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?
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.