Shira Levine: Volcano Hunter

Writer Shira Levine goes in search of an active volcano.

It’s not every day you find yourself hiking a steep incline up to the rim of a previously erupted volcano crater unless, well, you live near a volcano. The closest volcanoes to my home in New York City are too far to consider for a Sunday hike and while there’s the still active Yellowstone volcano in Wyoming, it’s still about 1,890 miles away. A bit further still is Mount St. Helens in Washington State. Volcanoes in Iceland and Greenland are about the same distance. Much closer are some volcanoes located in the Connecticut River Valley, but unfortunately to satisfy my inner volcanophile, they’re now about a million years extinct which leaves me sort of hanging.

I was fired up to find something safely authentic, conical, and maybe offering a little smoke. I’d witnessed classic volcanoes like Arenal in Costa Rica, the Lake Atitlan volcanoes in Guatemala, Lake Ometepe’s volcanoes in Nicaragua, and the twin Pitons of St. Lucia from afar – just never navigated them. Finally, this summer I hiked up my first volcano. Mt. Liamuiga in St. Kitts, one of 18 volcanoes in the Caribbean, and one of the more challenging to ascend.

Liamuiga, which means “fertile land” in the Kalinago Caribbean language, is a precipitous hike. Our guide Oneal Mulraine, took us up something like 4,000 feet through rain and cloud forest replete with Banyan and Viper trees, Spanish Ash, Hearts of Palm, Mimosa, and Maho to reach the summit of the long-ago exploded crater. Really experienced, fit hikers can brave an additional hike down into the crater to explore the lush overgrown greenery and a glittering lake. But for me, the 2.5-hour hike up was just fine.

Hikers can go solo, but going with the guide is safer and more informative. Oneal is an herbalist and bush doctor, so shared with us some cool holistic remedies and fun facts. At the start of our hike, he picked one plant that he suggested wrapping around our neck to prevent neck and back pain. It worked well especially as my hotel, the St. Kitts Marriott Resort & Royal Beach Casino had kindly supplied us with cute but awkward bags full of food and drink. They were more for leisurely picnics, versus any hiking that required the deep lunging movements we used when straddling rocks and fallen trees.

Along the way we spotted a few notable birds that get birdwatchers in a tizzy. Terry, the token birdwatcher of the group was on a casual mission to spot three specific birds, and nailed sightings of: the Bridled Quail Dove, a Green-Throated Carib, and a Red-Tailed Hawk. Another hiker, Edith, brought her spiritual knowledge to the group and shared a collection of blessings and offerings. Without them, the 1,800-year dormant volcano might have exploded and killed us.

Since the volcano is indeed dormant, the main thing to be cautious of when hiking Liamuiga is the moldy mango. According to Oneal, they’re worse than banana peels when it comes to slipping and falling. Wiley French Vervet monkeys, the little dirty, littering suckers they are, are said to outnumber the 35,000 Kittitians on the island. They are to blame for the fruity booby traps. The monkeys take a few bites and then chuck the slimy remains along Liamuiga’s footpath.

If there’s anything sacred at Liamuiga, it is the majesty of the views from the top. The last bend requires a little rope action to help hikers cross over and around to the wide-open clearing. What is revealed is the soul of the crater in all its fertile grassy green glory. No photography does this kind of nature justice. I stop trying to capture and document the hindsight and just let go to be at one with the present.

Hindsight isn’t bad though, especially when back at the Marriott where I further beat away any possible muscle fatigue with a languid swim in the Caribbean Sea, followed by some lazy pool floating, and most importantly, that double shot of local rum at the swim-up bar.

If merely hiking a volcano is too tame for your adventurous side, there are in fact other ways like biking, surfing and skiing, to traverse both the active and dormant volcano.

You go have your own fun.