Photo: Nicaragua San Cristóbal volcano

Nicaragua's San Cristóbal volcano rises 5,840 feet.

Photograph by Boyd Matson

By Boyd Matson

Sometimes you have to descend from the lofty peaks to really see a country.

"The gods are not going to be happy about this," I warn Flavio Parajón, who is leading my kids and me up Nicaragua's San Cristóbal volcano. "They have high standards for human sacrifices. You don't want them to rain down locust plagues, crop failures, or some other pestilence on Central America because of the paltry offering my sweaty, bruised body represents. So slow down before you kill me." Parajón—more concerned about the ferocious noon-day sun than the wrath of the volcano gods—responds, "We need to summit before lunch."

This climb is supposed to be the bonus portion of our Nicaraguan journey, a day of easy adventure to cap off a trip designed to get the family out of our too often self-absorbed world. A familiar refrain from kids these days is, "I'm bored. There's nothing to do." Actually, there's too much to do, too many choices, but the kids frequently opt for none of the above—and do nothing.

We've come to Nicaragua primarily to meet people, especially children, who have limited or, in many cases, no choice about how they spend their time. We want to help provide some options. We're using this vacation as a way to give something to others but will most likely get more in return by way of inspiration and joy.

Oh yeah, and we're also climbing this damned volcano, Nicaragua's highest at 5,840 feet. My daughter, Erica, a college senior, has, as best as I can tell, concentrated her athletic energies for the past four years on competitive beer pong. My son Taylor's recreational focus is surfing (the Web). Neither sport is known to enhance aerobic conditioning. Based on our past climbing experiences, I assume that I'll be shouldering the heaviest backpack while conducting a sort of nonstop Tony Robbins seminar for their benefit, repeating endlessly, "You can do it. Just believe. It's only a matter of will power."

I forgot one key element—the kids are in their physical prime. I'm not. My motivational pep talk is now reduced to a mumbled, Buddhist-like chant. But instead of, Om mani padme hum, it's, "Oh, God, please get me home."

San Cristóbal, on a scale of alpine challenges, is little more than an overgrown hill. And yet today, for some reason, I'm struggling harder than a Chrysler dealership. My lungs are bankrupt; my legs could be sued for non-support; and my heart is beating so fast I worry it won't pass the stress test. Erica looks at me and suggests I not go to the top. Taylor insists on carrying my backpack. It appears the whole family will learn some unexpected lessons on this trip, including one in humility for me.

The people facing the greatest challenges in Nicaragua, however, aren't climbers but rather those living in the shadows of the volcanoes. For many, there's no summit to conquer, only another day to survive.

In one Managua community, the highlight of the day is when the garbage trucks arrive to dump another load. Rotting and spoiled food, discarded and broken possessions, the capital city's trash is the raw material the people living at the dump mine daily for something to use, sell, or eat. The garbage trucks bring opportunity, possibly making today a tad better than yesterday.

My family and I visit the primary school outside the walls of the dump on a Saturday morning. Parents and kids are lined up to receive free uniforms and school supplies from the Fabretto Foundation. In return, parents must promise to keep the kids in school for the year. The deal may seem like a no-brainer, but it took months to extract that promise. Parents weighed the rewards of an education against the money to be made sending kids to scavenge scrap wire, for example, which yields copper.

Dangers run high in the garbage dumps. In these Petri dishes of disease, perpetual fires release toxic fumes, and broken glass and metal scraps with sharp edges can cut a foot or finger like a scalpel.

Outside the dumps lie other problems. Nicaragua has the second lowest per capita income in the Western Hemisphere—after Haiti—with about half the population living in poverty. Father Rafael Fabretto, an Italian missionary who arrived in the 1950s, committed himself to the local children. He offered them hope, a home, and an education. Fabretto died in 1990, but his mission continues. Today the Fabretto Foundation is working with over 6,000 students in Nicaragua.

I thought it important that my wife, kids, and I meet some of these children. So we visited several of the Fabretto-supported schools around the country. We brought school supplies; we talked with teachers and students; we committed to sponsoring one of the girls. This is not to pat ourselves on the back. We did very little, almost nothing, in the scheme of things. Consider that a sponsorship—which covers uniform, books, supplies, and a healthy lunch daily—costs $30 per month. That's the rough equivalent of one outing to the mall for an American teenager.

My wife wisely returns home after our school visits, leaving my kids and me to struggle on our own up San Cristóbal. At the summit, we picnic next to the smoking crater. Here I can finally stop worrying about being an unworthy human sacrifice to the volcano gods. The view for miles in all directions is mesmerizing. Despite areas of extreme poverty, Nicaragua is colorful, culturally rich, and welcoming.

Sometimes travelers only take in the scenic view, remaining distant and above it all, where it's easy to see forever and yet see nothing. Once in a while it's important to get a little closer to the lives of real people. Organizations like the Fabretto Foundation do good work in many countries. Find one and get involved on your next trip. You'll return home feeling connected, grateful, and blessed.

Contributing editor Boyd Matson hosts National Geographic Weekend on radio.

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