The Land of Volcanoes

Nicaragua is often referred to as “the country of lakes and volcanoes.” As you can see in the picture below, there is an impressive line of volcanoes that runs from north to south along the western side of the country. This picture shows Nicaragua’s share of the Central American Volcanic Belt. Some of the volcanoes are dormant, while others remain active. These volcanoes offer interesting opportunities for tourists. You can hike to the top of these volcanoes, swim in crater lakes, and there is even a thing called volcano surfing!

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The two closest volcanoes to Playa Coco are located on Ometepe Island inside Lake Nicaragua. Concepcion is an active volcano and Maderas is dormant. People actually live on this island and there are even coffee and banana plantations amidst these two volcanoes. The last violent eruption of Concepcion occurred in 1986, but there have been less catastrophic eruptions as recent as 2009. Tourists are able to climb both volcanoes, but each have extremely high difficulty ratings. It is estimated to take about 10 hours to climb and descend Concepcion and the tour books recommend that you start no later than 6 a.m. The only problem there is that the earliest ferry to the island leaves after 7 a.m. So they recommend that you take the ferry the previous day and then spend the night on the island. I could be wrong, but I don’t think there are any hotels on the island and we forgot (a.k.a. didn’t intend) to pack a tent. Of course, Rob was all about doing this little adventure anyway, but there wasn’t much he could say to convince Tami and I to join him!

(Editor’s note: That Lake Nicaragua is super scary! Bull Sharks and active volcanoes, oh my!)

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Concepcion (left) and Maderas (right) on Ometepe Island
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Concepcion Volcano (I really wanted to befriend this pig!)
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Maderas Volcano

As mentioned in an earlier post, the Mombacho Volcano is close to Granada and borders Lake Nicaragua. Mombacho is dormant and it is the second most accessible volcano in the country. There is a paved road so visitors can drive to the top of the volcano. We attempted to visit Mombacho after we departed Granada, but unfortunately, the park was already closed for the day (darn Sunday hours!).

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View of Mombacho from bell tower
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View of Mombacho from downtown Granada

The Masaya Volcano is active and it is the most accessible volcano in the country. There is a national park (Nicaragua’s first and largest) around the volcano and a paved road leads directly to the Santiago crater. The park actually includes two volcanoes (Masaya and Nindiri) and five craters, but the Santiago crater is the most active crater in the park. The Masaya Volcano is currently going through a cycle of passive degassing, which means sulfuric gas (among other gases) is continuously emitted from the crater. The cycle started in 1993 and still continues today.

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Volcanic passive degassing
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Looking into the Santiago crater

The volcano has erupted several times throughout history (most recently in 2003) and it was feared by the indigenous people as well as the Spanish conquerors. The Spanish baptized Masaya “La Boca del Inferno” (The Mouth of Hell) and they planted a cross above the crater to exorcise the Devil.

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Overlooking the Santiago crater (sporting the provided yellow hardhat)

Check out the video below to see this awesome smoking crater!

Visit Granada…But Don’t Feed the Children

When planning our trip to Nicaragua, I was told that we had to visit Granada. Granada was founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba and it is considered the first European city in mainland America. Granada is Nicaragua’s 4th largest city and it is rich with history and beautiful architecture. I was excited to visit Granada, but after our driving experience on Day 1, none of us were looking forward to the 2+ hour journey to get there. However, after establishing a better road strategy we managed to make it to Granada without getting pulled over!

We arrived in the historical center of the city and immediately began to appreciate the colorful buildings and colonial architecture. We walked around the Parque Central (town square) to get a nice view of the Cathedral and the streets lined with horse-drawn carriages.

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View of Cathedral from Parque Central

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For lunch, we decided to eat in the Parque Central at what appeared to be a popular outdoor restaurant. The food was delicious and very inexpensive. I ordered gallo pinto (rice & beans) with pork for about $2.

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Eating in the middle of the town square had its downsides though. We were constantly bombarded by street vendors selling food or crafts, and children begging for money and/or some of our food. I had some leftover food, but I didn’t give it to the begging children. I gave it to this beautiful (well-mannered) guy…

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I was getting some strange looks from the kids (and other bystanders) when I fed the dog rather than the children! I may not speak Spanish, but I am pretty sure I could read their thoughts….”WTF! You are going to feed that mangy mutt instead of giving your food to me?” Short answer…yes, that is exactly what I am going to do. I’m sure a lot of readers will think I am heartless, but I really don’t even feel bad about it. And, as it turns out, according to Wikitravel, I actually did the right thing:

“Social workers in Granada strongly advise to not give money or food to begging children. In Granada the homeless situation is not nearly as severe as in other poor cities. Orphanages and charity organizations take care of homeless children, and poor people have access to charity kitchens. The kids that beg and sell items to tourists do this to make easy money, and are being exploited by adults. Anything you give to these children keeps them from the place they belong: in school.”

(Even without Wikitravel’s blessing, I still prefer dogs over children.)

After lunch we decided to walk down to the waterfront. Granada is located along the coast of Lake Nicaragua, one of the world’s largest fresh-water lakes. Fresh-water lakes sound safe, right? WRONG! Lake Nicaragua is home to the Nicaragua shark (a.k.a. the Bull Shark) and they are extremely aggressive. Don’t believe me? Check out this article that lists Lake Nicaragua among the Top 10 Shark Infested Beaches in the World!

On our walk back to the Parque Central we passed the beautiful Guadalupe Church.

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Guadalupe Church

Then we stopped at Lilly’s Café for a refreshing smoothie. Lilly is an expat that has been living in Nicaragua for about 20 years. We had a nice conversation with her about what it is like to live in Nicaragua. Despite the issues with police corruption, she seems to be extremely happy living there. Before we left, Lilly recommended we go to the La Merced Church and climb the Bell Tower of Iglesia for the best view of the city and the Mombacho Volcano. There was a $1 entrance fee to climb the bell tower, but the view was more than worth it.

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La Merced Church

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View of Cathedral and Lake Nicaragua in the background
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Mombacho Volcano

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We enjoyed our visit to Granada and amazingly we made it all the way back to Playa Coco without getting pulled over!