This morning, the lock screen of Windows computer (yes, Windows, don’t give me any shit Apple fanboys) showed me a picture of Erta Ale, an active basaltic volcano in Ethiopia. You can go to the edge, but the volcano is situated in the Afar Depression, a badland desert area and one of the toughest place on Earth.
So if you don’t want to caravan on a camel’s back for a week under 50°C heat, but still want to see the crater of an active volcano, you’re in luck! There’s one just off the highway in Nicaragua, and you don’t need to hike anything to see it. And from my sources, it’s one of the only ones in the American hemisphere where you can drive up to the edge of the crater.
En Route to the Masaya Volcano
The Masaya Volcano became Nicaragua’s first national park, in 1979. It is conveniently located 20km south of Managua, so is a great first stop on your way south from the capital. We, however, were coming straight from León, after a crazy morning volcano boarding on Cerro Negro. After a lava shot at the Bigfoot Hostel (for being the slowest volcano boarder) -a shot of chili-soaked rum which burned my stomach for an hour-, we took the car around 3pm and drove the 115 km southward to Masaya. The traffic outside Managua around 5pm slowed us down considerably and it took us a good 3 hours to get there. But anyway, it’s always best to experience the Masaya crater at night for the full effect, and lucky for us, it was pitch dark.
Because of the darkness and poor public lighting, we did miss the entrance to the national park off the highway, which was a very sharp turn. 10 minutes later we managed to make a U-turn and go back to the entrance, exhausted but at the same time invigorated by the prospect of seeing the home of Hades, the Greek god of the Underworld. We entered the gates playing Chris Rea’s The Road to Hell, for the full immersive experience.
When you get to the entrance, you pay $10 per person and are asked to drive 5km until the visitor center, at which point you need to park your car in line behind the other cars. The visitor center has an exhibition on the volcanic activity in the region, but it’s nothing we haven’t already seen in high school biology class.
Once your turn is called, you drive another 5km up the slope to the volcano crater. If you don’t have a car, you can also take a taxi, or a far less enthusiastic prospect, hike up. Depending on the number of visitors, you can then stay at the crater between 10 and 20 minutes before the guards blow their loud whistles to get everyone back into their cars. Contrary to what I’ve read elsewhere online, you DON’T need to keep your engine running while you’re at the crater (I did confirm with the guards). But be aware of the risks you’re taking: in 2001, the crater exploded and rocks damaged the cars and injured one person. There were two other eruptions in 2003 and 2008.
Standing on the Brink of Hell
The Masaya crater is truly a sight to behold. It is a very deep pit, which is also much wider in real life than in pictures. As you approach the edge and hear its rumbling sound, like Hades snoring through his nap, you start noticing the reddish hues of the crater’s walls. Then, as you look deep below, you see the seething orange & yellow lava flowing further down in underground tunnels leading to a Hell that God only once visited, during his pledging process as an 18-year-old entering the gates of Heaven College.
Of course, Jarelle exclaimed that he would love rappelling down the walls of the crater to the lava, and I, of course, said I would follow him (often, you just have to go along with Jarelle’s unrealistic stream-of-consciousness observations)… After all, I already followed him to the edge of the Split Cathedral tower, what’s a small Nicaraguan volcano crater gonna do to us?
After soaking in the unique atmosphere for 20 minutes, in awe of our proximity to nature at its most ferocious, we were called back to our cars and left the park, tired but immensely satisfied.
We spent the night in the colonial town of Granada, which was in full fiesta mode, celebrating the Virgin Mary for a full week. Families were out socializing and eating at food stalls. Firecrackers and fireworks were going off everywhere and covering the streets in smoke and sounds, making it seem more like a civil war than a celebration.
We went to the street with all the restaurants and settled on a steakhouse where we had delicious caprese salads and meat. It’s called Toritos, and I can vouch for the quality of the food!
We left early the following morning, so didn’t get the chance to explore Granada more, but if you have a few days, we highly advise you to stay there and visit all its nooks and crannies!
Practical Information for Masaya Volcano:
Entrance: on the right at kilometer 23 Carretera Masaya (highway to Masaya).
- Daytime visits: 9AM-4:45PM
- Nightime visits: 5PM-8PM
Price: $10 per person
Distance to crater: 10km from the park’s entrance
Tours: should you pay for a day tour (that can cost up to $80)? that depends if you want to visit the whole national park with a guide and see all the craters and cave. For most visitors, just showing up and paying the small entrance fee to see the volcano crater at night is probably the most rewarding and economical option.