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Dangerous Beauty – Los Nevados National Park & Ruiz Volcano, Colombia

Los Nevados National Park in central Colombia is a dangerous beauty full of high altitude landscapes carved by glaciers and volcanoes, including the Ruiz Volcano which has proven deadly in the past and is currently making its mighty presence felt again.

El Cisne PNN Los Nevados Colombia

Dangerously beautiful Los Nevados National Park in Colombia.

The dangerous beauty of Los Nevados National Park

Los Nevados National Park (Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados in Spanish) was created in 1974. The park gets its name from a Spanish word commonly used for snowcapped mountains or volcanoes (nevado means snowcapped). There are a number of volcanoes within the 144,000 acre (58,300 hectare) park but the Nevado del Ruiz (Ruiz Volcano) is the biggest and baddest of them all.

In 1985 the 17,547 foot (5,389 meter) volcano erupted in the night and the glaciers and snowcap on its peak melted with devastating results. More than 25,000 people, mostly in the town of Armero, were killed as a river of mud and debris flowed down from the flanks of the Ruiz Volcano. It was the second deadliest volcanic eruption in history.

Nevado Ruiz vocano from El Cisne Los Nevados National Park

One of three vents on the Ruiz volcano shows off a dusting of snow in Los Nevados National Park.

The beauty of the park comes from those same volcanoes whose peaks we want to glimpse and whose glaciers and eruptions have created the landscape within the park. In 2009 Los Nevados National Park was the third most visited park in Colombia with more than 50,000 visitors (COP 57,000 or about US$18 entry fee including a mandatory guide) coming to see all that beauty. However, the park opens at the whim of its namesake volcanoes. If they are too active then the park is deemed too dangerous to visit and access can be restricted or stopped altogether.

Nevado Ruiz volcano Colombia

Wind, weather and seismic activity sculpt the landscape in weird ways in Los Nevados National Park. Here, rock and ash combine to create a moonscape on earth.

The park was in restricted access mode when we were there and the higher elevations, roads, lakes, trails and the El Cisne Refugio were all closed to visitors because of activity within the Ruiz Volcano. But that did not stop us.

Our all access park pass

Colombian national park officials kindly assigned us a park employee who took us on an overnight trip through the park, but first we had to deliver some condor food. Instead of taking the usual route into the park’s main Las Brisas entrance near the town of Las Esperanza, we drove in from Villa Maria along a rough back road carrying a dead calf in a bucket.

Paramo PNN Los Nevados Colombia

The high altitude páramo landscape in the park acts like a sponge and forms many small ponds and lakes.

Los Nevados park is home to a dozen or so Andean condors which were bred at the San Diego Zoo. The species is considered threatened as populations decrease and while park officials say the Los Nevados condors are thriving, they still support the community with food drops like the dead calf.

Frailejon Espeletia plant paramo Colombia

Frailejon, which remind us of Joshua trees, are a mainstay of the páramo landscape in the park.

About five hours later we finally entered the park. Los Nevados is a high altitude park and a kind of alpine tundra called páramo, which only exists in the northern Andes of South America, thrives here. The ground is covered with rugged tufts of grass, Joshua tree-like flowering frailejón plants and a weird low-growing, dark green dome cushion plants which, upon closer inspection, is made up of thousands of tiny plants. We also saw hundreds of rabbits but, sadly, not the puma or the tigrillo that also live here.

Paramo plants Colombi

Though it is called a cushion plant, this massive green dome is solid as a rock and made up of thousands of tiny, prickly star-shaped plants.

It was getting late so we headed straight for the El Cisne Refugio (named for one of the other volcanoes in the park) which is a huge building capable of housing up to 70 people. When the park is fully open there’s a restaurant as well. Because the park wasn’t officially open the normal dorm building was locked up tight. So we settled into a much smaller and more rustic building behind the larger structure. This is where park rangers and employees stay and it was our home for the night. There was a kitchen, a cold water bathroom and bunk beds plus electricity and, weirdly, a TV but no method of heating.

Centro de Visitantes El Cisne PNN Los Nevados

The El Cisne Refugio offers rooms and a restaurant.

Our park escort Hector explained that Los Nevados offers more than just views. There are hiking trails in the park as well including a three hour round trip hike to a glacial lake called Lake Otún at 12,800 feet (3,900 meters). The lake is full of trout and is a breeding ground for many types of ducks. There’s a cabin on the lakeshore as well and camping opportunities.

Los Nevados paramo frailejon

More páramo in the park.

The El Cisne Refugio is located at more than 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) and at this altitude it gets very cold the moment the sun goes down. As evening came we stayed outside as long as we could to watch the light change on the páramo and the hills that surround the small bowl where the buildings are located. Soon we retreated back inside where we bundled up in layers of wool and climbed into our sleeping bags for the night.

Los Nevados Frailejon Espeletia

Frailejon up close.

By 7 am the next morning we were back on the road, headed to a point from which we hoped to catch a clear view of the top of the Ruiz Volcano before clouds descended. We only got brief teases of the top as the clouds came and went, carried by strong winds. We’re told that July and August are the clearest months in the park, but even then cloud-free views of the high peaks are not guaranteed.

Nevado Ruiz panorama

When was the last time you drove to 15,512 feet? Here’s our truck at that altitude on the flanks of the Ruiz Volcano in Los Nevados National Park. Click here to see a larger version of his panoramic shot.

Ruiz Los Nevados altitudeWhat we did get was a milestone on our little road trip. As the surprisingly good dirt road through the park climbed and climbed we reached 15,512 feet (4,728 meters) on a cinder covered pass just below Ruiz Volcano–the highest elevation we’d driven to on the journey at that point. We also saw one of those San Diego condors and a páramo eagle soaring above us. Hector told us that the condors sometimes swoop down the snowy hillsides and brush their chests against the snow to clean their feathers.

PNN Los Nevados Colombia

Clouds descend over a craggy mountainside cut by glaciers and shaped by volcanic eruptions in Los Nevados National Park in Colombia.

Leaving Los Nevados was no less dramatic

The terrain in Los Nevados is constantly shifting due to wind, weather and seismic activity. When we were there a section of road was only marginally passable. The area had recently been crudely cleared so small park vehicles could get through, but there was no guarantee that our monster truck would be able to pass. We decided to take our chances and push forward through the park toward the main Las Brisas entrance anyway rather than backtrack over the terrible dirt road we’d taken into the park the previous day.

bad road Los Nevados National Park

There used to be a road in there somewhere…

This meant driving along a notorious stretch of road called “The Ss” because you have to navigate 17 switchback turns, some of them very, very tight for our long-wheel-base truck.Then we reached the semi-rebuilt wash-out area and managed to power through narrow spaces and deep ash to get through. This is the sort of stuff that Eric finds adventurous and Karen finds arduous.

Driving Los Nevados park Colombia

Our truck after Eric successfully negotiated his way through a sketchy roadless section. You can see the 17 switchbacks of “The Ss” in the background.

Just short of the main Las Brisas entrance we stopped at Chalet Arenales. The original structure burned down in 2010 and a new building (which is not in the chalet style) opened in 2014. It’s surprisingly modern and offers  a warm interior, free hot coffee and large windows which give great views onto the moonlike landscape of the park.

Chalet Arenales Los Nevados

Chalet Arenales in Los Nevados National Park offers free coffee and great views.

Many people only travel as far as the new chalet when they visit Los Nevados but we’re grateful to Colombian national park officials for finding a way for us to visit more of the heart of the park even during a time of restricted access. The unique páramo, extreme landscapes, rare wildlife and fleeting glimpses of the Ruiz Volcano made Los Nevados one of our favorite national parks on the journey so far.

Los Nevados National Park Colombia

This entrance to Los Nevados National Park can be closed whenever seismic activity within the park is deemed too high. Check the status before planning your visit.

The Ruiz Volcano is very, very active

And speaking of the Ruiz Volcano, it’s still very, very active. Most recently, Ruiz erupted again this month. No deaths have been reported so far, but the airport in nearby Manizales was closed. Check park status before planning a visit to Los Nevados.

Travel tip

Smart visitors to Los Nevados National Park combine it with a warm and relaxing visit to one of the many hot springs in the area where you can soak in water that’s naturally heated by the area’s volcanoes. These places range from basic pools to full service hotels. We soaked our bones at Termales El Otoño which has three big, clean pools surrounded by a large hotel with standard rooms and traditionally painted stand-alone cottages.

Termales El Otoño - Manizales, Colombia

One of the soaking pools at Termales El Otoño.

 

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The Enduring Legend of El Dorado – Lake Guatavita, Colombia

You probably know at least the basics of the legend of El Dorado which tells of a lake filled with gold and jewels whose secrets and treasures eluded Spanish conquistadors and modern day treasure hunters for centuries. Like most good stories, this one survives despite a profound lack of proof and Lake Guatavita in Colombia is ground zero for the enduring legend of El Dorado.

The enduring legend of El Dorado

This part of Colombia is home to the Muisca people. In their heyday they were ruled by kings who were appointed only after going through a tough vetting process and those ultimately chosen were celebrated in an elaborate ceremony which, legend has it, involved the newly minted king covering himself with gold and paddling out into a lake before jumping in and washing the gold into the water.That habit earned the king the nickname “El Dorado” or, The Golden One.

It’s said that more gold and jewels were tossed into the lake for good measure and you can see an elaborate hand made rendering of a Muisca raft in solid gold at the fantastic Gold Museum in Bogotá.

Muisca god Guatavita Bogota Gold Museum

This solid gold recreation of part of the mythical Muisca lake ceremony is on display in the Gold Museum in Bogotá.

Needless to say, a shiny legend like that got the gold-hungry Spanish conquistadors all in a tizzy. In their inimitable style they suppressed the Muiscas and forced them to form a macabre bucket brigade to try to drain the lake. After months of effort the water level had gone down just a few feet. Then the Spanish shifted gears and forced thousands of men into the task of cutting a notch in the rim of the crater to drain the lake.

That effort dropped the water level by about 20 feet (six meters), revealing some paltry trinkets before the support system collapsed killing many.

And it wasn’t just the Spanish that were desperate to get their hands on the El Dorado treasure. A British group arrived with a steam pump and dug tunnels to try to drain the lake and failed. Treasure hunters were arriving as recently as the 1930s when hard-hat divers schlepped up to the crater, dove in and explored the lake’s muddy bottom for treasure. Nada.

 Travel to Lake Guatavita

These days Lake Guatavita is a protected are (so leave your SCUBA equipment and pick axes at home). You can travel there to see it for yourself during an easy day trip from Bogotá (about two hours and 35 miles (56 km) each way along a scenic but windy and narrow paved mountain road). If you don’t have your own wheels there are plenty of tour companies in Bogotá that offer group outings.

Lake Guatavita Legend of El Dorado Bogota, Colombia

Lake Guatavita, where the legend of El Dorado lives.

In 2000 a conservation group took over Lake Guatavita and the surrounding area and created a protected zone. Workers spent six years putting in excellent brick and stone trails and letting most of the protected area regenerate after years of clearing, farming and hunting.

You must enter with a guide during one of the timed tours (last entry is at 4 pm; the site is closed on Mondays except during long weekends when they open on Monday but close on Tuesday; 14,000 COP/about US$4 for foreigners). Our tour took about an hour during which we stopped in a replica of a traditional Muisca roundhouse for a cultural cram session, then walked slowly along a short, easy trail (with a few steep sections) during which our guide explained more about the region, the lake and the legend (all in Spanish).

Once we reached the crate’s edge our guide pointed out the and could look down into the lake our guide left us to our own devices to  hike higher up to other view points. Gold or no gold, Lake Guatavita, with its green water, swirling mists, tenacious vegetation and lingering legend, is a lovely spot as you can see in our drone footage from Lake Guatavia, below.

 

Travel tip: We struck real gold when we were tipped off to a restaurant called Le Petit Alsace in the nearby town of Guasca (look for the French flag flapping in the breeze shortly after you turn off the main road toward Guasca, cash only, only open on weekends).

Le Petit Alsace - Guasca, Colombia

A typical (and delicious) plate at Le Petit Alsace.

Here, French chef Gilbert Staffelbach turns out escargot, beef Bourguignon, duck ala orange, rabbit in wine and more in a rustic cabin as accordion music plays and he floats from table to table wearing full chef whites and a toque. Be sure to order the cheese plate which comes loaded with options made in-house using milk from his own herds of goats and water buffalo.

Chef Gilbert Staffelbach, Le Petit Alsace - Guasca, Colombia

Chef Gilbert Staffelbach of Le Petit Alsace with just some of the cheeses he produces.

 

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Skipping Santa Marta – Totumo Volcano & Taganga Beach, Colombia

Within an hour of leaving the Colonial city of Cartagena we were in the countryside and our truck was surrounded by small, frantic yellow butterflies and it felt like being inside a Gabriel García Márquez novel: eery, fragile, pre-destined. It got even more surreal as our full day of travel took us to the crater mud pit at Totumo Volcano, the city of Santa Marta and on to Taganga Beach.

The muddy miracle of Totumo Volcano

We were still surrounded by yellow butterflies when we arrived at Totumo Volcano. Totumo is a tiny little volcano, just 50 feet (15 meters) tall. Rickety wooden stairs lead up its flanks to the crater which is filled with milk-chocolate-colored mud. The story goes that a local priest was offended by the hell-like fire and brimstone that came out of the crater and started sprinkling the thing with holy water until the fire and brimstone turned into thick mud. Improvement? You be the judge.

Tutomo Volcano Colombia

Totumo is an actual volcano but it’s just 50 feet tall, so it looks more like a big ant hill.

Now visitors pay a couple of dollars to climb into the Totumo crater and bob around in the mud like strawberries in chocolate fondue. This is appealing to some because, hey, you’re bobbing around in a volcanic crater and because the volcanic mud is full of minerals that have medicinal properties. No word on the current holy water content and whether or not that’s good for your skin.

Tutomo mud Volcano Colombia

The crater of Totumo volcano is filled with mud which you can climb down into for a soak.

The air temperature was about one million degrees celcius when we were at Totumo, however, so the idea of getting into hot mud was completely unappealing as was the idea of the long, dusty walk from the crater to the nearby lagoon where the mud is washed off.

Skipping Santa Marta

From Totumo we drove to the city of Santa Marta but despite the good things we’d heard about it (coastal location, laid back vibe, South America’s second oldest surviving Colonial city), we found it hot and dusty and mostly un-Colonial and wholly uninspiring (if you disagree you’re welcome to do your best to change our minds in the comments section, below).

Cathedral Santa Marta, Colombia

The cathedral in Santa Marta was closed when we visited.

One of the things we value most about our peripatetic lives is the freedom we have to stay or go as we choose so, after a disappointing and pricey lunch and a visit to the (closed) cathedral in Santa Marta, we moved on to nearby Taganga Beach.

We did ultimately discover a fantastic budget breakfast place in Santa Marta. It’s called Merka Welcome Restaurant and it’s on Calle 10C No. 2-1. For 5,000 COP (about US$2) we got huge plates of eggs, etc. Another 4,000 COP (about US$1.50) got us an enormous pitcher of amazing fresh made fruit juice. The only weak point, literally, was the coffee.

Merka Welcome Restaurant Santa Marta, Colombia

Our favorite thing about Santa Marta? the great, cheap breakfasts and terrific seafood at Merka Welcome Restaurant.

This simple restaurant (fans, mismatched tables and chairs) is famous for well-priced seafood dishes as well so we returned one night for dinner and Carlos, the night-time waiter, assured us that the food was “fucking good”. He was right and we feasted on huge plates of tasty, fresh fish for 15,000 COP (about US$6). Carlos hugged Eric when we left.

Do NOT confuse Merka Welcome Restaurant with a place in Santa Marta called Welcome Restaurant. It’s much more expensive. And you should probably skip the place called Pizza Vomito. We did.

Taganga Beach bums

Though Taganga is less than three miles (5 km) from Santa Marta it seemed like another world. The drive there, up and over the undulating coastline, felt a very small bit like driving along the Amalfi coast with impossible drops, blue water below and buildings clinging to hillsides.

Taganga, Colombia

The bay near the beach town of Taganga, Colombia.

The beach town of Taganga itself, however, feels nothing like the Amalfi coast. Beach front eateries, people selling handicrafts from blankets and hostels and hotels in all shapes and sizes give Taganga the look of a burgeoning traveler ghetto but it still, thankfully, attracts Colombian travelers, especially on weekends. Taganga was a must-visit years ago then fell into disarray but new construction and lots of travelers gave Taganga a comeback vibe when we were there.

After checking out a lot of different accommodations we made a real budget hotel find in Casa D’mer hotel. Located right on the beach at the far end of the malecon, this hotel has clean, spacious private doubles with fans and good mattresses for 70,000 COP (about US$27) including free coffee, free ice water, great staff owners and use of a small but satisfying plunge pool. The furnished roof deck has great sea views.

sunset Taganga, Colombia

Fishing boats at sunset in Taganga, Colombia.

Fish-based meals can be had from simple vendors on the beach in Taganga for around 10,000 COP (about US$4) and there are an increasing number of international eateries in town too. Intifada Cafe serves up great falafel, if you can stomach the anti-Israel propaganda on the walls, and Pacahamama is an actual French restaurant with an actual French chef.

Taganga-juice

Fresh juice on the beach in Taganga.

A shop called Casa Amarilla has tailors who will make you a custom swimsuit in 24 hours and another shop in town was cleverly incorporating bright, handmade, traditional mulas (or molas) made by the Kuna people into modern handbags, shoes and more.

The curved bay and beach in Taganga itself is nothing spectacular. The water is murky and the shoreline is cluttered with fishing boats. But a 20 minute walk along a trail that takes you up and over a bluff delivers you to Long Beach with snack shacks, chairs and umbrellas for hire and a much more inviting beach and clear water. Add in cold beer for 3,000 COP (about US$1.50) and you’ve got yourself a nice day. Water taxis make the short trip to and from Taganga too.

Long beach, near Taganga, Colombia

Long Beach, with clear water and beach vendors, is a short walk from the town of Taganga.

One warning: muggings, sometimes with machetes involved, are an increasing problem in Taganga, so be aware. However, we liked it in Taganga so much that we used it as a base for a long day trip to Tayrona National Park which we’ll cover in our next post.

Taganga street art

Street art in Taganga.

Colombia travel tip

Despite their generally dismal condition, many roads in Colombia have tolls. These tolls are particularly frequent and costly in northern Colombia. We paid more than US$25 in tolls just to drive the 145 miles (233km)  from Cartagena to Santa Marta. You have been warned.

 

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Around León – Cerro Negro, Flor de Caña Rum Tour, León Viejo & Casita Volcano, Nicaragua

The best way to justify extending your stay in León, our favorite city in Nicaragua, is to sign up for some of the day trips and activities you can do from the city. One of the most popular options is volcano boarding down Cerro Negro (Black Hill) Volcano but you can also make day trips to take a tour of the Flor de Caña distillery, the mudslide memorial at Casita Volcano and León Viejo, all located around the city of León.

Cerro Negro Leon Nicaragua

As you approach Cerro Negro Volcano you can clearly see why it got that name.

Volcano boarding down Cerro Negro

It should really be called volcano sledding, however, that’s a lot less sexy. Anyway, you huff up a steep trail for about 40 minutes, suit up in day glow coveralls in a vain attempt to keep from getting an involuntary full-body exfoliation, sit your butt down on a piece of wood, grab the “steering” rope at the front then plummet down the black pumice-covered slopes of Cerro Negro Volcano, hopefully wearing a helmet.

Cerro Negro volcano boarding - Nicaragua

An orange-jumpsuited traveler goes volcano boarding down Cerro Negro in Nicaragua while a dude at the bottom clocks his considerable speed using a radar gun.

Cerro Negro is an active volcano and the youngest in Central America. Time has not worn down its slopes and the thing is steep – more than a 40 degree grade in places. The volcano is 2,388 feet (728 m) tall and it take most boarders about a minute to slide, swerve and sometimes wipe out from top to bottom. One woman topped out at 54 miles (87 km) per hour.

In 2002 “high speed specialist” Eric Barone smashed his own world record for fastest downhill speed on a bicycle when he reached 107 mph (172 kmh). Check out the video of his ride to see why that ride as very nearly his last.

We drove out to Cerro Negro but we did not go volcano boarding. However, our friend Matthew over at The Expert Vagabond did and (barely) lived to tell the tale.

Here’s our video of volcano boarders on Cerro Negro.

 

Cerro Negro volcano boarding - Leon Nicaragua

Our trusty truck at Cerro Negro Volcano in Nicaragua. The dust trail on the left of the slope is a volcano boarder. The dust trails on the right of the slope are people running down the access trail to the top, perhaps after chickening out…

Flor de Caña Rum Tour

We also drove about half an hour north of León to check out the tour offered at the Flor de Caña rum distillery in Chichigalpa where we learned why Nicaragua’s years of war and revolution were good for their rum, why you might want to think twice before buying a rum made using the “Solera” method (check your labels people) and how to spot top quality stuff (hint: wash your hands with it).

Tag along in this piece we did about the Flor de Caña tour which we did for TheLatinKitchen.com (the foodie web spin off of Latina magazine).

Flor de Cana Run, Nicaragua

This steam engine, once used to haul sugar cane from field to factory, now greets guest taking the Flor de Caña run tour in Nicaragua.

Flor de Cana Distillery Visitors Center - Chichigalpa, Nicaragua

This bar, gift shop and small museum is part of the tour at the Flor de Caña distillery in Nicaragua. The building’s design was inspired by rum barrels.

Flor de Cana Aged Rum, Nicaragua

Outside the barrel aging room where the rum magic happens.

Rum aging barrels Flor de Cana, Nicaragua

Rum barrels waiting to be filled and filed away for aging.

Mudslide memorial at Casita Volcano

Not eager to dig volcanic pumice out of every nook and cranny for the next three weeks (or worse), we chose to visit the Casita Volcano where, in 1998, Hurricane Mitch dumped 67 inches (1,700 mm) of rain on the area triggering a massive mudslide that killed more than 2,000 people.

Casita Volcano disaster Memorial, Nicaragua

This strange pyramid-like creation is a memorial to the more than 2,000 people who died in a massive mudslide in this area in 1998.

Now there’s a small museum on the site which includes an eerie diorama which shows the path and scope of the massive flow which came barreling down the volcano at 40 miles (65 km) per hour. A local man in the museum told us the slide happened in seconds.

mudslide stretched nearly 10 km

This diorama in the small museum at the site of a deadly mudslide in Nicaragua shows how the six mile (10 km) slide traveled from the rain-swollen crater of Casita Volcano down through hillside villages.

Just a few months after the slide US President Bill Clinton toured the destruction and a plaque in honor of his visit has been placed on a boulder that rolled down the slope.

Prsident Clinton visit to Casita Volcano Memorial, Nicaragua

A plaque commemorating the visit of former US President Bill Clinton to the site of the deadly Casita Volcano mudslide.

Casita and active San Cristobal Volcano Nicaragua

You can still see part of the path of the deadly 1998 mudslide on the slopes of the Casita Volcano (right). That’s San Cristobal Volcano puffing away on the left.

And don’t forget to visit the first León

About 20 miles (32 kms) from modern León lies the site where the Spanish originally settled the city in 1524. Now called León Viejo (Old León), earthquakes forced inhabitants to abandon the area in 1610. The ruins of the city, which is one of the oldest Spanish settlements in the Americas, were excavated in 1960 and the place was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

Leon Viejo Nicaragua dog attacking indigenous sculpture

This grisly statue in León Viejo stands in memory of a brutal attack that happened there in 1528 during which the Spanish government used dogs to kill 12 Indian hostages.

Leon Viejo Ruins World Heritage site Nicaragua

Some of the excavated ruins of León Viejo.

Cathedral Leon Viejo Ruins Nicaragua

Excavated areas inside what was the Cathedral of León Viejo.

Mombacho volcano Nicaragua

León Viejo was founded at the foot of Momotombo Volcano.

 

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A Little Too Active – Masaya Volcano National Park, Nicaragua

Masaya Volcano National Park, established in 1979, is Nicaragua’s first national park. Its centerpiece is an infamous volcano which has intimidated Spanish conquistadors and provided a macabre dumping ground for dictators.  Masaya is also a very active volcano–perhaps a little too active–as we found out while traveling in Nicaragua.

IMG_4381-Edit

The very active Masaya Volcano, fuming and spewing in the distance, is a mainstay of the southern Nicaraguan landscape.

Masaya erupts and sputters

The most recent full eruption of Masaya Volcano happened in 2008. In April of that year the volcano sent a massive plume of ash more than a mile (two kms) into the sky. Less spectacular eruptions continued throughout that year.

The volcano emits gas and steam pretty much all the time as we could easily see whenever we caught glimpses of the 2,083 foot (635 meter) tall volcano from vantage points around Managua including the Pueblos Blancos and from neighboring Mombacho Volcano.

panorama Masaya Volcano National Park, Nicaragua

Nicaragua’s Masaya Volcano emits gas pretty much all the time and it became dangerously active (again) in 2012 prompting the closure of Masaya Volcano National Park for two months.

Masaya has seen other kinds of activity too. The volcano was dubbed “The Gate to Hell” by Spanish conquistadors and Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia took that nickname literally, using the volcano as a dumping ground for his many enemies.

On a cheerier note, Masaya is also one of the few active volcanoes in the Western Hemisphere where you can drive to the rim and we certainly wanted the chance to look into the “Gate to Hell” for ourselves.

The volcano, however, had other plans. Not long after we arrived in Nicaragua it started rumbling and grumbling back to life prompting the closure of the park for safety reasons after she spewed out some hot rocks which damaged cars parked at the rim and started a brush fire. The park was closed for nearly two months but finally re-opened near the end of our time in Nicaragua.

Masaya Volcano

You can drive right to the rim of Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua unless it’s erupting or spewing out hot rocks or too much poisonous gas.

Looking into the “Gate to Hell”

Like all national parks in Nicaragua, entry to Masaya Volcano National Park, located just a few miles south of Managua on the road between the capital and Granada, is US$4 per person. There’s a large and fairly engaging visitor center near the entrance which we visited before driving right up to the rim via a paved road.

La Cruz de Bobadilla, Masaya Volcano, Nicaragua

“Obey the park rangers recommendations” is good advice when you’re standing on the rim of a very, very active volcano.

You’re required to park facing out to facilitate a quicker escape should things get dangerous at the top. Just for good measure we parked as far away from the rim as possible. Park employees at the top warn you not linger near the rim if the wind is blowing the volcano’s noxious sulphur dioxide gas your way.

rim of Masaya Volcano

Karen in a hard hat per park regulations.

Smoke and gases inside inside Masaya Volcano

It’s recommended that you don’t spend too much time enjoying the view from the rim of the active Masaya Volcano especially if the wind shifts and bring all that sulphur gas your way.

There are a short trails at the top of Masaya. A couple require a park guide and you can make reservations to take guided night hikes too. One of the most popular trials, which leads up to a large cross on a lookout point with views into the crater, was closed when we visited but we got plenty of walking and gawking in on other trails around the impressive crater.

Poisonous gases rise from Masaya Volcano

Masaya Volcano is beautiful in a menacing bottomless pit kind of a way.

Clouds swirled overhead, occasionally augmented by a puff from the volcano which seemed absolutely bottomless. Our ears became attuned to every rumble and grumble. We couldn’t shake our visions of hot rocks flying out of the gate to hell and soon returned to the parking lot to drive our truck back down to safety.

Damage from eruption of Masaya Volcano

Roof damage to a shelter near the rim of the Masaya Volcano inflicted by hot rocks spewed from the volcano during its most recent burst of activity in 2012.

 

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Around Granada – Lake Nicaragua, Mombacho Volcano & Lake Apoyo, Nicaragua

Granada isn’t just another pretty face you know. When you get done appreciating Granada’s Colonial ambiance, shockingly good value boutique hotels and super-friendly locals Granada also makes a good base for exploring nearby natural attractions including Lake Apoyo, Mombacho Volcano and Lake Nicaragua (aka Lake Cocibolco).

The weird waters of Lake Apoyo

Just 20 minutes or so from Granada lies the Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve not far from the Pueblos Blancos handicrafts region. Established in 1991, the reserve protects 8,648 acres (43 km²) of jungle and geology including Lake Apoyo, a crater lake formed in the extinct Apoyo Volcano more than 200 years ago.

Laguna de Apoyo Mombacho Volcano panorama

Lake Apoyo, near Granada, Nicaragua, with Mombacho Volcano in the background to the right.

Lake Apoyo is said to be the cleanest place to swim in all of Nicaragua (but you still can’t drink the water) and it’s home to some species of fish that are found nowhere else. Despite the fact that the lake is more than 600 feet (200 meters) deep at its deepest point, the water is warm since the lake is fed by active fumaroles below it. The water is also slightly salty and is said to contain healing minerals. It just felt like slimy bath water to us.

You can hike, kayak, swim, go bird watching and get real familiar with the dinosaur-like call of the areas many howler monkeys. Thankfully, motorized craft (jet skis, boats) were recently banned on the lake. There are also some volunteer opportunities, Spanish schools and a few restaurants and hostels and hotels around the lake.

Laguna de Apoyo Mombacho Volcano Nicaragua

Lake Apoyo with Mombacho Volcano in the background near Granada, Nicaragua.

We stayed at Apoyo Resort (which used to be called Norome Resort & Villas) in one of their 60 villas in the jungle, all with full kitchens. We watched a small troop of howler monkeys pluck flowers off a tree near our deck as homemade pasta sauce simmered on the stove. Heaven.

Our timing at Lake Apoyo was accidentally perfect and one night we got to enjoy views of a rare super moon from the hillside pool without the interference of any light pollution.

Laguna de Apoyo Full Moon, Nicaragua

A rare Supermoon in the dark skies above Lake Apoyo in Nicaragua.

An epic drive up Mombacho Volcano

The Mombacho Volcano is considered extinct. Its last eruption was in 1570. That’s given the cloud forest in the area plenty of time to re-forest the slopes of the volcano which means that unlike more recently active volcanoes, the hiking trails around Mombacho are shaded and travel through more than just rocks and scree. But first you have to get there.

Reserva Natural Volcan Mombacho, Nicaragua

Entering the Mombacho Volcano Natural Reserve near Granada, Nicaragua with one epic road in front of us.

We paid US$5 per person to enter the Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve that surrounds the volcano itself. You can pay an additional US$15 per person to take official transportation up the paved road from the entrance to the volcano or you can pay US$18 and drive yourself and a carload of friends up to the top as long as you have a 4X4.

They aren’t joking about that 4X4 part. Though the road is paved and in good shape it is wicked steep climbing more than 3,000 feet (900 meters) in four miles (6.5 kms). Even in 4-low our truck huffed and puffed all the way up and down was no easier.

Once at the top we found a respectable visitor center with an impressive diorama of the area.  There are a number of trails up to four miles (6.5 kms) long that you can hike alone. The longer trails require a guide (US$10).

View from Mombacho Volcano Nicaragua

Lake Nicaragua seen from one of the trails around Mombacho Volcano near Granada, Nicaragua.

We hiked the crater trail down to some fumaroles along a shaded trail that was in excellent shape. At various points on the trail we also got excellent views of Granada and of Masaya Volcano in the distance.

Mombacho Volcano Nicaragua

Mombacho Volcano in Nicaragua.

Volcan Mombacho Nicaragua

Clouds stream off the top of Mombacho Volcano near Granada, Nicaragua.

Eco luxury on Lake Nicaragua

Granada was settled on the shoreline of Lake Nicaragua, aka Lake Cocibolca. It’s possible to book a boat tour of the lake and its dozens of small islands or even kayak around.  We toured the lake on our way out to Jicaro Island Ecolodge which occupies its own small island. Jicaro Island is one of our favorite green boutique hotels in the country and home to one of the best pools in Nicaragua. There are more tempting reasons to make a reservation in our full Jicaro Island Ecolodge review.

Jicaro Island EcoLodge, Nicaragua

Welcome to Jicaro Island Ecolodge in Lake Nicaragua.

Jicaro Island Lodge pool, Nicaragua

Lake Nicaragua still has a few bull sharks in it so we stuck to the pool at Jicaro Island Ecolodge.

Villas at Jicaro Island Lodge, Nicaragua

We’re not carpentry geeks, but the woodworking in the structures and furniture at Jicaro Island Ecolodge stunned us.

 

Read more about travel in Nicaragua

 

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