So, my plan for 2016 is to see more of it.

things to do in Bali

Indonesia is the first place I have visited in South East Asia – not a bad start!

Read more about Indonesia and the many things to do there on my post “Fantastic Things to do in Indonesia.”

Traveling to continental South East Asia seems fairly easy, as transportation works quite well there, plus there are a number of budget airlines that offer very cheap flights. My idea is to spend a month wandering around, during which I will probably only manage to scratch the surface of the many incredible sights this part of the world has to offer. There’s two main places I would like to visit in South East Asia.

The Sapa Valley in Vietnam

The first country I would like to visit in 2016 is Vietnam: the mixture of interesting history, unique culture and minority groups, buzzing cities and incredible natural sites is what attracts me to it. If I had to pick one place in Vietnam that I wouldn’t want to miss during my trip, I would say the Sapa Valley. Cascading rice terraces, mountains, small villages where people still follow a traditional life style, colorful markets, and the possibility to go on amazing hikes: it seems that Sapa Valley has all that I look for in a destination!

Vietnam

One of the places I look forward to visiting in 2016 – Sapa Valley, Vietnam

Angkor Wat in Cambodia

I love visiting archeological site and I would never dare going to South East Asia without planning a visit to Angkor Wat, the most famous UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cambodia. The Khmers’ national symbol is a fantastic example of architecture, the epicenter of their civilization and it is little wonder why Cambodian are so proud of it. My plan is to spend at least 3 days wondering the entire complex of Angkor and one of them would be definitely used to visit it at sunrise, to admire it under a special light.

Angkor Wat

I can’t wait to see Angkor Wat at Sunrise

Europe

Europe is an incredibly varied continent, with landscapes that span from the picture perfect beaches of Sardinia to the astonishing fjords of Norway. Europe has a lot to offer to its visitors, and despite the reputation of being incredibly expensive for travelers, with a few tricks and research it is possible to visit it even on a limited budget. Eurorail passes connect the entire continent and budget airlines make traveling cheap and easy. I intend to explore more of Europe this year and I have a few places in mind to check out.

Asinara

One of the best places Europe has to offer: Sardinia

Read more about my beloved Sardinia on my post “A Local’s Guide To The Things To Do In Sardinia.”

Meteora in Greece

I am embarrassed to admit that, despite having been to Greece 3 times already, I haven’t made it to Meteora yet. Ages ago, when social media didn’t exist and internet wasn’t really a thing, I saw a documentary about it and thought it would be a great place to visit, yet for some reason I had this idea that it would be almost impossible to get there, thinking it would be too remote and isolated. Yet this UNESCO World Heritage Site intrigued me.

Meteora sunset

Let’s hope I make it to Meteora in 2016 – photo courtesy of Daniel Solabarrieta (flickr)

I then started researching and reading around (bless the many blogs I follow) and realized Meteora is less than a 4 hours drive from Athens, there are many lovely villages to stay nearby, and several hiking trails to get to the many monasteries. There even is a monk jail – how weird and interesting is that?

Bergamo in Italy

I have resolved to visit more of Italy in 2016. Despite having lived in Italy most of my life, the fact that Italy has way so many interesting places to explore means I only know a limited amount of them. Big cities and smaller villages, museums, archeological sites, fantastic mountains, incredible coastline and regional cuisine, Italy really has it all.

Bergamo Alta

The gorgeous Bergamo Alta

One city I am curious to explore but that doesn’t get much attention from travelers is Bergamo, a lovely hilltop town that owes much of its architectural splendor to the influence of Venice. I don’t know much about Bergamo, aside from the fact that it is divided in two main parts: Bergamo Alta which crowns the hill with its cluster of medieval and renaissance buildings, and the more modern Bergamo Bassa below. I am curios to find out more, and the good news is that thanks to In Lombardia I will have a chance to tour the city and its surrounding for a few days in February.

Etna volcano in Italy

In the course of time I have become more and more interested in volcanoes. I have hiked Cerro Negro in Nicaragua, Volcán Pacaya in Guatemala and Mount Bromo in Indonesia. Find out more about my adventure on Mount Bromo, IndonesiaThere’s at least 10 active volcanoes in Italy, which is home Mount Etna, towering at 3370 meters above sea level.

Mount Etna

The stunning peaks of Mount Etna

Etna is incredibly active and photographers from around the world try to capture the incredible show of its eruptions. It is only fair that I put together my interest in volcanoes, my addiction to hiking and the love for my country together and pay a visit to Mount Etna – anybody can agree on that!  Read more about my passion for volcanoes and Nicaragua on my post “Awesome things to do in Nicaragua.”

Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland

Following on with my interest in volcanoes, one of my biggest wishes for 2016 is to visit Iceland and hike Eyjafjallajökull. Perhaps by the time I go (hopefully in the summer) I will be able to pronounce the name of the volcano that kept Europe ransom for a good while in the spring of 2010. Rumor has it that the hike to its crater is one of the best in the world and I simply don’t want to miss on that. And I would not miss a chance to stopover in Reykjavik.

Iceland

After it stopped the air traffic in Europe for weeks in 2010 I am curios to see what this volcano is all about – photo courtesy of Ars Electronica (flickr)

 

Teide volcano in Tenerife (Spain)

The Canary Islands are pretty easy to reach from Europe, and it is even easier to travel around them as – well – they are part of Europe and I wouldn’t have to bother with issues such as exchange rate (have I ever mentioned I am hopeless at math?). Lots of Europeans choose to spend their Tenerife Holidays. My trip there wouldn’t be so much of a vacation: I would go there to quench my thirst for adventure. Tenerife has some unique landscapes and nature. It is home to the Teide volcano, whose 3718 meters summit is the highest peak in Spain as well as the highest peak of any of the islands on the Atlantic. By now it is pretty clear that I want my 2016 to be much more about hiking and exploring volcanoes so inserting the fairly close Teide in the places I want to visit in 2016 seems quite obvious!

Can you spot the tree?

Teide, where volcano meets ocean – photo courtesy of Mike Beales (flickr)

Aushwitz and Birkenau in Poland

Interestingly enough, I am writing this post on the Day of Remembrance, when Italy pays its respect to the millions of people who died in concentration camps during World War II. The thought of the cruelty that other human beings have gone through, of the constant violations of even the most basic human rights that still occur in the world has shaped much of who I am today – I have worked as a human rights lawyer and spent most of my life doing research for universities and non-governmental organizations.

My interest in visiting Poland and the concentration camps dates back to time immemorial. It is just something I have to do because of who I am and of what I have done all my life, a place I must visit to keep the memory of those who died there alive, to pay them my respect.

Poland

Will I feel emptiness when I visit concentration camps? Photo courtesy of Clelia Mattana

I am not sure how I may react to a visit to the concentration camps. My friend Clelia, who visited them last September, felt nothing, in what almost seemed as post traumatic stress disorder kind of reaction. Her total lack of emotions (which I interpreted as simply too many emotions to be let out) is well expressed in a beautiful post on her blog, which can be read here. What would visiting the concentration camps mean to me, considering the impact human rights issues have had on my whole life? I need to go and find out.

The Americas

I am on the constant lookout for good flight deals. I have subscribed to all the major airlines newsletters so I get regular updates on their offers. With a bit of research and good planning, flying to the other side of the world can actually be cheaper than one would imagine. I will keep monitoring prices in the hope that I manage to get some cheap ticket to cross the Atlantic and go on further exploration of the Americas. I have a few places under my radar.

Banff National Park in Canada

The fact that someone like me, who is generally obsessed with South America, eventually develops an interest in Canada is the proof that social media have an incredible power in marketing and selling a destination to even the most reluctant. For a while now, each time I open my Instagram feed I see photo after photo of the incredible work of nature that is Banff National Park in Canada. Alright, I get it and yes: I want to go!

Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Canada

I am drooling over photos of Banff – photo courtesy of Shane Lin (flickr)

Mountains, lakes that reflect the view of the snowcapped peaks, forests of a million shades of green, wildlife that includes bears, charming chalets and quiet little towns and infinite possibilities for adventures. I can’t wait to make my way there and hike around.

Mendoza in Argentina

mendoza

One of the places I look forward to visit again – photo courtesy of Roman Korzh (flickr)

I have already been to Argentina twice. There are so many things to do in Argentina, and the country is so vaste, that I doubt I will ever tire of it. During my last visit I spent a few days in Mendoza, enjoying the city and wandering around the vineyards, having one too many glasses of fantastic Malbec. Needless to say, I want to drink more of it (and no, drinking it from the comfort of my home in Italy is not nearly the same thing) and I want to spend a good amount of time there so that I can also do a proper wine tasting course, enjoy the harvest festival and have a chance to hike the mighty Cerro Aconcagua.

Read more about Argentina and the many things it has to offer on my post “Great things to do in Argentina.”

It remains to be seen whether I will be able to really visit all of these places or if I will have to postpone some of these destinations further away in the future and the only way to find out is to stay tuned and keep following my adventures!

Where are your travel plans for 2016 taking you?

 

 

 

 

Ring of Fire or Circle of Hell? Crossing Dante’s Inferno on Mount Bromo

Ring of Fire or Circle of Hell? Crossing Dante’s Inferno on Mount Bromo

All hope abandon, ye who enter here! (Dante Alighieri, Inferno)

Limbo: forgive me for I am a pagan

Mount Bromo is located at about 4 hours drive from Surabaya, the capital of East Java, in Indonesia and it is part of the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. It is considered one of the top bucket list destinations in Indonesia, one of the places to visit in Indonesia. I suppose it deserves to be one of them.

Read more about Indonesia on my post “Fantastic things to do in Indonesia.”

But despite my best efforts and almost complete lack of expectations, I could not warm to it. In fact, I doubt I will ever want to give it a second chance, not until I know for a fact that things over there have changed, that this attraction is managed differently and in what to me is a more enjoyable way.

Don’t get me wrong, Mount Bromo is a site of amazing natural beauty and I think in the right conditions it would be quite enjoyable, but as things stand at the moment, and based on my experience, I did not enjoy it one bit.

visit Mount Bromo

This pretty picture is pretty much the only good memory I have of Mount Bromo

What I faced in Mount Bromo was the biggest cultural and personal clash I have ever experienced in my many years of living abroad and traveling to countries near and far (actually, very far) from home. I do believe that traveling is much more about self discovery than about the actual discovery of a destination. Sure enough, I understood many things about myself when I visited Mount Bromo.

It has been an enlightening experience as it made me come to terms with some aspects of myself that I did not know where so deeply rooted, and it made me realize that I am much more sensible than I perhaps like to show. It made me understand that different people will see the same thing differently. It also made me understand how important responsible tourism is to me and that it is the only way I want to travel, and that I want to become an advocate for it. And it finally made me decide that I can’t and won’t ever tolerate animal cruelty, no matter what, no matter where, no matter the excuse.

You see, I am an atheist and hardly a believer that heaven and hell exist. Yet, if I have to describe my experience in Mount Bromo, the first thing that comes to my mind are the Nine Circles of Hell of Dante’s Inferno. Much like Dante’s journey through hell, accompanied by his guide Virgil, I felt that I was also going through the nine circles, although in my case there was no real guide in sight but just other members of the tour group.

Each step that took me closer to the crater of Mount Bromo was a step into one of the nine circles, each nastier, scarier and more painful and sorrowful and than the previous one. My first circle was Limbo, the one that pagans, non-believers, deserve – for a pagan I was, as (shame on me!) I had close to zero knowledge of Mount Bromo before visiting. But that was soon to change, as I made my way through the other circles.

Lust: or, rise and (don’t) shine

My visit to Mount Bromo was included in a guided group tour of Indonesia to which I took part. I was glad it was one of the included destinations on the tour, because I really do enjoy volcanoes and generally they are the highlight of any of my trips. Little did I know that this time it would be the other way around. The night before visiting the trip organisers gave us instructions to wake up at 2:00 am and told us that, as this was a popular attraction among Indonesians, there would be even more people on a Sunday. I had no idea what to expect – but I soon learned that my definition of “a lot of people” surely isn’t the same as that of Indonesians.

Read why I like taking guided tours on this post.

I didn’t mind having to wake up so early though. In fact, I remembered the many early rises during my long term travels, to see amazing places, and I was greateful I’d get to experience this. There is a special light at sunrise. There is the feeling of exclusivity, of being one of a few that has the chance to enjoy something special; that of being close to nature as the day starts and the first rays of light come through the sky, finally making the surroundings visible and glowing.

It was pitch dark when at 2:30 am I met the rest of the group and left to reach Mount Bromo so that we could admire the sunrise. I was sleepy and a bit lost – most of us were – but eager to go. As soon as I got to the meeting point, together with other 4 persons I got wisked on a jeep, although we eventually only left at 2:50 – not bad given the relaxed standards of Indonesia that are so hard to deal with for us Europeans. The minute we left, I knew that this would be a long day. I kept my thoughts to myself and tagged along, trying to push any negativity away. 

Gluttony: it’s so slushy out there

The mayhem began immediately afterwards. A rather silent driver joined a race we didn’t know we were taking part in, against any other jeep also going to Mount Bromo. It felt like being on the Paris-Dakar, with the difference that we were not in the desert, breathing just dust and clean air. We were somewhere in the middle of Indonesia and the dust was mixed to the exhaust fumes, making it hard to breathe. The jeeps sped like mad in the foggy and pitch black night, passing each other on all sides, making many of us think that at each turn we’d actually go on a straight line and that would be the end of our visit to the country.

Then, our jeep stopped. In a broken English the driver told us he would not go any further and we’d have to just walk our way to the entrance of the site. There was too much traffic for him to keep going and he’d be unable to park. He told us he’d wait for us, no indication of an exact time (not that it would matter). So we started making walking.

What I happened next was so intensely scary, so frustrating, so thoroughly annoying that at the end of that misadventure I was ready to leave the country for good, never to return again.   Masks on our noses and mouth in a failed attempt to protect ourselves from the thick fumes, we started walking up, trying to keep an eye on each other so as to not get lost in that madness (there was no way we’d find each other again, in the dark, among thousands of other people); not sure which direction to go but relying on the flow which was only going one way.

Mount Bromo

Is the view of Mount Bromo really worth going through all that trouble?

It was pitch dark. It was noisy. It was frightening. Traffic was mad. In what could be best described as a scene of Apocalypse Now, oblivious to the traffic and the pedestrians, jeeps kept making their way to the top, dropping people off and then coming down again. They were everywhere. They completely disregarded the pedestrians who had to jump on the side of the road, in the very limited space (and remember, it was dark!) to avoid being hit.

To add to this already burning hell, a multitude of motorbikes kept zipping their way up and down the hill, again hardly bothered by the presence of pedestrians unless it was for stopping them to offer a ride for as cheap as 10000 Rupiahs, no helmets involved, no guarantee of survival, no strings attached. So unbothered were they by the people that in fact a few times they just about hit us, and we had to scream from the top of our lungs to be heard above the loud noise so that they would avoid us.

I felt hopeless. I could not understand why human beings could be so careless and uncivil to the environment; so disrespectful of human life. I was angry at them, for killing every little bit of positive energy I had when I woke up. Energy that I had to use in order to stay alive, to yell at them to move away, to scream to please leave me alone, to please not hit me with their motorbikes. I could only see unsensible, unreasonable people that, for the sake of (actually very little) money, were ruining the environment and what was meant to be one of the most beautiful natural sights in Indonesia. And they were doing it with the tacit consent of the authorities.

Greed and anger: because after going through the slush, I really really wanted to see that volcano and not just more slush

Then, we finally made it to the pedestrians only area. What literally were hordes of people were all going up, to the view point, to see the seeminly amazing sunrise on Mount Bromo. We eventually made it to the top to just find out that the actual smart ones had taken all the best front row “seats” – they had camped there the night before. Selfie sticks out, these multitudes all waited cheerfully (and noisily, so as to kill any magic left in the air) as we on the other hand tried to find a spot were we could stand and brace ourselves against the bitter cold (now, being cold is actually as unique an experience as one gets in Indonesia!) till the sun would come out and showed us Mount Bromo in all its mighty beauty.

Visit Mount Bromo

Bracing ourselves against the cold during our visit of Mount Bromo

So we waited. And waited. And waited. And theoretically the sun came out, but some thick clouds covered Mount Bromo so we did not get to see it. There is nothing one can do when nature rebels against his or her wishes, so we just decided to leave, cameras safely stored again and eyes unsatisfied as any hope of getting a view of the sunrise on Mount Bromo had now gone.

The mayhem started again. The crowds that a couple of hours earlier were all trying to reach the viewpoint now all moved towards the improvised parking lot, aka the road where the jeeps had casually dropped us off. Once again, we had to put our best efforts to avoid the jeeps and motorbikes that risked hitting us; we had to stop and jump for our lives to the side of the street, in the little space that was left among the parked jeeps. The noise was deafening, the exhaust fumes once more thick. The only difference was that now we were at least able to see where we were going.

Heresy: I should have seen this coming

After miraculously finding our jeep and silent driver among what seemed to be like a million jeeps, we started making our (much too fast) way down towards the desert, from where we were meant to ride horses up to the crater of Bromo. However, a quick turn and the view opened up for us. There stood Mount Bromo, in front of our eyes, mighty and spiteful and making fun of us and of all our efforts – the early wake up call, the walk through “the slush”, the risking our lives, the screaming, the anger, the fright, the tripod placing, the hopeless waiting.

There was our opportunity to shoot a good photo, to have proper proof that yes, we had been to Mount Bromo. We could not miss it. We jumped off the jeep, and, used to the noise, the traffic, the pollution, the cars and motorbikes’ careless driving, we crossed the road to fight our way among the (actually lesser) crowd, to get to a good spot where we could finally catch on camera the spectacular view and hope that nobody else but us and Mount Bromo would be in the picture. It took quite a bit of effort, but I must admit that it worked. Mount Bromo looked pretty. I almost bought it. Almost.

Mount Bromo

Signs of distress are already showing on my face after I had to go through a lot of trouble to get to Mount Bromo

Violence, Fraud and Treachery: if it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t

My love affair with Mount Bromo was not meant to be. I should have known it, since our relationship got off on a really bad start and it did all it could to put me off. And I felt a bit cheated. I soon learned that what I thought was Mount Bromo was in fact Mount Batok. Mount Bromo was right behind, having a good smoke.

Getting back on the jeep once again, we finally set off to cross the sand desert. I was baffled. I could not fully grasp what I was seeing. Among the jeeps that sped their way through the sand, lifting a great deal of dust to mix in with the exhaust fumes, the last thing I expected to see were motorbikes. Not cross country motorbikes, though. Not the kind that can go on any sort of terrain. Proper, small city motorbikes. And each of them carried two and even three persons, in proper Indonesian style. None of the passengers wore helmets but “bravely” fought the forces of nature, sliding in the sand, lifting more dust as they tried to push the motorbike (which unsurprisingly silted) forward.

At this point, I did not let the dust, the noise and the once again almost apocalyptic scene bother me. I was just amused by it, and at most puzzled. I suppose I got it figured out then: people in Indonesia have an idea of fun which consists in challenging life as often as possible, that involves motorbikes and which implies having as many people around as are available. Talk about cultural differences.

Mount Bromo

Our jeep crew. There were many more around, all set to visit Mount Bromo – photo courtesy of Kuan Ju

Despite the mask, the thick sand got in my throat, causing me to cough strongly. By then, my throat was hurting. But the pain in my throat, the difficulty to breathe were soon going to be the least of my problems. According to the program, we were meant to ride horses to the top of Mount Bromo, so that we’d be able to see the crater and the thick sulfuric smoke coming out of it. Horses had already been arranged for the group. On paper, this sounded like an amazing experience.

Pity is that the minute we got off the jeep, in the middle of the sand desert, I saw the horses that we had been provided. I immediately felt that what had so far been a challenging day was taking a turn for the worst. To anybody that has an even minimum interest in animal welfare, it was easily visible that those horses were not exactly cared for. There was no mistake that those animals were malnourished; there was little question that they were distressed. They showed all signs: ribs painfully sticking out of the thin bodies; foam at the mouth; chewing the bridels; stamping nervously.

visit Mount Bromo

I was supposed to ride this horse to the crater of Mount Bromo – I refused

I had tears in my eyes; my throat tightened; my stomach tensed. It took me about a split second to decide that I would not contribute to their suffering and that I would not ride any of those horses. Only 3 others refused to ride the horses. The rest of the group, on the other hand, went on the ride on those very same horses that were unfit to carry heavy weights, and although they did notice that the horses didn’t look too well, they didn’t make much of it and joyfully rode them (to then realize that the poor animals could not carry them all the way to the top and that, when they summoned the owner to get down and just walk, this whipped the poor animal harder so that it kept moving).

Don’t get me wrong though. I don’t blame the others for not behaving like I did. In fact, in a way I envy them for being able to toughen up, block any negative emotions, put up a brave face (something that I was completely unable to do – in fact, I cried for about one hour) and manage to appreciate the beauty of Mount Bromo and understand the cultural differences between their country and this one.

I couldn’t and my experience was pretty much ruined, as now whenever I think of Mount Bromo all I can see are the images of those poor horses, whipped and starved; of the immense crowds, selfie sticks out, oblivious to the pollution and the damage to the environment they were contributing to. And all I can remember was hiking up to the crater, seeing the poor horses around me, pushing my way through the crowd, tears rolling down my cheeks.

Mount Bromo

The smokey crater of Mount Bromo – I got to see it even without riding a horse: the walk is perfectly doable.

I know I am perhaps overly sensible to animal welfare issues. I have been since I was a child, since that time my elementary teacher took my class to the circus and I thought it wasn’t really that much fun watching lions in cages being forced to act unnaturally. As I got to my room that night after visiting Mount Bromo, and for the following days (actually, for the following weeks and even now, as I write), I have tried to make sense of what I saw and of why I have felt that way. The words “culture” and “poverty” have come up often in conversations, with people telling me that some countries don’t have such a great culture in caring for animals, or it is their culture to behave in a certain way.

But I don’t think that culture should be used as an alibi for the mistreatment of animals or for the fearceless exploitation of the environment. You see, I have spent most of my previous working life researching and writing on topics such as culture and cultural identity. While I have been an advocate for the protection of the right to cultural identity and the right of people to live their lives according to their (more or less) traditions, I can’t in any way use the cultural argument to justify cruelty and suffering, whether it is referred to human beings or to animals. I refuse to label an activity as cultural and then just accept it as it is, if the results are hurtful. I find it unethical. And I know through years and years of studies that culture is not a fixed, never changing concept.

Indeed, culture changes with time, it evolves, and that doesn’t in any way make it “less cultural”. Traditional activities and occupations remain traditional even when they are practiced through modern means. One good example is that of people whose traditional occupation is in sheep-farming. Nobody expects them to still milk the sheep by hand for the activity to remain traditional. Not even the United Nations Human Rights Council, which has taken a clear stand in saying that culture is not static and it may actually develop without losing its protected character. So really, there is no way that I will ever justify the mistreatment of animals by saying that “it is the culture of the country”. I won’t just close my eyes, shut my mouth and pretend that all is good and move on with my life, because my conscience won’t allow me to and I feel I have a duty to inform, for as small as my voice is, and to contribute to change.

The road to redemption: a few tips for visitors and management

I would like to stress that the way each one of us experiences a place is always a matter of his or her own personality, and many other factors are involved. I have indeed said on another post of mine that what may be hell to some of us, may well be heaven to others – and the fact that some of the others on my group truly enjoyed their experience on Mount Bromo, taken on the exact same day and exact same means, is proof of this. All in all, I think that each experience we have as we travel is enriching, even the ones we consider bad – because in a way they lead us to understand more about ourselves, to question ourselves, to test our limits.

I don’t want to entirely rule out Mount Bromo from the list of places to visit in Indonesia. And But I would like to see changes before I recommend it to other travelers, and before I ever give it a second chance. Many things can be done to make sure that tourism in the area becomes more responsible and sustainable and some of them are fairly easily enforceable. Mount Bromo, indeed, although at the moment is so mismanaged that it makes various travelers end up holding horrible memories of it, has the potential of becoming an iconic attraction of Indonesia, and of South East Asia as well.

visit Mount Bromo

This pretty picture is pretty much the only good memory I have of Mount Bromo

If things stay as they are, my recommendation for anybody who is keen on visiting Mount Bromo is to make sure not to go during the weekend and to take alternative tours that don’t go to the viewpoint at sunrise, as this is what most people do. This is an extremely popular attraction among the locals, and they crowd the place in such a way that it completely loses its wild character and charme. Going during the week may be a better option, as it is bound to be at least less crowded.

Picking a good tour operator to organize the guided tour is also a key factor. It is important to have a good guide that speaks English (or whatever other language one may understand); that fully explains how the activities will evolve throughout the day; that will follow the group at all times and guide it through the crowds so that it doesn’t get lost and that can provide meaningful insights on the attraction, on its significance in natural and cultural or religious terms.

When picking the operator that will provide the services, it is important to make sure that the cars used are properly kept and equipped, and that if riding horses is an option, they outsource to locals who do feed their horses well and properly provide for them and don’t abuse them.

Ask questions, such as: Are we going to have a guide with us at all times? How does the day develop, and what does the tour include? Is there a meeting point in case we get lost? Who should I contact in case of emergency? Are the horses we are going to ride well fed? Where are they kept? How many hours per day do they work? Try to make sure that the answers are not evasive, because that may well be a sign that the operator isn’t reliable and that it is outsourcing its services to the cheapest provider, which will keep the costs down at the expenses of the environment and the animals.

Mount Bromo

If horses on Mount Bromo look like this, refuse to ride them.

A more sustainable and responsible approach to tourism in Mount Bromo may imply limiting the number of daily visitors, something that has been done to several key attractions around the world, in order to protect their cultural, natural and historic relevance and uniqueness. It may be necessary to implement a system of online reservations to access the attraction, but nowadays setting up a website and a reservations system is easy and the benefits for the preservation of the natural beauty of Mount Bromo would be countless: cleaner environment including cleaner air; less people and thus less cars meaning less pollution and traffic; and the fewer visitors could count on a more thorough, enjoyable and all encompassing experience.

Another advice would be that of closely monitoring the horse dealers at the feet of Mount Bromo, and require that before providing their services of renting horses they meet at least some minimum standards in terms of animal welfare. Horses need to be properly fed and must have plenty of water when working; the number of working hours should be limited and even the amount of weight they can carry should be based on their own size.

The main point here is trying to ensure that Mount Bromo is not completely exploited and consequentially ruined by mass tourism for the sake of easy and short term money, but that it becomes the avant-guarde in terms of careful management of a natural attraction, one that should be proudly protected and that will eventually lead to a more steady, durable revenue. The authorities of Indonesia have proved on other occasions, in other places (such as on Komodo National Park) that if they want they can take responsible tourism and protection of the environment and the wildlife of the country quite seriously. It would be good to see that the same is being done on Mount Bromo. It would be great to see its real beauty blossom.

Read more about Komodo National Park on my post “How to find Heaven on Earth.”

Legal Disclaimer: This article was written in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism of the Republic of Indonesia as part of the #WonderfulIndonesia campaign. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.