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Up Close to Nicaragua’s Masaya Volcano

Windmills seemed to sprout out of the Nicaraguan countryside, their blades turning lazily as we moved quickly from the border of Costa Rica towards the historic town of Granada. Seeing them made me smile and I pulled out my camera to capture a few shots as we passed but the tops of familiar-looking trees kept getting in the way.

Six Hours in Granada Nicaragua

Mombacho Volcano, Nicaragua

I don’t now remember which I saw first – the water or the volcano. Each added a new and exciting dimension to the view. I was sure we were looking at the Pacific Ocean but Eric, our tour guide, said it was Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in the country. It seemed to follow us for miles.

Since I hadn’t done my homework on Nicaragua, I was surprised to learn that the country has 19 volcanoes. Mombacho, the volcano that had come into view, is dormant, erupting last in 1570. At about 4,500 feet, with its classic cone, it towers over Lake Nicaragua and Granada. Though we didn’t visit Mombacho, Eric said it has a nature preserve with endemic flora and fauna, a cloud forest, and at least two hiking trails.

Unlike Mombacho, which hasn’t erupted in centuries, Masaya continues to send plumes of sulfur into the atmosphere. Located in the Masaya Volcano National Park, Masaya is a drive-up volcano – the only one, Eric said, proudly, in the Western Hemisphere.

On the way up, he pointed to the black, lumpy moist-looking soil near the volcano and the lush vegetation around. He also showed us a fragile and lonely-looking wooden cross atop Masaya. 

NIC Masaya cross

Masaya Cross of Bobadilla

Believing that the gods’ unhappiness with them caused the volcano to erupt, the indigenous people sacrificed young women and children to appease them and quiet the mountain. In the 16th century, a Spanish priest (the Spanish called Masaya El Boca del Infierno, the Mouth of Hell) no doubt outraged by this ritual, felt a cross (La Cruz de Bobadilla – Cross of Bobadilla) near the crater would stop the eruptions. Eric didn’t say how many times the cross has been replaced.

As the bus groaned to a stop near Masaya’s crater and the driver opened the door, the acrid smell of sulfur hit us square in the face. Because of this, Eric said we could spend only 15 minutes. (Looking at my photos now, one sign said 5 minutes.)

To my surprise, several cars were parked near the rim of the volcano and people were walking around casually, like they were out for a Sunday stroll. I recognized a family I had seen in the craft market we had visited earlier, and there was a group wearing what looked like traditional dress performing as a photographer took their photos. It was all so matter of fact.

NIC Masaya Volcano cross

Masaya Volcano

NIC Masaya Volcano crater

Masaya Volcano

Masaya Volcano

Masaya Volcano

NIC Volcan Masaya, Granada

Near Masaya Volcano

NIC Masaya plumes

Masaya Volcano

Masaya is not only a drive-up volcano you can walk right up to the low wall near the crater. There are signs warning visitors not to smoke or drink alcohol – the volcano is constantly belching gas making it difficult to see much inside. But it was weirdly cool to be so close to an active volcano.

While it’s dangerous for us, Masaya has a hardy lot of parrots that thrive on its noxious gases. We could definitely hear them and did see a few as they flew out. 

Asked if there had been any deaths at Masaya, Eric told us of a man who jumped to his death in 2010. Not surprisingly, his body was never recovered.

NIC Masaya dancers

Performers at Masaya

Our next stop was the Apoyo Lagoon, the largest of three volcanic lagoons in Nicaragua – the surprise Eric had been hinting at as we were leaving Masaya. We ooohed, aaahed and clapped when we saw it, framed by the red and yellow rays of the setting sun – the perfect end to a full day of activities.

Apoyo has over 500 species of plants and trees, including black rosewood and mahogany, Capucin monkeys, anteaters and other animals, and more than 200 species of birds. It’s also a popular water sports destination.

There is a large craft market as well as a restaurant and, on one side of the lagoon, several benches for people to sit and enjoy the view.

Apoyo Lagoon

Apoyo Lagoon

Apoyo Lagoon

Apoyo Lagoon

Apoyo was our last stop in Nicaragua. We had covered a lot of territory in one day. I was tired but elated, pleased with my decision to take the one-day tour, which, back in August cost US$160.

The tour included the colonial city of Granada, a boat tour Lake Nicaragua’s Monkey Island, shopping at the craft market, Masaya Volcano National Park, Apoyo Lagoon, and lunch. I made arrangements for this tour with Claudia at LEP Costa Rica – 506-8377 5701 or concierge@lepcostarica.com

Nicaragua Maracas

Nicaragua Maracas

As we took our seats on the bus for the journey back to Guanacaste, Eric announced that he had one more surprise. He stuck his hand into a large, black plastic bag and called my name. To my surprise, he handed me a maracas with my name engraved in it. No, I wasn’t singled out for special treatment. Everyone received one too. While we were touring Granada, a carver had been busy creating these personalized mementos for each of us. It was a lovely treat, a beautiful reminder of Granada, Eric and the tour.

Six Hours in Granada Nicaragua

I had no plans to go to Granada, Nicaragua. The furthest I considered going while I was planning my trip to Playa Potrero, was to San Jose, the Costa Rican capital to see a friend. But I’d given up the idea because I wasn’t able to speak with her before I left home. I was content with spending the time catching up, reconnecting and reminiscing with my friends. 

A day or two after I arrived, though, I noticed a one-day tour to Granada. That it as the first European city in the Mainland had me almost salivating with delight. Suddenly, my plan for a seven-day do-nothing-but-relax vacation evaporated as the thought of traveling to a second country and seeing a colonial city filled my head. 

It didn’t matter that the trip would involve traveling 8 hours on a bus or that I was the only one of our group who wanted to go. All that was nothing compared to the adventure I imagined I’d have, the treats I knew I’d discover. I contacted Claudia at LEP Costa Rica to make the arrangements (Claudia also arranged my Congo Trail zip lining tour) and all I thought of for the next four days was the tour to Granada. 

Like a lot of people, the most I knew of Nicaragua was what I remembered from reading about the Somoza dictatorship, the Sandinista Revolution, and the explosive Iran-Contra Affair – the scandal that tainted the second term of the Reagan Administration over their covert arming of the Contras, a guerrilla group that was fighting to depose the Sandinista government.

Because of these events, I knew of Managua but not of Granada. I didn’t know that Granada was founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, that it was named in recognition of the Spanish defeat of the Moors in Granada, or that the Sandinista war never reached this historic city.

Granada is the capital of Granada, one of Nicaragua’s 15 departments. About 130,000 people live in the city which sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, a freshwater lake, the largest in Central America (the 19th largest in the world).

I also did not know that from 1856-7, an American lawyer and journalist, William Walker, took up residence in Granada and declared himself president of Nicaragua (his election was fraudulent). Walker envisioned taking control of Central America and began by Americanizing his colony, making English the official language. He also tried to reinstate slavery. While this brought him some support in the U.S. South, it made him no friends in Central America.

In December 1856, he fled Granada ahead of an advancing coalition of troops from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Before they abandoned Granada, one of Walker’s generals ordered the city burnt. So sure they were of their success that they left this note, “Aqui fue Granada” (Here was Granada).

Six Hours in Granada Nicaragua

La Catedral de Granada

From the moment we entered the heart of the city, I was tickled by vibrant colors everywhere – from the buildings to the ‘chicken’ buses, as the woman sitting next to me called them. (She had spent time in South America and said that’s what the expats there called them as they were as likely to carry people as they would poultry and livestock.)

Six Hours in Granada Nicaragua

Street, Granada

I couldn’t wait to get off the bus as it pulled to a stop. All around us were historic buildings, many flanking narrow cobbled streets.

Six Hours in Granada Nicaragua

Granada street

We followed Eric, our tour guide, stopping to take photos along the way and trying to keep up. Then there it was, the pièce de résistance: Granada’s Cathedral (Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción).

Built in 1583, the Cathedral was destroyed by Walker’s fire and rebuilt several times. This current building was completed in the early 1920s. Although we didn’t have time to enter the cathedral, Eric explained that it had four chapels and three naves.

Six Hours in Granada Nicaragua

The Cathedral of Granada

Before we left the bus, Eric had told us that the town square (Plaza de la Independencia) was to have been our second stop but we were late making our first stop – a boat ride on Lake Nicaragua – so he had to switch things around. It was then that I realized how focused I’d been on seeing Granada’s colonial buildings that I’d ignored everything else about the tour. (I’ll be writing about the rest of it later.)

Six Hours in Granada Nicaragua

Plaza de la Independencia, Granada

The Plaza de la Independencia is a large open square anchored by the impressive Cathedral, which is located on the east side of Columbus Park (Parque Colón) and several buildings, including City Hall (Palacio Municipal) and the Alhambra Hotel. On one side of the bustling park were vendors selling T-shirts and souvenirs. 

Six Hours in Granada Nicaragua

Plaza de la Independencia, Granada

Six Hours in Granada Nicaragua

Columbus Park, Granada

Six Hours in Granada Nicaragua

Colorful bus, Granada

Six Hours in Granada Nicaragua

“Chicken” bus, Granada

Six Hours in Granada Nicaragua

Taxi, Granada

We spent about 30 minutes in the Plaza, way too short to see all there was to see. Next up was lunch at a local restaurant. I can’t wait to return to Granada for a longer visit.

Linking up this week with Travel Photo Thursday, that Nancie at Budget Travelers Sandbox organizes.