To the Top of Nicaragua – Part 2

Nicaragua’s Maribios chain of volcanoes stretches from Cosigüina (in the far north of the country) to Momotombo (just above Lake Managua). And south of the lake is the Darien range of volcanoes. This includes extinct crater lakes, like Tiscapa in Managua and Laguna Apoyo; dormant cones, like Mombacho and Maderas; and gas-belching active peaks, such as Masaya and Concepción.

An hour south of Managua (and visible from the capital’s extinct volcano Tiscapa) is Volcán Masaya, just outside the city of Masaya. It’s one of the most active volcanoes in the country; and also one of the most accessible, having a paved road all the way up to the crater rim. The smoke-blackened Santiago crater is constantly venting a column of sulphurous gas (to the extent that you can’t see the lava that’s inside); and in a more safety-conscious (or litigious) country, there’s no way that you’d be allowed to drive all the way to the edge of it. Although, in true Nica-style health-and-safety, the staff do warn visitors to park their vehicles facing downhill, just in case of an eruption. And in the excellent museum, there are photos from 2001, of people running in terror from a sudden expulsion of superheated rocks, and of an unfortunate person’s squashed car, crushed by one of the said ejected boulders. Several hundred years ago, a Spanish priest placed a cross (in an attempt to exorcise the volcano’s demons) on a cliff that’s now inaccessible, due to the unstable ground. So you no longer get the full vista into what the colonists called ‘The Mouth of Hell’. But you still get great long-distance views of the surrounding countryside, from Managua and its lake, to Masaya city and its lagoon, to Volcán Mombacho and Lake Nicaragua. From the top, it’s also possible to see that Volcán Masaya and Laguna de Masaya are inside an even bigger, older volcanic crater, with a barely-perceptible rim that must be at least 10km across. And bizarrely, there’s even a colony of parrots that live inside the active crater, seemingly unaffected by a toxic environment that should be poisonous to them.

A few miles south-east of Masaya, on the way to Granada, is Laguna de Apoyo. This 200-metre-deep, 20,000-year-old crater lake is a perfect circle, surrounded by forest and with clean, blue water that’s perfect for swimming. After nearly drowning in the ocean (and nearly being wiped out by surfers) numerous times along Nicaragua’s beautiful-but-rough Pacific coast, and after being put off swimming in Lake Managua and Masaya Lagoon by the frightening levels of sewage, a swim in Apoyo is one of my highlights of the country. Despite its national-park-protected status, there are various fancy-looking houses around the lake, and even a small village on the lakeshore. Which isn’t such a bad thing as it turns out, as there are a few hotels in the village; and after the day-trippers have gone back to Managua or Masaya or Granada, the lake is as quiet and as peaceful as you could wish for. Apart from the howler monkeys, of course ;-) I’ve been lucky to visit a few volcanic crater lakes around the world, and Apoyo is definitely one of the loveliest. Some huge lakes, such as Indonesia’s Lake Toba or New Zealand’s Lake Taupo, are so big that you can’t see the other side, and there’s no lookout sufficiently high to get a view of the whole thing. But Apoyo is only 5km across – so it’s easy to see that you’re swimming (or at the bar drinking) in an extinct volcano.

After Masaya, Volcán Mombacho must be the next best accessible peak in the country. Once you’ve got to the entrance (a short trip from the former Spanish colonial city of Granada), a huge, ex-military truck ferries the passengers up to the top, up the 40% gradient through ecosystems from tropical dry forest to tropical rain forest to rare cloud forest. The cloud forest is there because the huge lake right next to the volcano (Lake Nicaragua, the biggest in Central America) means that there’s always a ready supply of warm air from the lake drifting up the mountain’s sides and condensing into cloud at the top. And sure enough, the day I go, Mombacho has a thick veil of orographic lenticular cloud hanging over the summit like a white sombrero. At the top, in the visitor’s centre, you can walk around the dormant crater, on the one trail that’s so easy to do that you don’t need a guide; or you can hire a guide for one of the other two slightly-more-difficult-but-not-so-hard-that-you-do-actually-need-a-guide-but-you-have-to-hire-one-anyway trails. By the time my guide and I have walked to the various viewing platforms on the longest trail, the views south towards the lake are obscured by even more white mist – I guess that’s why it’s called a cloud forest. But to the north it’s now clear, and there’s a view that stretches from the tiled rooftops and church spires of Granada, over Laguna de Apoyo and Laguna de Masaya, to Volcán Masaya, and all the way to Managua. The cloud forest is full of mosses, ferns, lichens, and orchids, and it looks like something out of Jurassic Park or Predator, with everything (except the colourful orchids) being every shade of green, and dripping with wet mist. Plus the alien/dinosaur sounds of the resident howler monkeys in the distance…

Finally, in the far south of Nicaragua, in the middle of the vast Lake Nicaragua, on beautiful Isla de Ometepe, are Volcanoes Maderas and Concepción. Concepción is the higher and more symmetrical of the two, and, at 1610m, is Nicaragua’s second-highest volcano, after San Cristóbal in the north. Much of the island’s 40,000-strong population live around the foot of the volcano, despite it’s occasional rumblings (the last eruption was in 2012). Smaller Maderas (1394m) is less perfectly conical in shape, but is clothed with cloud forest, and full of animals and plants (and dripping wet with mist!). After my slog up Momotombo a few months ago, I’m not too enamoured of going on another 8-hour trek through treeless volcanic scree in the tropical sun; so I opt to hike up Maderas instead, a (relatively) short 6-hour walk through the forest. It’s probably less arduous than the steep climb up Concepción, but it’s a muddy and slippery walk nonetheless (a guide is mandatory, after numerous tourists got lost, and some died, on the two volcanoes). On the way up are views (albeit cloudy ones) over the island to Volcán Concepción and Lake Nicaragua. And at the top, in the cool, damp cloud forest, with its parrots and howler monkeys (I can certainly hear ‘em, even if I can’t see ‘em), is a brown-green lake at the bottom of the crater. My guide has packed a gigantic papaya (the rich, fertile volcanic soil on the island produces some of the country’s best crops); and after a slightly muddy swim in the refreshingly cold lagoon, it’s the perfect way to end my Nicaraguan volcanic adventures.

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