Nicaragua is the place to go for maximum volcano experiences. You can admire their profiles in the landscape, hike or drive to their rims, walk around inside of them, swim in their craters, inhale their toxic fumes and even stay overnight crater-side. If you’re lucky, patient or persistent, you’ll probably even see red molten lava in action.
Crater swim: Laguna de Apoyo
Swimming in a volcano is a rare opportunity I wasn’t going to pass up. Just outside Granada, the crater of this dormant volcano is now a lake. A few underground hot springs keep the mineral-rich water warm enough for pleasant swimming.
The area around the lake is protected as a nature reserve, but there are a few hotels and day resorts scattered around the crater rim. These are the easiest places to access the lake, and we visited one called Laguna Beach Club as part of our tour around Granada.
It was windy the day we visited, so the water was surprisingly choppy. There were kayaks and stand-up paddle boards available, but I opted to avoid certain tip-over embarrassment and just jumped in for a swim.
The small beach of coarse sand soon gave way to volcanic rock, so it was a delicate exercise to entire the water without injuring myself, given the waves crashing up onshore. Even in the water, the current required active swimming – no relaxing floats were to be had. It was a bit like an aqua-cise class, which I suppose was a good way to work off all of those macuas and Toñas.
After a refreshing swim, we were all content to lounge around in the plentiful hammocks and hammock-chairs scattered around the property.
Peering in from the rim: Masaya Volcano
Masaya is one of the easiest volcano rims in Nicaragua to access since there’s a paved road right to the top. It was a quick stop on our way to Leon, but quite a thrill to peer inside of an active volcanic crater.
The wind was swirling around so much gas and vapour that it was difficult to make out the contours, especially since the crater is massive. Sadly, it was too misty to see any lava. We peered into the unknown depths, imagining the mysteries within. I half expected a fire-spewing dragon to emerge.
When I breathed in too deeply, it felt like inhaling vinegar. Which is exactly why we were only allowed to stay at the rim for 20 minutes. Otherwise, we might perish from the toxic fumes.
I later discovered it’s possible to visit Masaya at night, when there is much greater chance to see the molten lava. There are lots of local operators in Granada offering tours.
Twilight hike: Volcan Telica
This one required the most work, but also delivered the best reward. The drive from the centre of Léon to the trailhead was almost as much adventure as the hike itself.
Eight of us squeezed into a 4WD vehicle that looked a bit too much like a prison van for my likling. The back opened up to reveal two narrow bench seats, one along either side. We climbed in one by one and folded ourselves into position, bent-up knees weaving an alternating pattern across the centre “aisle.”
For the first 15 minutes we drove on smooth pavement, but soon we were bouncing and bumping along a rough gravel access road. There were no grab bars, so every rut sent us lurching into one another. We soon gave up up apologizing.
Halfway there, the driver stopped and got out to engage the 4WD. That last 20 minutes was so rough it resembled a thrill ride. All we could do was laugh through it. When we finally arrived, it was sweet relief to unfold our cramped frames into standing position.
We started up the trail in golden late afternoon light. A grassy path soon gave way to volcanic rocks and boulders, the trail sometimes discernible only by the arrows occasionally painted on rocks. The last section was red-black gravel; walking it was tough going, like climbing a steep sand dune. I admit to a considerable amount of huffing and puffing, being not so fit as I might have once been.
It took about 90 minutes to reach the rim, where the wind and swirling gases were similar to Masaya, and the air had that same acidic quality. It stung the eyes a bit. The cotton bandanas our guide had provided were a cute gesture, but they didn’t really do anything to filter out the gases.
Occasionally the white fog cleared enough to make out some of the contours of the crater. And when I turned around, I saw a man with a plastic cooler, selling ice-cold beer. Although I decided not to indulge, I had to applaud his industry. He was doing a swift business with other hikers.
After our allocated 20 minutes of gas exposure, our guide led us around and partway down another side of the volcano. The light was fading as we traversed a ways before turning around for a great view of the volcano in profile. Cameras were hastily pointed and snapped.
But we weren’t finished yet. We backtracked and then circled to the back side of Telica to our sunset-viewing spot. The wind was absolutely crazy – I almost lost my jacket to it when I pulled it out of my backpack.
We were just in time for the sky to turn dramatic shades of orange and red, putting the slopes of the volcano into dramatic silhouette. A young man in our group chose this moment to get down on one knee and propose to his girlfriend – so very romantic!
It quickly turned dark, so out came the headlamps and flashlights for the reverse trek. There were no other lights on the trail, so we had to keep close formation as we carefully picked our way down through the volcanic gravel and rock.
We had one more glimpse into the crater on the way back, in hopes of seeing the molten lava. But alas, the fog was too thick, so I was foiled once again in the attempt.
After the reverse roller-coaster ride back into town, I was exhausted. All I could do when I got back to the hotel was slip on my bathing suit and slide into the cool open-air pool. It was a soothing soak for sore muscles as I gazed up at the crescent moon and thought back on volcanic adventures.