Central America, Nicaragua

Mouthfuls of sulphur at Volcano Masaya

August 31, 2011

When I arrived in Central America, one of the things I had on my must-see list was lava. Real life lava, glowing and flowing from a real life volcano.

I had high hopes for Volcano Pacaya in Guatemala but apparently it erupted recently and when a volcano erupts the lava disappears (that’s not what happened in Dante’s Peak but whatever).

So when I arrived in Granada, Nicaragua, a visit to Volcano Masaya was something I really wanted to do. At night, preferably. With lava sightings. Preferably.

Masaya is made up of several pit craters, one of which, the Santiago crater, is currently active. Santiago often releases clouds of sulphur dioxide, and the cloud is particularly large (and toxic) when it rains.

So naturally, I visited after a night and day of rain.

Once upon a time, the volcano was (quite rightly) feared by the local indigenous population and by the Spanish, who called Masaya the mouth or gate of hell.

There are murals and drawings in the visitor’s centre that depict Masaya erupting and it’s worth a brief visit to see how the volcano features in local folklore. The cross on the crater (just visible in my first photo) was erected in the 16th century in hopes of ridding the land of the devil.

I was surprised by the landscape in the park surrounding the volcano. It’s full of plant and animal life, although incredibly rocky. I visited a much smaller and extinct volcano in Mongolia last year which was still surrounded by barren lava fields, with vegetation only just beginning to grow.

Like all good and dangerous tourist attractions in many parts of the world there are no barriers keeping you away so you’re able to drive right up to the crater and peer in, which is exactly what we did.

The gas was fairly thin when we arrived and the guide didn’t seem to think we required gas masks (as visitors to Masaya often do) but the smell and the effect of the gas was incredible nonetheless.

Eyes, noses and throats burning, we hiked up on to a ridge above the crater, past the sign that said ‘Do not pass, dangerous winds and gasses’ to watch the action. 

The tour included a brief visit to some lava caves and we returned to the crater lip after dark to try to see some lava. It was pitch black and although we couldn’t see the gas we could most definitely feel it.

It was almost unbearable but still our tour guide led a small group to peer into the crater, looking for glowing red light.

The verdict came quickly. There was nothing to see tonight. We retreated to the safety of the van for the short drive back to Granada.

So it looks like I’ll be leaving Central America without a single lava sighting. Am I disappointed?

Not really.

Standing on the rim of an active volcano that could technically erupt at any moment, watching gas drift into the sky (with good friends there to make sure I didn’t fall in) was pretty amazing, too. 

Visiting Volcano Masaya

The park is a short drive from Granada and Managua.

I visited from Granada with with Leo’s Tours, who I would highly recommend for the professionalism and friendliness of their guides, who speak great English. It cost about $25 per person for three hours and included transport, a guided walk and a visit to lava and bat caves.

Lava sightings are, obviously, not guaranteed.

You Might Also Like


  • Reply Claire August 31, 2011 at 11:19 am

    Oh well, there are plenty more volcanoes in Nicaragua to climb right? Are you planning on volcano boarding at all? I never made it to Masaya, but my friends that did all said pretty much the same things you did in this post.

    • Reply MeganRTW September 5, 2011 at 4:00 am

      No volcano or sand boarding for me, Claire! Not in Nicaragua or here in Peru where I am now (it’s also quite popular in the desert here)I’ve got a post coming up on how I am most definitely not an adrenaline junkie!

  • Reply Kyle September 1, 2011 at 10:25 am

    The only blog I’ve ever been to was in the South of Chile and MAN was it active. I did see lava, there will little mini explosions in the center quite regularly, and since it was also a lovely dangerous and unregulated tourist activity we could walk up next to it as well, though I didn’t get too close as one girl had a hot lava rock hit her hood and burn a hole in it! Crazy!

    • Reply MeganRTW September 5, 2011 at 4:01 am

      That sounds really cool but really scary, Kyle! I’d heard that the soles of people’s shoes used to melt on Pacaya in Guatemala…unfortunately there’s no lava there now though!

  • Reply Heather September 3, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    I think the burning throat and eyes and smell would have turned me off before the edge O:-) But I guess it’s worth that once in a lifetime!

    • Reply MeganRTW September 5, 2011 at 4:02 am

      Most definitely, Heather! Previous to this I’d only been up a very extinct volcano in Mongolia – compared to Masaya, it was minuscule! It was really cool to see one close up although not as Dante’s Peak as I’d hoped 😉

  • Reply Amer @TendToTravel September 10, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    the second photo from above really takes my breath away. Love the scale of that bus in relation to that drop

    • Reply MeganRTW September 12, 2011 at 6:25 am

      Thanks Amer 🙂 I love your photos, so I appreciate the compliment.

  • Reply Mike Lenzen | Traveled Earth September 22, 2011 at 9:06 am

    Ashley and I have also come up short on the lava experience. We just climbed Volcan Santa Maria near Xela which has a lookout over the active Volcano Santiaguito which erupts every hour. Unfortunatly for us, there was poor visability due to clouds, and we couldn’t see a thing. Still, it was a nice hike, (used Quetzaltrekers) and I’m not all that dissapointed.

    • Reply MeganRTW September 30, 2011 at 11:19 pm

      Did you guys have any problems with the altitude Mike? That’s the hike that goes up to 4,000m right?

      • Reply Mike Lenzen | Traveled Earth October 1, 2011 at 8:41 am

        Yeah, we did. It goes up 3,700m, and about 20 minutes away from the top Ashley felt nauseous and had to take a lot of rests.

    Leave a Reply